(4 WD only) West Coast rainforest, with its ancient beeches draped in lichen, and moss in every shade of green, crowds the road that was once the 30km lifeline for the mining settlement of Big River. At its peak, in the first quarter of this century, 100 people lived in the town at the end of the road, and the mine that drew them there surrendered up 100,000 ounces of gold before its quartz reef gave out in the 1940s.
The town began in the 1880s, when the Big River Gold Mining Co. set up machinery, built a dam, and started mining. The sinking of the main shaft began in 1890; it was to reach a depth of 535m. In 1897 a cyanide plant was installed, for separating the gold from the crushed quartz.
Gordon McDonagh, who in the 1930s and 40s drove the Big River supply truck, described this route as ‚the worst road I’ve ever driven in New Zealand‘. Waterfalls cascade from switchback corners as you zigzag down steep valley walls. Of the ‚corduroy‘ – the logs laid across the track as a foundation when the road was built in the 1880s – some is disintegrating, some is holding firm. The track was upgraded in late 1999 but it is still a challenge, and should not be tackled alone.
Past the site of the old Merrijigs Hotel, you begin to see relics of the gold mining that kept the road busy until the 1940s. Tunnels wind into the hillside, providing a home now to impressive-looking cave wetas.
After a steep, bonnet-first drop into the tea-colored water of Big River, you get to Settlement Flat, site of the town and the gold-extraction plant. Relics include four large steel tanks that once contained cyanide, used to extract gold from the mine’s tailings. Across the river are the remains of the 10-head stamper used to crush the quartz that came down an aerial ropeway from the mine itself.
The road to the mine site runs up behind the stamper, past the site of the school and the Tin Town‘ of single miners‘ huts, and ends on a small flat clearing. This is dominated by the newly restored corrugated iron plant room that houses the remains of the Robey steam engine and coal-fired boiler that powered the mine’s cableways. The huge engine lowered miners from the poppet head high on the hill above down 600m to the bottom of the mine. The poppet head is the result of an earlier restoration effort: in 1982 the then Forest Service rebuilt it using red beech timbers.
Accommodation is available in a 40-bed Department of Conservation hut on a hill overlooking Settlement Flat.