Coal Country, New Zealand

New Zealand has a reputation around the world for being ‘Clean & Green’, and their marketing slogan is ‘100% Pure New Zealand’, so many people, including some Kiwis, don’t realise that New Zealand has active coal mining, and that coal mining played a significant part in New Zealand’s development and history.

The biggest coal mining area in New Zealand is the West Coast of the South Island.  I travelled down the West Coast at the end of my first 6-month visit to the country, over a decade ago, but somehow I completely overlooked the coal mining.

I’m not sure how I managed to do that, we drove through Westport, which features a life-sized coal statue of a coal miner, and a museum called the ‘Coaltown Museum’, and past the Stockton open-cast mine, with big piles of coal.

Coal mining near Granity, New ZealandPiles of coal at the Stockton mine, Ngakawau, West Coast

Coal mining Ngakawau, New ZealandThe mine buildings, at Ngakawau

Coal mining Ngakawau, New ZealandThe coal transport system, Ngakawau

Coal mining Ngakawau, New ZealandSecurity and coal, Ngakawau

Coal mining Ngakawau, New ZealandTrains carrying the coal away, Ngakawau

As it is in most places, coal mining in New Zealand is a contentious issue, with a checkered history.  On the one hand, it brings work and much needed money to remote and otherwise impoverished areas of the country.  This money comes at an environmental cost though, and sometimes a human cost: there have been numerous mining accidents in New Zealand, the latest of which, in 2010, caused 29 deaths.

Historically accidents and deaths were even more common.  At the same time, coal mining brought thousands of migrants to New Zealand, build a dozen communities, and inspired some of New Zealand’s greatest feats of engineering and ingenuity, like the Denniston Incline (now there is a Wikipedia entry that shows the massive problem with ‘anyone can add to it’ encyclopedias).

It also brought great wealth to the regions with coal.  Westport (which Lonely Planet dismisses as a ‘drive through town’, much inferior to the (very slightly) bigger Greymouth, which was exactly the opposite of our experience (Westport is prettier, easier to navigate in, easier to park in, and has a better supermarket)) is full of gorgeous, grand civic buildings and art deco storefronts, testament to the early money in the area.

Government buildings, Westport, New Zealand  Buller District buildings, Westport, New Zealand

Westport Library, New Zealand

All of the grand history in coal country is just history though: long since gone.  There is still money in coal in New Zealand, and it provides a reasonable, if occasionally dangerous, livelihood to people in the region, but there is little money left for grand civic buildings, and there aren’t nearly as many people left as there were in coal’s heyday.

The upper West Coast is dotted with ghost towns.  Every 5 kilometre stretch of the road has a different town name, but at most of them there isn’t a single pub or store left to mark the town.  Denniston has dwindled from 2,000 residents to less than 50, at a time when much of the rest of New Zealand’s population has grown.

The countryside is also littered with remnants of the industry that once flourished there.  We found rusting coal buckets on the beach:

Abandoned coal bucket on the beach, West Coast New Zealand

And remnants of old trains for carrying lumber and coal in the bush:

Remnants of old trains, West Coast, New Zealand

The whole area is stunningly gorgeous, but lonely.

The houses, in the shadows of the steep, bush covered hills, wrap their pastel paint around themselves to ward off the mist and the shadows.

House, West Coast, New Zealand

In many places there are no houses left: just space and hills.

West Coast, New Zealand

When I came back from my road trip I told a friend where I’d been, and she shivered and said “That area used to freak me out as a child”.

I can see why.  It does feel haunted.  Not with actual ghosts, but with the memories of all those people who lived there, and are there no more.  It’s haunted in the way places with more past than future are: with memories that get older every day.

It actually reminded me, more than anywhere else I have ever been, of Kalaupapa.


  1. Grace Darling says

    vintagetextile.com*sigh* I was last in the south island in 1985. Schedule and money didn’t stretch up go up the west coast … this blog is the next best thing! I just love the tiki tour posts.

    That ancient rusty thingo reminds me of the color of this
    Maria Gallenga frock I drooled over a few years back…


  2. Mmm… those misty shots convey the lonely, haunted aspects quite well! But those Art Deco buildings are so beautiful – great pics.

  3. Elise says

    My family spent generations along the US/Mexico border in Douglas, AZ, mining copper. Like the west coast, there were beautiful buildings (there are, still, although decaying), and Douglas had an airport to rival Phoenix. Now, the copper is all spent and the drug war with Mexico has also taken it’s toll on the community.

    Thanks for highlighting anther mining boom/bust town. Funny to think about it being a world-wide phenomenon.

    • Some things do seem to be universal, and not in a good way. I wonder when/if the whole tech industry will go bust, and what will happen to those towns?

  4. Dear Leimomi,

    Even the sunlight looks faded there. The only truly rich colors are in the greenery, which looks very much as if it’s taking back over.

    Growing up, I watched small hamlets die as the farmers moved away to less stony, less frigid, less cloudy places, and the handsome wooden homes from the 1790s-1890s burned out or were slowly eaten away by wind, rain, snow, and plants, while new forests grew in the fields.

    Your posts about Hawaii and your adopted New Zealand are treasures. We’ve experienced your experiences in such a real and color-drenched way.

    Thank you so kindly,


    • The New Zealand light does have a particularly golden, antique tint in the very late afternoon. I quite love it.

      I suppose that towns wax and wane everywhere, but it’s always hard isn’t it? Watching a community die. The upper West Coast is still hanging on, with a bit of coal mining, and some tourism, but it certainly doesn’t have the vibrancy it would once have had.

      I’m so glad you enjoy these. I really appreciate your feedback on them.

  5. This is a familiar story – my family comes from the deep south of Aotearoa, a place called Nightcaps. It was also a bustling coal town when my mum was growing up, and though the mine was shut down for decades it has recently been opened up again. It’s eerie going through Western Southland these days – there’s a huge contrast between the insanely wealthy dairy farms and struggling little towns.

    • I had to look up Nightcaps. Wow…it really is off the beaten track. The dairy boom sure has done strange things to NZ. What will it look like if it goes bust I wonder?

Comments are closed.