The Salt of the Earth


We are newly returned home after a ten day road trip which included New Zealand’s South Island West Coast. It has been nearly thirty years since I was last there and quite a lot has changed.

The main reason for going was to visit family heritage sites. My Mum was born in this gold and coal mining area, called Brunnerton. Although the mines have closed and many of the original homes are gone, the small village of Taylorville, where my uncles went to school, and the larger town of Dobson, where the family lived and where my grandfather worked in the mine, still remain.

My mother’s family immigrated from Ireland in October 1926 and soon after, in December 1926, nine men were killed in a methane blast. I recall Nanna telling the story of standing terrified at the mouth of Dobson mine with the other wives watching the men being stretchered out, their skin and flesh dripping off them.  Granddad was lucky.  He was elsewhere and unscathed.

After travelling from Nelson and stopping by the Punakaiki Pancake Rock site, we settled into the quaint old Railway Hotel in Greymouth.  To begin with, we visited Shantytown, an award-winning heritage park.  It was just as I remembered it when I visited with thirty fourth formers on a school trip in the 1980s.  Then we drove to the site of the Brunner and Dobson mines, where Grandad had worked. I expected to find  the same wooden memorial plaque that I had encountered at the site of the mines thirty years ago. It had been planted in the long grass beside the swing bridge that my uncles had walked on their way from Dobson to Taylorville to school in the 1920s and 30s.  Instead, we found a well-kept interpretive Brunner Mine Memorial Walk and marble memorial that leads the visitor around the remains of the mine and associated brick works and fittingly honours the miners lost in half a dozen methane disasters, the most recent, the Pike, only five years ago. This insightful photographic installation straddles the Grey river and includes the swing bridge that still links Dobson and Taylorville.

After the walk, we explored the village of Taylorville by car. We found that the lovely old school block is now a bed and breakfast.  Then we drove up to the village of Blackball, the home of the Labour Party and the Blackball mine where we found another quaint memorial/art installation in two shipping containers with decking between. We drove back via the town of Dobson.  While Taylorville seems to be a quaint but average little holiday town beside the Brunner river, both Blackball and Dobson were sad and destitute. While Blackball had a few things going for it, a well-subscribed local pub and salami factory, Dobson, the larger of the two, didn’t even boast a corner dairy.  The volunteer at the Greymouth Heritage Centre, where we visited with questions the next day, told us that there is not even enough money around to support a corner store.  Purchases can be made at the petrol station.  With the closing of the mines, the people are destitute.  You could feel it.  We drove the twenty minutes back into Greymouth.

There we finished our touring day with a beer tasting and early dinner at the Monteith’s Brewery.  More of a contrast with Dobson and Blackball couldn’t be found.  A modern, cathedral-like, architect-designed  edifice that you would expect to find in a wealthy Californian wine country and where tourists are led in groups around the shining vats of the brewery and taste beautifully served craft beers and nibble on expensive whitebait fritters.

Many changes from thirty years ago, that’s for certain. Yet one thing hasn’t changed.  The people.  Everywhere we went the locals were laid back, super helpful and friendly.  The volunteer at the Heritage Centre in Greymouth was a prime example.  She bent over backwards to help us find information about my family roots. The West Coasters remain the salt of the earth.


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