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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2 (May 1, 1936)

Urewera Gold

page 25

Urewera Gold

“Returning, he produced sundry pieces of quartz.”

“Returning, he produced sundry pieces of quartz.”

(By Hori Makaire.)

Gold, they maintain, is where you find it; and history has proved the saying true.

There is a story by Jack London of two hardened prospectors who spent the whole of a nerve-trying Yukon winter in an unsuccessful search in virgin country that showed stray “traces” only. Completely worn out with the hardships of the trail, they had made their last camp ere commencing the long trip back to Dawson. One of them happened to kick away a clod of frozen earth, and a small shower of nuggets fell from the withered grass roots. It was the beginning of a record strike—the basis of a good story in the author's inimitable style. The real Bonanza was, of course, discovered in much the same fashion—by sheer accident, under an old moose pasture that thousands of diggers had passed by in their journeyings to the rich creeks above.

“Someone'll find it—some day.” That was the stock phrase of the late Benjamin Biddle, veteran Maori fighter, and hero of many a skirmish in the dense bush and along the wild fern ridges of the Urewera country. It was of the Urewera, little known and little explored that Ben spoke, for he knew it more intimately than most pakehas of the day. The reference concerned the rumours of gold, “somewhere” back in those remote mountain fastnesses, that occasionally reached Whakatane. It will be shown that there was something more than mere rumour to be considered. Incidentally, I have always cherished a suspicion that Ben knew a great deal more about the reports than he cared to say. At the time—1910—of which I write, several of Te Kooti's followers, actual participants in the Poverty Bay massacre were still alive, and—well, I can best shorten things by saying that the old feeling of enmity seemed to have died hard. These ancient men lived twelve miles inland, at Ruatoki, and, with other members of the Tuhoe tribe were far from friendly to the pakeha. Permission to go over their ground as the only access to the wild country beyond was given grudgingly, and very often refused in no uncertain manner; and in other ways they showed an aggressive dislike to excursions of the white man, whatever the object of his quest. But, Ben held their wholesome respect, and if this particular section of the tribe did know anything of the gold business, he was the one most likely to share the confidence. Ben was not one to break the confidence of anyone, white or brown.

Some almost forgotten history takes us back to the early ‘eighties, when a party of surveyors had camped on the river-bed near Taneatua. So far as can be gathered, their visit had to do with the Dividing Line, the course of which can still be traced along the flats beyond the township mentioned. The camp cook had been on the Australian fields. It was his custom— the camp appears to have been run on rather free and easy lines—to make periodical trips into the interior. On one such occasion he was away for several days. Returning, he produced sundry pieces of quartz, stating that he had found signs of gold in one of the creeks, and had traced them to the reef itself—a rich reef, too. Shortly afterwards, the head surveyor was visited by a party of Maoris, who were openly hostile. The text of the conversation which followed can only be surmised. As a result, the cook was sternly ordered to stick to his pots and pans, and to leave gold-seeking severely alone. For a time he did so. Eventually, the fever apparently got the better of him. One day he disappeared and was never seen again. I have heard the story many times, with all the many colourful variations this sort of story is bound to gather, but these appear to be the main facts. Possibly the musty Departmental files of the period confirm them, and offer some good solution of this fifty-year-old mystery; probably the wise old men of the Tuhoe know of a better one.

In the latter part of 1909, when Rua was at the height of his power, he frequently visited Whakatane with a small army of followers. Then money would indeed flow like the proverbial water. “They'd buy up all in sight, useful and useless, too,” said an old resident in describing one of these purchasing orgies. “Where did they get the money? Well, that question has been asked many times, and we're all just as wise as ever. It couldn't have come from the Land Court. Money they just had—‘tons of it,’ page 26 page 27 seemingly.” The source of these funds was indeed a mystery to the towns-people. The story was told with some relish of one of Rua's flock who was fined over £100 on separate charges connected with sly-grog selling. He paid the fine there and then in £5 notes—each taken out of a different bundle of the same denomination! The record of the fine is available, and the rest of the tale can easily be confirmed by the older settlers. I have yet to meet the man who was enterprising enough to endeavour to trace the source of this wealth supply, but that it was in some way connected with a “secret” mine was certainly the general belief.

It was shortly after the sly-grog incident that rumours were freely passed to the effect that gold from some inland quarter was being shipped secretly to one of the Auckland banks. The story gained much support as the outcome of a nocturnal disturbance outside one of the hotels. An obliging barman was helping away a quarrelsome visitor—a Maori from the Waimana country. There was a struggle, from which the barman emerged more than slightly knocked about. His hurts included an ugly bruise above the eye which he declared had been caused by a stone. He maintained he had seen the departing guest take the missile out of his pocket and “let fly.” The “stone” was picked up next morning. Certain colours noticed on the surface resulted in the specimen being sent to Auckland. It was quartz—rich in both gold and silver. Bret Harte might have set his imagination working overtime to run the story on into twenty chapters or more. So far as my knowledge goes— and with others I wasted much time and ingenuity in attempting to follow the trail—it ends right there.

A much admired design used by the Railway Department for advertising during the recent Easter holiday period.

A much admired design used by the Railway Department for advertising during the recent Easter holiday period.

Coming to some facts which are beyond dispute, there was the find made in 1911 at Otara, Wairere Bay, an inlet to the south of Whakatane. A small piece of quartz, but slightly water worn, was picked up on the beach. Through it ran a distinct vein of colour, nearly half an inch in thickness. The outer crust of stone was similar in appearance to that of the cliff face which overhung the Bay. To even the most inexperienced, the discovery suggested all the elements of a rich strike, and an assay made at Auckland confirmed the most optimistic views. Several members of the syndicate that was formed are still in business at Whakatane. The find was necessarily kept a close secret. There followed much digging and sinking of trial shafts. Over a period of weeks practically the whole cliff face was blown away in an endeavour to unearth the supposed reef. It is recorded that on one occasion the small coastal steamer that then plied between Opotiki and Auckland was nearly wrecked while moving over-close to the shore line in order that the skipper might discover what the explosions were all about. Nothing was ever found, and where that singularly rich piece of quartz came from remains a mystery to this day. Obviously, it was portion of a larger deposit somewhere in the locality.

It is quite natural that the reader should inquire whether the Urewera has ever been prospected on any methodical basis. I can only say that there is no official record of it having been done, and, in any case, in view of the hostility of the Maoris I have previously referred to, such an expedition could only have been possible in comparatively recent times. When the Otago diggings were at their best, the Urewera was forbidden territory to the pakeha. It has been stated that in 1890 or thereabouts, a party financed by the late Sir James Carroll made a hurried trip through. It is difficult to find any verification of this report. Probably, various attempts of the kind have been made, for the incidents related were more or less common property, and would provide an irresistible temptation for the average fossiker. Be this as it may, the fact remains that the possibility of gold being there in payable quantities is really no more unlikely than the Bell-Kilgour and similar finds in the South would have been considered a few years ago; and there is the practical evidence to be faced, commencing with the disappearance of the surveyor, and ending with the Otara-Wairere Bay venture. It all goes to create a somewhat romantic mystery. Reflectively, I again examine a tattered Miner's Right, for which I paid a hard-earned ten shillings in the Whakatane Courthouse twenty-four years ago….

What do the wise old men of the Tuhoe know?