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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1, October 1974

Tableland Days

Tableland Days

page 5

Editor's Note

Mt Arthur Tableland

Small numbers of gold diggers appear to have sought the precious metal on the Mount Arthur Tableland over quite a period of years. In March 1868 a miner who had been at work there wrote a letter to the Nelson Evening Mail in which he stated that there were about 12 or 14 men then working there, and he complained that the track which was being made by the Government led to country where there was no one at work, while the Lodestone Track, which had been condemned by the Government, was the only one by which the diggers were obtaining their stores, and by which gold was being brought out. He suggested that with a small outlay this track could be 'rendered available'. His comments about the track being made would indicate that he was referring to Jones's Track which led from the Baton Valley to the Leslie River and Karamea Bend. Just when the track by way of Flora Saddle became the usual route is hard to say but the original Dutton's Track to Salisbury Open climbed to a much higher altitude and no doubt avoided a good deal of the bush country.

By 1874 the track by way of the Graham Valley and Flora Saddle must have become the recognised route as in that year John Heath held an hotel licence under the 'Goldfields Accommodation Act' which carried a stipulation that he 'keep track from Heath's house to Flora's Creek clear of slips and fallen timber'. In the same year settlers at Pangatotara petitioned the Nelson Provincial Council for the provision of a cart road up Graham Valley.

In the late 1880s suggestions were being made in Takaka that a track should be opened up from the head of that valley to the Tableland. The area was in the Takaka Riding of the Collingwood County and requests from gold diggers, as well as farmers running stock out there, felt that they should be provided with better access. By 1892 the matter was the cause of some friction as the Waimea County received what little revenue came from the Tableland and yet the Takaka Road Board was expected to improve the access. A request to the Waimea County Council for them to spend the revenue which they received there brought the reply that it would be done 'some time'.

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Denis Brereton, a ranger in the Mt Arthur region of the North-west Nelson Forest Park, is a descendant of pioneers in the Motueka Valley, and is interested in the history of the mountainous region where he lives.

After graduating M.A. with honours he followed a seafaring life as a deck officer and also served in the sailing ship Pamir, later returning to the district he knows so well.

On a sunny summer afternoon I sat on a pile of stones near Richards' Creek on the Tableland while above me two keys were sporting in the sky. To the north-east could be seen the rather grotesque backs of Hoary Head and the Crusader; and eastwards were the dim outlines of the jagged teeth of the Mt Arthur Twins through the trees on the edge of the Leslie Valley.

Close by, in Richards' Creek, were mounds of washings from gold diggings which nature is rapidly covering with alpine vegetation in her ceaseless struggle to keep the soil on our planet. This was all that remained of Richards' works and my seat of stones was all that remained of his hut.

It is now fifty years since I set foot as a child on the Tableland. The diggers had come and gone some thirty years before my existence, with one exception, Edwin Moore, who is still on the Tableland in a lonely grave.


In 1858 James Mackay and John Lockett crossed the Tableland from the Cobb on an exploration journey to the headwaters of the Karamea River. On this journey they named Mt Peel, Mt Lockett, and the Diamond Lakes.

In 1863 Thomas Salisbury travelled from Pokororo up the left bank of the Graham River until he reached the junction of the north and south branches. He crossed the north branch and climbed the steep face in front of him to a leading spur on Lodestone. From the top of Lodestone he saw open tussock country to the north-west. From Lodestone Salisbury blazed a track via the spurs of Mt Arthur and Gordon Pyramid to the tussock country which was named Salisbury Open. A week later he returned to Pokororo little the worse for the journey. Salisbury's route became the first track to the Tableland. It was on this track in 1870, probably on Lodestone, that Herbert Grooby was lost and perished. No trace of him was ever found. (I have climbed Lodestone and enjoyed the same view that Salisbury saw, and have a considerable respect for his journey). The present day Tableland track was not made until 1878 and until this date diggers and stock have used Salisbury's route.

Diggers' Names

Gold Digging Commenced on the Tableland in the 1870s and many strange characters, including Chinamen, were attracted to the area. The diggers are responsible for such strange page 7 page 8names as Butcher Town, China Town, Starvation Spur, Balloon, Commiskey Creek, and Golden Gully which are still in use today. The Tableland is still dotted with prospecting holes which are full of water and a real trap for the unwary. There is no record of the quantities of gold found.

Edwin Moore, a mariner, who died of a heart attack on 18th February 1892 (aged 49) was buried on his claim in Cundy Creek. Because of the unusual circumstances an inquiry was held, a party consisting of E. D. Dunn (surgeon), Richmond Hursthouse JP (coroner) and Thomas Boyes travelling to the Tableland where, after a post-mortem and inquiry held in Moore's claim, the burial took place. The North-West Nelson Forest Parks Board intends to erect a cross over the grave.

Richards is remembered as the bad man of the Tableland. Some claimed he was well educated, the son of a clergyman. Charles Sixtus, an early settler in Pokororo, maintained that when he crossed from Melbourne to Wellington, Richards was the mate in the sailing ship. If this is so Richards does not seem to have ever disclosed his profession by any word or act, but he led a very solitary life.

Richards is supposed to have fought with many of the diggers one of whom, Billy Lyons, is quoted as threatening to use his 'squirt' on the next occasion. Over the years the question has often arisen as to what became of Richards. No one knows—he simply left his hut and gear and disappeared. Possibly some of the stories told about him were not altogether accurate.

Billy Lyons may best be described as the 'grand old man of Balloon'. He was said to be a neat, dapper little man very quick in his movements. Much of his long period at Balloon was spent in attempting to dig a ditch to bring water from Peel Lake for gold washing at Balloon. The ditch has never been finished. Lack of water was always the trouble in washing for gold on the Tableland. Billy Lyons' staple diet appears to have been what he called 'poultry', in other words plain weka.

Visitors who stayed with Billy Lyons praised his hospitality and said that he enjoyed western stories and spoke with an American accent. A revolver was always known as a 'squirt' to him. He was also renowned for his ability to toss tea into a boiling billy from a distance of ten feet, little of the tea, it appears, ever being spilt. One wonders!

In his later years Billy Lyons left Balloon and settled in a hut in the Pearse Valley and apparently died at Richmond.

Many people think that the old Balloon hut is a restoration of Billy Lyons' hut but this is not correct, nor is the site the same. The old Balloon hut was financed by the Wellington drapery firm of Kirkcaldie and Staines in 1906 for a gold mining project to pipe water from Peel Lake. Nothing came of this venture except Balloon Hut which is no longer of any use.

page 9

The Hodges were cockneys and appear to have had their share of hard times and humour and may be classed among the more successful diggers. They gave their name to Hodge's Creek in the Leslie Valley and the small creek with the bridge about a quarter of a mile from the Cobb track junction on the Flora side. The parallel water races on the western side of the main Peel Ridge are also their work. Hodge's Open on Mt Arthur is another place where their name remains today.

No Tableland history would be complete without mention of Mr and Mrs H. F. Chaffey. The Chaffeys lived in their cottage near the asbestos mine for forty years. Mrs Chaffey's name was in the old Arthur Creek hut in the Leslie Valley dated 1913.

During this long period he worked at track maintenance and hunted and prospected in some very remote areas. He was the caretaker of the asbestos mine and in the early years of this century was blade shearing in the Pokororo area. He was renowned for the size of the swag he could carry. I met him many times on the track and on each occasion was impressed by the size of his swag and his friendly, courteous manner to young people. In later years when the Cobb was opened up, Chaffey used the Cobb route and was no longer seen in the Graham Valley. His knowledge of the country was very great, but like so many high-country people, he did not divulge it. He died at his cottage in 1945, and his wife at Takaka a few years earlier.

In the depression after the 1930s, diggers again appeared on the Tableland and log and shingle huts were built in the Flora, Takaka and Leslie Valleys. When better times came the diggers returned to other occupations.

Place Names

Some of the Early Tableland names are still in use and their origins are of interest. After the track emerges from the bush at the edge of Salisbury Open, it slopes down to Salisbury Creek and the Rock Shelter can be reached by slanting up the bank to the bush edge before crossing the creek. [The North-west Nelson Forest Park has erected all necessary signposts and the track can be readily seen]. It is about 250 yards from Salisbury Creek to the Rock Shelter.

The Rock Shelter is simply a large overhanging rock face under which a tussock bed and a fireplace can afford warmth and protection from the weather for about a dozen people. It is the first-known shelter on the Tableland, being found by the Salisburys who used it when building their hut. It is a snug spot with a beautiful spring of water.

The Potholes can be easily reached from the Gordon Pyramid track. In the flower season there are good specimens of ranunculi and Maori onion (bulbinella) in the Potholes, which are water-formed sinkholes.

page 10

Richards' Cave is about two miles south-west from Salisbury Hut but is not marked by guide poles (on account of damage) and is difficult to find. It is small and dry inside and is very beautiful, especially the 'Wedding Cake' formation of limestone columns.

Starvation Spur

From the back of the Salisbury Hut for about a mile the track follows a stunted bush spur, named Starvation Spur—on account of its stunted vegetation. The bush edge at the top of the spur where the track emerges into the tussock is Butcher Town. Sheep were led up from the Graham Valley and slaughtered there. Leading seems rather an unusual method, but there were not enough sheep to drive and no holding paddocks. Butcher Town must have presented a strange sight at those times, with bearded diggers coming to collect their mutton and, presumably, paying for it with gold.

Between Salisbury Hut and Balloon the track passes through a beautiful bush-clad gully–Cundy Creek. Before further mention of Cundy Creek it is necessary to describe Bishop's Cave which gives easy access to Cundy Creek. Bishop's Cave is simply a rock tunnel on the eastern side and near to the track, and is well signposted. At the Cundy Creek side of the entrance to the cave there is a stunted gooseberry bush which seems to cling to life year after year. Bishop Suter preached a sermon to the diggers at the cave during his visit to the Tableland in February 1885. He is also reported to have spent a night in the cave—my only comment is that he must have spent a very cold night. Cundy Creek is an enchanting spot and is well worth an hour or two fossicking about and seeing what can be found in this neighbourhood, especially fossilised shells in the roof of Bishop's Cave.

On the Balloon side of Cundy Creek, on a little mound in the bush, is the old diggers' smithy. This consists of a large overhanging rock on which the smoke stains can still be seen. Underneath this rock face there is a square raised stone fireplace. Lying around are a mattock head, horseshoes and other odd pieces.

As mentioned earlier the grave of Edwin Moore is in Cundy Creek, no distance from the blacksmith's shop.


Salisbury Hut was built in 1928 by the Mount Balloon Scenic Board and having now reached the end of its life is being replaced. From Salisbury Hut it is about four miles to Balloon Hut at the foot of the tussock spurs leading to Mt Peel. The old Balloon Hut is useless, but in September 1963 the Abel Tasman National Park Board built a new eight-bunk hut at Balloon. The Park Board deserves great credit for its initiative and foresight in erecting this hut. It is a great pity they did not carry on this initiative and add the Mt Arthur Tableland area to the Abel page 11Tasman National Park. Such a combination would have made the Park unique.

Many years ago, some humorist carved on the door of the old Balloon Hut: 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here'. On cold nights in the old days I have felt tempted to agree with him.

China Town

The isolated patch of bush below the Balloon Hut is China Town. Here the Chinese worked and apparently did not mingle with the other diggers, nor do they seem to have been molested in any way. What their fortunes and their fates were no one knows. Today the young beech is growing rapidly and little can now be seen in China Town.

Golden Gully

The Balloon Creek flows through a tussock gully below the Balloon Hut and China Town. This is Golden Gully. Cundy Creek and Commiskey Creek which is immediately below Starvation Spur, join Balloon Creek in this gully. The tussock has grown up high and it is difficult to see much of the old diggings. The gully provides a pleasant walk within easy distance from the Balloon Hut. Golden Gully was the best area for gold on the Tableland.