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Gold on the Tablelands

(22 May 2010)

Mr & Mrs James Heath & family at home

Jim Heath & packhorse with tourists, Thorns Hut

Gold is a word that still gets people excited even when the chances of finding any are very slim. The Nelson region never had the same gold boom as Otago, the West Coast or Thames and yet mining has taken place in several places, the most unusual or remote being the tablelands between Mt Arthur and the Cobb and the ranges further south and west. Rough, rugged country which had hundreds of miners camped in huts and tents during the years of the depression - the 1930s. The huts had funny names such as "All Inn" and conditions were very basic.

Paul Bensemann was employed by the Alexander Turnbull Library in the 1980s to talk to these old miners, many of whom continued to search for the glimmer of gold the rest of their lives. They were paid by the government on an unemployment scheme but little gold was found. Paul calculates that the present generation is probably the first since the late 1880s where no one has lived on the tablelands.

The Heath name is synonomous with the tablelands, running an accommodation house at the foot of Mt Arthur and using packhorses to carry the gear of the tourists who climbed the mountain and ventured further a field. The packing paid but not the accommodation. The Heath family built the first Flora Hut now visited by thousands each year.

Paul is connected through the marriage of Florence Bensemann to James Heath.

In 1908 two geologists, Bell and Marshall, tramped the tablelands and talked years later to F G Gibbs, headmaster of Nelson Central School about "a lost reef". There was a map - like all treasure maps it was drawn roughly on a small piece of paper with odd directions but Gibbs became obsessed with the story and in 1928 went looking for the reef with young Karamea men to guide and pack in the gear. 1929 was the Murchison earthquake which changed the landscape but this didn't deter some of the men who searched regularly until old age or death overtook them.

Did they find the lost reef? Well, you will have to buy Paul Bensemann's book when it is published early 2011 to find the answer to that question. It will certainly be full of items to support the theory. Letters, maps, lists of what they took on the trip, diaries and memories of the miners. Perhaps this is the only treasure to be found - the Motueka Historical Association who heard the talk on Saturday felt they had found gold!!

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