Lost Gold, The 100-year Search for the Gold Reef of Northwest Nelson By Paul Bensemann, Craig Potton Publishing, 2013. Softcover, 244 pages, $40. Reviewed by Arnold Heine
For those of us who have spent a little time in Kahurangi’s Tasman Wilderness Area, this is a fascinating read. The story begins in April 1907, when recently appointed Director of the NZ Geological Survey, James Mackintosh Bell (aged 30), rode along the beach to the mouth of the Heaphy River and there decided to build the first Heaphy Hut.
A year later, he returned with Patrick Marshall, Otago University geologist, guide Jack Clarke of Mt Cook fame, and Jim Cadigan ‘field assistant and pack carrier’. From the Gunner Downs the group tramped to Lake Aorere and the northern part of the Marshall Range, intending to reach the Mt Arthur Tableland. For various reasons, they backtracked to Lake Aorere and then headed down the Aorere River and on to Collingwood. Bell tells the story in his book, The Wilds of Maoriland, published in 1914, three years after his return to Canada.
This is where author Paul Bensemann picks up the story in Lost Gold. Although not mentioned in Bell’s book, subsequent discussions between Bell and Nelsonian Fred Gibbs documented the apparent discovery of a gold-bearing reef by Bell and Marshall about the point where the party began their ‘escape’ down the Aorere River.
In 1971, Bensemann was tobacco picking in the Motueka Valley, for his parents’ neighbour Mervyn Heath, from whom he learned about the existence of this hidden gold reef, and became fascinated. Lost Gold is the result of almost 40 years of endless interviews with old timers and research in the Nelson Provincial Museum. What a fascinating story it is.
In April 1966, a Hutt Valley Tramping Club party consisting of Alan Stevens, Jan Hardwicke and myself set out to follow Bell’s route from the Gunner Downs, across the Ugly River to Lake Aorere. At that time, Paul’s book was a long time in the future; not that we would have recognised a gold reef anyway. Some ten years later, on a HVTC Christmas trip, we traversed the Marshall Range itself, but again had no idea of the existence of a lost gold reef. We did find that the Marshall Range has several rocky sections, easily sidled on the Roaring River side.
Lost Gold tells of many attempts by keen people from Nelson and Karamea who headed into Kahurangi National Park searching for this elusive gold reef. However, many of the parties struck rough weather and ran out of food, before heading back home.
Bensemann’s thorough research includes many interviews that help to create the human side to the story. Northwest Nelson weather can be fickle, but there are great rewards to puttering around this park. Lost Gold is a great read and may entice you to join the list of gold seekers while enjoying some fine tramping.