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'The Town of Light': Reefton and the Kirwans Track

Published
April 13, 2021
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REEFTON is the only sizable town on the West Coast that's some way inland. The town got its start in 1871 following the discovery of a gold reef nearby, and was originally called Reef Town. To this day it's got plenty of atmosphere (mostly smelling of coal-smoke), and is surrounded by historic mine workings.

Broadway, Reefton. Photo by Stewart Nimmo / Development West Coast, 5 July 2018. Released under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence by Development West Coast as part of the West Coast Wikipedian at Large project, obtained for this post via Wikimedia Commons.

Map by Land Information New Zealand via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0. North at top. You can zoom in further on the NZ Topo Map website.

The town has a lot old-time charm. The 100% New Zealand page on Reefton invites you to:

Follow the town’s heritage walk past the Reefton School of Mines, the courthouse, Oddfellows Hall, St Xavier's Convent and the Band Hall. At the Miner’s Hut you can sit in front of the fire, enjoy a cup of tea and watch steel being shaped by a blacksmith.

It's really worth getting to know the place and learning about its interesting characters, including the female gold miner named Bridget Goodwin, about whom Rachel Dawick of Lyttelton issued a song called Biddy of the Buller in 2014.

'Biddy of the Buller', Nelson Provincial Museum image 326756, miscellaneous collection.

Another major claim to fame is the fact that Reefton was one of the first towns in the world to get a public supply of electric power and electric street lights, in 1888. According to an article called 'Rare Wonders of Reefton',

The original street lamps are still standing in town (although no longer in use), but the first light to be powered by electricity in 1888 still shines nightly on the Oddfellows Hall, on Bridge Street.

The electrification of Reefton is described in the following twenty-minute documentary by Whiteboard Energy: which has a lot in it about the town: including a visit to Blacks Point Museum near the town where the water-powered technology of early gold mining is explained, and how it was that this technology led to the beginnings of hydroelectricity in New Zealand.

And so, Reefton calls itself 'The Town of Light'.

But there are also a lot of tramping and mountain biking tracks in the hills above the town as well, including the Kirwans Track, a loop that can be seen in the map above.

The town has a really excellent iSITE website at reefton.co.nz, listing all this history along with the town's modern-day attractions and things you can see and do. The top six on the website are:

+ Bottled Lightning Powerhouse Walk: a visit to the original 1880s electric powerhouse

+ The Bearded Miners: Gold-panning re-enactment under the guidance of, yes, bearded miners

+ Black's Point: Two loop tracks (and a museum, including a working stamper battery for crushing ore)

+ Big River: An old dray road and the abandoned mining township of Waiuta (one of 70 or so ghost towns on the West Coast of the South Island)

+ Murray Creek: A 5-hour mountain bike, or a slower walk

+ Kirwans Reward: Hiking to the Kirwans Hut and old Kirwans Reward mine at the high point of the Kirwans Track, a 2 to 3 day loop just east of Reefton, which can also be biked more quickly.

The rest of this post will focus on the Kirwans Track, which in its totality, loops from Waitahu River Road to Boatmans Road, both just north of Reefton. The track loops through mossy goblin forest and the side-trip to Kirwans Hill goes along exhilarating knife-edge tops. There are lots of blogs and photos about it online, such as this canonical post from Get Outdoors NZ, a new online encyclopaedia of the New Zealand outdoors. I'm going to do the track myself shortly and add my own photos to this post!

There are two huts on the track, one on a mountain peak and the other in a river valley. The one on the mountain is Kirwans Hut, on the top of a peak 1,294 metres high (4,245 feet). The hut is now double glazed and has had coal flown in to keep it warm. There's a great view from Kirwans Hut, shown in this video:

According to a page on the track by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC), "On a clear day you can see all the way down to Mount Cook." Incredibly, the Kirwans Hut is right next to an old mine called Kirwans Reward, whence the alternate name for the track. It must have been a heck of a place to be mining in winter!

The other hut is Montgomerie Hut, at only about 350 m above sea level, at the confluence of the Montgomerie and Waitahu rivers.

Between the two huts there is a restored stamper battery called the Lord Brassey, for crushing ore. Here's a video about Lord Brassey's restoration:

The Kirwans Track is, however, only one of a number of tracks in the area, all of them documented in DOC's 'Reefton Walks' brochure.

So, there's a lot you can do in and around Reefton: one of the many little places you might not have heard of otherwise!

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.

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