24 March 2017

Riches of The Buller Gorge

The Buller Gorge is one of New Zealand’s scenic wonders that should be added to your ‘Must See’ list. A remarkable landmark located in the Lower Buller Gorge is Hawks Crag. It’s a narrow piece of road carved out of an overhanging rock face. With the mighty Buller River thundering below it.

The cliff at Hawks Crag is almost vertical, which certainly created a challenge when constructing a road through it in 1869. The solution was to cut a narrow slot across the cliff face. It was a painstaking task. In the late 19th century, the road was only just wide enough to take carriages and carts. The road around the cliff face has since been widened so buses and trucks can fit through. A protective railing has been built to provide a barrier to the unstoppable Buller River below.

The rock that makes up this area is called Hawks Crag Breccia (pronounced ‘bretcha’). This rock forms the vertical cliff that has been cut into and is now known as Hawks Crag. In 1955, two prospectors, Frederick Cassin and Charles Jacobsen, discovered uranium rich rocks near the cliff face. It seemed a strange place to find uranium and therefore hadn’t been searched by previous prospectors.

Uranium is a naturally radioactive element. It generates the heat in nuclear power reactors, and produces the fissile material for nuclear weapons.

Prospectors began arriving in the Hawks Crag area after hearing about the discovery of uranium. However samples found were too low in uranium concentrations to enable underground mining to be cost-effective. This meant prospectors left to search other regions of the Buller Gorge, hopeful of making their fortune.

In 1846, 25 year old surveyor, Thomas Brunner along with two Ngati Tumatakokiri guides (Piki and Kehu) and their wives, began a 550 day journey to explore the wild and uninhabited West Coast gorge. They set off from Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes district and followed the river to the sea.

Brunner described the trek as the worst country he had ever explored. The weather was horrendous, with torrential rain and barley enough food to survive. Their diet consisted of fern roots, rats and eels. They had been trailing the raging Buller River for two months and were near starvation. Sadly, to survive, they had to eat their skeleton-like dog. Thirteen days later they reached the coast. The perilous Buller River had almost made their journey unachievable.

Another name for the Buller River is Kawatiri (meaning deep and swift). It flows for 169km and finishes at the Tasman Sea near Westport. Much of the Buller River’s catchment area is mountainous and thickly covered in native bush. For most of its length the river flows in steep-sided gorges with many rapids.

Perhaps you're wondering where the name ‘Buller’ came from? It was named after Charles Buller. Buller was a Member of Parliament and director of the New Zealand Company (The New Zealand Company was a 19th-century English company that played a key role in the colonisation of New Zealand).

In 1862 two Māori prospectors found a large nugget of gold close to the Buller River in an area now known as Lyell. This find started some of the richest discoveries in New Zealand's mining history. A new township formed and was named Lyell after Sir Charles Lyell (a British geologist).

By 1873 a bustling town existed, there were six hotels, three stores, one drapery, three butchers, one baker, a blacksmith, a school and an ironmongery store.

Several factors contributed to Lyell's dwindling population after it's successful prospecting days. One factor was the absence of a doctor, so illness often resulted in death. Another component was a disastrous fire in 1896 and then in 1929 the Murchison earthquake struck! Roads leading into Lyell had many landslips and until they were cleared the townspeople had to walk out to get supplies. After the earthquake more people left Lyell. It was too isolated and when sickness struck, health care was too far away. 

Nowadays, Lyell is a historical reserve maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Although no original buildings remain, there's a large grassy camping area with walking and biking tracks nearby.

Lyell wasn’t only known for its gold prospecting days. It’s also the region where the legendary gold miner, Bridget Goodwin went prospecting. Bridget Goodwin was also known as 'Little Biddy', 'Biddy of the Buller', and 'Biddy the Fossicker'.

Bridget Goodwin was born in Ireland, possibly in Dublin, sometime between 1802 and 1827. She had little or no education and was unable to read or write. Biddy mined first at Bendigo and Ballarat in Australia and then sailed for New Zealand, with her two male goldmining companions, arriving at Nelson in the mid 1860s. First, she mined in the Collingwood area and then, after a long overland trek to the West Coast, in the Buller River region.

‘Biddy of the Buller’ lived and worked with her two male friends (she wasn’t married to either). Female goldminers were an unusual occurrence in nineteenth century. So Biddy made an impact, plus she was a small woman, about four feet in height and of slight build. Nevertheless she was capable of hard physical work. Gold prospecting involved scooping up, cradling and panning sands from river and stream beds. She often worked standing in the water for hours on end and also supervised the work of her two companions (who happily agreed on her leadership).

The threesome never earned a fortune from gold prospecting and after necessities were bought anything left over was spent on drinking sprees lasting several days. Biddy was a keen pipe-smoker, and enjoyed a drink. In those times, her morals were rather controversial. However her reputation for hard work under conditions of enormous hardship, her hospitality and loyalty to her companions won her much admiration and respect.

In the 1880s and 1890s Biddy and her two mates lived and mined near the Lyell township. It was during this period that both companions passed away (at separate times) in Reefton hospital. Understandably, Biddy was heartbroken and decided to settle in Reefton, which is where she spent the remainder of her life.

Reefton is where Biddy became known as 'Old Biddy' or 'Old Biddy of the Buller'. She was an Anglican and received many visits from fellow parishioners, whom she entertained with stories of her early life.

On the 19 October 1899 Biddy of the Buller passed away. Her age at death is uncertain but is given as 72, 86 and 96 years. Bridget Goodwin’s grave can be seen in the Reefton cemetery today.

Now, when you travel through the Buller Gorge, cast your mind back to the much admired, four-foot high, stoic gold-miner ‘Biddy of the Buller’. Also imagine the optimistic uranium prospectors as you pass through Hawks Crag. And while you take in the sights of the rapidly, flowing Buller River, remember this beautiful scenic slice of New Zealand holds a fascinating history.


  1. I love the Buller Gorge and enjoyed reading of some of the history.

  2. Thank you. It's the next place I'm going to on my way to Westport and north.

  3. Thank you for a brilliant walk down history lane. I love reading and finding out history especially of my home area. Away from it at the moment but certainly intend returning to my grass roots in the not to distant future. Love your blog it is so well done. :)

    1. Thanks Liz, I'm pleased you enjoyed it. I was really interested in Biddy of the Buller - she sounds like a real character.


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