Denniston's True Treasures

By Debs Martin  

A descriptive map on the wall of the Friends of the Hill’s museum advises on routes to the many places. Of course, you can simply walk off road and have a dig around.

If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with reasonable ground clearance, follow the road to the top of Mt Rochfort, created in the 1960s for a transmitter station.

You pass through some of the most spectacular scenery and views of the area. Plunging away from the sides of Mt Rochfort, the escarpment of the sandstone pavements perches high above typical West Coast forest, and the views of the precipitous outcrops are breathtaking.

It’s sometimes freezing but the best examples of rock formations and alpine vegetation are here.

A more sedate drive, for a two-wheel-drive car, is to Coalbrookdale – a smaller abandoned mining town just past Burnett’s Face, where relics of hotels past are covered with mosses. 

In a sheltered gully, you can go in two directions. The easy Coalbrookdale mining track takes you through some of the plateau’s interesting vegetation sequences and botanical gems.

At the top of Mt Rochfort, as I crouched to examine the chewing of a ground weta in the crevice of sandstone pavements, snowflakes began to fall and swirl up from the nearby bluffs. It was November on the Denniston Plateau and, though I shouldn’t have been entirely surprised by the snow, its sudden appearance after a burst of sunshine felt surreal.

Weather extremes are usual in a West Coast alpine environment. I have spent days on the Denniston Plateau when all four seasons are dramatically expressed. 

That November day was no exception, with a slaying wind from the south, brilliant sunshine baking the gullies, and mists rising and falling as clouds drifted in spectacular patterns across the striking landforms.

Almost desolate and bleak to the eye, the Denniston Plateau is one of New Zealand’s geological wonders. It was formed about 40 million years ago, and its uplifted sandstone pavements lie on ancient coal deposits. 

A coal measures ecosystem whose complexity is not found elsewhere has evolved with the high rainfall and weather extremes.

Eighteen different plant communities hide in rocky gullies or lie exposed to the elements. Prostrate rätä, dracophyllum and mänuka are on the highest parts. The impoverished soils also provide habitat for a rich array of invertebrate life that supports the unusual mega-fauna of the plateau – creatures like our giant land snail, Powelliphanta patrickensis, the West

Coast green gecko and the mega-giant great spotted kiwi.

This isn’t the wilderness of dripping rainforests, though small versions of these can be found in the gorges of the Waimangaroa and Whareatea rivers. It is the wilderness of stunted forests, sandstone pavements and dramatic views.

Some of it is found on your hands and knees – peripatus (velvet worm), north Westland snow tussock and, if you’re lucky, a ground weta, leaf vein slug or even an endemic flatworm. Many of these creatures are found nowhere else.

The sealed road to the Denniston Plateau curves up from the township of Waimangaroa. As you reach the top of the zigzag, the historic mining town of Denniston lies before you, a bustling place of 842 people in 1911. 

The Department of Conservation has recently done much work to protect the historic features of the early coal mining industry, including a tasteful restoration of the “eighth wonder of the world” – the steep Denniston Incline, where rail carried coal from the plateau to waiting trucks below.

This is often the end point for visitors but the real richness of the Denniston Plateau is further afield.

For the adventurous, I strongly recommend crossing the small bridge and following Myra’s Track on your left to the summit of Mt William. A reasonably rugged climb of about an hour and a half will reward you with some great examples of the “goblin” pygmy pine, rätä and dracophyllum forest.

Tarns and sculptured rocks at the summit provide a backdrop for 360-degree views of the Stockton and Denniston plateaus, the sloping Mt William range, the upper Waimangaroa Valley, the oceans of the West Coast and the bush-clad forests of the Buller River catchment.

It is not uncommon to be visited by our high fliers, the kea and käkä.

My last recommendation is to take a four-wheel drive with a bit of ground clearance past Burnett’s Face and up the Upper Waimangaroa Valley towards the Burning Mine.

At any stage along this route you can walk off track and explore the richness of the river gorge, expansive sloping sandstone pavements, rätä forests and outcrops of flax.

An easy hour or two can be spent discovering treasures – both flora and fauna. And on a hot day, the waters of the Waimangaroa River make for a pleasing dip.

Several years ago I used to make the journey by foot into the Upper Waimangaroa area to visit the proposed site of the Cypress Mine – an extension of Solid Energy’s Stockton Mine. 

The loss of this extensive wetland in the upper catchment, the sandstone pavements surrounding it and the habitat it provided was a real blow for conservation.

The Denniston Plateau is public conservation land, and is now also threatened with extensive open-cast coal mines.