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Art & Heritage

Gold trails, heritage sites mining, story of Central Otago & West Coast prospectors

  • 4 minutes

Gold Fields, Otago

Attractions and things to do exploring heritage trails

There’s gold in the’ hills … the lure of instant fortune. The rush was in full flood in 1861 with Gabriel’s Gully (Lawrence) where the gold fever spread its tentacles. Within a year 10,000 mines set up tents in Gabriel’s Gully. Evocative names Dead Horse Pinch, Serpentine and Lonely Graves echo the unfulfilled optimism of 19th century prospectors. Visitors are intrigued by the relics, the stone shelters and the evidence of arduous hard physical labour to extract gold. Attractions range from walks among the sites, restored main streets and museums carefully documenting the story of the search for gold. The magnificent scenery of Central Otago and the lush forest of the West Coast is a bonus.

Old gold mine at Saint Bathans. Central Otago
Old gold mine at Saint Bathans, Central Otago

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SOUTH ISLAND GOLD FIELDS (19th century heritage trail)

There are plenty of places to explore with vineyards, orchards and galleries to tempt visitors to linger a while longer.

  • An enormous outdoor museum of rusting machinery half buried in tussock or melting into regenerating forest hints at the technology used to scour the landscape
  • Poignant stone shelters, half collapsed buildings and cemeteries recall the lives of many whose fate was tied to the unforgiving Central Otago climate and terrain
  • Landscapes moulded by the transformative power of massive water cannons blasting entire hillsides into oblivion
  • Historic reserves and walkways unearth the stories of endeavour in the arduous search for elusive instant gold wealth in the 1860’s
  • Go gold panning on the West Coast, South Island or Central Otago. Give gold prospecting a go with a traditional shovel and pan in the chilly alpine rivers.

There are over twenty documented gold mining locations in Central Otago alone. Along with the West Coast of the South Island gold mining techniques were part of the age of innovative machinery developments. The New Zealand gold rush jump started the nascent New Zealand economy with the rapid growth of Dunedin showcasing the wealth of gold brought to the emerging colony.

Shamrock Creek gold fossicking area, Goldsborough, West Coast, New Zealand
Shamrock Creek gold fossicking area, Goldsborough, West Coast

The Golden Progress Mine and Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings show how technology evolved during the rush. By 1867, around two million ounces of gold had been taken out of Otago.

Chinese gold mining settlement, Arrowtown, New Zealand
Chinese gold mining settlement, Arrowtown

Where is the best location to find out about 19th century gold mining in NZ?

The easiest place to find out about 19thc gold mining fever is the tourist town of Arrowtown, Otago however there are numerous small villages from St Bathans to Blackball and Ross where authentic displays, relics and buildings have left a rich repository of stories.


Check out the museums in Alexandra, Lawrence.

Where to go to find out about life on the goldfields in NZ?

Ross visitor centre wall mural complete with bike racks for West Coast Wilderness Trail participants, New Zealand
Ross visitor centre
St Bathans Blue Lake result of gold mining Otago, New Zealand
St Bathans Blue Lake result of gold mining Otago
  • Find out what happens to a town when a hillside disappears due to constant dredging in What’s so great about St Bathans, Central Otago and leaves in its place a magical lake.
  • Discover stories of Chinese gold miners in What’s so great about Lawrence, Central Otago the quietly slumbering story that is echoed in the well known Chinese precinct of Arrowtown.
  • Ghost cottages, relics and abandoned machinery echoes of the gold rush days of the 1800’s make Cromwell a magical place to explore the gold mining fever heritage of Otago. Cafes, gift shops and 19th century shop fronts encourage visitors to explore further afield. Bannockburn and Bendigo are scoured landscapes where the weapon was a massive water cannon.

Where is the best place to take kids or yourself to explore heritage gold mining sites in?

  • Shantytown on the West Coast with its recreated gold mine town main street, kids will love the stagecoach rides. Shantytown is a tourist attraction.
  • Arrowtown with its museum, restored Chinese mining settlement and proximity to the major tourist attractions of Queenstown.
Shantytown is a leading New Zealand Culture and Heritage Museum Attraction of the Early Gold Rush in Greymouth (Māori: Māwhera), the largest town in the West Coast Region of the South Island of New Zealand.

Collect your prospecting gold mining pan and try your luck in the Arrow River.

Sunderland street in Clyde, Central Otago, New Zealand
Clyde grew up on the settlement of Dunstan established during the 1860s gold rush in Central Otago
  • Naseby with its pretty 19thc main street buildings, the nearby Kyeburn Diggings and the chance to go curling
  • Clyde explore the historic buildings, precinct and two museums
  • Goldfields Mining Centre is located near Cromwell. A recreated village with the option of gold panning located in the Central Otago’s famed Kawarau Gorge

How many days are needed to explore Central Otago heritage sites?

To explore Central Otago heritage sites allow between 3 to 5 days.

… read more Central Otago inland road trip: Queenstown to Dunedin – Best Bits.

Uncover side roads where nineteenth century gold miners once trudged in hope of fortunes made. Discover the diverse landscape moves from alpine tussock, then folded burnt yellow hills to rolling lush pastures dotted with sheep. The journey starts wrapped around the base of the Southern Alps, the Strath Taieri glacial valley and then follows ancient paths on the Maniototo plains, finishing in the lush rolling pastoral hills surrounding Dunedin. Visitors depart from Queenstown with its bustle as a premier tourist destination with the journey quickly diving into the heart of heritage Otago.

Alexandra, New Zealand
View towards Lyell Range from Tombstone Rock, Old Ghost Road cycle trail, West Coast, New Zealand
Old Ghost Road cycle trail, West Coast

Where are the best places to go for ghost stories about  19th century gold mining in NZ?

Where to go gold panning in New Zealand?

  • Go prospecting for gold in Department of Conservation designated sites (see below) with the opportunity to go camping where thousands have set up tents in the 19thc dreaming of striking wealth.

Where to get a gold pan & shovel on the West Coast, South Island or Central Otago?

  • The nearby museum is the best place to start to look for your gold prospecting supplies in New Zealand.

How many days are needed to explore West Coast, South Island heritage sites?

Heritage, history, humongous scenery make for a lifetime of memories transversing the West Coast. Allow 2 – 4 days with the opportunity for detours to towns such as Kumara. What’s so great about Kumara, West Coast and a rock like no other. Londonderry Rock trail.

Is an easy track starting with lush, moss damp forest contrasting with large piles of tailing stones. The large mounds of stones are stark evidence of the destructive force and power of sluicing for gold. It is extraordinary to think the majority of stones were carefully stacked by hand. The weight of each stone is easily over 20 -35 kg.  As you round another tailing and approach a narrow stone tunnel you are struck with the size of the Londonderry Rock. The rock is 8 m in height and estimated to be 3,500 tonnes. The now exposed rock was originally buried.

Kumara iconic Theatre Royal now a hotel, West Coast, New Zealand
Kumara iconic Theatre Royal now a hotel, West Coast
@Runanga Miner’s Hall
@Runanga Miner’s Hall

The story of mining on the West Coast is tied to coal and gold. Extractive industry is a key driver in the West Coast economy. HIghway robbery, desperate mining strikes for better working conditions and abandoned mines will be part of the journey’s story. You will look for towns that have melted into the landscape with only an abandoned cemetery as evidence of their existence. This is combined with dramatic scenery, extraordinary folded pancake rocks, soaring cliffs wrapped in native bush and the sea ever presence on one side. There is something for everyone on this road trip.

… read more about Great Coast Road, West Coast road trip Westport to Greymouth – Best Bits

And the story continues Greymouth to Hokitika – Best Bits

DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION, NZ designated gold fossicking areas

Gold fossicking area Permit number Location Operator
Aorere River A (GFA 13) 42013 Nelson/Tasman – Kahurangi National Park NZPAM
Aorere River B (GFA 14) 42014 Nelson/Tasman – Kahurangi National Park NZPAM
New Creek (GFA 15) 42015 Nelson/Tasman – Glenhope Scenic Reserve NZPAM
Louis Creek (GFA 12) 42012 Nelson/Tasman – Glenhope Scenic Reserve NZPAM
Lower Louis Creek 55529 Nelson/Tasman – Glenhope Scenic Reserve Tasman District Council
Jones Creek (GFA 4) 42004 West Coast – Ross area NZPAM
Jones Creek (GFA 5) 42005 West Coast – Ross area NZPAM
Lyell Creek (GFA 6) 42006 West Coast – Lyell area NZPAM
Britannia Stream (GFA 7) 42007 West Coast – Denniston area NZPAM
Nelson Creek (GFA 10) 42010 West Coast – Greymouth area NZPAM
Waiho River (GFA 11) 42011 West Coast – Westland Tai Poutini National Park NZPAM
Slab Hut Creek (GFA 30) 42030 West Coast – Victoria Forest Park NZPAM
Moonlight Creek 42031 West Coast – Southern Paparoa range DOC
Shamrock Creek 53804 West Coast – Goldsborough (Waimea) – Kumara area NZPAM
Twelve Mile Creek (GFA 20) 42020 Otago – Queenstown area NZPAM
Five Mile Creek (GFA 21) 42021 Otago – Queenstown area NZPAM
Arrow River (GFA 22) 42022 Otago – Queenstown area NZPAM
Shotover River (GFA 23) 42023 Otago – Queenstown area NZPAM
Gabriels Gully (GFA 33) 42033 Otago – Gabriels Gully Historic Reserve NZPAM

* Permit data from the NZPAM website (external site)

Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust

The Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust aims to develop, represent and promote the historical sites, trails and events of Otago. Its membership comprises communities from within the Otago Goldfields Park, with ex-officio representation from the Department of Conservation.

The Otago Goldfields Heritage Trail is promoted to provide a year-round attraction for people to appreciate the golden heritage of the Otago region. The Trust erects signposting to inform travellers of the goldfields Heritage Trail and the interesting sites en route as well as interpretation signs and brochures for the Nevis Valley and Thomson Gorge Road.

Otago Goldfields Heritage Celebrations have been held annually since 1987.

For several years a horse-drawn gold coach travelled to all of the Otago communities whose heritage is built on gold, with the individual towns holding celebrations to bring the gold days back to life. In 1991 the celebrations format changed, when the Trust staged its first cavalcade of horses, riders and wagons crossing the old Dunstan Trail. More than 200 riders joined the cavalcade.

19th century abandoned miners stone cottage Otago Gold Fields
19th century abandoned miners stone cottage Otago Gold Fields

Now towns along the Heritage Trail take turns at hosting the annual celebrations. Cavalcades of people on foot, horseback or in horse-drawn wagons, weary from days travelling across the province via old miners trails, converge on the host town.

DONATIONS GRATEFULLY RECEIVED  – Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust.

Check out the meticulous detailed brochures published by the Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust in the TRAVEL PACK SECTION.

Kaimai Mamaku Lookout, an observation deck in State Hwy 29 in Waikato New Zealand
Kaimai Mamaku Lookout

Are there any heritage gold mining locations in the North Island?



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