Gillespies & Galway Beach
Gold was discovered at Gillespie’s Beach in 1865, and the mining madness began. There are a number of short walks that will take you to mining relics and a miner’s cemetery at Gillespie’s Beach. If you have more time you can investigate a miner’s tunnel. This gave access to the beach and walk out to the seal colony at Galway Beach.
At the Fox Glacier Village, turn off the Main Road State Highway 6 and drive down Cook Flat Road. This junction is next to the old Fox Glacier Hotel, and there are signposts for Lake Matheson and Gillespie’s Beach. Please adhere to the speed limit and remember that you will pass the local school. Drive past the turn off for Lake Matheson and continue on till the road becomes unsealed.
Just before the Clearwater Creek bridge (omit) the Peak View lookout and picnic spot. There is a plane table that directs your line of sight and on a clear day you can pick out each peak on the Southern Alps including Mt Cook/Aoraki and Mt Tasman.
From here the road narrows as it ascends the forest-clad moraine. Take heed of the sign with the pictorial representations of the hazards on a narrow windy road. You need to be aware of campervans and wild sheep hidden around blind corners.
Once you reach the Gillespie’s settlement take the first right. Follow the road that leads to the Department of Conservation campsite and car park towards the Northern end of the beach.
The remains of this expensive blunder, the Von Schmidt suction dredge including the boilers and pontoons can be seen on a ten minute short walk from the northern Department of Conservation car park and campground.
In 1891, a gold dredging company spent £5,000 shipping a Von Schmidt suction dredge to this remote beach. This dredge that promised gold and wealth for the West Coast was officially “myth busted” when the suction pump was unable to cope with stones and timber buried in the black sand. It never worked again and eventually was sold at auction for £100.
A more successful bucket dredge operated between 1932 and 1945. It is now quietly rusting in the swampland on the Gillespie’s Lagoon Walk which leads to the Northern end of Gillespie’s Beach. The bucket dredge is a thirty minute walk from the car park. The track runs across dredge tailings parallel to the beach. You can head up the track and walk back down the beach on your return.
Gillespie’s Lagoon is at the mouth of the Clearwater Creek and is sometimes landlocked. It is an ideal spot to have a soak in the sun warmed water. From the bridges over the creek you can gain one of the most spectacular views of Southern Alps Kä Tiritiri o Te Moana, and the skyline is dominated by the cloud piercing Mt Cook Aoraki.
From the car park this walk will take you an hour and a half return. Walk past the bucket dredge and continue over the bridge. From the Gillespie’s Lagoon and follow the old pack track up the hill to the Miner’s Tunnel.
The tunnel is roughly thirty metres long and was blasted through the sea cliffs to allow for all-weather access to the gold operations. The miner’s main route of travel from Hokitika was to disembark a steamer at Okarito and head along the coast line. Their journey along the coast could take up to three days as they travelled past the 3 Mile and 5 Mile gold sites and cross the Waiho, Omoeroa and Waikukpa Rivers.
Today the viewpoint high up the cliff at the end of the tunnel gives you a spectacular view of the Tasman Sea and dramatic coastal cliffs leading to Galway Beach
Galway Beach was named by Irish gold miners in honour of the rugged sea cliffs that reminded them of their own Emerald Isles. This track to the beach will take you about two hours from the car park. It will give you a real sense of what it was like to be a miner walking on a pack track through untouched rimu rainforest. Even in dry weather there are some swampy bits and a Creek to cross. Warm socks and sturdy footwear are recommended. Follow the track from the northern Department of Conservation car park past the bucket dredge, the Gillespie’s Lagoon and Miner’s tunnel.
Beyond the Miner’s tunnel you can witness the craftsmanship of the early track surveyors as you ascend the coastal cliffs and follow the ridge, before then descending to Galway Beach. You follow a direct route through the dense coastal forest with no zig zags and few steps to alter your course.
As you descend to the beach you will find a steep ladder like staircase, and a short patch of boulder hopping down a creek before reaching the beach. Head south towards the rocky point to the south and watch your footing, what looks like a piece of drift wood could be a New Zealand fur seal arctocephalus forsteri!
Fur seals like to breed on steep boulder beaches further north where the rocky crevices and tidal pools are ideal for young pups to play in and cool off. Gallway beach is a haul out point for the seals during their winter migration back to the Southern Oceans.
The seals were a vital food source for the Mori people hunted seals for their meat and fur. They were also a valuable commodity in the early colonial economy and hunting began as early as 1792. The seals were hunted to near extinction in the 19th Century and all seal species were protected at the start of the Twentieth Century. Luckily with the development of modern materials and waterproofing processes it is unlikely that they will become a viable economic commodity ever again.
These amazing creatures like any wild animal with sharp teeth can be merciless when cornered. Be advised not to come between the seals and their escape route to the sea. Return via the path that you came as there is no access via the beach
As you leave Gillespie’s Beach settlement, look for the car park and signs for the newly restored Miners Cemetery. The cemetery is only a five-minute walk from the road and the gravestones offer an intriguing snap shot of mining life.
Over 17 people were buried here between 1867 and 1896, and it was the only cemetery between Okarito and Okuru. Today, ten marked graves have been restored and the small cemetery with its grave secrets is the best preserved in the region.
Amongst the headstones you will find the story of a 17-year-old that drowned in the Cook River in 1890 and a beloved wife from an Irish miner’s camp.
For more information see the DOC website www.doc.govt.nz.
James Edwin Gillespie was the first to find “colour” in 1865 and gained naming rights to the stretch of coastline. Like Okarito, Gillespie’s Beach was a boom and bust gold rush town of the 1860’s and was once home to several hundred people.
The miners were drawn to the black sand where the easily won alluvial gold from the rivers could be sluiced with gold pans and cradles. The “easy” gold was soon exhausted and the dredges were brought in so the area could be systematically prospected.
At the height of the madness 700 miners had their calico shanties and bedrolls laid out at Gillespie’s Beach. There were three hotels, two bakeries and two butcher’s shops. The settlement was on the verge of “weatherboard development” and even boasted its own pub, schoolhouse, chapel and general store. When the coast was “worked out,” and the gold mining activity rapidly declined so did the township.
The explorer/surveyors A. P. Harper and Charlie Douglas passed through the area in 1894. In his book, Pioneer Work in the Alps of New Zealand (1896) A.P. noted that the view from the beach you could enjoy the best coastal view in Westland, however, townships inhabitants were not on speaking terms with “outsiders” and that it was the most “godforsaken place imaginable.”
By the 1920’s Gillespie’s was little more than a ghost town. Most families had moved further inland to the WehekaSettlement which became today’s Fox Glacier Village. In 1931, Ted and Billy Bagley were the official prospectors at Gillespie’s until there was a brief resurgence of mining in the area during the depression and World War II. The bucket dredge operated from 1933 till 1946.
There is still enough gold for beach combing. Heavy rain flushes the mountain ranges and if you walk down the beach you may meet one of the resident black sand miners. Be careful taking your own pan, the miners carefully guard their Crown mining permit which allows them to stake their claim.
Bookings & Enquiries
For more info on the fantastic day walks around Fox Glacier pop in to the Fox Glacier D.o.C centre on the main highway. www.doc.govt.nz