Historic gold mining machinery restored after decades of volunteer work
The Goldmine-Experience site just north of Thames is buzzing with workers and tourists, despite freezing rain on a mid-winter's day.
Visitors wait patiently for someone to down tools to take them on a tour through the mines, while at least a dozen Hauraki Prospectors Association (HPA) volunteers put the finishing touches on historic gold-processing machinery.
The machinery, carefully restored over more than 50 years of voluntary work, is about to become fully operational. The site is one of Thames' most popular tourist attractions, with up to 16,000 visitors annually.
On August 6 Thames-Coromandel District Mayor Sandra Goudie, together with veteran HPA volunteer Lawrie Cobb, will officially start a refurbished stamper battery and other 19th Century plant.
Thames Community Board Chairperson Diane Connors will unveil an honour's board of firms and organisations that have given money, time and other resources in the half-century of local effort and the site will open free to the public that afternoon.
The opening ceremony is part of a 12-month-long, 150th anniversary commemoration of the Thames goldfields discovery that includes Ngati Maru, the Council, Thames Community Board, heritage groups and businesses, starting on August 1.
Last year, Thames Community Board granted $22,000 towards the battery project, but most funding has come from HPA tourism income, with materials and time donated by a raft of businesses and tradespeople.
While Goldmine-Experience has run various machines over the decades, August 6 will mark the first operation of a complete 19th Century processing plant in modern times; a project that is unique in New Zealand.
Five stamps will run on August 6, with another five to be installed later.
Association President Carl Jensen said August 6 was the culmination of "an amazing story".
"It started in the 1960s when parts were recovered from high in the Coromandel Ranges at Neavesville where heavy stamps, stamper or mortar boxes, line shafts and berdans were disassembled, winched and carried by teams of volunteers to the top of the 'Neavesville Stairway'," he said.
"The team was visited by Auckland news media, including writer Barry Crump, with a television documentary in 1967."
Over the past 30 years, the Goldmine-Experience site has grown from one building to seven, with nearly all work still done by volunteers. Recently they have focussed not only on the battery but also on ancillary machinery such as a crusher, two Wilfley tables, a ball mill and berdan. The next project, a working steam engine, is due for completion this year.
HPA spokesman Paul Bensemann said a dedicated core group of about 15 volunteers had been working hard on the restoration project. Many of the historic pieces had been donated or retrieved from around the Coromandel Peninsula.
"This is a combination of old bits and pieces that have been lying around in the bush around the Coromandel and new materials," he said.
The 70-member group has a 40-year gold mining licence and Bensemann says though the mining done on site is "insignificant", a lucky strike is never far from members' minds.
"A lot of our members are prospectors, so it's partly to demonstrate the stamper battery and partly to keep the interests of members up because we believe there is still bonanza reefs in this hill," he said.
"I call it the dream, with a capital D. We'd have to be lucky to find it - obviously we're not open casting the hill, we're using pick and shovel, but it's always possible."