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Our visit to Ngahere was not looking promising since it had rained continuously throughout the previous night and the Grey River was in full flood. Full flood does not adequately describe the torrent that was flowing beneath the bridge which marked the location of the 1896 Brunner mine disaster where 65 miners had perished. Enormous tree trunks in the river were being flung this way and that by the tumult and anyone unlucky enough to be caught out by the flow that day would not have survived. Just before Ngahere traffic was turning back from a flooded section under a railway bridge but Sas just ploughed straight on through much to my discomfit. And on the Ngahere boundary the local volunteer fire brigade was on hand as the water flowed across the main road and through a house but there was little they could do other than direct the traffic. The house occupants seemed very philisophical about the situation and it was only later that I discovered that the house was the home of one of the men who had died in the recent Pike River mine disaster. Clearly a little water had no significance to a family that had already suffered too much.
I found out this information in the Ngahere tavern where I had, without success, gone to seek a coffee and settled for a beer. The pub was empty at that time of day and the landlord was somewhat reticent to discuss what Ngahere had to offer to a stranger. Perhaps he was tired of reporters from all corners of the world seeking their own award winning angle on the Pike River tragedy to file back to Tokyo or New York. And what else would a stranger be seeking in Ngahere on such an awful day? But only the day before Ngahere had made the news in the Greymouth Star. It seemed that some local youths had been running amok in little Ngahere and were making the life of many residents a misery. The general mayhem had continued over a six month period and culminated in the burning down of a bach on nearby Redjacks Road. The police had visited the township on a number of occasions but the locals had had enough and were going to sort the problem out in their own West Coast way and I'm sure that they will. Pity the hoons.
Just when I thought that Ngahere had little of interest to offer I discovered that on the far side of the Grey River sat the 'Kanieri', a 3,500 tonne gold dredger, the last one in New Zealand and one of few remaining gold dredgers in the world. The 'Kanieri' had had a long and distinguished career since the original dredger had been built in 1938 for the Kaniere Gold Dredging Company. By 1953 the dredger had recovered 175,000 oz of gold from the Hokitika area after which it had been moved to the Taramakau River north of Hokitika where it had extracted a further 202,000 oz by the time that it ceased operation in 1978. The 'Kanieri' was then laid up and a major refit was undertaken at a cost of NZ $30 million. Unfortunately after the refit the dredger did not work well and combined with unsatisfactory gold prices it meant that the Australian owners went out of business. In 1990 the 'Kanieri' was bought by a man named Allan Birchfield and after another refit it worked successfully for a further twelve years at Ngahere before once again being laid up in 2004. As gold prices rose above US$ 1,000 per oz level the viability of dredging for gold was once more positive and the 'Kanieri' was again put to work in 2009. The dredger currently provides employment for a staff of fifteen working two eight hour shifts and seven days a week. It is estimated the 'Kanieri' probably extracts between 5.000 oz and 7,000 oz per year which at a price of US$ 1,300 per oz equates to a potential gross income of US$ 6.5 million to US$ 9.1 million per annum. However gold dredging is put into perspective by the fact that 1,000 tons of gravel has to be processed to obtain a single ounce of gold. For how long the 'Kanieri' can keep operating depends on the price of gold and the high costs of maintaining the dredge. In the meantime little Ngahere is certainly on the map as a gold mining location of national and even international importance. And so once again a sleepy little random location has thrown up yet another unexpected surprise.
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