Blackball: cradle of NZ’s labour movement

It was the West Coast’s industrial history, the social and economic role it played in shaping modern New Zealand, that drew us to Greymouth. In particular, we were keen to visit Blackball, a mining village that was the stage for a strike that changed industrial relations, national politics and working rights forever.

We had expected to get a taxi there, it being about 25 minutes from Greymouth, but the cost was enormous. Fortunately, we found John Kennedy’s Sidetrack Tours and he was wiling to squeeze us in a late afternoon whizz around the Greymouth area.

After a trip out to the mouth of the Grey River, the enormous piles of driftwood on the shore evidence of its treacherous nature, we headed inland to Blackball.

First, a little bit of history. In 1908, miners demanded longer than 15 minutes ‘cribtime’ (meal break). This very reasonable demand led to a standoff with management and, eventually, a strike. When its legality was challenged in the arbitration court, the judge commented that 15 minutes was plenty of time for lunch and then promptly ordered a two and a half hour break for his own!

The strikers lost the case and were charged costs, to pay for which their possessions were seized for auction. However, the community rallied round to ensure that no one bid for a single item and the entire lot was purchased back for a song.

After a ten-week strike, management eventually caved in and gave the workers what they asked for. In the scheme of things it was a relatively small concession but a great boost for organised labour and the fight for better conditions and rights.

When we arrived in Blackball, we were lucky enough to be met by Paul Maunder at the Museum of Working Class History. Not only is he a force of local community activism but his plays and films have played an important role in New Zealand’s culture.


He talked to us about Blackball’s history, New Zealand’s political journey and where next for socialist values in an increasingly global neoliberal world. It was fascinating and we are very grateful to him for spending time with us.
We should make it clear that the role of mining and labour relations in the area is far from being ancient history. There are still active mines operating here and danger is still very present. On 19 November 2010, a methane explosion trapped 29 miners and contractors 5,000ft into the Pike River Mine. Despite the efforts of rescue workers and locals, none of the 29 was ever brought out and another explosion rocked the mine five days later.

The walls of the local pub in Blackball, called Formerly the Blackball Hilton (following a legal challenge by the multinational hotel chain), are covered with the history of the area, from the original 1908 strike banner to recent media clippings. Most touching is the flag of the Queensland Mines Rescue Service, who clearly spent time at the Hilton while involved in the Pike River rescue attempt and appreciated the sense of community the pub and people of Blackball offered.

The 29 who were lost are commemorated at the Museum. Each ceramic name plaque was made by a family member during a one-day, shared event that must have been just as important a part of the memorial as the final wheel that stands  in the garden.



We took our leave of Blackball and headed to the Brunner Mine Site. This was where the coal seam was first spotted by Thomas Brunner during his search for more farmland in the 1840s. The Brunner Mine was dug on one side of the Grey River and (to Allan’s delight) the Tyneside Mine on the other. Here we also read about the Wallsend pub. Another mining disaster here in 1896 took 65 lives, which are memorialised at the site and in Greymouth itself.

Although the mining industry clearly dominates the local story around Greymouth, it is not the only note in its song. Paul Maunder is working on another play that will look at forestry through a punk rock lens (lucky Greymouth residents should have the chance to see it in mid-2017). The award-winning Blackball Salami Company is famed for its cured meats and even supplies Antarctic bases. A new walk is opening up through these mountains, which will go straight through the village and should bring more people up there.

We’ll remember Blackball for a long time.


Greymouth – the wild (but quiet) west

Greymouth is the biggest town on the west coast of the South Island, an old mining town and has a feeling of being in the wild west in late 1800s. But, even more than usual for New Zealand, it is remarkably quiet. Only 9000 people live here so is barely the size of the village Allan grew up in, but in true NZ style, Greymouth stretches out for around 2km from one end to the other.

It’s a friendly place with good coffee and Allan’s first prawn curry of the holiday, so all is very good with life here. We’re very glad we are staying a couple of nights here and recommend anyone coming to NZ not to zip past Greymouth onto the adventure playgrounds further south. There’s gold, significant history and Geordie connections in them goddam hills… More on all that tomorrow.

Morning rush hour

Evening rush hour

Late evening


It’s all gone Tolkein!

Time to head over to West Coast from Christchurch. Gold country! Also coal, iron, silver or any other mineral you’d want to extract. We originally anticipated a leisurely train journey through the mountains, but forest fires have put pay to the line for at least a few months, so it’s back on board the trusty Intercity bus.

Having avoided the half-day bus tours to stand outside a Hobbit-hole door for 30 seconds in Rotorua, we finally see what all the fuss is about. The Canterbury Plains are hardly Rohan, any vaguely level bit of land is given over to farming, but suddenly the foothills of the Southern Alps rear up out of nowhere and…it all goes a bit Tolkein.

Snowy Misty Mountains, glimpses of Mirkwood through the forest’s edge, silver trees of Gondor (OK, they were dead pines being killed before uprooting, allow us some imaginative licence!) We crossed a wide, shallow river and half expected to see a wall of water racing towards us topped with mystical horses.

Then, turning a bend into a high meadow, we found ourselves at rainbow’s end (more Blyton than Tolkein now). It looked like the bow grounded itself about fifty metres ahead of us. An optical illusion, we know, but be quiet and feel the magic! Another turn and the entire side of the mountain was washed with rainbow colours. Bizarrely, it looked like the mountain itself had simply put a gay pride filter on its Twitter-pic.

Once through Arthur’s Pass, and dropping down to the West Coast, the vegetation became lusher, the rivers wider and faster flowing, the gullies deeper and the cliffs more towering. It looked like somewhere Slartibartfast had been busy.

Finally, we arrived in Greymouth, where it all starts to go bit Spaghetti Western. But that’s another post…


Goodbye to the North Island

We’ll miss Napier. We had a perfect host in Marty who was friendly, helpful in suggesting what to see and who even picked us up from the bus station and dropped off at the airport. The view of the entire Hawke’s Bay from the apartment was great, the hill to get back home was a challenge, but overall Napier was a very pleasant and chilled out place.

Our last couple of days was reasonably active.

We went down the other side of the hill to the suburb of Ahuiri to have a walking tour of the marine based murals by a member of the education team from the National aquarium and an artist. There were around 10 murals and all about conservation of the seas – a common theme we’ve encountered throughout New Zealand. We were suitably educated of how intelligent sting rays are and wowed by the scale of the murals. The businesses of Napier and will be queueing up to have their wall space painted for next year.

Next day we went to the Napier museum. 3 floors of fascinating exhibits including 1 floor entirely about the 1931 earthquake including film footage and interviews with survivors. Read more here but Napier looked like it had been carpet bombed – absolute devastation. We intended to stay an hour, but stayed over two.

More frivolously, we finished with the HardCow mini-golf competition (thanks for the suggestion Gen. Cass). It was a close competition, ebbing and flowing with Chloe winning the first 9, but Allan just winning by only 2 shots thanks to a flukey/skillful (delete as applicable) hole in one on the 11th.

All was left was our goodbyes to Marty and the North Island via a 1.5 hour bumpy plane ride to Christchurch.

Brothers make a planet Earth sandwich

Two brothers. One in central Spain. One in the north island of New Zealand. According to to the excellent map tunnelling tool, we are exactly the other side of planet Earth.

There’s only one thing to do. Create a massive sandwich – with the whole world as a filling. And make sure we do it at exactly the same time.

And here it is, I give you the Planet Earth sandwich:

In Spain










In New Zealand










Thanks Bro for making this happen! Sending all our love to Madrid through the centre of the Earth.


Napier – the land of plenty

Bluff Hill lookout

Bluff Hill lookout

Despite our lack of car, we did make it on foot up Bluff Hill to the lookout. To be fair, we are staying half way up the hill and it was only half an hour down then up again, so it wasn’t too much of a huge trek. In fact, the route took us through a peaceful gully, which used to be a local picnic spot leading to the beach until the earthquake – now it’s some way above sea level. We were treated to a good view of one side of Hawke Bay, including the working port. Looking down on tiny lego trucks and cranes loading and unloading containers from the ships, it took an effort to adjust our perspective and see just how huge the loads being moved around so effortlessly were.
Next day was a half-day organised tour. It ended up being just us two and a friendly driver/guide, so we could go exactly where he recommended and where we wanted. We asked for a broad overview of the area. He told us that it is regarded as New Zealand’s ‘fruit bowl’ and, as we drove, we soon saw why. We passed apple orchards and onion fields, as well as leeks and cabbage. We stopped at fig, honey and olive farms (where we were obliged to buy five different types of fig and a nut/olive paste that will be delicious with meat and fruit), and wandered through a great sculpture park (selling home-made ice cream).

Te Mata peak

Later, we drove to the top of Te Mata peak where we could look over the entire Heretaunga plain below us – stunning. The foothills’ crinkled and corrugated shapes were a clear reminder of the volcanic origins of this entire country. Finally, a trip to the Askerne vineyard, where we sampled some great white and rose wines. In fact, we are enjoying their Viognier right now.

Friday was more leisurely. A stroll into town for Saturday Morning Pictures and ‘Logan’, pretty violent for eleven in the morning, but it turns out the last Wolverine film is actually very good, and a bargain at $10.

Evening brought yet another stunning sunset.



Art Deco, yes, double deckers, no

We always planned to stop somewhere a couple of weeks into our trip. Time for Chloe to realise she’s not working any more. Time for Allan to catch up with NUFC’s triumphs and tribulations. So we chose Napier. Wine country, by the sea, the Art Deco capital of the world. What’s not to like?

Our budget gets us a lovely little compact apartment but it’s a long way up the hill on the edge of town. The 20 minute walk down to the seafront is easy. The walk back up a 1:3 hill? Ask us when we’ve actually done it – we got a taxi home from the supermarket this afternoon.

This makes it feel a bit isolated without access to a car (public transport in Napier seems to be non-existent) but the pay off is a magnificent view across Hawke’s Bay. Napier sits at the bottom of a bowl of hills and we are looking straight across it at the peaks twenty miles away, with the ocean sweeping off to our left.

It’s even better at night. The sky is so huge that even a relatively poor pass of the International Space Station (25 degree elevation, E to SE, cloudy sky) results in the point of light trailing a long arc from horizon to horizon, which would have been swallowed by the London rooftops within a few seconds.

During our first amble into Napier itself, we are struck (as we have been in every New Zealand town so far) with the sheer amount of space. Wide roads, few people, everything str-e-e-e-tches. Nearly everyone uses cars, but there must be those who don’t drive for reasons like age, poverty or disability. How do they manage without buses?

Napier is full of Art Deco era architecture for the simple reason that the town was virtually destroyed by a major earthquake in 1931. After the land heaved itself two metres out of the sea, fire raced through the largely wooden town destroying everything in its path. With water pipes fractured, the fire brigade were unable to do very much about it. The fire chief decided to use the one water container at the station to save the little wooden Methodist church just round the corner, of which he was a pastor (ahem). Whatever his motivation, it’s still there to this day, one of the few original buildings left.

More buildings survived on Bluff Hill, where we are staying, because this gigantic slab of limestone withstands quakes better than the shingle and sand down below. Given that Napier suffered some minor damage during last year’s Kaikoura quake, some 500 miles south, we’re fairly reassured by that.

So after a very easy start, tomorrow we head upwards to Bluff Hill lookout. Everyone on Trip Advisor says you should do it by car. We say, ‘Ha. Cars are for people with enough foresight to learn how to drive. Squares!’