Print
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 3, April 1965

By Cecile Read.

On the ever-busy highway between Paeroa and Thames, two narrow and inconspicuous roads from the vicinity of Hikutaia lead into the heart of the Maratoto Valley. Few of the many hundreds of people who pass them are aware of the beauty of its upper reaches, winding deeply into the tumbled hills of the Coromandel Range, its fascinating pioneer history.

The name Maratoto -- the Rock of Blood, of Maori legend -- comes from the towering, fantastically shaped rocky pinnacle which rises from the valley floor. The summit is difficult to reach except from one point, a long slope to the south-west, and it was here that a band of Maori warriors, pursued and out-numbered by an enemy force, made a gallant last stand. Defeat was inevitable, and to avoid the final ignominy of capture and the dishonour of the conquered, the remainder of the band flung themselves from the crest of the rock.

When the first European settlers came to the Hauraki Plains there was a Maori pa on the banks of the stream which runs through the valley. Its name, Hikutaia, means "the end of the tide" which reaches this point via the Waihou River. Many of these first settlers were Irish, the descendants of whom are still prominent in the district and a small settlement sprang up round the Pioneer Hotel, which in the early days was an accommodation house for travellers by stage-coach. Much later it was the favourite rendezvous of gold-miners from Ohinemuri at that time a dry area and 200 or more would arrive by train -- all with a very long thirst and only an hour to quench it in before they had to catch the return train home.

Previous to the discovery of silver and gold in the Maratoto Valley it was already well-known for its extensive kauri forests; bushmen with their bullock teams were the first to open up tracks in the main valley and its tributaries. Gum-diggers followed them and the remains of a settlement can still be seen on a plateau above the valley. It was at this settlement that an enterprising butcher set up shop in what were probably the most unique premises in New Zealand's early history -- the hollow interior of an enormous kauri stump.

The first discovery of gold in the Maratoto was made by an Englishman called Carew while on a pig hunting expedition along the banks of a creek with his dog. During the chase he fell into the creek on top of the pig and it was when he was sorting himself out from the subsequent melee that he noticed a quartz reef which suggested gold on the opposite bank. Carew was a prudent man and evidently experienced in mining technique; he kept his discovery secret, processed the gold himself, carried it over the ranges and had it shipped direct to the Bank of England.

The next discovery was made in l873 along the banks of a stream which is still called McBrinn's Creek after the prospector who made a lucky strike there. During the rush which followed a number of somewhat patchy gold and silver lodes were discovered. Pack-horses and bullock teams conveyed cumbersome machinery, piece by piece, along the rough valley track to the site of the mining plant which was erected not far from the Maratoto Rock. The inevitable shanty town grew up round it, and. although only one or two of the rough miners' shacks have survived, a few lichened apple and plum trees still bear fruit and old-fashioned garden flowers struggle for life among an overwhelming tangle of honeysuckle and fern.

In these early days Maratoto had its share of odd identities. Undoubtedly the oddest among them was the strange character known as the Black Doctor. He was a South American, probably a mestizo and his swarthy skin gained him his nickname among the miners, allied to his self-claimed skill as a herbalist. He also claimed to be particularly lucky as a prospector and when in drink --- which was very often --- he would exclaim in Spanish: "I am the Golden Man!"

One evening, returning from a drunken spree in Thames via a pack-horse track over the ranges, he paid more attention to the bottle of rum he had with him than the track and lost his way in the gathering darkness. In a vain attempt to find it again he crawled down the side of a spur terminating in a gully, thickly bushed, and with a creek in the bottom. Here he reluctantly spent the night, and at daybreak the following morning decided to make his way upstream to the main range. Then, not many chains from his starting point, he came to a quartz reef crossing the stream at right angles and outcropping at intervals along its line. The reef was about five feet wide and on examining it he decided that it was gold-bearing. With some difficulty, having no tools with him, he managed to secure several samples of rich ore, tied them in his handkerchief and fastened the bundle to his belt.

When he eventually regained the pack-horse track he elected to have a rest and take another look at his samples, but the bundle had been torn from his belt during his struggles through the bush. He decided against going back for further samples, partly because the day was already far advanced and he had had nothing to eat since the previous morning, and partly because he was certain of his ability to re-locate his lucky strike.

The first person to whom he spoke of it was the well-known Maori prospector, Hone Werahiko, who was then fossicking in the Waitekauri area. Hone was apparently doubtful of his story from the first and became openly sceptical after a search of many weeks failed to re-discover the reef. "Porangi te taketa- the "Doctor is mad!" he said when questioned about it.

The Black Doctor, however, had no doubts about the existence of his find, and when last seen was setting out on another expedition to reach it, this time alone. Nothing more was heard of him and nobody seems to have worried overmuch about his disappearance. Sixteen years passed by before his memory was dramatically revived in the 90's [1890's - E] by the Lowrie brothers, who discovered the Golden Gross mine at Waitekauri. The main reef was rich in both gold and silver, particularly where it outcropped in crossing a stream at the bottom of thickly bushed gully, and in every detail corresponded with the Black Doctor's description of his find. The Golden Cross ultimately produced bullion to the value of £373,000.

Not long after its discovery the skeleton of a man was found in 1895 on a rocky ledge, only a few chains away, and was assumed to be that of the Black Doctor -- a macabre touch which makes the whole thing sound like a goldfields tale of the long bow. His story is authentic, however, and undoubtedly he was very near to becoming the Golden Man of his vain-glorious imagination.

A particularly interesting personality who links both past and present of the Maratoto field, is Harold Sparke, still living in one of the original miners' huts not far from the remains of the mining plant. Its interior is a perfect replica of the past, with a gold-washing pan leaning against the cupboard in which he keeps his stores and a camp oven beside the rough open fireplace. He has lived for nearly forty years in the Maratoto and is an experienced miner, processing the silver ore he takes from his claim near McBrinn's Creek himself.

Like most men who spend much of their time alone he is quietly-spoken and unloquacious and is particularly modest about the Order of Merit he received in 1954 for his share in the rescue of a schoolboy who had fallen into a disused mine shaft and which was only made possible by his intimate knowledge of the old mine workings.

Veterans of the goldfields like Mr Sparke are regrettably few now and many visitors to the valley enjoy the privilege of meeting him. And it is more than possible that in no other part of the world has a man had his rare experienceofliving through a gold-rush, the abandonment of the field and its later rebirth -- a rebirth which in the Maratoto Valley promises to bring a vigorous new mining community into being among the battered relics of the old one. This time silver may be a better prospect than gold.