Want to understand people better? Visit the places that matter to them. Rebecca O’Brien faces the realities of West Coast life at Brunner Mine…
When I was on the West Coast recently, I paid a visit to Brunner Mine Site. I went to the abandoned coal mine to explore how DOC can help people understand New Zealand’s heritage places better.
I visited one morning when the brooding weather was taking a break. The site is about 12 minutes north of Greymouth, where I had stocked up with a pink lamington from the local bakery. The road to it winds along a deep gorge carved out by Grey River – named by explorer Thomas Brunner, whose own name is tied to the industrial site I was going to see.
From the carpark, I looked out across the river at the dark seam in the opposite cliff: it was the reason for the mine – and the memorials – it was coal.
Brunner today is spread across two riverbanks and joined by a magnificent bridge. I started my journey in an entrance shelter which looks out across the site. This peaceful place once provided half New Zealand’s coal – and the size of the site reflects this.
There is a lot to explore here – discoveries at every twist of the path: a sulphurous smell lurks near an entrance to the old underground mine; satisfying shaped beehive ovens that once turned coal into coke wait to be discovered; oddly-shaped brick-making building remains and machinery fire the imagination. And, of course – there are the memorials.
Brunner Mine Site is the place where 65 men died one fine March morning – killed when New Zealand’s largest coal mine exploded around them. It happened over a century ago in 1896. It remains New Zealand’s worst industrial disaster – but it was not a one-off. Memorial after memorial to West Coast mining disasters cluster on this site. It is just down the road from the site of the Pike River disaster – the names of those 29 men sit alongside the 65 lost at Brunner Mine. Name after name on the memorials makes it clear that danger and death shape life for the people here.
I had gone to Brunner to find out how to help people understand heritage places better. Yet Brunner was a reminder that heritage places matter because they help us understand people better. Brunner opened my eyes to West Coast endurance. People here have borne the dangers of work that gave the rest of us fuel, power – and attempt after attempt to keep us all safer at work.
To truly understand the West Coast and the people who live here, I think perhaps you have to come to sites like Brunner Mine. And that is why it matters to me that places like Brunner Mine exist. We all need places where we can get to grips with true West Coast grit.
Want more information? Learn more about the Brunner Mine Area.