Information panel at historic Denniston
PHOTO: Baptiste Maryns ©

Introduction

Visit the dramatic location of the West Coast's leading coal mine. At Denniston Coalmining Historic Area, wonderful interpretation panels present historic stories and research about the area.

Highlights

  • Denniston offers magnificent views down to the coastal plains of the Karamea Bight and the mouth of the Waimangaroa River.
  • It was the main township of a collection of mining towns built to service the nearby coal mines. 
  • Although many of the industrial and domestic building have long gone, the remnants of the town and the mine remain as an evocative reminder of life on The Hill.

Video

Place overview

Activities

  • Four wheel driving
  • Mountain biking
  • Walking and tramping

Facilities

  • Information panels

Find things to do Denniston area

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About track difficulties
About track difficulties

Kiwi Guardians programme

Take your family on a Kiwi Guardians adventure. Kiwi Guardians is a free, fun and easy way for 6-10 year olds to get to know this special place - grab a map, go and explore, and earn a reward! More about Kiwi Guardians

Four wheel driving

The plateau is a fragile environment, plant life and animal habitat is easily destroyed. Keep to vehicle tracks and abide by the off-road care code.

A loop track provides a challenging 11 km journey across a spectacular sub-alpine plateau environment and offers dramatic views of mountain and coastal landscapes. Drive through Denniston township and turn right into Mt Rochfort Road. About 1.5 km along, a signpost on the right indicates the access road leading to the Denniston 4WD loop track.

For the more experienced head towards Burnetts Face and then follow the transmission pylon road from Denniston through to the Iron Bridge, north of Inangahua. The road winds its way through steep terrain with a couple of river crossings. After heavy rain the Mackley River in particular can be impassable. Just before the Iron Bridge exit the road passes through private land. Contact the New Creek Farm owners by phone or text on +64 21 900 089 before your trip.

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    About this place

    History and culture

    In its time Denniston was one of the most isolated and difficult mining towns to live in the country. The current road was not built until 1902, with the first access being either up a steep pack track or in a coal wagon up the Incline.

    The fact that former inhabitants remember it fondly, and that people still choose to live there, speaks volumes for its past social values and enduring mystique.

    Premium coal mined from a lonely landscape in the clouds

    For many decades Denniston was New Zealand's largest producing coal mine, yielding a premium quality coal from underground mines. The coal was loaded into railway wagons and lowered by cable down an extremely steep incline railway: a remarkable feat of engineering.

    The miners and their families endured a life 'living on the edge', exposed to the elements on a barren windswept plateau. The isolation and difficult living conditions forged a close-knit community.

    As the demand for coal declined the operation at Denniston was gradually reduced. In 1967 the railway closed and production declined. In 1995 Coalcorp (now Solid Energy) ceased mining at Denniston. Private coal mining continues on the plateau.

    Today Denniston's significance is reflected by its status as a Category 1 Historic Place.

    Conservation work at Denniston

    DOC recognises the importance of Denniston, highlighting it as one of the important historic places it looks after on the West Coast. The New Zealand Historic Places Trust also recognises the significance of the place having registered a Denniston Historic Area, the Incline and Banbury arch as places of national significance.

    These relics are under constant threat from natural decay, the reclamation of the site by vegetation and the impact of negligent visitors. DOC and local interest group, Friends of the Hill work closely together to lessen the impacts of these threats ensure the history of Denniston is preserved for all to appreciate.

    Friends of the Hill run an excellent museum with photos, static displays and other information in the old School manual training building at Denniston. Read more about Friends of the Hill.

    Denniston interpretation panels

    Excellent interpretation panels are a wonderful feature at the Denniston Coalmining Historic Area, where you can read stories and research about the area. This information is also available as an ebook – see A journey through Denniston.

    Denniston Heritage Charitable Trust

    The Denniston Heritage Charitable Trust was set up to support the conservation and enhancement of Denniston. Its members represent DOC, Friends of the Hill, Solid Energy, Buller District Council and Development West Coast.

    The Trust is developing an underground mine experience. When complete visitors will be offered an insight into the daily life of miners as they take a train ride through the original 1880s mine.

    Denniston today

    Once home to over 1500 people, today Denniston is a ghost town.

    The rocky plateau offers magnificent views of coastal plains and ocean. Even when shrouded in mist the dramatic landscape is still breathtaking.

    A visit allows you to appreciate the tough working and living conditions endured by miners and their familes in this desolate 19th century industrial environment.

    There are a number of relics and great heritage sites to explore, particularly the railway incline and the township.

    You can walk up the same tracks that residents used rather than risking their lives riding on the incline wagons. The Coalbrookedale walk which passes the country's best remaining example of a mine fanhouse is a highlight.

    Videos about Denniston

    Cable railway in action

    This short clip on the Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ website shows the Denniston incline cable railway in action. It was filmed in 1967, just before it closed.

    Coal from Westland

    This classic wartime newsreel profiles the coal mining towns of Westland.

    Further information

    DOC publications:

    There are a range of publications that provide a wealth of extra information about Denniston:

    • Munro, WA. (1951) The Denniston Affair (published by the author).
    • Prebble, Bill. (2008) Denniston's Incline: coal from the clouds (New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society).
    • Richardson, Len. (1995) Coal, Class & Community: the united mineworkers union of New Zealand,1880-1960 (Auckland University Press).
    • Wright, L. (1998) Denniston, Then and Now (Friends of the Hill).

    There are several fictional accounts of Denniston which are very evocative of 'life on the hill':

    • Pattrick, Jenny. (2003) The Denniston Rose (Black Swan).
    • Price, Felicity. (2001) Dancing in the Wilderness (Hazard Press).

    For more information about the Denniston incline, visit IPENZ Engineers New Zealand.

    Museums in the area

    Coaltown Museum in Westport, also has some good displays including a replica section of incline complete with a coal wagon.

    Friends of the Hill run an excellent museum with photos, static displays and other information in the old School building at Denniston.

    Getting there

    Denniston is 18 km northeast of Westport. From Westport, follow SH67 north for 15 km. Turn right at Waimangaroa onto the road to Denniston. 

    Know before you go

    Weather on the Denniston Plateau can change unexpectedly. Make sure you take appropriate warm clothing, a waterproof jacket, food and water when embarking on walks in the area.

    Contacts

    Paparoa National Park Visitor Centre
    Phone:   +64 3 731 1895
    Email:   paparoavc@doc.govt.nz
    Address:   4294 Coast Road
    Punakaiki
    RD 1
    Runanga 7873
    Full office details
    Kawatiri / Westport Office
    Phone:   +64 3 788 8008
    Email:   paparoavc@doc.govt.nz
    Address:   Russell Street
    Westport 7825
    Full office details
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