Thieves in gold-mining era campsites

By Grant Jacobs 13/01/2013 9

Camping in New Zealand, small items left lying around are at risk from thieves.

I was reminded of this whilst sitting on the foundation stones of what was once an old gold miner’s hut, the iron remains of the roof and perhaps chimney at my feet, reading a novel with my tent pitched on the other side of the clearing where the thief stalked.

Stamping battery

How many from outside Australasia see New Zealand as a place where men—and it was mostly men—boarded sailing ships to come and explore the rugged interior with dreams of riches?

The 1860s gold rush boosted the colonisation of New Zealand. Who could resist the description of Gabriel Read in May 1861, reporting his discovery of gold in Lawrence near Dunedin where I live:

At a place where a kind of road crossed on a shallow bar I shovelled away about two and a half feet of gravel, arrived at a beautiful soft slate and saw the gold shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night

(The public heard of his prospecting a few weeks later via an account in the Otago Witness in June.)

While the rush started near the Southern coast, it spread to many areas. Central Otago is, perhaps, the better known of these, but remains of this era can still be found in many other areas of New Zealand.

Some of these reminders of early New Zealand can be found in the hills. A few tracks, now used as easier tramping routes are distinctly cut as former narrow wagon trails on step hillsides. In a few clearings in odd corners of the country are the remains of where some hardly soul lived alone, eking out a life digging or panning the precious metal.

I suspect many would not recognise these sites as a gold digging era homes as they are now a simple clearing with clumsy hints of once being a more-or-less ‘permanent’ home.

The campsite: iron from the former hut in the foreground, my tent across the clearing.

Some of these camping grounds are now, and probably were then, home to endogenous thieves.

As I sat on the foundation of the miners hut, my back against a tree, I became aware that one such cheeky thief was prowling my tent on the other side of the little clearing.

The thief

Weka* is the local name for woodhen. They were fairly common around some campsites when I was younger and can be incredibly cheeky little buggers.

I wandered over to my tent and sat down.

The weka continued to strut about, quite happy to walk within a couple of metres of me.

Close up (taken at 35mm equivalent of 114mm focal length, from about 2m distance).

Those not familiar with wekas might think that they would only steal food, but stories say that weka will steal seemingly anything portable that attracts their attention. Of the non-edible objects, lore has it that a bit like the gold miners they prefer shiny things.

Probing under the outer fly of the tent for items to steal…

They are also reported to have surprising homing instincts, with weka having been reported to travel hundreds of kilometres to return to the their grounds.** That’s a long hike for short legs.


* There a many other sites with details on weka, such as the Department of Conservation, which also offers advice of what to do if they do try steal something…

** I have been unable to location formal publications of this in the limited time available.

All photographs taken using a Fujifilm X10. With the exception of the last they are unaltered from the original image. (Other than to reduce the resolution; the last image has been slightly cropped.) All images are copyright of the author; please ask if you wish to use them.

Other articles in Code for life:

Scientists’ other lives

Mad on Radium

Doggie ERVs

Haemophilia – towards a cure using genetic engineering

New academic visas for New Zealand

9 Responses to “Thieves in gold-mining era campsites”

  • Cheeky little buggers indeed. When living in Gisborne they would sneak into the house and one, I recall, tried to make off with a teaspoon. Sadly, these sharp-eyed thieves are all gone now, although I still look for them. Very cool pics.

    [Edited to correct URL on user’s name.]

  • For a minute there I thought you were being stalked by keas :) Then I realised it probably wasn’t their territory. Lovely close-up of the weka, Grant!

  • Somewhere around Deep Cove lie the remains of one of these inquisitive fowls with the metallic fishing lures he swallowed as distracted I refilled and ignited my pipe while contemplating the beauty of my surroundings and thinking of my beloved back in Dunedin. I had no choice but to cut the line and hope his digestive apparatus matched his personality.

  • Annette – looking at your avatar, do you have Pukeko nearby?

    Alison – thanks. You’re right that might have meant kea. like many Kiwis I can tell a few stories about those guys, too, especially from tramping in the Arthur’s Pass region as a kid. Once tramping up Avalanche Peak, a kea joined us on a shoulder above the bush line. We continued in single file up the ridge to the summit, with the mad parrot waddling behind us as a fifth member of our party all the way to summit. Crazy bird.

    Stuart – there is being too eager for ones own good… Guess didn’t know that the weka thing to do is carry his spoils off to a nearby patch of bush and prod it until he’d figured out it was edible or not.

  • Fabulous. :)

    Over this side of the Pacific, the equivalent would probably be a Raccoon. Pesky things, happy to raid anything edible, completely omnivorous and very clever at unlatching and opening things with their hands. Grrr.

    • I imagine raccoons are a whole lot more trouble! Weka are at least limited to what they can grab with beaks. (Weka will knick things that aren’t edible, though; you’d wish they limited themselves to morsels of food.)

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