Denniston Mine. © Claudia Babirat

Tohu Whenua: Denniston Mine


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Located just 30 minutes north of Westport, the Denniston Plateau is a place of unique geology, sweeping coastal views and incredible history to boot.

It’s an exhilarating feeling when you stand at the edge of Denniston’s best-known feature, the incredibly steep incline railway that was once the plateau’s only access. Described as the eighth industrial wonder of the world, this is where, for 87 years, wagons brimming with coal (and sometimes the odd sneaky passenger) hurtled 1670m down a near 45 degree slope. 

Denniston’s coal was of the finest quality and highly sought after, even the British fleets couldn’t get enough of the stuff. 

But it came with a price. The engaging on-site interpretation tells the stories of the plateau’s 1400 tough-as-nails residents, who had to endure some of the country’s most extreme living conditions.

Being located 518 metres above sea level meant that isolation, harsh weather and weeks of endless fog were the norm. 

The rocky plateau, though spectacular to look at, was no good for growing food, burying the dead or even digging a long drop. What’s more, work in the mines – where even young children were expected to do their part – was dark, dusty and dangerous. Despite all this, social life in Denniston thrived with brass bands, bowling greens, pubs and unionism.

These days several easy tracks weave their way past Denniston’s many relics. The popular 40-minute Brakehead loop takes in many of Denniston’s highlights, past viewpoints of the incline, coal wagons and the Banbury Arch, a stunning feat of Cornish stonemasonry. Further up the road check out the Friends of the Hill museum when it’s open, then make your way to Coalbrookdale where a one-hour return track follows part of an old cable-car rope past tunnels, mine entrances, a haulage winch and the country’s best remaining example of a mine fanhouse. Make sure you download the Denniston Rose app to get the most out of your visit. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, explore the plateau via a network of graded mountain bike circuits or the four-wheel-drive road that leads to the top of Mt Rochefort.

Denniston Mine is recognised as a Tohu Whenua, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s best heritage experiences. The site is proudly cared for by the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.

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