Empty coal wagons and rails above Denniston incline which took coal down to coast © Jill Ferry Photography

The Denniston experience: a real ghost-town experience


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A lot of folk hit Westport and then head south, where the dramatic destinations await: glaciers, mountains, that service station near Haast with the muttonbird pies (OK, we made that last one up).

But don’t miss out, and turn the Trekka northwards. You’ll still be gasping at the true awesomeness of the West Coast when you hit the turn to Denniston. If you want a real ghost-town experience, this one’s for you.

Around 600m above sea level on the tiny Mount Rochfort Plateau sits a collection of buildings which once accommodated 1500-plus people in the late 1800s. Coal was gold, if you get us, and Denniston was Coal Central, the rich seam here providing, at one time, more coal than anywhere ekse in the country.

The big talk is the big hill: the Denniston Incline is legendary, a 45-degree slope up which, by methods ingenious and probably a little dangerous, empty wagons were hauled by the weight of the wagons coming down. Jeepers!

With a population today in single figures (truly!) it’s difficult to conjure up a conurbation that had sports clubs, churches and five lodges: Masonic, Druids, Oranges, Buffaloes and Oddfellows. You can bet they were! Up here, on this freezing, blustery bluff, hauling that black gold out of the earth, teetering on the permanent brink of extinction by falling wagon. Mad men and women.

They say West Coasters are built tough. Denniston now will give you a taste of what it was like back then. Which, like all good history, will help you appreciate the ‘now’ just that little bit more.

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