The Great Buller Coal Plateaux (2001)




A Sequence Of Poems By Leicester Kyle



For My Father

(from the Blackburn Track)

Sitting by the mica reef I
wonder at this un-named land

It has no particular mountain or ridge
or directional river

This spread of knoll
and silica maquis
sandstone greensandstone quartz
and old sea gravels

A place for an eremite
I thought
remembering you
who used to measure every cave
for size

And looked for watercress in the creeks
in case

You would fit here
in silent contemplation of the silence

Where light lies
in glittering flakes

You might still the inimical
by your mystic presence

And name everything
but your fears


They took the top off Mt. Frederick for reasons they might not
Not just for coal which there’s so much of
The seam is thick for a wide extent
And it might well be that the reasons for decapitation are as
profound as the coal
Such as the cliffs at the west of the hill
For precipices are a downside to a prospector’s on-view
And might remind the managers of limits to a resource
Again there’s the sense of the pleasure of it
For pillage is the privilege of man
Who likes to stand sturdily on his given domain and see it go on
without end and forever
As food for his appetites and subject to him
And there are subtler theories
That it was a mistake which they are likely to admit to
With a self-deprecating smile as to an infidelity
Done for a show of strength for a full use of the implements
Which after all are huge and very powerful and usually not seen
It is necessary to use them to the full now and then
Like a BMW on the open road
Lest non-use cramp their thews and sinews
The same could be said for the engineers who must have an
interior need
To utilise their selves to the fullest extent
To show what they are made of
Therefore it could be charitably said
That the topping of Mt. Frederick was an interior necessity
For reasons of hubris and all those things uneasily in Greek
To portray our human condition to all who live along the coast
Whereas the mine was once a private thing of old
Not seen by citizens but up in the hills and out of view
On coal measure rock
Not worth the preserve they say it’s not bush and no birds
Though there are some bats some reptiles snails and some
(and a sense of being on an alien world of silences
that’s best dug up and used for fossil fuel)


Their survey says
‘There is a sparse bird population including webs tuis bellbirds
and finches’
They didn’t see the
Falcons keas seagulls kiwis fernbirds hawks moreporks robins
warblers skylarks tits
And others
On this plastic pavement moulded by the thumb of God
It’s a desert they say
‘Large areas have been disturbed by previous mining operations’
Disturbed in the sense of having the guts withdrawn
Ripped up foundations piled beside
Formed reformed in old-world mode disguised
With poisons of the dig and the burning mine
Sulphur coal-dust chemicals from the coal and sometimes oil
Acids that kill the life within the creek and on the bank
That turn the water black
Leave grey moss dead

For all of this a day with sustenance of files
Condition of consent resources management and act
Dams and open catchments coal poor access and pH
hearings and commissioners objection then appeal
Walls of maps with electric pins and electronic colours
The ministers for mines and conservation
Issues of Avoidance
A work plan for the coming year that’s poetry manqué
That tells it slant for tactical
And under this the sandstone
coal and life and something else that’s not been seen before
that’s nowhere else –
Grey beauty and green leaves




Looking at the order
of these things of heaven
and earth,

We weep at those who in conceit
are a law to themselves
to loss and destruction.
It is a dreadful undertaking –
ruin and wreckage.

Little is saved,
and some is given to fire
to be tried –
of what sort it is.
But now here comes the rain
to run in rivers on each side
to hide it
until the sun comes out
and we see the shame again.


As soon as you stand here
you know you know it

All roads end here
and somewhere else begins

It’s a repository of old ideas
a junction for the years
the sort of place where you stop and change
to catch another
which is booked to take you
wherever you must

It’s always familiar
and if there were anyone here
she’d be bound to know you
there would be some connection or other –

The scent’s of a day you would never forget
The wind’s from a place you’ve lived at
And if there were a house
it would be for your comfort

Those indecipherable sounds
have stirred you in the past
and all is here for fruition

This is the world’s bright edge
with all the best views
But here there’s something else beyond
beyond the blue
there’s somewhere else to go to


If you keep straight ahead
and don’t turn right at the shed
you come to the end of the Burma Road
at the old Mt. William mine
which is derelict
in a valley
that the sun shines down
the stream

There are shafts on every side
still open
black holes in the sun
with gorse obscuring some
but the bush has come back wherever it can
rata beech and kamahi
totara rimu and heath

it’s much like a camp of colonial man

Or a gulch where desperadoes live

In the silence so sound
birds make echo
– the tui sings like a kokako

The stream has been free for thirty-six years
has scattered its confining beams and corrugated iron
has spread fertility for mosses orchids sundews ferns & seedlings
but nothing hides the building sites
nor the foundations
you can see where everything’s been

There are stalactites on a portal
and a flight of concrete steps
with a rail

There is a view
to the Blackburn


And a road that goes there down
a spur

No-one’s worked here for thirty-six years
they got lost
down in the pakihi
or deep in the mine

If you listen you can hear
mechanical plans and some intentions

They’re coming back


The gate’s locked
the track’s blocked

The land will be turned against us
tormented on its sandstone bed
and put to a perverse use

It can’t protest
the loss of its adornments
into excavation
dust and rubbish
heap and cicatrix

Its form will be denuded
foundations undermined
tectonic logic travestied
by overburden terraces
that mock the pavement rock

And over all there’s this industrious hum
you can’t sing against it
and it brings no peace

In wind from the south
it’s like the sound of small machinery
in your kitchen
but it doesn’t work for you
and you can’t turn it off

It’s the sound you hear
before an apocalypse

Damage is done and ruin
but here comes the rest of it
following fast after –

and total reduction


There’s no-one at work though you might think so
For the stereo’s on in the digger which sings like a whale at sea
To the birds and other small things that might not listen
And the keys are left in the machinery
As you leave the car while you take in the parcels
Or the lawnmower when you go to the phone

They dig these pits as we mow the lawn
A regular and repetitious thing
They assume to be done with our goodwill
That no-one will wish to prevent
That we all understand

So this man’s gone on holiday with everyone else
Leaving office doors unlocked
The gate tied with string

They’ve not known anything live around here
That would interfere with progress


They portion out the coal from various pits
for blending and export to smelter use
so there are many pits and many piles
that look like ruins of Babylon or pyramids from Yucatan

They strip the turf from future sites
and lay it on these terraces
where brush and tussock wilt in hope for growth

Those that made the heaps have no time to level them
nor those that made the wealth to fill
to remove the industrial waste

Time by default might heal these hurts
with moss and mountain grasses
then herbs and heath to cover

The wind and rain unravel their mistakes
and fill the holes they leave


Five thousand millimetres of rain
each year fall on this wound
where they’ve taken the top off the hill

It courses
on clay and coal and instrument

Scours out the coal
as if machinery’s not needed

Pushes boulders
makes new creeks that fill the pits
and flood the settling ponds
down canyon cataract and flatbed fall
of death to the living
in the river
green or swimming
leaf leg or fin

In fog so thick
it’s dark by day

and all you can see is a shadow


They bought up every house
Which was easily done because most of the women wanted to get
out anyway
And the men thought it was best for the kids
And the offers were more than from anywhere else
Then they shifted them every one
So now there’s only rocks and a water tank or two
Some bricks and a concrete path
A lichened-over apple tree a gate some bulbs in the weeds and
More often than not some bottles of the times and plastic bits
But not a sign to say what’s what
That here stood Stockton once a town of a hundred or so
A school a swimming pool
The shops that a mining town should have
With rugby teams a church or two a pub a cinema

There should have been a requiem a paragraph in a gazette
That a century of community had stopped for the proximity to
the cause of it


It’s the loss

Not protest notes to the CEO
Nor grumpy barricades to stop the trucks
But the blue-grey sandstone pavements
The silica dunes that wander them
Lizards, bats
Great snails in the Gahnia clumps
Gentians, Celmisias
Sun-orchids in the summer bogs
Star-lillies Sundews Forsteras and
Ventifacts that hold a millennium of weather and
Stand to shape the bushes on their lee to every branch

All gone or going
This landscape from the Eocene
Is being ploughed
For the faulted seamed and fossilled fuel beneath

For it they take a mountain top
Smother poison level flood extinguish
This old part of us


What to do with all this muck
this flat-topped heap –

Leave it as a monument,
and the pits,
so those to come might say:
“that’s how they got heat in those days”.

Let it stay,
and gather cover,
go slowly green
with moss
and small heathers,

for an age or two forgotten,

then let another party
find the artifact,
go stumbling through sub-alpine scrub,
wonder at the size of it,
exclaim at the machinery
at a people
who lived like children,
rubbishing up their house
until the food ran out.


It starts by the seagull colony

There as an underground stream

You can hear it running if you listen at the cliff

It surfaces soon in sand and pools
where it picks up water from the Burning Mine
warm and clear with a bituminous scent
and sulphuric acid that kills the life

It tumbles on keeps looking good on
down the cliffs like a Yorkshire Force
through a scrap of re-growth bush
to the dam

There it settles such sediment it has
into a lifeless ooze and stays
for the rain that carries it over and on
to Miller Creek which is tainted too
by bitter drains from the Millerton Mine
to the Granity
which has moss in it


We saw ahead the sunlight
on the river
of fast water on a wide bed
some spray
and heard the thunder

But I didn’t take them to see the fall
to see what it did –

that there was no moss
how every leaf it touched was burnt
the trees were dead or dying
there were no ferns

It’s a drain now
more than a river

A questionable resource


The Burma Road lies strung on the rock a long length of rope
Going always up and straight for a bit then looping over a gorge
Until it comes to Headquarters then splays out to the pits

It takes traffic to the mines and seeds
of gorse
Right to the top it takes the gorse wherever it stops
Into the rocks and bogs and tarns
of broom
Along the sides and the back and the prospecting tracks
of blackberry
To tangle in the broom and gorse
of montbretia
From one corm it grows to a patch to a tide
That floods up the hill and into the bush crushing every other
growing thing
and of the white heather
Which moves into the manuka and then supplants
of ginger lupin buddleia pine and new things still in your garden
But waiting to escape
To these heights of airy space
The ascetic province of the pakihi


The Star LilyHerpolirion nova-zelandiae
close to the ground
on banks and clear patches

The celmisiaCelmisia dallii
with auricula leaves
grows blown from Mt. Augustus
to the burning mine

And ForsteraForstera mackayi
jade herb of high places
with pink-dot petals

GentiansGentiana montana
white cups on the bog

Scarab GreenhoodsPterostylis banksii
on the moor
to surprise

And Sun OrchidsThelymitra cyanea
blue as morning mist

There are Sun-DewsDrosera spathulata
japonica red
in the sun

White EpacrisEpacris pauciflora
(spring heather)

Flat ManukaLeptospermum scoparium
on the rocks

Long-needled DracosDracophyllum longifolium
elegant amongst the undisciplined


Winter Rata radiantMetrosideros parkinsonii

And warm russet TussocksChionochloa juncea

Rush OrchidsGenoplesium nudum
with sandfly flowers

And the PrimroseOurisia macrocarpa
on shady cliffs and ledges

There’s the DaisyCelmisia dubia
non-conformist dubious
on bog in bush on cliff

And CaladeniaCaladenia catenata
so fine it can hardly be seen

CraspediaCraspedia sp.
(white-furred leaves
button heads)

Golden RodBulbinella modesta
in the bog

White LancewoodsPseudopnanx sp.

In the gorges Feather FernsLeptopteris superba
out of the sun
‘O glory of green rain’

Brown-seed SedgesCarex sinclairii

Brittle RushesBaumea teretifolia

Bonzai BeechesNothofagus solandri

Straggling Pines of a thousand yearsHalocarpus bidwillii


And CedarsLibocedrus bidwillii
with fern leaves

SnowberryGaultheria macrostigma
white and pink

Strawflower on wet banksHelichrysum bellidioides

Cyathodes juniperinus
wassail lights on a festive bush
to light up season’s end

AsteliaAstelia linearis
with red-bead berries
in the turf

Cushion Plants of various speciesRaoulia, Donatia,
Phyllacne etc.

Pink-seed Grass around the tarns

Blue DianellaDianella nigra

Yellow DaisiesBrachyglottis bellidioides

Dwarf FlaxesPhormium cookianum

Eye BrightEuphrasia townsonii

And Moss
terraces of moss
trickling dazzling terraces of moss


In a rosette
which is a distinction
but neither this nor that
and I don’t know what
a dm is
it’s not in Abbreviations

It could be a juvenile
or a hybrid
but there’s no sign

It looks like pinnatifida
it could be indurata
which grows on the Lyell Range
but that is rather flaccid

In a rosette
flat against the ground
leather leaves the colour of sand
and red spines

I think it’s itself
something without a name
that doesn’t need a name

Aciphylla this or that
Elongatae or Paniculatae
new taxa or a sport

It’s a Crown of Thorns
from the Navajo


Time for a cup of tea you said
to rest after the long slog up
the climb for hours through the bush
from one red tag to another
sighting ahead through the early sun
for the massed-over markers

I dropped a tin in the tussock
some egg-shell and some peel

You wrapped and removed
the contradiction

And in the rata honey birds
who had come with the blossoming
parakeet kaka tui and mockie

Their singing stilled us
made us want to sit until
the day grew tired

in the snow-grass by the tarn
and purple gentians pakihi blues
green-beaks and the Aciphylla
where the upward slope begins
that takes on up to the peak
and the ridge

Each spine red
each leaf buff green
spread out like a medusa
intent defensively

Everything else here is soft
to the touch
in this inexplicable wealth

This is the experience –
our untrod field of singing flowers


Come in under the shelter of this red rock
this hole in the mountain

There’s no water
only rock
In the rock there’s smoke
in the cracks
and heat down below
with gas

You can see the dead trees
upwind from the vents
a desert of decay

It’s mudstone burned
by the fiery mine
Kaiata mud
to brick

The winding road
is Red Rock Road
the hill
is Red Rock Mountain

If only there were water here
we could stop and drink
a spring
a pool among the rock
and dry grass to sit on

It is a dead mountain

We must be patient
and sit separately
Learn to care and not to care
among these rocks


O glorious One of the undermined
have mercy

at this edge of the world
where the coal went down
from these small mines in the cliff at the back

Give strength
for the height

The depths are of no account
for there’s always rock bottom
but this giddiness at the brink!

Where the coal
went over the edge

and the cable ran at the winch

(O Lord of the brink
at the point of the fall)


Where is there strength
for our homes
that they won’t be consumed

Our homes are in the bush
and are old
some haven’t power or water
they have peace
they give the shelter
and are ours
But the mine comes closer
trucks roar
the river’s black
coal dust
peels the paint and makes lines
on the washing
the breeze blows diesel
and we are weak
Each new day comes up tarnished

Where is our strength

Our strength is in its lack
and we must hold it



The Buller Coal Plateaux are just to the N.E. of Westport, inland from the towns of Granity and Waimangaroa; they are largely hidden from view by the coastal range formed by Mt. Frederick and Mt. Augustus. At its eastern edge is the Mt. William ridge, and the dominant Mt. Rochfort is at its south. Around these peaks the Plateaux reach their highest altitude of 1,000m., while towards the Ngakawau Gorge in the north it declines to 300m. It is about 10km. long by 4 wide, and midway along its length it is constricted by encroaching hills. The northern half is known as the Stockton Plateau, and the southern half the Denniston.

The base rock of this upland is granite; overlying it is coal, and over that a hard crystalline sandstone which is slow to weather, and which forms an extensive grey pavement, holding shallow pockets of silica sand and infertile soil. This, with the extreme weather, altitude, and isolation has produced a unique ecological system that is little known, and which is enhanced by the deep gorges that cut the plateaux.

Coal mining in the area began in the 1860’s, and produced a number of towns. Of these, only Millerton and Denniston remain. In recent years open cast mining has proved profitable enough to encourage a considerable expansion. It is most destructive of landscape and environment, and the destruction is accelerating.


1.The Blackburn is an extensive wilderness pakihi to the east of the Stockton Plateau; it holds a large reserve of coal.
2.Mt. Frederick is the highest of the plateaux high points, and is mined at its summit. These high points are also the points of the greatest botanical diversity, and are potential sources for re-vegetation of mined areas.
The survey was undertaken by Solid Energy (the SOE that mines the Plateau) as part of the application for resource consent for its present mining activities.
3.A lament for the damage being done.
4.There is play here between the image of the high rock platforms of the plateaux, and those of a railway station.
5.The old Mt. William Mine is at the far north end of the Mt. William Ridge, at the east edge of the Stockton Plateau.
6.Mining on the Stockton Plateau hinders public access to a vast and interesting hinterland; to obtain this, permission must be sought. Noise from the mining can be heard for many kilometres round about.
7.A reference to a clandestine visit to the mine on Boxing Day, 2000.
8.Attempts at revegetation of the overburden heaps, and restoration of the mined areas (as required by the resource consent and the Minister of Mines) have been token only.
9.Failure to prevent river pollution from the industry is blamed on the weather.
10.Stockton Village was bought by Solid Energy in 1999, and removed in 2000.
11.Exploitive industries are not self-reflective; they do not consider that they are profiting from the national heritage.
12.The future of the overburden heaps is a puzzle to the firm.
13.Sulphur from coal exposed by mining creates sulphuric acid in water, and poisons the local creeks and rivers. Other chemicals are involved also. The Burning Mine (the old Millerton Mine) has been on fire for many years. The presence of moss on a river bed indicates the river is not quite dead.
14.A reference to a large un-named waterfall on the Mangatini River, whose poisoned spray bums surrounding vegetation. It is a shameful sight.
15.Traffic on the mine roads carries many weeds about the plateau. These seriously threaten its ecology, and could well aid in its eventual destruction.
16.A list of plants noted on a climb of Mt. Augustus, which is uncomfortably close to the enlarging open-cast Webb Mine.
17.The poem refers to a remarkable Aciphylla or Speargrass found on the Glasgow Mountains; this range is a feature of the Ngakawau Ecological District, of which the Plateaux are part.
18.For Marg Charles and Jo, who accompanied me on that same expedition.
19.Red Rock is within the area of the burning Millerton Mine. This poem contains references to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land’. e.g. Come in under the shadow of this red rock.
20.Written at the Rockies, a small private mine at the top of the great Kohangu Escarpment, at the west edge of the Stockton Plateau. It is now abandoned.
21.Residents of Millerton fear their town will meet the same fate as Stockton’s.


Ngakawau Ecological District – Survey Report for the Protected Natural Areas Programme, the Dept. of Conservation 1998.
The Hidden Coal Plateaux of the Buller – David Norton, Forest and Bird, May 1997.
Coal Corporation of N.Z. Ltd., Stockton Mine, Mining Licence no. 10/3/1/B9. Work Programme. Environment Assessment Questionnaire Sept. 1988.
Various mine documents held at the West Coast Regional Council office at Greymouth.

© L. H. Kyle, July 2001

ISBN 0-473-07746-9

Published for MAPPS (the Millerton and Plateaux Protection Society) by Leicester Kyle.

Further copies of this publication may be obtained from MAPPS, P.O.Box 367 Westport.

© Leicester Kyle, 2001

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