Exploring the Denniston Plateau

Words Will Keay Images Dom Blissett

From issue 87 2023

It was a balmy day, and we were in no rush to head back home to Christchurch after riding the Old Ghost Road. An iconic yellow AA arrow displaying “Denniston Plateau” caught our eye, so we took the turn off to the historic mining site and followed the sign to the mountain biking trails. I’d heard whispers of something up there from a friend years ago and now was the time to check it out.  

The lone kiosk in the landscape indicated the trailhead. We looked at the map board and picked a couple of trails we were keen to hit and got kitted up. Less than 20 minutes in and my mind was blown by what was here and I knew we needed to come back. We fast tracked it to the top of the list of places to ride again before the end of the year.  

The next summer, we convinced some good friends to head to Westport for the Christmas-New Year break. Westport probably doesn’t spring to mind as a vibrant summer destination but hear me out. Westport is a funky town with some great hidden gems. Some even say it’s good on a good day.  

After travelling from Christchurch, we met up with friends in town to grab supplies before heading out to Carters Beach. We pitched up beachside at the Top 10 and went to check out the local takeaway to chew the fat about our upcoming plans. Dessert was a cruise down the beach while the sun dipped into the water.

The next morning, we woke to a blue bird day. The mountains were beckoning, so we packed down camp and headed to the West Coast Pie Company to fuel up before the day ahead.  

Denniston sits more than 500m above sea level and overlooks the Karamea Bight with views extending as far as the eye can see in every direction. The landscape of the plateau is a stark contrast to the usual untamed and dense bush typical of the West Coast. Like many New Zealand geological beginnings, this landscape has been shaped over time by a series of interacting natural processes. Organic matter broken down over many years, capped with various layers of sands as the landscape sunk into the sea before being tectonically shunted far above sea level. The result is a uniquely rocky landscape that supports a sparsely vegetated ecosystem that is rich in biodiversity.  

Underneath, the Plateau supports one of the highest quality and most abundant coal seams in New Zealand. Denniston therefore became a significant hub for coal mining in the early 1900s. Families lived in extreme conditions but hoped for a good reward in the high-grade coal. For many decades, it was New Zealand’s largest producing coal mine that supplied much of New Zealand.  

Denniston was once home to a vibrant and bustling community of more than 1500 people that resulted in schools, hotels and hospitals being constructed on any available flat space on the plateau. Coal was transported off the hill via the incline railway. The 1.7km incline is one of New Zealand’s most impressive feats of engineering and saw loaded coal wagons descend the steeply graded line from the Plateau to the Conns Creek railhead near Waimangaroa. From here, coal was loaded onto traditional trains distributed across the country. More than 12 million tons of coal was carried down the incline during its operation between 1880 and 1967. The closure of the incline in the late 1960s eroded the villages of the Denniston plateau to ghost towns. 

A passionate group of former residents and interested community members formed Friends of the Hill. This group wanted to see the unique Denniston history preserved and are still running today with an awesome Facebook page. Alongside the Department of Conservation and Tohu Whenua, the group have been working to restore and showcase the history of this area. Amazing interpretation panels complete with photos, restoration of some of the artefacts and relics, linked together with pathways and boardwalks brings the history of the area to life.  

Our first stop was to check out the historic mining village and the infamous incline. From the signposted car park, the walk takes you through the information panels before meandering down the hill towards the incline, passing old stone paths and foundations from buildings that once stood. Once at the brakehead, there are impressive views down the incline and onto the Tasman Sea.  

Wagons are still sitting on the railway as if they are waiting to be loaded with coal, giving you a real sense of what it would have been like. Some have described the incline as the eighth wonder of the world, and it is pretty easy to see why. The engineering and construction behind the incline are mind-boggling. Unstable hillsides, steep gradients and no modern excavation technology—you certainly would not be able to construct such a system today. There are plenty of stories of Denniston life that have been brilliantly visualised by these interpretation panels. I won’t spoil all of them. If you are after a somewhat detailed account, I’ve heard The Denniston Rose by New Zealand author Jenny Patrick is a fantastic read. 

After checking out the incline, we parked up at the Friends of the Hill Museum (the old school hall retrofitted as a quaint museum). A quick look through and a bite to eat and we were ready to set out exploring the trails of this historic wonderland. If you hadn’t already got the sense that things were rock and mineral driven on the plateau, the trails are corridors of exposed and weathering sandstone interlinked with scrubby natives. It literally feels as if you are riding on sandpaper with endless grip.  

After our first outing, we had a rough idea of where we wanted to ride. From the outset it the plateau looks flat, and you have this sense that the riding is going to be pretty boring but look closer and you’ll find a multitude of gullies providing ample terrain. The trails are marked with once bright orange bristle tassels that have been drilled into the rock, complimented by the odd rock cairn. They blend into the landscape but once you start looking it’s easy enough to see them. 

Teapot was our first pick. Presumably named after the steel teapot we found on the first corner in that may have been a relic from times gone by. After the first corner, you drop steeply down a bunch of ragged rollovers and into a rocky gully. Jank galore, but somehow it works.  

Jank galore, but somehow it works. 

Dirt is hard to come by in these parts, its just sections of bedrock held together with smaller rocks and gritty sand. A few more natural rises and falls and you’re into a vegetated narrow, V-shaped gully. Keeping the wheels rolling was a challenge but the end of the trail was met with fist pumps all round. A careful jaunt down into a streambed and, with bikes slung over the back, we boulder hopped back onto the gravel road to see what else we could find.

Next up we stumbled upon a sign for Myra’s track. I had seen this one on the board during our last visit so was keen to check it out. We pedalled up to the start discussing who Myra could have been and why she had a track named after her. Upon further research nothing came out of the history books, so my guess is as good as yours, but I like to imagine a person with the vision of riding bikes in this foreign landscape one day in the future.  

The track was great. More commonly used as a walking track, it has some tight turns and narrow rocky sections before dropping down into one of the only pockets of decent sized bush on the plateau. The track terminates on a wooden bridge used to cross a stream before exiting opposite a sign for the Coalbrookdale Mine. 

The Coalbrookdale Mine is one of the many mines and associated mining settlements on the Denniston Plateau. The area once boasted a population of close to 200 people with everything from grand houses to an area known as Poverty Point. It was here that the single men lived in makeshift canvas shelters nestled in between the manuka shrubs a short walk from the coalface. Today only relics remain of this settlement.  

A nicely graded railway including abandoned coal carts, haul ropes, building foundations and the impressive fan house which looks as if it could still be used today make this area quite eye catching. We spent a solid hour or so wandering around and reading more of the captivating information panels that provide facts and stories from the mining days. 

After a quick consult with Trailforks we made the call to head to Old Miners, a grade 4 trail that descends back towards Coalbrookdale Mine. The trail was full of exciting Moab-like natural features (I haven’t been there, but I’ve watched enough videos). First up was a rad rock roll into a wooden plank that took you into a stream and then up a mini rock slab back to the main trail. Following that, the notable favourite was the hydroslide-like gully that looks to have been formed by West Coast rain erosion.  

The notable favourite was the hydroslide-like gully that looks to have been formed by West Coast rain erosion.

The gully snakes down the trail but has a natural hump in the middle, which we had a go a riding and jumping over. After a couple of questionable rock hucks we lost the puff to go too much further, and decided we better leave something to come back for next time. There’s so much more to check out including the more chilled out Sullivans Trail which forms part of the suggested cross-country loop and the harder Taxman which heads down from the plateau towards the main access road overlooking Westport.

Back at the vehicles, we loaded up and set off towards Mt Rochfort in search of a camping spot. Albeit rocky and pretty exposed, we found a spot that was flat enough and cracked a cold one as the sun set into the Tasman Sea. We rounded out the day discussing the riding, the tales and terrain we encountered. 

The plateau offers a ride experience that is likely different to your daily riding spot, which is one of the things that appealed most to us. We concluded it was a bit like attempting to ride your bike while completing a Rubix Cube at the same time, the trails simply make you think. It’s a fine balance between line selection, rolling speed and body position to ensure you keep moving. It may not be for everyone, but it is refreshing to be challenged.