Blackball, New Zealand: They won't make them like this anymore

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Blackball, New Zealand: They won't make them like this anymore

In small-town Blackball the locals have a saying: “Blackball, the centre of the universe . . . the part where nothing moves”.

It helps to have a sense of humour when you live in the centre of a silent universe.

These days Blackball, less than half an hour inland from Greymouth, can only boast five major buildings other than the fire station: a general store, two hotels, the Workingmen’s Club, and the famous Blackball Salami Company.

So there’s more than a measure of truth in that witty phrase because Blackball appears to be dormant, a town which lost its heart and employment when the local coal mine closed four decades ago. For many residents there seemed little reason to stay and today empty houses or those in disrepair are apparent.

But first impressions can be deceptive because Blackball (population around 350) is undergoing a property boom and the old miners’ cottages are being snapped up.

From behind the bar in the Workingmen’s Club, Patrick sips his wine and talks of property prices tripling in the past five years.

But he would say that, wouldn’t he?

“Actually it’s true,” says Lynette Hourston, manager at Harcourts in Greymouth. “A cottage valued at $65,000 five years ago now goes for around $165,000.”

The office secretary produces papers to prove the claim. I do some quick maths and properties average around $190,000.

DSC01184In lonely little Blackball?

The reason for the property boom is that sewage has at last been connected. And people from Nelson and Christchurch find the cottages of Blackball an economic holiday home within an easy drive of beautiful Lake Brunner where million-dollar houses now hug the shore around Moana.

Blackball, battered by economic gales as much as local weather, is coming into its own again.

The town isn’t without interest either: there is fishing in the Grey River; hikes of varying degrees of difficulty through the surrounding hills; and its history is fascinating.

In 2008 celebrated the struggle of the miners’ union a century ago and whose prime movers became prominent in the formation of the Labour Party in 1910.

The wide and empty streets of Blackball today might not suggest it, but this was a once volatile flashpoint. In 1908 strikers defied the foreign-owned, Christchurch-based mining company and the town wrote itself into the pages of New Zealand history.

Today that iconic photograph of Labour prime minister Michael Joseph Savage still graces the walls of the Workingmen’s Club and the Club Hotel, where a sign outside betrays more West Coast wit: “For sale. One parachute. Only used once. Never been opened. Small stain”.

Savage’s photograph is also there in the most famous building in town, the hotel whose name reveals further wry Coaster humour: Formerly The Blackball Hilton.

Built in 1910, this creaking two storey hotel was first named The Dominion but in the 70s became the Blackball Hilton.

Visitors tend to think it got its name from nearby Hilton Street, but locals know better:  it was named after the notorious Bangkok Hilton by its owners in the hippie years. I’ve already heard about the influx of alternative life-stylers in the early 70s so the name makes sense.

DSC01064Surprisingly it took until 1992 before the hotel received the inevitable letter from lawyers acting for the famous Hilton Hotels chain. So the place was renamed: Formerly The Blackball Hilton.

We stay in this eccentric building where rooms appear to have been painted by addled hippies: one has driftwood décor; another blazes eye-popping yellow; whales swim down the blue walls of yet another.

One bathroom has black’n’white stripes (like blackball lollies) and at every turn there is some new diversion: a beautiful leather chaise longue literally on its last legs; hand-made dolls; landscape paintings and historic photos; a wall hanging proclaiming the many merits of West Coasters (“real Coasters can give you twenty uses for coal”) . . .

It makes for a homely place and downstairs it is less a pub than an eccentric living room where people in the idiosyncratic bar-cum-dining area will just sit around the fire chatting.

A Barry Crump novels rests on the music stand of the piano, the walls are covered with posters, a reclining nude is stretched out above the spirit bottles, and there is the framed cover of Bill Pearson’s sole novel Coal Flat which written about this area.

On the wall above the piano is today’s menu: it includes chicken breast stuffed with local bacon, lambshanks braised in wine and tomatoes, rib-eye steak, pork loin chops and turbot fillets. Among the desserts is pavlova with kiwi fruit.

This is solid, old-style Kiwi tucker.

Locals are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of their town -- historically, and from those who pass through because their families came from the area. People are also moving into the town, and not just those buying holiday homes. They live here and work in Greymouth.

The town’s success story is the Blackball Salami Company which now has an annual turnover in excess of $1 million, and produces prize-winning salamis, kosher pepperoni, half a dozen types of MSG-free and glutin-free sausages (including Italian, Polish and Chorizo), various pastramis, patties and small goods. The company sends its products to the Chathams, all over the South Island and is now making in-roads into Auckland.

They also sell t-shirts which read “better a Blackball than a Jaffa”.

Aucklanders would be unwise to take that seriously, it’s just that people here are proud of their town -- and prepared for new residents and tourists.

“You tell everyone that this is one of only two round bars in the country,” says Patrick from behind his oval post at the Workingmen’s Club, where Pepe the dog has its own membership card.

“And tell them they’re all welcome here.”


Blackball is 20 minutes from Greymouth along the Blackball-Taylorville Rd which runs along the northern banks of the Grey River. It is approximately three hours to both Nelson and Christchurch, and an hour from Hokitika.

Accommodation: Formerly The Blackball Hilton built in 1910. Ph 03- 732 4705 or their website

Things to do locally: hikes include the famous Croesus Track (named for the fabulously wealthy 5th century BC Greek King Croesus) which was the original supply route to and from Barrytown on the coast. The 18km hike across the Paparoa Range takes at least day, there is a DOC hut about halfway. Be prepared for changes in the weather.

Fishing: for brown trout and salmon in the Grey River and its tributaries, or at picturesque Lake Brunner 30 minutes away.

Exploring the old mines: It is possible to take a guided or self-guided journey through old tunnels around the town. Ask a local.

Blackball also has skateboard park, swimming pool, tennis courts and a bowling green. And the Blackball Salami Company.

Historic Buildings: The readily available, illustrated information sheet Historic Blackball provides a useful start for a walking tour of the town’s old buildings and miners’ cottages. Be sure to see what is now the Blackball Community Centre. This impressive three-storey building with a turret on the way to nearby Roa was formerly the Blackball Mine’s manager’s house and has a C classification from the Historic Places Trust. It was built in 1910 and given to the community in 1958.

Pick up a copy of Historic Blackball ($10), a well illustrated history of the town and district put together by locals. 

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Jill Clarke (nee Holman) - Jul 24, 2009

My family lived in Blackball in the 60s and we spent 10 years o our lives there my age 5 to 15, it was a wonderful place to grow up and my sister and I go back as often as we can, we will be staying in Formally The Blackball Hilton on the 14/15th August to attend The Unwearable Arts Awards 2 years ago we won the Natural Fibres part and came a way with a greenston trophy which we still have, it was great, we just loved it, we also went up to Blackball School and skated around the playground and had a drink in the Workingmens Club as well as The Hotel, we stayed in The Driftwood Room, My brother Jeffrey Paparoa Holmad has written poems about Blackball, (The Late Great Blackball Sonnets) and others and also read poems at the 2008 Centennial, so we have a huge history there, we lived on the Main Road in Blackball and have visited our old house from time to time, if I could afford it I would most certainly buy a property there and happilly live there for life, it was a wonderful childhod growing up in Blackball and we were never home, at the Swimming Bathes or off exploring down the back of our house where there were the old Chinese Goldmines, exploring the Tailings, we always loved doing that, down the back of the Cemetary where there was a trail that led to the Roas whch leads out of Blackball, up to Roa where my Dad worked in the Mine and he also worked at the Blackball Mine too, so as you can see our memories are all still there and I envy the people who live there it is a great place, especially to bring up kids so they can do all the things we used to as kids.

Jill Clarke ( Holman)

John Ringer - Aug 3, 2009

In the early 70s, my pregnant wife, my mother and I (note the interesting dynamics there!) did a west coast road trip to see if we could live there. We'd heard from friends of a quite decent house in Taylorville going for $60 - what the absentee owner owed in rates - and we were keen to do some 'pioneering'. It was the 1970s after all, and Nelson and the Hokianga seemed a bit tame. The West Coast welcomed us in it's own special way - I spent one entire night in the Hokitika campground running around outside the tent hammering the pegs in as fast as they tore out. Wife was pregnant remember, and I also had to show willing for mother. That set us back a bit, but I think what really drove home the special nature of the Coast was the bridge over the Grey halfway back down from Blackball. Wanting to cross the river and explore more, we saw a line of cars in the distance on the large one way bridge, so being polite north islanders we waited... and waited... and waited... finally when the nothing happeningness got the better of us, I got out and walked to the centre of the bridge only to find a row of over a dozen cars, sitting there unlocked with not a single human being anywhere within cooee. And then at the last car the bridge ended mid-river with only a small dodgy looking footbridge across to the far bank. No crop circles, no burnt patches in the scrub, nothing to indicate who or what had taken them. Having already rejected Blackball (and Taylorville) as socially unsustainable places to settle and rear 'normals', this seemed like an encapsulation of all that the West Coast represented – weird behaviours, shocking weather, an almost total absence of sunlight, black clouds of vicious sandflies, and ferals behind every curtained window. What a blessed relief to finally board the ferry in Lyttelton and escape with life and limb back to the winterless north - what were we thinking!

Zoe Winter - Oct 16, 2009

Great article! Blackball.. what can you say? I live in the "centre of the universe" rightfully named and I can say that I will be connected to this plateau until I die. What a shame the gentleman who commented above me hasnt been back here since the 70's! Im a 70's child, with aspirations as all NZders have. A stable intellect career, nice home IN Blackball and yip you said it re: the T Shirts from the salami shop logo: "rather a Blackball than a Jaffa" too true! A home is what you make it and my family love Blackball. Drinking from the garden hose, milk straight from a cow and the best salami in NZ! What more could a girl want? So you see - the feral coasters who peep from yonder curtains hail, not all is lost beyond repair, remember when the stars come out at night and smog seeps above the cities where you live, we on this tiny plateau breathe without sives!

Libby - Nov 8, 2009

i totally live in that miners cottage with the red roof! famous!

Sharlene (nee Symes) - Jan 10, 2010

I lived in Blackball in the late 60's when my father ran the local TAB. Although we only lived there for 18mths Mum and Dad made great friends {the postie then is still doing the job now}. Mum and Dad were there just last week with my children James and Elizabeth....they meet Patrick Bowkett, his Dad run the local grovery store when we lived there and he has gone home, and I say good on him, I also have a cousin who packed up his whole family and relocated there from wellington years ago....Well done I say....GO Blackball, I cant wait till I come for another visit it's been to long [last visit was in 1995]

Everreadybunny - Mar 10, 2010

I live in Blackball, & I love it, would not move unless my husband has a change of heart, its where you see cows walking the streets or mowing your lawns, its where we do not have a very bad cat problem, we have chook problems, & pigeon problems, we have rabbits that think they are cats, we have drunks that think they are well(s), we have 3 pubs to a winter population of 200,ladies go out to do their morning run abouts in PJs, teenagers that go shoping in their PJs, not too bothered about lables, we have young lads doing up old shiters then races them against each other, if they can make a lap, that would be the best excuse for a party, however that only happens maybe 2 or 3 times a Year, we say HELL NO to kiddy f@#*ers & Bludgers. People here do not live on each others doorsteps but the door is always open, we love & care for people who come here, but god help you if you even think of changing the ways of a Blackballian, besides, If you love something, why change it. Blackball has many great things about this village, just talk to some of our elderly people who if not born here, has been here most of their lives, boy, there are a hell of alot of sad & funny yarns about Blackball Justice.

Lillian - May 2, 2010

Blackball is my hometown... couldn't wait to leave and now break my neck to get back...Have some wonderful memories, had wonderful friends and enjoyed a good childhood .. how great is that?? Yahoo .. GO BLACKBALL !!

Gerald Bennett - Dec 5, 2011

Am concerned Blackball Community may not be in safe hands selling the old tennis courts off Hilton St. From Christchurch I was able to tell real estate (Frank) he was advertising a rural site as "residential" - he came back and said I was right "but that Council would view favourably changing the zone to residential. That's strange as Council advise no one has spoken to Frank about it. A zone change (initial fee $6,400) is not sensible - too expensive - even a resource consent to build on less than 1 hectare (rural) will cost a minimum $1,000. I made an offfer for this section through Frank but he has not responded to it - it was below asking price - but it cannot be built on as is, may not qualify for sewer and water and could be above market value when next year's recession hits NZ. The Community needs to be sure it is being represented faithfully. GMB

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