Sitting out front at the pub the road steams slightly in the sun after the rain. I can smell citronella and bright petunias are waving their heads behind me. The Paparoas are appearing and disappearing in the mist surrounding the ‘town’. A black and brown dog who never tires of begging visitors to kick or throw his manky green tennis ball.
As the rain and mist retreat, Blackball is revealed by the pale evening sunlight and birdsong. The laden coal trucks rumble past every ten minutes or so. The village of Blackball consists of a few streets of cottages, some lovingly kept, the rest slowly rotting into the dark soil, tilting on their piles and with boarded up eyes. The Workingmen’s Club, the Fire Station and the Post Office. The hotel and the famed salami company.
Nowadays people visit the West Coast of New Zealand for the dramatic scenery, such as the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers, and Punakaiki Rocks.
But head inland a bit from Greymouth and you will find a New Zealand West Coast cultural experience. Because staying at ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’ is a cultural experience. There are cheerful window boxes outside and a bright fire inside. There is plenty of good beer and hearty pub food. The proprietor is having a serious discussion with her barman about the problem of pilfering from the coal pile.
Blackball was born during the 19th century West Coast gold rush. If you have read last year’s Booker-Prize-winning novel The Luminaries by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton you will have an impression of what was like down on the coast in Hokitika, and in the hinterland. Gold seekers were transitory but then a coal mine was opened in 1893 and the small community grew, with a school and workers’ cottages.
There is a story behind the name of the hotel. Since it was built in the early 1900s many owners have come and gone but in the 1990s they ran into copyright problems when it was renamed the Blackball Hilton. The hotel is in fact opposite Hilton Street (named for one of the directors of the Blackball Coal Company) but a certain international hotel chain got upset. So they changed it to ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’.
What Blackball became most famous for in the 20th century was strong trade unionism. “United We Stand. Divided We Fall.” The trade union standard is kept proudly here at the hotel. Blackball’s finest hour was in 1908 when the miners were at the heart of the three-month-long Crib Time strike. It was against the law to go on strike, even though all they wanted was for their lunch break to be lengthened from 15 to 30 minutes. Their victory was a victory for collective action and workers’ rights in New Zealand. The country’s labour movement evolved from their success.
The scent of freshly-cut Pinus Radiata wood and wet flowers fills my nostrils. And the ubiquitous plumes of coal smoke drifting upwards from each chimney. Children wander the streets, and in and out of the pub, unconcernedly. Residents wave a greeting. The soundtrack at the pub is an endless Pogues reprise punctuated by rock anthems.
The closure of the mines in the 1960s was supposed to mean the death of Blackball. But Blackball lives on with a strong community spirit nestled here in the lush forests of New Zealand’s West Coast.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to Blackball?