Asbestos Cottage

Asbestos Cottage

Asbestos Cottage

A few weeks ago I stayed at Asbestos Cottage in Kahurangi National Park. A track leads there from the road to the Cobb Reservoir. This road turns off the main Motueka–Tākaka road at Upper Tākaka.

It takes about one-and-a-half hours to tramp to Asbestos Cottage, which was Henry and Annie Chaffey’s home of close to 40 years. In 1951 Henry died in the snow with his boots on, aged 83, humping in supplies. In her grief, Annie tried to burn the cottage down, herself included. She acclimatised at a farm outside Tākaka before being moved to Timaru relatives. Deeply unhappy, after a couple of years she secreted away a fistful of sleeping pills to get across the great divide.

Inside Asbestos Cottage

Inside Asbestos Cottage (click for larger image)

In 1997 the Department of Conservation employed Anatoki-valley carpenter Gregor Koolen (assisted by ex New Zealand Forest Service ranger Max Polglaze) to restore Asbestos Cottage. It was built around 1900 from pit-sawn mountain cedar. Constructed like a huge packing crate, the only dimensions in the walls were three-by-twos and six-by-ones. It had no studs, so the weight of the building was carried by nails. The boards were just nailed to the bearers.

As much of the original hut as possible was conserved – the inch-wide gaps here and there testimony to restorers’ authenticity. They found some utensils and other artefacts while excavating around the hut – a log dog (for holding a log still while you saw it), camp-stretcher joint, soldering iron, cobbing plate (for separating asbestos from serpentine), earth-stake (from their radio), file, slasher head, old battery cells, pulley, pick head and half a blade shear. And beneath the foundations they found charcoal – the area was burnt off. In the 1890s scorched earth aided prospecters and graziers.

A seam of asbestos

A seam of asbestos (click for larger image)

Henry was a prospector and wrote letters trying to get the nearby asbestos deposits mined. They were worked on small scale in the 1940s and 1950s, but were too low-grade and the country too rugged to make the cost of mining worthwhile. There are also asbestos outcrops at Red Mountain in South Westland – part of the same suite of rocks which the Alpine Fault has displaced by 480 kilometres – but the rugged country there meant they too were never worth mining.

I had with me Jim Henderson’s The exiles of asbestos cottage (1981) which details the lives of this remarkable couple. It was humbling to read it in their home, and although I had a restless sleep, no ghosts troubled it.

One comment added so far

  1. Comment made by Joy Stephens || May 13th, 2010

    Hi Carl,
    There’s more information and pix on this sad but fascinating story at:

    http://www.theprow.org.nz/asbestos-and-the-chaffeys/

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