A month or so back I headed into the hills of South Westland – the Mataketake Range near Paringa to be precise. Accompanying me were brother Walrond (a geologist not a member of the clergy), Grant (ex-bureaucrat), Kennedy (founding editor of New Zealand Geographic) and his son Jeremy (one-time online gamer now Capoeira enthusiast).
The purported reason? To find a mica mine of the 1940s (or perhaps to escape domestic bliss and enjoy some ‘wild congress with nature’ as someone worth quoting once described it). Mica occurs in flat sheets looking like cellophane, and many sheets occur as ‘books’ – large overlapping sheets.
We set off down the Haast–Paringa cattle track and soon arrived at the Blue River Hut (also known as Blowfly Hut). From here we bush-bashed upstream past a bluff and camped for the night. The next morning we climbed trying to find the mine site in the bush (we never did). But on the tops, hassled by three kea, we managed to find some pegmatites (dykes containing large crystals) with mica books – enough to fashion a pair of lenses.
During the 1940s mica was deemed an essential strategic war mineral, and was used by the Allies for making sparkplug washers in aircraft engines. In 1944 New Zealand’s overseas supply from India failed and the Radio Corporation of New Zealand needed mica for manufacturing radio condensers for the domestic market. Some 1.5 tonnes was mined from the Mataketake Range for this purpose.
We wound up back at Blowfly Hut a few days later by way of the cattle track. For close to a century this was South Westland’s only overland link to the outside world – some 50,000 cattle were driven along it between 1875 to 1961.
When the Governor Lord Onslow and Minister for Works Richard Seddon came this way in 1892, they smeared themselves in ‘camphorated lard’ to keep the sandflies at bay. In 1911 traveller Maud Moreland wrote in her book Through South Westland about enduring a horrific night due to mosquitos. Her brother fared better as he ’smoked many pipes’. The rain had set in. I don’t smoke, but it seemed appropriate to enjoy a plug on the porch wearing mica glasses – it kept away the bloodsuckers – not that we had seen any.