These are our newest babies,” Robyn Smith gestures to two little goats and a Highland cow with her calf at foot. “We’re feeding her stock-food pellets to try and get her used to us,” she explained, unfortunately thwarted in this plan by the sudden arrival of a Belted Galloway heifer who knows only too well what stock food is all about.

Orwell Creek Road, Ahaura, then

The animals are part of the attraction for visitors to the Smiths’ farm and eco-home lodge at Orwell Creek, Ahaura, roughly halfway between Greymouth and Reefton. Robyn and Malcolm Smith have owned the property that is surrounded by DOC land since 2007 and in that time have risen to the challenge of living off the grid, farming cattle and protecting the land and its history, but not without the occasional issue.

Orwell Creek Road, Ahaura, now as a private driveway

Although there are now 45ha of grassy paddocks along the flats, they’re not finished with breaking in the 59ha property that was ‘pretty solid’ gorse and macrocarpa.

Mother and child

And “every now and again we get some idiots coming through at night,” says Malcolm, explaining that unauthorised four-wheel drivers don’t always respect the fact that this is private land. On the other hand, by arrangement, clubs and authorised tours can pass through the property to the surrounding DOC ecological zone and to visit Napoleon Hill, once the site of a thriving community.

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Little goats

Robyn tells me that Napoleon Hill was named by three Frenchmen who found gold in the valley. Two nearby landmarks were the Waterloo and Wellington Terraces, and a photograph taken in 1866 shows a building called Casino de Venise, presumed to be one of the 20 licensed hotels – within a half-mile strip – that were built to service the 600 miners on site. Robyn adds that hotels weren’t the only services provided, pointing out that the town was established prior to the 1884 Prostitution Act.

Feed me now! Belted Galloway looking for snacks

Sadly, all that can be seen today is the remains of a cemetery where 13 people were buried, including small children and two men who died in a tunnel cave-in. In 1959 the conservation authority of the time decided that the chimneys of the abandoned houses had no historical value and had them bulldozed.

Driving through regenerating bush to Napoleon Hill

Unfortunate, as they would have been a silent monument to a once-busy place and would not have detracted from its natural forested beauty where the only disruption to the peaceful atmosphere is beautiful birdsong.

Native robin

Back at the house, Robyn says that two days ago the pond was empty and the water wheel, integral to generating the bulk of their electricity, had stopped. Now, after one night’s rain there’s enough water flowing along the water race to re-start the wheel to drive the generator that supplies the bank of batteries with power.

Once this was Main Road, Napoleon Hill, now a place of tranquillity

“We use solar power to keep the fridges and freezer going, but hydro-electricity is one of the most efficient ways to generate power,” explains Malcolm. The water wheel and race were the first infrastructure built, the Smiths creating them from scratch after buying the property. Made of beech, the water wheel has been upgraded during the past nine years but has been running 24/7 for the last 14 months.

Entrance to Napoleon Hill Cemetery. The mossy areas define old graves

Looking from the deck to the regenerating bush behind the water race and 5-metre water wheel there is nothing to show that this was once the site of Orwell Creek town, a place that included at least one two-storey building had a population of some 600 inhabitants. “They had a water wheel too,” observed Malcolm, who went on to explain that early miners prospecting for alluvial gold also drove shafts 60ft (18.28m) underground.

Ferns and moss on the tall, steep walls of ‘the cathedral’ – photo NZ Adventures

A fire raged through the township in the 1880s, and in 1905 bucket-line dredges were set up before mining eventually ceased. Out of sight there’s an old 100m goldmining tunnel, a sluicing channel called ‘the cathedral’, and several mine shafts have been rediscovered.

Old mining tunnel

“You drove along the main street of town coming in here,” Malcolm pointed out, referring to what is now a typical rural private driveway entrance. “Between the 1960s and 1980s the NZ Forest Service planted an experimental plot of macrocarpa and pines.

Timber had been logged from within the regenerated bush for pit props in the Brunner Mine.” Then the land was re-mined for gold between the 1970s and 1990s, abandoned, awarded to Ngāi Tahu as a Treaty settlement and purchased by the Smiths under a public tender process.

Old mine shaft

“Then the work started,” said Malcolm, again referring to the amount of clearing needed – of gorse and scrub as well as mining detritus – before the property could be put into pasture. Right now, a large part of the property is used for stock grazing and development work is ongoing.

Ahaura Lodge – off the grid– photo NZ Adventures

“We want to be as self-sufficient as possible,” says Robyn, whose intention to live off the land has seen her planting fruit trees and vegetables and being willing to share the quiet, peaceful ambience with others. Ahaura Lodge is a place that visitors can come to by arrangement to relax, see the stars at night, see native birds including flocks of kererū, enjoy the animals and absorb our early goldmining history.