The extraordinary life of a man called Wattie.
IN THE CEMETERY AT TARRAS, A TINY RURAL COMMUNITY AT THE HEAD OF THE CROMWELL VALLEY, THERE IS A GRAVE MARKED BY A QUARTZ HEADSTONE. “WATTIE”, IT READS, “FOR OVER 50 YEARS, GOLD MINER AND PROSPECTOR IN THE LINDIS PASS AND BENDIGO AREA”. IT IS THE RESTING PLACE OF THE MOST PRIVATE OF MEN. BUT THE INDIVIDUAL IT MEMORIALISES WAS PART OF SOME OF NEW ZEALAND’S MOST PUBLIC HISTORIES, INCLUDING ONE WRITTEN IN GOLD, AND ONE IN SNOW.
Extraordinary lives mostly start in ordinary ways. Wattie Thompson was born in England in 1909 to William and Annie Thompson, Protestants who immigrated to New Zealand when Wattie was a baby to settle on farm near Huntly. A painfully thin and painfully shy young man, by the age of 20 he had moved to the remote Ardgour Valley, near Tarras, and worked in the region doing odd jobs until the start of World War II. It was then his life and history intersected for the first time.
Wattie volunteered for the Army, and by May of 1941 was serving as an infantryman with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Northern Africa, where he was taken prisoner by the Italians. The years that followed were terrible. He spoke little of what happened during his time as a POW, but there were stories he had to eat grass to survive and was part of one of the “death marches” that saw thousands of prisoners cross Europe on foot as the Allies closed in on the Germans. Wattie’s wartime experiences both reinforced his predilection for solitude, and saw him turn to religion, perhaps as a way of dealing with what he had endured, and what he saw. He also became a lifelong pacifist.
Gold was first found in the Lindis River in March of 1861. The discovery kicked off New Zealand’s first, and less well-known, gold rush. Hundreds of men descended on the area, briefly, but poor returns soon saw their attention turn to more lucrative prospects like the now-famous Gabriel’s Gully (near Lawrence) and the Wakatipu basin. But mining did continue on a very small scale in the Lindis Valley, and it was there that Wattie turned to gold prospecting almost full-time upon his return to Otago. Alone, he worked a claim at Camp Creek, located in the area off of SH8 now designated as Nine Mile Historic Reserve; his old two-room concrete hut is still there, near the remains of the Lindis Pass Hotel and a huge creekside pile of tailings, testament to the work done by Wattie, and the miners who came before him. He later prospected at Bendigo Gully, near Tarras, where laboured away sieving gravel to hunt for flecks of gold; there, he became well-knownboth for his hermetic lifestyle and for being the Bendigo Goldfields’ last miner. As interest in Wattie grew, curious visitors started to stop in, and were sometimes handed a pan and a pile of gravel so they could have a go themselves.
His first brush with notoriety, though, came not due to his mining endeavours, but to his religious beliefs. At the age of 56, in December 1964, Wattie set off on foot on a journey from Bluff to Cape Reinga wearing a sandwich board calling on New Zealanders to “repent” and to “remember the saboth [sic]”. He said at the time he had had a life-changing vision while alone in his hut, one which left him both deeply religious and sceptical of what he saw as the commercialisation of the mainstream churches. His trek got a bit of media attention, attracting coverage in the New Zealand Truth tabloid newspaper; later, once he’d returned to prospecting, a writer from New Zealand Woman’s Weekly even visited him to do a profile. She described “a slight figure with a lined, brown face, bright blue eyes… snowy hair, a white growth on the chin, body tanned through holes in his short, patched trousers, bare feet”, and praised his “simple, contented life”.
This simple, solitary way of living continued when Wattie “retired” to the hamlet of Luggate, between Cromwell and Wānaka, in the late seventies, though he didn’t really stop work. Wattie continuing to look for, and find, gold in Luggate Creek, which had been first mined in the 1860s.
A humble man who needed little, Wattie owned few material possessions. People who met him commented on how he seemed happy housed in a small tin hut with nothing more than his mining kit, his Bible, a radio, a tractor or two (one ended up upside down in Luggate Creek), and a jar filled with gold flakes. Living off his war pension, it seems he spent little of what he pulled from the river gravel, and the jar has become a bit legendary; local rumours suggests Wattie buried it, but despite extensive searching, it has never been found.
He did, however, make one big purchase. Wattie was fascinated – possibly because he was so invested in geology – by Antarctica, and when he was 70 years old, he bought an uncharacteristically extravagant $307 ticket for an 11-hour Antarctic flightseeing trip, scheduled for November 1978. He went on the flight, but, thanks to low cloud, saw nothing of the frozen continent he had dream of viewing; so he decided to go back.
Wattie boarded Air New Zealand TE 901 for a second time on November 28, 1979. He lost his life, along with the other 256 people on board, when the plane crashed into Mount Erebus.
Wattie Thompson had spent his last days quietly, a much-loved member of the Luggate community known for his joviality and skill with a pool cue. After he died, his photo hung on a wall in the Luggate Hotel for years. Many of the pub patrons who glanced up from their pints and their ‘baccy would have had no idea that the modest man in the photograph was the last alluvial gold miner in the region, nor that he had played his part in one of New Zealand’s greatest tragedies.