We’d been to Blackball before. About 20 years ago when Josh and Hannah were 13 and 8 and family holidays were a big part of our lives. Pat’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, John, had bought the old Police Station there and offered it to us for a week in summer. We had taken the ferry and driven down the West Coast from Picton before turning left at Greymouth.
There are a number of townships in this part of the world, around the West Coast and Buller, that were once thriving and bustling communities. Some, like Lyell, a gold town, have completely disappeared – leaving only a commemorative plaque and some interpretive information to mark their former glory. Back in the day, when the coal was a needful staple of life, Blackball was something of a magnet for the men who could wrench it from the earth. And right behind the Police Station, I discovered a Rugby League pitch, still marked out, complete with a small stand. Blackball, it turned out, had had a champion League side and supplied several of the players for the New Zealand team. Mining and League had developed a symbiotic relationship here just as it had done in the UK. Not surprising then that the Labour Party has its origins in the Blackball of 1908 and that in the mid-1920s, The New Zealand Communist Party shifted its HQ there also.
Exploring the town in the 1990s, the years of neglect and the population of only 300 or so were ample evidence of how history had treated Blackball. Even so, closer inspection revealed a community that somehow reflected a spirit that shunned the mainstream and the conservative but embraced the alternatives; The Blackball Hilton was the perfect embodiment of how that worked. The local hotel, situated close by Hilton Street, adopting the name of the international hotel chain and attracting threats of legal actions that served to create the kind of notoriety much admired in New Zealand. Today, somewhat sadly – but with a touch of pride – the sign outside the hotel refers to ‘Formerly the Blackball Hilton’.
The whānau had warned us that the Police Station was haunted. Not rumoured to be haunted, you understand. But haunted. Family members had experienced unnatural phenomena. Things had gone bump in the night. Their accounts were so detailed, so earnest that my Catholic training almost had me packing bell, book and candle. But my rationalist persona was scornful of such nonsense. And so it was that on our second evening, around 10pm, reading in bed, we were startled by the sound of heavy furniture being dragged across the wooden floor of the bedroom adjacent to ours which was occupied by Josh. Pausing only to reassure each other that we’d both heard the noise, we dashed across the hall and opened the door to the bedroom. Josh was sleeping soundly and his bed and the Edwardian wardrobe were undisturbed also. But it was a warm summer evening and the temperature in that room had dropped sufficiently to cause me to shiver. We checked the rest of the house and the immediate environs but could find nothing that might explain what we’d experienced. Well, you know, maybe there are more things in heaven and earth…….
And so, last week, Josh and I were back in Blackball. It was a must see on our South Island Adventure and we dropped by on our way to Greymouth. First stop was the Police Station which seemed hardly to have changed. But the pitch markings and the stand were no longer in the field behind the house. Looking around, there are some signs of gentrification. Sewage has been connected and some of the old miners’ cottages have been bought up by Mainlanders looking for holiday homes. The swimming pool and bowling green are still there. And, of course, The Hilton, somehow enshrining the spirit of Barry Crump and every Good Keen Man wanting pavlova on the menu. The big success story, though, the Blackball Salami Company continues to flourish and our purchases added to its $1m annual turnover. An achievement made all the more astounding knowing that the previous owner, Peter Lamont, had murdered his wife in 2009. But communal resilience is something that West Coasters are noted for. I wish Blackball and its residents well. It’s not just the salami that has a unique flavour.