On the hunt for illegal miners as a new gold rush hits New Zealand

The ‘wild west’ is proving irresistible to those hoping to strike it rich but the long arm of the law is determined to keep the ‘cowboys’ honest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 9:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 10:19pm

When travelling up the glacial rivers that thread through parts of New Zealand’s rugged South Island Jackie Adams often uses his 1500cc motorbike to move quickly over the shingle beds. But in his line of business, speedboats and helicopters can come in handy too.

“No one expects someone from the government to cruise up a river on a motorbike,” Adams explained.

A lot of these cowboys, they think that gold just jumps into their hands
Jackie Adams, investigator

The former British Army colonel’s unique job is to hunt for illegal gold miners, an increasingly large number of them who work the ground at night. It is a job Adams never imagined he’d be doing – especially alone in the remote “wild west” of the south island, where the summer season of illegal gold mining is just starting to heat up.

“A lot of these cowboys, they think that gold just jumps into their hands,” said Adams, who also worked as a police detective in New Zealand, heading the CIB unit on the west coast.

With the price of gold fetching nearly NZ$1800 (HK$9,600) an ounce, Adams has been hired by New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals (NZPM) to investigate the black market trade; conducted by opportunists sneaking on to private land and national parks without permits to fossick.

The modern-day gold rush is particularly evident on the coast, attracting prospectors from around the country – and the world. Using diggers, metal det­ectors and even the humble shovel and pan, these hopeful amateurs are willing to wade through frigid west coast creeks in the middle of the night – once awash with gold swept down from the Southern Alps – and still concealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of precious metal.

The original West Coast Gold Rush kicked off in the 1860s, and the settlements of Hokitika and Ross sprung up around it.

At The Gold Room in Hokitika trays of glittering gold rings studded with nuggets line the window display; with cheaper flakes of ­delicate west-coast gold mounted as stud earrings, and rubies and diamonds woven into necklaces to break up the rows and rows of tinsel-bright yellow metal.

Owner Barry Rooney, a former butcher, said the price of gold has doubled in the 15 years he has owned the shop.

Some of these cowboys have a history of mining and after the big downturn of mining on the west coast in the 1990s they have the experience but no jobs
Jackie Adams, investigator

“We have people offering to sell us gold all the time, they just walk into the shop,” Rooney said. We know a lot of the people we are dealing with but it’s still an old-fashioned trust thing.

“If they say they have found it in such and such an area we can only take their word for it – we are not policeman.”

That’s where Adams comes in. He is the first investigator of his kind hired by NZPM, after they became increasingly concerned about small- and medium-sized illegal mining operations making sizeable money from gold that ­belonged to the crown.

“There is a large black market,” Adams said. “Some of these cowboys have a history of mining and after the big downturn of mining on the west coast in the 1990s they have the experience but no jobs.

“Others have jobs in the day but are mining at night, selling it quietly for cash to jewellery shops and cash converters – they’re ­simple opportunists.”

Dean McNamara runs the website mineforgold.com and is the great-grandson of a gold miner who died in a west coast mine.

“There is mining in my blood and when the world economy is so fragile it makes gold an attractive commodity to find and hold on too,” McNamara said. “There has always been an adventure side to it; a lot of people really feel they are one pan away from striking it rich.”