Official New Zealand writings of 1862 show clearly that the occurrence of gold (whiro) was known to the Maoris, at least in Otago. The first discovery by a European is credited to Charles Ring at Kapanga Stream, Coromandel, in October 1852, but the immediate results of mining and of negotiation with Maori owners were disappointing, and interest decreased temporarily. Meanwhile, gold was reported in several South Island localities, and was found in payable quantities in the Aorere River, Nelson, in 1856, and in the Buller River in 1859. But the New Zealand gold rushes did not properly begin until May 1861, when Gabriel Read, who was prospecting in the Tuapeka district, collected 7 oz of gold in what became known as “Gabriel's Gully” (q.v.). Over 200,000 oz of gold, worth £750,000, were produced from Otago before the end of that year. In the following year, with the Dunstan discovery, production soared. The exploration of the West Coast goldfield was continued under conditions of great endurance and hardship until 1864, when a “rush” to Hokitika resulted from Albert Hunt's 20 oz discovery in the Hohonu nearby.
Gold is found in New Zealand either in quartz lodes or in alluvial deposits. The whole of the Hauraki Goldfield comprised lodes of the former type and had its main centres at Coromandel, Thames, Waihi, and Karangahake. At the former two, the solution and redeposition of gold near the ground surface (“secondary enrichment”) led to the presence of small rich bonanzas, such as enabled the Caledonian Co. at Thames to produce 9¾ tons of gold and pay £554,440 in dividends in its first year (1869). In contrast, the last major North Island gold mine, Martha Mine at Waihi, which closed down in 1952, worked a more extensive but lower-grade ore.
In all other New Zealand goldfields some quartz lodes have been mined, although the gold was probably deposited at greater depths than at Hauraki. Such areas include those at Collingwood, Nelson, where the lodes follow graphitic layers in Ordovician rocks, and at Glenorchy, Bendigo, Macrae's, and elsewhere in Otago, where the gold-bearing quartz lodes occur as multiple veinlets in schist. The most important, however, are those in the Palaeozoic rocks near Reefton, discovered in 1865, where Blackwater (Waiuta) Mine, the last in the South Island, closed in 1951.
During the gold rushes of the early sixties, prospectors soon found that “alluvial” gold was widespread, either in existing South Island river valleys (see map), or in the extensive gravel and sand deposits that had been formed by past rivers. The older Pleistocene gravels have themselves been eroded, and the gold reconcentrated in the richer younger gravels. Some large nuggets have been recovered – the largest over 95 oz in weight. Alluvial gold has been recovered by various methods – by hand, in a dish or pan (“panning”); by playing jets of water on to gravel faces and washing away the less dense material, after perhaps bringing the water from far away by water races (“sluicing”); or by mechanically digging up gravel by a dredge floating in its self-made and movable lake (“dredging”). Today only one dredge remains, and it is responsible for most of the gold production in New Zealand.
Gold production was an important factor in the early New Zealand economy and over 27 million oz worth nearly £125 million have been exported. Peak export years were 1866 and 1906, with 735,376 and 563,843 oz, then worth £2,844,517 and 2,270,904 respectively. Production has declined recently to 33,326 oz, worth £418,872 in 1960. Most known areas have become worked out, and many ghost towns, such as Tokatea near Coromandel, Charleston on the West Coast, and Hamiltons in Otago, have been left as reminders of a romantic and adventurous period of New Zealand's history.