Cemetery of Whataroa, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

by Alessandra Brovelli San Nazzaro, Switzerland

Lucio Zala, born 1863 Brusio – Campascio, Grison, Switzerland – + 1915 Waitangi Taona River, West Coast, New Zealand.

I was recently travelling through the South Island of New Zealand when I was attracted by this inscription in the cemetery of Whataroa, a tiny town on the West Coast.


As a Ticinese, I immediately thought that Lucio Zala emigrated from Ticino, so I decided to track his provenance and to post here some details of his life as emigrant. First arrived as a miner in search of gold, he later owned a hotel before working in a flag mill. He drowned while transporting timber on the local river. More than on a head stone, his name remains on the local books to designate the creek where he worked at the southern end of Lake Wahapo, called Zala Creek.

Two Zala have spent time on the West Coast of the South Island, namely Lucio and Antonio Zala. Concerning Lucio Zala, he was born in 1863 in Campascio, town under the municipality of Brusio, Grison. As many of the young men of the region, he migrated overseas. He might have reached Australia before moving to the West Coast of New Zealand. He most probably arrived in the Okarito area around 1895.

The town of Okarito, near Whataroa, mushroomed in 1865-66 when it became the shipping and supply centre for various beach settlements and later for the inland camps, becoming the third largest port in Westland. The gold rush of Okarito of 1864 attracted people from all over the world. Some of the miners came from Europe, by way of California and Australia, and full of hope eventually arrived for the gold rush on the West Coast.

The gold came from the mountains, ground out by the glaciers and washed down the rivers. Most of the gold was found on the beaches or in the river sands, but later prospectors also found gold in the inland creeks. In the inlands, including at the Okarito Forks, some gold mining settlements were established. And it is there that amongst some Irish, Scandinavian, Swiss and Italian families, coming for the gold or to settle, we could imagine the presence of the Lucio Zala and perhaps this of Antonio Zala as well.

But when the restricted quantity of gold available finished, the river’s miners and beachcombers who decided to stay in Okarito had to find other sources of income. Because the basic supply in this remote area was so expensive the miners were not able to save money. In fact, the gold rush left only a few of them rich.

At the intersection of the road connecting Okarito to the road coming from the southern Franz Joseph and going north to Whataroa there were ” The Forks”, a group of houses amongst which a hotel, known as the Miners’ Rest, served the miners and the travellers. A picture of the 1890s shows Lucio Zala as the hotel owner. Something must have gone wrong in the Zala business, because a second picture of the hotel taken in 1906 attests the Heveldt family as the new owner.

After the gold, timber and flax became the important money-earners in the area.
The presence of Lucio Zala working as a flax miller is quoted in the Whataroa South Westland Centennial Report (1879-1979):”With the establishment of the Kino Flax Mill at Whale’s Beach by H. Burrough, J. Mandl and J. Park, more jobs were available and around 1906 about 25 men were employed. Messrs Chinn, Adamson and McIntosh later established the Al mill at the outlet of Vickers Creek. Various saw mills operated over the years, Messrs. L. Zala, W. Smith and J. Healey worked at Llander’s Creek, afterwards named Zala’s Creek, cutting rimu and silver pine”. This job consisted in harvesting the flax (phormium tenax), drying and scrapping it to produce fibre. The strong fibre, well-known to the Maori for is quality, was then used to make bags and ropes. (Anna Rogers, Illustrated history of the West Coast, Reed Books, 2005, p. 102)

The West Coast receives the water from the Tasman Sea and is regularly covered from heavy rain, which makes the numerous rivers easily big and dangerous to be crossed. Till the construction of bridges, the only way of moving into the area was this of crossing them on horse or on foot, so that drowning in the rivers was at this time a common cause of death. The file on Lucio Zala at the Hokitika museum specifies that he drowned in the Waitangyi Taona River on Friday 19th November 1915 at the age of 52 years, while crossing during a flood with a draw loaded with timber.

Since in Okarito the hard condition of the soil and the risk of floods from the sea did not lead the establishment of a cemetery, all the bodies were brought to the cemetery of Whataroa, which is located on a plan safely away from the sea. And it is here that Zala has been graved one year later.

Lucio Zala remained unmarried and no inscriptions were founded in the cemetery carrying his family name. Native of Switzerland is the only description on his grave.

Antonio Zala died in Ross in 1902 aged of 68. It is still to be clarified which degree of kindred existed between the two Zala and if they migrated together or in different periods. Descendants of Antonio Zala are still living on the West Coast.

Further information can be found at the Museum Research Centre of the Hokitika Museum (NZ).
On request, the museum carries out full written search at the cost of 30 $NZ: <hokimuseum@extra.co.nz>

Warm thanks to Mme Karol London (Whataroa) and to Mme Mary Rooney (Hokitika Museum), New Zealand.

One thought on “Cemetery of Whataroa, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

  1. And there was Charles Zala, after whom my wife Zala is named. An item in the West Coast Times of 20th February, 1900 states:-
    “Charles Zala, who sustained a compound fracture of the skull while working in his claim at German Gully on Wednesday, died on Friday night. He nere regained consciousness. At the inquest the verdict was accidental death.”

    His gravestone is in the old section of the Orowaiti Cemetery, Westport. Any further information on Charles Zala would be much appreciated.

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