This article describes a survey conducted of what is probably the gum-diggers camp located near the Pinnacles. The camp was occupied, possibly intermittently, between about 1900 and at least 1931. It acquired the nick-name of Dancing Camp as the diggers were reputed to conduct men-only dances there. This aspect was featured by Scottish comedian Billy Connolly in his World Tour of New Zealand series, recorded in 2004. Connolly visited the Pinnacles Hut by helicopter to film the story, and his commentary used the term buck-dancing:
'Buck dancing is a folk dance that originated among African-Americans during the era of slavery. … The original buck dance, or "buck and wing," referred to a specific step performed by solo dancers, usually men …'
'The Pinnacles' are two tall rocky spires, approx height 750m ASL, near the upper end of the Kauaeranga Valley. The Pinnacles Peaks themselves, and the hut(s) in the vicinity, have been popular tramping destinations for many decades, and the general area has been the site of kauri industry activities since the late 1800s. The original Pinnacles Hut was constructed c. 1970, shortly after the formation of the Coromandel Forest Park. It is only about 30m from the Dancing Camp dam, which has been partially restored. The 1970s hut is now the Warden's quarters for the latest Pinnacles Hut, which was opened in 1995, and is about 400m up the hill from the original hut.
It is important to differentiate between the gum-diggers camp at the Dancing Camp site, and a later Kauri Timber Company (KTC) logging camp, established in the 1920s. According to Bruce Hayward (1978), the former was ' ... adjacent to the Pinnacles Track junction...' whereas the KTC camp was in the gorge further downstream from the Dancing Camp dam, and has yet to be located and surveyed.
Kauri gum was regarded as a valuable by-product of the massive kauri forests of the northern North Island and gum-digging became a popular occupation for unskilled and semi-skilled men, who could embark upon it with little capital investment. According to an article in the Thames Star of 28th January 1881:
'The bushmen and the gum-diggers have now been more than twelve years at work in the Upper Kauaeranga Valley.'
This indicates a start date in the Kauaeranga of around 1869, only two years after the Thames goldfield opened. However, it is worth noting that the difficulty in transporting huge kauri logs meant that harvesting (of logs) commenced around the lower reaches of the valley, and logging of the Dancing Camp area didn't start in earnest until the Kauri Timber Company's last big effort in the Kauaeranga in the 1920s. On the other hand, kauri gum was relatively easy to transport (by back-pack or by horse) and so gum-digging tended to range much more widely (i.e. wherever gum was likely to be found).
The Dancing Camp gum-diggers camp is thought to have been established some time around 1900. Hayward (1978 p.18) states:
'...the original Dancing Camp ... got its name when gum-diggers held buck dances (no women) there around 1900.'
However, it is possibly older than that; in view of the 1860s commencement of gum-digging in the Kauaeranga Valley.
An Evening Post article of 22 July 1931 describes the accidental death of:
'... a Dalmatian gum digger, who left his father's whare at Dancing Camp at 11 a.m. on Saturday in search for gum, and as he did not return a search party was organised. The body was found at the foot of a cliff about 200 ft high.'
This indicates that gum-digging was still carried out in the area until at least 1931. It is of note that the price of kauri gum had dropped to £25 per ton, from £40 per ton in the late 1800s (McLintock 1966), indicating it was diminishing in value as a commercial product. It is likely that men were seeking what little money they could, at a time of high unemployment during the 1930s depression, in the same way that many were still fossicking for gold around Thames at that time.
The Dancing Camp site can be reached by following the track from the 1995 Pinnacles Hut towards the water supply tanks located in a saddle to the east of the hut. This is effectively a trail for staff use and is not formally marked, well-cleared nor signposted. From the main track, follow the trail to the second creek-crossing, where there is a pump with a dome-shaped housing. On a small rise about 25m to the south, there is a small clearing, used to winch in helicopter loads. This is the general area of what is probably the Dancing Camp gum-diggers camp.
Within about a 25m radius from the helicopter winch-point, there were found at least two rubbish pits (which weren't excavated) containing bottles, crockery, old boots and a variety of modern rubbish, such as plastics. Two wooden posts with nails were found, indicating the camp was more than just a transient trampers' or hunters' fly camp, although the purpose of the posts was not readily apparent. There are several level sites suitable for whares or buildings, but no evidence of structures was found. A deeply-rutted track (consistent with a horse pack-track), leads to the area of the posts from the general area of the Pinnacles track. A piece of crockery with a manufacturer's emblem was found - this was dated, by a Google search, to the period 1906-1912. See photographs in the next section.
The location, which is consistent with Hayward's description, the presence of the wooden posts, and the dated crockery, indicate that the site is probably that of the Dancing Camp gum-diggers camp.