Asbestos Cottage

The legendary recluses of Cobb Valley.

Written by      

Shaun Barnett

Prospectors built this hut in Kahurangi National Park in 1897, hoping to mine asbestos in the area, but they didn’t stay long. In 1914, the cottage’s most famous occupants arrived.

Annie Fox and Henry Chaffey were fleeing Timaru, where both had made disastrous marriages. Annie’s husband was violent and left her impoverished, and Henry had separated from his wife after less than a year. The couple relinquished society—only Henry had obtained a divorce, so they couldn’t marry. Instead, they stayed in bush huts in the forested, mountainous land north-west of Nelson, until they found Asbestos Cottage, and there they remained.

Henry hunted deer and goats and prospected for minerals. An extensive garden supplied fruit and vegetables. They earned a fractional income taking rainfall readings for the Meteorological Service and measuring the level of the Cobb River, data that was later used in the creation of the valley’s hydroelectric scheme.

They led a simple existence, but the walls of the cottage were papered with pages from magazines and mining journals, the few pieces of furniture were decorated with white doilies, and shelves sagged under the weight of pickles and preserves.

When Annie’s estranged husband died, in 1932, she and Henry wed, almost 20 years into their life together. Two ministers, Anglican and Presbyterian, rode in to conduct the ceremony, which was followed by a feast of bread, roast goat and potatoes.

Annie left the immediate surrounds of the cottage only twice in her life—once for an operation in Nelson Hospital, and finally, in 1951, after Henry died in the forest at the age of 83. Annie, who was 74, could no longer live in the cottage on her own. She was sent to relatives in Timaru, but took her own life two years later.

The cottage was restored in 1997, its hundredth year, and is an easy six-kilometre walk from the Cobb Dam Road. The track passes a disused asbestos mine, rising steadily, before a climb to the cottage, where vestiges of Henry and Annie’s garden still flourish: currants, gooseberries and daffodils. It’s possible to continue along the Cobb Ridge to the Cobb Reservoir, but the cottage on its own is achievable as a day trip—and it’s open for overnight stays, offering four bunks to trampers hoping for a longer taste of seclusion.

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