Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Gold Fever and Ghost Towns in Central Otago

Main Street St. Bathans  (pop. 10)  is around 10 km off the main Dunedin - Queenstown Highway

The traffic picks a bit when I hit the Dunedin to Queenstown Road near Ranfurly.  Up to now the most I’d encountered was the odd minivan pulling a trailer to take cyclists to a trailhead. Now there were fast moving trucks and slow moving campervans competing for limited road space. Beyond it the surreal landscape continues - rocky tors interspersed with dry gulches and fringed by snow covered peaks which look like rows of well -formed teeth. Expansive and seemingly timeless, it induces some kind of time shift wherein mere mortal concerns such as being late for a rental drop off, seem rather irrelevant.  

The Vulcan Hotel  built of mudbrick in 1882, is still operating and said to be haunted

Though I am officially still in a hurry,  I can’t resist the small detour into St. Bathans. My thanks  to  Jon,  whose excellent See the South Island blog inspired many of my  travels in New Zealand, for putting me on to this. (Looking forward to reading up on the beaches for my next visit!) .

Gold was discovered in these parts by one Gabriel Read in 1861 and by Christmas of that year, despite the cold, 14,000 miners had converged on Central Otago. They came from all over, mainly from the UK and Europe, but also from the Goldfields of Victoria and California where the gold was beginning to run out.  Over 2 million ounces of gold were extracted in 1867 alone, according to conservative estimates , at first by simple alluvial panning along the rivers, then by dredging, and finally by hard rock mining into the quartz reefs.

Essential services for any self respecting mining town - the Gold Office

Picturesque St. Bathans was settled by Scottish miners from the island of Iona,* in 1863 according the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand (1905). It offered “a dry and invigorating climate” says the same source, and boasted around 2000 citizens in 1887. Many of its mudbrick buildings such as the Vulcan Hotel (1882) and the Post Office (1909) not only still stand, but are still in operation.  Its famous blue lake was the product of extensive digging, which had obliterated 130m Kildare Hill by 1864 and resulted in 168m pit by 1933. Since it was by now encroaching on the township, digging was stopped and the lake was allowed to fill with water, its blue colour coming from the minerals within it. 
Between the signage and the photographs it’s not hard to imagine what the place would have been like in its heyday – first a tent city, with shelter  made from anything to hand – canvas, tin, rock, even gin cases, then bustling shops, thirteen hotels, banks, a dance hall,  a police station, the billiard room, the all-important Telegraph Office and so on.  This is “Deadwood” Country, just like Bendigo or Ballarat in Victoria, or Skagway in Alaska.

St. Bathans' famous Blue Lake - mining eventually stopped when the sides of what was at one stage the deepest mine in New Zealand, began to encroach on the town - the white sections are in fact tailings dumps
 [*Others say Wales, but looking at the origin of the various bank managers and the fact that the original St. Bathans lies over the Scottish border, I am going to say Scottish. The Scottish sport of curling is also big in these parts, with St. Bathans having its own rink and club as early as 1867. Most likely people came from everywhere, with a few nationalities predominating. I’m pretty sure though that only Scotsmen would have survived that “invigorating climate”].

Not sure what this building was - possibly one of the general stores given the loading facility and potential storage upstairs

By 1870 people started drifting away to new fields, though gold production by hydraulic sluicing continued until 1934. As the Central Otago News wrote in 1948, “... Gone are the dancing girls, the numerous hotels, the banks, the hundreds of diggers… but St. Bathans is not gone. No,it is a town – a very small town – blessed with glorious sunny days, star -lit nights and rich in hospitality and so it remains.”
A little place nearby called Drybread which now only has a cemetery, tells a different story of harsh toil, accidents and isolation, as do the lonely graves at Miller’s Flat one of which is dedicated to “Somebody’s Darling” and the other to “The man who buried Somebody’s Darling” (Alas, I don’t have time to visit either today or Alexandra, but I do have an extension on the car).

Beautiful stone Telegraph Office at Ophir dates from 1886 and was another essential service...
I also stop in at two other former mining towns, Ophir, and Clyde.  Ophir also started with a gold strike in 1863, but this time by Irishmen. In 1875 its name was changed from Black’s Diggings (the name of the landowner on whose land gold was found) to Ophir after the fabulous gold mine owned by King Solomon. When the railway bypassed the town in 1906, it looked like the end of Ophir, but its very obscurity coupled with the dry climate, enabled many of its buildings to survive. The local schist stone here was put to effective use in buildings such as Pitches Store and the Bakery (1880s), though mudbrick and tin were also used. While the nearby town of Omakau on the opposite bank of the Manuherikia River has stolen its crown and become a modern tourist hotspot, I prefer the quiet charm of Ophir.
....as was the Gaol behind it

On the left  is the half stone and half -timbered Policeman's House (1870) at Ophir and on the right, its stone Courthouse (1884)
Clyde (pop, 1161 in 2018),  a little further along which dates its fortunes from 1862 when Irishmen Hartley and Riley found gold, also has a number of charming buildings, most of which were built of grey schist and thus its streetscapes have survived  better than most. Originally called Dunstan, it was renamed in in 1865 and was once the largest town in New Zealand.  Erected above the site where Riley and Hartley found gold, is a little plaque, faded now which speaks for all these towns.

“To Finders Hartley and Riley
And the men of many nations who came afterward
For these were the men who led the way to the quiet valleys we know
The Hero Band of this Rugged Land
The Diggers of Long Ago”

It should not be forgotten either that the gold won in Otago also briefly made Dunedin the largest and richest city in New Zealand. 
Beautiful streetscape and stone buildings in Clyde (pop. 1,161)

I especially liked the stone walls and old fashioned flowers everywhere

Lodge Dunstan dates from 1874

There's still a bit of gold to be found in Clyde's main street

A narrow rock ledge on the Clutha before it was flooded, was an important crossing for the Maori enabling them to go between the interior and the coast or West and North from here
Purple haze - The gorge through which the Clutha flows has been planted with wild thyme

At dusk I drive through the spectacular Kawarau Gorge and stop in briefly at Cromwell (pop. 5150, in 2018) on Lake Dunstan. While Cromwell also owes its existence to mining, its ongoing prosperity may have more to do with its fortunate location at the crossroad between the Lindis Pass, Queenstown, Wanaka and Haast, and the roads to the South and East.  Although its original diggings at The Junction where the Clutha and Kawarau Rivers met were flooded when the Clyde Dam was built in 1993, its charming buildings have been relocated to a historic precinct on the Lake at the southern end of town. Even the heritage roses have been replanted here, along with descendants of very early walnut and almond trees. Today the area is famous for both its stone fruit and its vineyards. If you were very quick i.e. by 29th of December, you could still make it to Cromwell's Cherry Festival and take part in its cherry stone spitting contest.

Lovingly reconstructed - Inside Scott's Bakehouse 1866
The all important newspaper Office - The Cromwell Argus ran until 1948

The Cobb and Co. store where goods were held for delivery or collection, dates from 1866 and is now an artist's studio

General Store 
The Blacksmiths -There are many more beautiful buildings here, these are just to give you an idea. Full marks to those keeping the traditional stonework skills alive too

Good Night Cromwell

Alas, it’s too dark to see anything after that but having gotten a reprieve on the car, I sneak off to Glenorchy in the morning and then return to Kawarau Gorge again on the promise of one last waterfall –Roaring Meg, before I have to turn the car in.

Last glimpse of those sawtooth mountains  - near Paradise just past Glenorchy

Both places are also Lord of the Rings sites and stunning in their own way, but I must say that after seeing so many huge and beautiful waterfalls, I am a bit disappointed in Roaring Meg.  It’s basically a hydro outfall - a pipe pouring water down the side of a cliff, though the stream itself is a churning maelstrom with that characteristic ice blue of mountain waters here. At Nevis Bluff, highest point on this part of the road, men are halfway up the rock face, drilling and blasting potential rockfalls. It’s an image that stays with me -men/people struggling against the forces of nature and how puny they look against these towering mountains.

Can you see the men laying charges on these slopes to prevent rock falls at Nevis Bluff  beside Kawarau Gorge? You really feel the power of nature here

That’s pretty much the end of my New Zealand travels. I wish I could have done more of the walks, but I fly out in the morning. Now that I’ve seen the lie of the land I already have lots of ideas for next time, if only there were other ways to get there besides having to fly. There were a couple of other things that I wanted to mention such as almost all the hostels being very environmentally conscious – recycling, conserving water, separating out compost and the newer ones, e.g. Te Anau, having motion sensor lighting and sockets for recharging electric vehicles. I also wanted to write about conservation in New Zealand and how I was a bit shocked by the amount of poisoning going on. Perhaps I’ll write something about that in the New Year. For now, I hope I have given you a taste of some of New Zealand’s amazing, wonderful and very diverse landscapes and wish you all

 a safe and wonderful Christmas and 
a fantastic New Year

PS.  A big welcome and many thanks also to the US firefighters (and their families!) who have come to help us too. It’s already been a terrible summer for a lot of people. If you want to offer more than thoughts and prayers to the families affected, including those of  the fire fighters who have lost their lives here are some links:-

For the New South Wales Rural Fire Service : (Account Name: NSW Rural Fire Service, BSB: 032-001, Account No: 171051). Or click here for Credit Cards
For Queensland - goods or money click here.
The Victorian Country Fire Authority or South Australia's

For more ways to help, Click here

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Badlands –The Rock and Pillar Range

A preview of the Rock and Pillar Range

When I told the Mayor of Oamaru back in Haast, that I was planning to come back via Middlemarch, he was horrified. ” Why would you want to do that?" he asked. "There’s nothing there.” 

I must confess that that was at least part of the attraction. I imagined fairly flat ground and little traffic – perfect for covering a lot of ground fast. I was right about the second part. The second reason I wanted to go this way –was that since I couldn’t do the Taieri Gorge Rail Journey  (and couldn’t afford it either), I would try to see as much as possible of it along the way. The train journey takes in incredible grades, crosses 16 major bridges and has at least three curved viaducts.  The viaduct over the Taieri Gorge is the largest wrought iron structure in New Zealand and has both the tallest and longest bridge on the line. Well, I would do the next best thing and drive out to Taieri Gorge 11km off the highway.

Climbing up from the Coast
The first part was impressive – rising up from the coast over switchbacks until you could see far out to sea.  Although gorse is an introduced species and a noxious weed in Australia and New Zealand, it did look quite lovely here in all its golden glory.  At the top at 1450 metres above sea level,   I am greeted by a post -apocalyptic landscape of bizarre rocky outcrops. This is the Rock and Pillar Range. Hot in summer, cold in the winter, it seems at first entirely devoid of life, yet a few creatures do make their home here. Sheep graze on greener parts between tors and pillars.  Skinks bask on the rocks, a bird of prey hovers overhead and New Zealand’s curious Mountain Stone Weta, (Hemideina maori,) a large flightless cricket whose Maori name means “The God of Ugly Things,” lives in the crevices.  

Leaving the green coastal plains behind 

Large quantities of gold were won in this area between 1890 and 1895 and during World War I there was also a sheelite mine here. Tungsten made from sheelite was used in the manufacture of electric lights.  The rich Otago gold finds of the 1860s led to the decision to open up the region by building railways to make it easier for farmers to move stock and get produce to market. Although the railway was begun in 1879 the difficult terrain coupled with a depression, made for slow progress and the line did not reach Middlemarch until 1891. The next phase, interrupted by war and the Great Depression meant that the line didn’t get to Cromwell until 1921. Alas, road transport gradually overtook rail transport. In 1980 the rails were removed between Clyde and Cromwell to make way for the Clyde Dam and the line between Clyde and Middlemarch was removed in 1991.

Home to skinks, birds of prey and the Mountain Stone Weta - the Pillars or Tors are made of harder stone (schists)  have been left behind while harsh weather- wind and ice mostly, have worn away the softer rock

 My detour takes me over several rail crossings and many potholes, until at last I end up in what  appears to be private property, the aptly named “Barewood Station,” without ever coming to anything which looks like a gorge. It turns out that some of the rocks I've been photographing have also featured in "Lord of the Rings."

You may recognise these rocks if you are a "Lord of the Rings" fan

The train line meanwhile, had stopped some kilometres back at a little station called Pukerangi, meaning rock and sky in Maori.  When reach it again, there’s a white minivan parked there. The driver, a tour operator, tells me that you can only see the gorge by train and that the train should be here in twenty minutes or so.  I’m really excited and head off to try to meet the train at the terminus in Middlemarch, the next little town, which was supposed to be very attractive.  As I leave, several more mini vans and one large bus squeeze past me as I head back to the highway. Looks like it's all happening in Pukerangi.

Tiny Pukerangi Station opened in 1891, is typical of rural tablet stations
End ofthe Line - Middlemarch Station original and largely intact with goods sheds, stationmaster's house and train sheds

It seems that I got that spectacularly wrong. On Thursdays the train only goes as far as Pukerangi  and the large bus I met on the road was taking people from the train to Middlemarch.  Nevertheless, Middlemarch is a nice little town that has moved with the times. Although it still has its original  station, it  now serves a large contingent of cyclists. There are rental and repair shops, tour organisers, food stops and accommodation facilities all geared towards bike riders. This is because after much work and fund raising by the Otago Central Rail Trust and the Department of Conservation, the old railway route has been converted into a pleasant 152 Km Cycling and Walking trail which opened in 2000.  During the 2018 -2019 season alone, some 15,000 people had already completed the entire trail, not counting those who only did short rides or used the trail to commute. The Central Otago Rail Trail is by all accounts not too hilly, so you don’t need Tour de France skills to do it. It has breathed  new life into the little railway towns along the way and preserves a fascinating bit of history.  

The Bank of New Zealand - one of many quaint buildings in Middlemarch

Strath Taieri Hotel, Middlemarch dates from 1890

The rail A bit of the Rail Trail doesn't look too daunting. Wish I had known you could walk it. Maybe next time

The only sad note as I leave this region is this memorial at Hyde, scene of a major rail disaster.  On Friday 4, 1943 a train left the rails at nearby Straw Hill Cutting, killing 21 people and injuring 47. 

Alas, I still have to hurry and only get to see a few of these places, but I’ll tell you about those next time.Meanwhile the Otago Central Rail Trail has become the model for similar bike trails around New Zealand. This area offers several others such as the Clutha Gold Trail or the Roxburgh Gorge Trail  and the very unusual Interplanetary Cycle Trail which begins at Ranfurley. Below is a sneak peek at the original Otago Central Rail Trail.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Southland 3 – The Catlins to Dunedin

A magical place - The Nugget Point Lighthouse dates from 1869 and was automated in 1989

Have you ever coveted a view? This feeling doesn’t come over me often, but  having seen  pictures of  the Nugget Point  Lighthouse, I just had to see if it really did  look the way it did in the brochures. 

Before that though, my first mission this morning, apart from trying to get petrol out of an automated bowser with a foreign card, was to drive back to see Matai Falls, which I had missed the day before. This was a lovely waterfall with a second fall, Horseshoe Falls as a bonus, but someone had told me that the turn – off was about 20km back immediately after the bridge, so I had an interesting detour around the countryside first, and it was just as well that the service station was open by the time I got back to Owaka, (home of the Waka or Canoe in Maori). At least the proprietors did accept my card, but be aware that this happened to me in a couple of places, so be sure to carry other options if possible.

Looking for Matai Falls - not sure where I ended up here, but it was near one of the former railway towns (see below)

It is now officially tourist season and the main highway which links Dunedin with Invercargill is really busy.  After a quick stop at an abandoned railway tunnel, I was glad to leave the main road behind. The road through Kaka Point put me back on what remained of the Southern Scenic Route, which it was indeed, although there are the usual narrow and winding sections, the closer you get to Nugget Point.

Pretty Matai Falls (10m) - an easy walk from the highway, well for most people anyway

Bonus - neighbouring Horseshoe Falls

  1. This abandoned Railway Tunnel 264 metres long took men with picks and shovels two years to build and evokes another lost past. This was part of the Catlin River Branch Line - 1879 -1971, which really opened up the region. When timber reserves began to decline in the 1950's,  so did the railway line. It was closed in 1971

Nugget Point turns out to be positively breathtaking. It’s a story book setting with The Lighthouse, built in 1869 perched on an unbelievably beautiful headland. Birds wheel around rocky outcrops and far below you can see both fur seals and sea lions while an iridescent blue sea swirls around the strange rock formations known as the Nuggets.

The pilgrimage begins

The Lighthouse is quite small and not as impressive close up, but the setting is
The Lighthouse is built from local stone quarried on the site

The Nuggets

Looking down -The white flecks on these rocks are Royal Spoonbills. if you are lucky you will see fur seals and sea lions too

Western side of Nugget Point  looking back from the Lighthouse
Shaped by the wind

The wind is cold and it rains all the way to Dunedin. The only place I stop is at a little seaside takeaway to buy some what I hope are authentic Fush and Chups – the best value meal I have in New Zealand,  just before the Scenic Route rejoins the highway. It is on Molyneux Bay, which was once a busy harbour based around Port Molyneux at the mouth of the mighty Clutha River, the longest in New Zealand.   Captain Cook actually gave the name to a different part of the coastline after the master of the Endeavour, but the spelling changed and it became attached to this region.  During the whaling days in the 1830’s, it was a very busy place with a long jetty.  Unfortunately in 1878, torrential rain followed by a great flood, relocated the river mouth and left the town high and dry behind a sandbar one kilometre from the shore. Although no longer important for transport and trade, the bay is obviously still  popular with holiday makers and beachgoers since I have trouble getting a parking spot, even on this dismal day.

Looking east towards Cape Molyneux

 The township of Balclutha, where the roads meet, marks the end of the Catlins, the region through which I have been travelling. It got its name from the Captain of a whaling ship, one Edward Cattlin, who bought land from the enterprising Tuawaiki* or “Bloody Jack” in 1840, just before he signed the Treaty of Waitangi. Although many such sales were overturned, the sales to two Europeans in the Balclutha area were not, thereby starting it on an agricultural path – sheep and cattle mostly, which it has pursued ever since.  Clutha was the old name for the river Clyde in Scotland, and the Bal before it is Gaelic for town.

Free plug for this little place for value for money. Where else would you get good seafood if not on the coast?

Places I wish I had seen in Dunedin 

I wish I had longer in Dunedin. It’s a bit smaller than Hobart (128,800 people vs 150,000 respectively) and similarly located on a lovely harbour with hills all around. It appears to have some interesting buildings such as the old railway station and the university (the oldest in New Zealand)
and a multi storey red one on the way to the hostel, which was presumably a flour mill or some other kind of factory - never did find out. (Dunedin also had a Cadbury Factory just like Hobart and both, now owned by Mondalez International, an offshoot of Kraft, recently closed their visitor facilities).  

I would also have liked to see Baldwin Street, which held the title of the world’s steepest street  from 1987 until 2019, and most of all I would have liked to have taken the Taeiri Gorge Railway to Middlemarch, but none of that was to be. Between the rain and the fact the car was due back in Queenstown at the crack of dawn the following day with 312 km in between, left me little choice but to spend the night and head straight out in the morning.

* Spelling varies - in Fortrose, they spell it the other way