It is said you can have too much of a good thing – and the NZ coast certainly is a Good Thing – so we went inland yesterday to visit Otago’s goldfields. Also a Good Thing. Opting to bypass Dunedin (as Robert Frost said: oh, I kept the first for another day / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back. ) we headed straight for the ‘desolate, subalpine tussock- country of Central Otago – desert-like in summer and snow shrouded in winter’ (John Cobb). This area was daunting to farmers but acted as a magnet to gold diggers.
The road was reasonably challenging in a camper van in 2017. Quite how the diggers, many of them initially penniless and from the other side of the world, managed to drag their horses through the mud and rivers and over the never ending hills, without GPS, Gortex, energy bars, and reasonable health and nutrition at the outset I’ll never know, but I remain impressed.
And it wasn’t just the horses who died.
Ranfurly, a town around 150km northwest of Dunedin was built around the railway station and as a result of the huge prosperity brought to the area by the discovery of gold. The buildings have largely retained their original appearance (although many are repurposed) and make a great Art Deco town. The barbers is a cafe.
The Library is now the local radio station. And the post office a backpackers’ hostel. Interpretative boards tell the story of the first telephone call ever made from the postoffice. It’s not what you know, but who you know….
This man also impressed me. He surveyed the whole of the Otago area using trig points and his horse before there were any roads, any settlements – just vast areas of undifferentiated bush and many predators as well as harsh weather conditions. He was from Scotland originally, which may explain his resilience.
Ingenuity and adaptability are keywords throughout New Zealand. Never more so than here where, south west of Idaburn, Mr Hayes developed his engineering works. Famous for his wire strainer, he employed his whole family in manufacture whilst his wife Hannah cycled around the local farms, in full skirts, acting as saleswoman.
Wire strainer? What’s so great about a sieve? And so our conversation meandered, comparing colander and sieve design, manufacture and usage. A sieve evidently has many complex issues- gauge of wire, difficulty in curving wire, issues of attaching wire to rim, weight of final implement. And so on.
It transpires a wire strainer is the device that tightens wire in Fences, holding the posts in position and keeping the stock in the desired position. Ah well….nothing to do with foodstuffs at all. Hayes are still big in hardware on the coast I’m told.
We continued to our site for the night – near Gabriel’s Flat, a source of gold that attracted over 10 000 prospectors. As we are self contained (and have a bumper sticker to prove it) we were allowed to stay here:
The only potential fly in the ointment for me was a pickup truck with two men sitting in it apparently concentrating hard on the advertising section of their newspapers. My scout was sent on a mission to assess said men. There was a swastika drawn in the dust on the driver’s door. I wondered if they would shoot one or both of us. Meanwhile I assumed the position of a keen ornithologist, bird guide to my side, binoculars poised (and I ticked off scaup, nz only diving duck, and Pukeko (be careful how you pronounce that one) (a sort of local fat moorhen) off on my list of nz birds.). The scout reported that the men were a couple of ‘old guys’ ‘probably in their sixties’. Whatever – they packed their papers away at 6.55 and drove away, presumably to report at the end of their shift in Lawrence, the local town.
The wind was howling around us, the van rocked, there were waves on the lake and many and various birds did an individual performance for us as we, snug inside, listened to Leonard Cohen, dined with a view over the water, and so to bed.