After the goldrush

10 November 2019

It’s been surprising to discover how much of colonial New Zealand was opened up by gold miners. I’ve always associated the term goldrush with California in the 1840’s and the Klondike at the very end of the 19th century, but here in New Zealand they had a goldrush all of their own. Yesterday we stopped off at Cardrona, which grew up in the days of the New Zealand goldrush, and today we’re in Arrowtown – just outside Queenstown – which also began life as a goldminer’s settlement.

The first Europeans to visit this area established farms, but things changed dramatically in 1862 when gold was found. By the end of the year, fifteen hundred miners were camped noisily beside the Arrow River. In January 1863 the first major consignment of gold to leave the camp weighed a massive 340 kilograms.

The General Store: the only substantial building in the Chinese village

Goldminers are nothing if not greedy, and when new goldfields opened on New Zealand’s west coast many European miners legged it from Arrowtown and across the Southern Alps in favour of gold that was easier to mine. Suddenly Arrowtown was facing a crisis: without lots of miners the fledgling local economy would pretty soon be dead in the water, so the Provincial Government invited Chinese miners to come and work.

Reconstructed dwelling in the Chinese village

The Chinese miners lived in their own village on the edge of Arrowtown; some remained until as late as 1928. A few dwellings and the Chinese general store have been restored or reconstructed, and it’s evident from walking around them that these men lived hard lives a very long way from their loved ones.

Reconstructed shack and storage area in the Chinese village

Meanwhile a more permanent town emerged for the European settlers. A number of miners’ cottages remain from the later nineteenth century, and this picturesque row of buildings is said to be one of New Zealand’s most photographed sites. There’s no clue here to how the other half lived, and the stark contrast between these comfortable dwellings and the miserable shacks in which the Chinese miners lived are testimony to a deeply divided society.

Late 19th century miners’ cottages from the main town

When the gold finally ran out Arrowtown went into decline, and the majority of its population of 7,000 moved away. The town was forced to re-invent itself, first a service centre for the local farming communities and then as a holiday destination.

A number of the buildings on the main street retain their historic facades, giving the town a rather quaint, chocolate-box appeal. It’s plainly doing well, as the place is busy with day visitors who are happily splashing the cash in the local shops that cater for every tourist whim.

Arrowtown today

I suspect that Arrowtown’s history, and in particular the story of the Chinese village, has gone unnoticed by most in the scramble to buy souvenirs and trinkets. The place has an interesting story to tell, but I wonder how many visitor are actually listening. With a rueful shake of the head we agree it’s time to move on.

We head on up to Glenorchy, taking a spectacular scenic drive along Lake Wakatipu. At times I’m reminded of the drive along the banks of Scotland’s Loch Ness: high praise indeed,

Although we’re beginning to discover that this country has an interesting history and are pleased to be learning more about it, that’s not why we came here. It’s places like Lake Wakatipu Lake and Glenorchy that lift the spirits and justify the horrendous journey from London to New Zealand.

Soon we’ll be heading for Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s most scenic destinations. It promises to be spectacular, if we can see it through the mist and rain!