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!

A glass or two of red

9 November 2019

When we came to New Zealand we expected to see plenty of evidence of wine production, and we haven’t been disappointed. This is hardly surprising: wine is big business here, supporting 16,500 full-time jobs and earning NZ$1.5 billion a year from exports.

New Zealand is best known internationally for Sauvignon Blanc, and also has a growing international reputation for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and methode traditionelle wines.

We’re staying a couple of nights in Gibbstown – on the outskirts of Queenstown – where we’re told they produce award winning Pinot Noir. And, joy of joys, our package includes an hour of wine tasting each evening.

I’ve never been to a wine tasting before, so this promises to be a novel experience. A dozen of us are standing around the main man, a lad who tells us all sorts of stuff about how special the wine from around here is, thanks to the climate and the soil and …. and what else? Sorry, don’t know, wasn’t listening at all, I was just thinking, for god’s sake man, shut up talking and give us some bloody wine.

He’s a young lad, nice enough I suppose but obviously wet behind the ears, and he makes the fatal mistake of asking if anyone has any questions. Silly boy!

There’s two Aussies amongst our group. They tell us they come from a wine producing region in the outback – Kowabunga or Buggeroola or some such place that no-one’s ever heard of – and they plainly think they’re the dog’s bollocks when it comes to wine.

The Aussies start asking all sorts of nerdy questions, not because they care about the answers but so the rest of us will worship at their altar. But it fails miserably because we’ve all seen through them, and nobody really cares about production techniques or sunshine amounts or bee proliferation or whatever, all we really care about is when are we going to get some bloody wine?

Finally the Aussies shut up, and laddo dishes out the first of the samples. It’s a Riesling, and to my palate about as rough as an unsealed mountain road after an earthquake. The only way is up, as they say.

Laddo moves on to the reds, and we work our way through four or five. I know that in a proper tasting your supposed to swirl it around in the glass, stick your snout in and sniff the bouquet, and then swill the wine around in your mouth before spitting it out. Spit it out? No way, we paid good money for this wine tasting experience so we’re bloody well going to swallow.

As the tasting continues the wines improve, or perhaps I’m becoming more relaxed and less judgemental? A couple are really quite pleasant, although a bit pricey for someone whose palate is as unrefined as mine. Laddo thanks us for attending, and looks a bit crestfallen when nobody offers to take a case or two off his hands.

Feeling warm and mellow we retire to the winery’s adjacent bistro, where there’s a special deal on dishes paired with wines from the tasting. Well why not? we ask ourselves, and settle down to order dishes that are paired with our chosen favourites from half an hour earlier. The food is rather good, and of course the wine tastes even better when accompanied by a meal.

By the time we leave I’m feeling as mellow as a newt. I’m happy to admit that there’s lots I don’t know about wine tasting. Fortunately we’re here for two nights and so we can have another free go tomorrow. Why not? After all, practice makes perfect.

Waterfall wonders and hairpin horrors

9 November 2019

We’ve enjoyed our stay at Wilderness Lodge, and were thrilled to get within a few metres of the amazing Fiordland Crested Penguin. But this place is horrendously wet. Hereabouts they get 3.5 metres of rain every year; that’s around 10 feet for Brits and Americans who haven’t got to grips with the metric system yet! So, as we continue our journey south, the waterfalls along the Haast River are working overtime.

Roaring Billy Falls

New Zealanders have named their waterfalls thoughtfully, so you’re left in absolutely no doubt what to expect if you visit one. Take the Roaring Billy Falls, for example. Now I haven’t got a clue who Billy was, but “roaring” tells you all you need to know. Even viewed from a distance through the mist and rain it’s a spectacular sight.

Thundercreek Falls

And what about Thundercreek Falls, just a few miles down the road? Again the name leaves little to the imagination, and at 28 metres high it’s hugely impressive.

Fantail Falls

The name Fantail Falls alludes to shape, rather than the volume of water that cascades down into the Haast River. Again, a magnificent sight after all this rain.

To be honest we’re getting a bit fed up with the rain, and would be glad of a couple of days of dry, sunny weather. But Mrs P phoned home this morning and learned that our area of the UK has been hit by unprecedented floods, so we’re probably better off here … after all you don’t see too many penguins in the English Midlands.

We’ve turned our backs on the coast and are heading inland in the direction of Queenstown. On the way we pass the historic Cardrona Hotel. Dating from 1863 it’s one of New Zealand’s oldest hotels.

This area’s heyday was during the mid-nineteenth century goldrush, when Cardrona town was a prosperous settlement and a significant commercial hub for the area. How things have changed … the town has since all but vanished, and only the historic hotel facade remains to remind visitors like us of the glory days.

We’ve chosen to take the scenic, more challenging route towards Queenstown, along the Crown Range Road. It’s the highest main road in New Zealand, reaching an altitude on 1,121 metres. The road is steep and twisty, with a series of eye-watering hairpin bends. At times it’s a bit of a white-knuckle ride, but the landscape is adequate compensation for the stress of the journey. The landscape is simply stunning, and at times reminds us of the Scottish Highlands.

We’ve seen a few vintage cars on the road today, and as we pull into a scenic overlook we find ourselves confronted by a splendid Austin 8. The driver tells us that there’s a vintage rally in progress to celebrate the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965, when the first car to travel the newly opened road was a 1930 Austin 7.

The pass was the final stretch of State Highway 6 – one of New Zealand’s major roads – to be built, and was not fully sealed with tarmac until 1995. A salutary reminder, I think, that much of New Zealand’s infrastructure was built relatively recently.

Having admired the Austin 8, and the dusting of snow on the mountains behind, we set off on the final stretch of our journey. Gibbston, our final destination, lies on the outskirts of Queenstown. For the next two nights we’ll be staying at a winery, which sounds like the perfect way to wind down after the challenge of all those horrible hairpin bends!