A Superb Few Days Around St Bathans

We left Dunedin in the last blog post we published twelve days ago! In reality, we left Dunedin on 13th April, which is seven weeks ago. On 26th May, we arrived in Nelson, our South Island adventures almost at an end for 2021. We’ll be sitting still here for a couple of weeks, intending to get up to date with our posts. And some other important matters.

Leaving Dunedin, we headed south a short distance. I had work to undertake and calls scheduled, so we parked up at a free campground near Outram for two nights. Needing somewhere quiet, we chose the Taieri River Scenic Reserve, where apparently, you can go pig hunting! Thankfully we didn’t stumble over any such animals – neither did we get a chance to walk on the Taieri River Track. But it seemed a pleasant location from our two days inside the van!

It’s really not a hardship to sit and focus for a while. Especially when we know we can be free to travel again afterwards.

Central Otago

Driving along the road to Middlemarch on Thursday 15th April, we felt compelled to stop for photos of the rocky outcrops. These originate from the Lammemor and Rock and Pillar Ranges you can see in the distance. It’s such a completely different landscape to the west and south-west of this diverse Island. Beautiful in a barren rather than lush way. Scenes for Lord of the Rings were filmed around this area you won’t be surprised to learn.

We were (unintentionally) following the Central Otago Rail Trail during our journey northwest towards St Bathans. Several friends had recommended we make time to visit the historic gold mining settlement.

Below is a ‘Cycle Central Otago Map & Trail Guide’ overview to give perspective on where we were heading. You’ll find St Bathans towards the top:

Middlemarch

Like so many places in the South Island we’ve discovered, we’d not previously heard of Middlemarch. What a quaint place it is. Interestingly, although Dunedin is 80km southeast of Middlemarch, it’s administered by the city. The Otago Central Rail Trail for cyclists and walkers runs between Clyde and Middlemarch; which has breathed new life into it since the main railway line stopped. The town is also the terminus for the Taieri Gorge Railway line for twice-weekly summer excursion trains from Dunedin that we’d missed by days.

The resident population of Middlemarch is less than 200, rising to around 300 during the shearing season. It’s also, despite its smallness, a service town for the local farming community.

It was a delight to wander around.

Middlemarch Museum

We enjoyed a visit to the Museum where a gorgeously warm and friendly woman greeted us. I chatted to her about our lives, and she said she’d love to travel by campervan. Sadly her circumstances and health won’t allow it – which made me grateful as always that we’re doing this now.

A friend of hers visited during our conversation, who said she was going on a railway journey with a group for a couple of weeks. Having recently been to Kingston, and been informed by the man in the cafe there that there was no likelihood of the Flyer working again for the foreseeable future, a couple of weeks later I heard from a friend that the Kingston Flyer had flown on 27th April!

About 180 people made history this morning, becoming the first passengers on board the Kingston Flyer in more than eight years.

The group, part of the Great Southern Train Tour, boarded the steam train at Kingston just before 10am and travelled to Fairlight where they celebrated with a glass of bubbles.”

https://www.odt.co.nz/regions/queenstown/passengers-first-enjoy-flyer-more-8-years

The lady I met must’ve been on that trip. How cool would that have been?

The Middlemarch Quilt

Kept safely and lovingly in the Museum is a quilt created by 57 women from the Strath Taieri Country Women’s Institute in 1941-42 and sent to the Red Cross, intended for the Middle East. In 1945 the quilt was given to an ambulance officer, Margaret Bence, of India, by a soldier. She took it home to India and it was passed through two generations of the family until in 2016 the museum discovered it was in the hands of Queensland resident Chi Chi Murray, Margaret Bence’s granddaughter. The quilt isn’t padded but known as a ‘comfort quilt’ intended to be a reminder of home.

The museum researched the stories of all the women who contributed to the quilt and put together their stories into a book.

Hyde Rail Disaster

It was in the museum I learnt about the June 1943 Hyde Rail Disaster. Shockingly an alcohol fueled crew caused the deaths and inuries of 69 people on board. The driver was convicted of manslaughter and a board of enquiry found him guilty of a ‘serious dereliction of duty’.

I read the story (below) from a man who was just four years old at the time, of the devastating death of his grandfather. How heartbreaking. Many people who went to help, but as it was during the war, there was little fuel so efforts were thrwarted.

Middlemarch Railway

The railway at Middlemarch and beyond was built especially for the Gold Rush days to transport people – and gold. Of course, when it all slowed down and stopped, there was little call for it. The rail-trail has ignited new life into these areas. This trail is mostly flat, and I’m hoping that if we return to NZ South Island in the future with friends (or family) to do this with them. On a hired electric bike!

Hyde Memorial

We visited the Memorial to the Hyde disaster along the road to our overnight camp spot.

Tiroiti

Our overnight camp on 15th April was at Tiroiti, where we were the only people staying. The rail trail passed above us and we watched many cyclists passing. It was a gorgeous spot, right by the Taieri River, though you couldn’t access it as it’s all on private land sadly. Autumnal colours were apparent in all their glory.

Exploring St Bathans

St Bathams was our next stop where we enjoyed two nights of free camping in a massive field at a DOC standard site – St Bathans Domain Campsite. Having visited Ranfurly on the way (where Barry went for a wander and I worked), we arrived late – just as the reflections on the Blue Lake were perfect. His photo from that evening is the one at the top of this post. The Blue Lake was formed when the massive mine crater became filled with water after it was abandoned. More about this pretty place later.

The next morning we were amused when dozens of sheep were intentionally let into the campground. Nearby Sheep Dog Trials were taking place on a farm. We watched many big utes with dogs in the back going there and back during the course of the day.

We could’ve easily walked to St Bathams, following the marked track from the campsite. But we chose to take the van so we had changes of clothes and food available. The weather was becoming increasingly erratic – one minute hot, next minute cool.

Walking Around The Blue Lake

The Blue Lake in St Bathans was man-made by miners digging away at a 120-metre hill until all that was left was a 68-metre deep pit. When the mining stopped, the hole filled with water forming the lake. Its distinctive blue colour is caused by the minerals in the water that have been exposed. However, it’s not always such a vibrant blue. Unfortunately, when we were there it wasn’t.

There’s a two-kilometre walk around the lake that I was surprised Barry wanted to experience. Primarily so that he could take some superb shots – and luckily, the water calmed at times, and the sun shone. People apparently swim and jet ski on the lake, but thankfully not on the day we were there!

The track was very precarious in places, and we had to really look ahead carefully to find the orang markers. Parts of it had been washed away and new paths formed.

The surface of the lake changed from reflective to hazy, depending on the wind. But we were blessed by a beautiful blue sky day.

St Bathans Buildings And History

Wandering around the settlement of St Bathans is like stepping into a time-warp. Originally called ‘Dunstan Creek’ gold was discovered here in 1863. By 1864 there was a resident population of 1,000, with another 1,000 in the immediate area as there were other gold mines. In 1866 a deputation of miners requested to have the name changed to St Bathans, which is what the first surveyor of the district had called it. Many of the miners originated from Ireland, so understandably St Patrick’s Day was always a big event. In 1867 there were also 50 Chinese miners registered as living there. By the late 1860s there were 15 hotels, a number of gambling and dance halls, and many businesses established.

Today there are few permanent residents. The only remaining business is the Vulcan Hotel where we visited for lunch after our long walk. It was a pleasant place, with a calm ambience. However for whatever reason, the people working there didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic about telling us about the place or engaging in conversation, which we found disappointing. The following day, returning to Rarfurly, I found an informative leaflet called ‘Walk around Historic St Bathans‘ which said it was available at the pub! I do wish it had been; it would have been beneficial on our visit …

Many houses are rented as holiday lets, including the ‘St Bathans Jail and Constables Cottage‘. The mud and brick-built Community Hall is, I believe, the oldest one in NZ still functioning. The two front rooms were gold offices by the Scandinavian Mine and Water race Company and the Kildare Mining Company. It also functioned as a Masonic Lodge. A travelling German artist painted the splendid backdrop in 1876.

Another famous building is William Pyle’s general store. Not that it’s still standing!

St Bathans Churches

Although neither of us is religious in any shape or form, we do enjoy wandering around churches and graveyards. The original Church of St Alban of the Martyr in St Bathans blew down in a severe gale in 1870, as did its replacement in 1883! On hearing of the dilemma, Frederick Dalgety, founder of stock and station agency Dalgety & Co, the then owner of Hawkdun Station, bought the quarter-acre section on which the churches had stood. Then he arranged for a new church to be shipped out in sections from Britain. It was one of the first prefabricated buildings in New Zealand and is still standing today. Dalgety presented the incredibly detailed alter frontal to the church. Inlaid with greenstone I was mesmerised by its beauty.

I also adored the fact that there’s ‘resident sheep’ in the grounds of the church who appeared extremely friendly! You’ll see that Barry captured one of them marvellously when you get to his slide show.

The other church we looked at at the top of Cross Street, was St Patrick’s Roman Catholic. Unfortunately it’s now been condemned as an earthquake-prone building so no-one is able to visit or use the building.

Returning Through Ranfurly

On our second evening in the St Bathans campground, we ran out of gas again! Thankfully, I could cook on our tramping stove, but we have no backup for heating, and it was sure getting cold! Due to the size of our campervan, we can only carry one 9kg LPG canister. And it’s not always simple to fill it up or replace it. It’s not all fun this nomadic lifestyle!

Oterehua

On our way to Moeraki on Sunday 18th April, we travelled through a few fascinating places. One of these was Oterehua. Another settlement on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Frustratingly, we failed to realise that we could’ve stopped at the Hayes Engineering Works en route with our Heritage NZ membership. A missed opportunity. Ernest Hayes invented the fence wire-strainer still used by farmers to this day. Not that I have a clue what this is! Plus we were already pushed for time.

We parked up opposite a shop called ‘The Gold Mine’, which had a hilarious notice on its door – back in five years!

Noteworthy here is Gilchrist and Sons shop, operating since 1902. It has an amazing array of historic memorabilia such as the original telephone exchange, an antique bacon slicer, tinned coffee and food from the late 1800s, as well as a small selection of useful present-day products for sale. It’s changed little from its original form. Sadly though, the shop and buildings are currently on the market. Hopefully, someone will buy it and continue to operate it. My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Gilchrist, but reading the history of this family I’m not related to these Gilchrists.

Before we left Oterahua, I visited the ladies loo and found this delightful poem pinned to the wall:

Ranfurly

We stopped once again at Ranfurly, formerly known as Eweburn. Its name was changed to Ranfurly when the governor, Lord Ranfurly, visited in 1898. The town declined after the railway line closed in 1990 but later began promoting its art deco buildings to visitors. Barry had walked around taking photos when we stopped on our way to St Bathans while I was working.

I went into the Museum, which was once the ‘Centennial Milk Bar’. There a delightful woman in her later years greeted me, and we chatted amiably about the exhibits, many of which were gifted by her family. She’d been married to a local farmer, now deceased, and she lives in town. An old cot from her husband’s home that had been his was proudly displayed, as well as a calendar from 1867 in pristine condition.

Across the road was the Ranfurly Hotel, another superb Art Deco building – though this is still being used for its original purpose.

The first surveyor-general of New Zealand, John Turnbull, has a statue here in his honour. He was originally from Northumberland in the UK and is held in high esteem for the work he undertook to build many local towns.

During 1857 and early 1858 he carried out his marathon reconnaissance survey of Otago, covering the whole province on horseback in a series of sweeps that took him as far west as the Waiau River and as far north as Mt Cook. He explored the Waitaki River to its source at the head of Lake Pūkaki, and crossed and named the Lindis Pass, called after Lindisfarne Island near his home. From Mt Grandview, he named Mt Aspiring and Mt Pisa; Mt Earnslaw he named later, after his grandfather’s farm. Many other features such as the Twizel River, Cardrona River and Mt St Bathans he also named after places in his homeland. As a result of his survey the first map of the interior of Otago was published in 1860.”

https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t97/thomson-john-turnbull

Visiting A Working Gold Mine

Barry had discovered (pun intended!) a working Gold Mine nearby and was excited to visit it. There was a viewing platform where you could stand and watch actual gold mining taking place from what he’d read. Well, some of the processes, at least. Oceana Gold’s largest operations are at Macraes, where they’ve produced over five million ounces of gold since 1990. The nearby Stanley’s Hotel at Macraes Flat is a historic building. The single-storey stone hotel was built by stonemason John Budge in 1882 for Thomas Stanley and remained in the Stanley family until 1960. It’s operated for over 120 years and is a place for community meeting and socialising. We didn’t venture inside due to time constraints, but it looked warm and welcoming.

It was rather a tortuous drive to the gold mine, and once there, we couldn’t find any signage to say where the public was allowed. In the end, Barry parked up and asked someone. Sadly he was told there’s no viewing platform anymore as they’ve recently reclaimed the area where it stood.

We did a drive around the humongous area, and both took a few photos. It was most impressive.

Our next stop was Moeraki, where we arrived late with only a bit of light remaining. We’d decided to book into a campsite for two nights as we need to do some washing. There were also lots of things nearby we wanted to see. Including yellow-eyed penguins. Would we finally see them? I’ll reveal all in the next post …

Barry’s Slideshow

Barry took many hours to sift through the superb shots he took on this trip and chose which to include. You’ll soon see why.

Click on the first image to start the show …

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