A day of no plans led to a day of driving around some of the old good towns in the Otago region. Otago is famous for being the heart of the New Zealand good rush in the 80’s. With plenty of old settlements to explore its always good to explore.
The first on the list is Bendigo. Between Wanaka and Cromwell, Bendigo sits on a hill overlooking Lake Dunstan and Mt Pisa. The 5km drive, off SH8, takes you on a gravel road through Bendigo vineyards before reaching the settlement.
A small walk around gives you a glimpse into the hardships people endured in search of gold. Tiny stone houses, exposed to the elements, in one of the driest, harshest regions to live in by today’s standards. A visit to the creek where prospectors used to pan is these days filled with reeds and frogs. When we were here it was tadpole season, and I’ve never seen tadpoles so big. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover entrances to the mine shafts, but he careful as some have not been made safe and are open.On the way down be sure to stop at the big shaft opening. Always good fun to throw rocks into it. A massive hole in the ground and just in front is the original dirt that was excavated.
Into Alexandra and out again down SH85 will take you to the lesser known good settlements. The tiny township of Ophir is one of the best. An awesome drive across the Ophir bridge is quite something. One of the best looking bridges I’ve seen, leads you across the river and through a small man made gorge before opening out in lush green fields and eventually to Ophir. The town is small, but still habited none the less, unlike Bendigo which is completly uninhabited.
The post office is the standout attraction of this sleepy town. Beautifully restored, you get the feeling you’ve travelled back in time. Around the back of the list office is a cool garden and the old town jail. A small building with tiny cells. Makes you not want to break the law and end up there. The rest of the town is also really charming. Some of the other buildings have been restored whilst some lay in state of repair, but having said that take away none of the beauty of the town.
Just down the road from Ophir is the slightly bigger, small township of Omakau. Fairly modernized now to an extent, the only real sign of the old days was the old building of the old bank. Whilst not as lovingly looked after as some of the other buildings we’ve seen, it was still quite impressive.
Out the back of town, down a gravel road, lies the old township of Matakanui. There’s not a lot left of the township. In fact there was only 3 buildings in the area, 1 being the old shop. We took a drive around the dirt tracks that lead to old mines, but there’s only so far you can take a Subaru Legacy, and after a few repairs needed after the last adventure, we decide to turn back and head towards the last stop of the day.
About 30 minutes down the road is St Bathans. An old mining town, set in the mountains. It’s famous for its blue lake, which was man made by the miners to power the hydro sluices, but ended up being a place to unwind at the end of the day.
There’s little buildings left in St Bathans, but the ones that are left are immaculately preserved. The pub is fantastic. The Vulcan hotel is over 100 years old and reputedly the most haunted hotel in New Zealand. Taking a pint and sitting outside is a pleasant way to see out the afternoon, followed with a chat with locals as they pass by, and walking round the old buildings such as the old gold office. A quick stroll and climb around the lakes and so concluded the days exploring.
Another place of note is the Arrowtown Chinese settlement, which is a great example of how migrants lived and worked during the gold rush.
So if you spend an extended amount of time in Otago, spending a day or 2 checking out the gold rush heritage is well worth the time. Away from the normal hustle of life, you’ll be surprised at what you may find. And even try you hand at manning for gold. You just never know!