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Touring New Zealand 2012 part 3

We had left the Christchurch area about 1400 and still had no real plans on where to go and finally decided to go to Mount Somers, a favourite place where the road to Erewhon starts. We rang ahead for a cabin at the Mt Somers Holiday Park to check there would be no problem with accommodation before we started the drive of about 125 kilometres from Christchurch. We have stayed here before and it comes high on our list of places to stay. The office was always surrounded by pots of the largest lilies we have ever seen but since our last visit the owners have changed twice. The new owners have done an amazing job on the grounds but have yet to replace the Lilies - they are working on it! They have half a dozen of the basic cabins we were interested in on the site - good value at $54 as they are recent construction and very well equipped with crockery cutlery, kettle and toaster to complement the full kitchen, laundry etc. in the facilities block which again has an amazing collection of everything one might need, cupboards full. Outside the kitchen there are beds of every sort of herb you could wish for when cooking. The washing machines are as cheap as anywhere we have found at $2 whilst many other camp sites are asking from $4 or even $5. The site even has a games room with table tennis and the pub opposite does great meals.

We went across to see if was still as good as a sign stated the owners had changed, but no problem. The owners may have changed but the cooking was the same and we got seduced into a couple of huge mixed grills which were all of $24 each, washed down with a few jugs of ale. Everyone drinks beer in small glasses, poured from a large jug. In the past we have even sat in front of a roaring log fire, the weather can be very variable in the mountains! The walls of the pub are covered with information boards on the history of the area and walks through it. It used to be a small-scale coal mining area and there are pictures of the railway, initially narrow gauge and with several home made engines, one based round a 20 HP McCormick Deere tractor engine that we had just seen an example of at Fairlie. There was also an 'inclined plane' called the jig for a balanced up and down coming truck covering the final 164 metre height gain. . The combination of the accommodation and pub makes it a perfect stopping place even if you do not want to do the “Road to Erewhon”, our prime reason for this visit Erewhon Station which was featured in the book Erewhon by Samuel Butler, one of the classic New Zealand books we bought and read several years ago. Now the book has been mentioned in the Lord of the Rings Location guidebook by Ian Brodie it will probably become extremely expensive and difficult to find, however it may lead people to also read the other classics in the series - fortunately we now have copies of most of them!

In the morning we took the trip into the mountains past Mount Sunday to Erewhon Station, a trip we have made several times in the past but one that never palls. It initially passed the mines and an old limestone working. The road has superb views and a eventually to Erewhon Station which was featured in the book Erewhon by Samuel Butler, one of the classic New Zealand books we bought and read last year. Now the book has been mentioned in the Lord of the Rings Location guidebook by Ian Brodie it will probably become extremely expensive and difficult to find, however it may lead people to also read the other classics in the series - fortunately we now have copies of most of them!

We stopped at Lake Camp which has an informal camp site at one end and has a large number of batches in a little township at the other. It is used extensively for watersports and was heaving on a nice summer day. Opposite is Lake Clearwater which is restricted to sailing, rowing boats and fishing.

The area just short of Erewhon was used for part of the filming of Lord of the Rings, a camp was set up for 11 months and near Mt Potts Station. Mt Sunday a rocky outcrop rising above the alluvial shingle plane left when ancient glaciers carved out the Rangitata River valley. This was used as the site of Edoras the capital of Rohan laying at the feet of the white mountains near the river Snowborne. It is called Mount Sunday because the boundary riders from the high country stations used to arrange to meet there every Sunday.

As one approached the jagged snow covered peaks over a ridge one is suddenly presented with the view of Mt Sunday ahead surrounded by a flat covered in brown tussock and the braided tributaries of the river Rangitata. One year we just sat there admiring the view whilst Pauline got her watercolour paints out. We continued past Mt Potts station to viewpoints where one could look up at Mt Sunday, itself a tiny feature in the vastness of the plain and surrounding mountains. A new car park has been set up with a permissive track to visit Mount Sunday since we last came and there is another new car park and permissive track half a kilometre further on which also has excellent views out to Mount Sunday. Looking down, the little streams and rivers which seemed to surround Mt Sunday were picturesque, but without proper footwear or even wellington boots it did not look a good idea.

So we drove on to where we could look into Erewhon Station nestling at the foot of the mountains. Samuel Butlers description is as true now as when he wrote Erewhon “Never shall I forget the utter loneliness of the prospect - only the little far away homestead giving sign of human handiwork, the vastness of mountain and plain, of river and sky; the marvellous atmospheric effects - sometimes black against a white sky, and then again, after cold weather, white mountains against a black sky.” The book had led us to seek out Erewhon before we even knew the area had been kidnapped by for the Lord of the Rings although it is fair to say they have made good and you would hardly know there had been a small township for 11 months in this area. This time we were not turned back at the gates to the Erewhon Station but there were welcoming signs with promises of a turning point in 2 kms, and to continue to their accommodation or to take a wagon trip pulled by Clydesdale horses. Fortunately we required neither as there was not a soul at the Station and we had no signal to ring the phone number conveniently displayed! We did however find there was an interesting ford to negotiate on the way. It was still nice to get there after thinking about it for so long.

On the way back we took the other branch to Lake Heron, pleasant but not quite so impressive as Erewhon and then the side track to look at the coal mines and the Jig that served them. There is a turn off about 8.5 kms short of Mt Somers which continues as a gravel road another 3.5 kms to the Woolshed Creek car park. We followed the old Miner Trail which forms the initial part of the Mt Somers walkway up past the Jig and on to the old Blackburn Mine coal workings. We have walked to the mine on previous trips but this time we did not have the boots for 'rock hopping' across the streams. .The Jig was a tramway arrangement with an up and down trolley linked by cable with suitable brakes to allow a load of coal to descend whilst the empty truck was taken back up. It ascended 170 metres in 550 metres so even the old miners track which zigzagged a little gave us a little exercise.

We climbed through the forest of black beech which has a thick black coating over the bark which seems to be a sweet fungus which delights the wasps which feast on it. There were some interpretation boards. The mining started in tunnels but after the coal seam was set on fire by spontaneous ignition it converted to open cast and the fires were put out every morning before work started. On the previous trip to the mine we saw there was a hydraulic monitor on display and we were not sure if the everybody was sluiced away or if it was used to put out the fires. On the way down there is an alternative route via a nature trail - it involves two crossings of the Woolshed Creek which involved a little rock hopping.

Overall a very enjoyable morning but be warned, much of it is gravel roads with rough large stones and a ford so you need a 4x4, or other vehicle with good tyres and ground clearance like our Mazda Bongo from Rental Car Village.

We left Mount Somers the next morning in pouring rain undecided where to go. By the time we got to Geraldine the sky had clear blue patches towards the mountains so we stocked up with food and petrol and rang ahead to secure a basic cabin at Lake Tekapo - we nearly baulked at $75 and made it a single night only. Geraldine is a good centre for a number of the DOC camp sites up in the foothills such as Waihi Gorge but is a bit touristy – the coaches all have comfort stops and it is he home of the biggest jumper in the world as well as an impressive tapestry. We stopped in parking in the forest for our first picnic lunch this holiday on a rather wet bench.

We then stopped briefly in Fairlie for fuel before going out to the Fairlie Heritage Museum which has a large collection of largely farm based items. It spreads over a number of large buildings including an original pioneer cottage, now in a time warp and the blacksmith's premises. The entire Fairlie railway station had been added - it had been moved complete from its original site in the main street and must have been quite a sight as the building and transporter was 114 feet long and about 24 wide. To these had been added a number of new 'hanger like' buildings which were full of basically agricultural and transport machinery from a stage coach similar to those of 120 years ago carrying 17 people inside and hanging onto open seats on top to veteran cars. There is a lot of old farm machinery much of which is under cover but outside which was a challenge in some of the rain storms. There was a big collection of fixed engines and lots of farm machinery as well as the railway exhibits and hospital equipment in the old station. There is even an autogyro hanging from the roof. There was also a lot of interesting information about sheep farming, especially shearing through the ages. and lots of unlikely but fascinating displays inside including barbed wire – hundreds of types and almost as many types of fencing wire tensioners.

Since we last came, they have moved the tractors to a huge new building the other side of the road which one collects a key for from the shop. It now has a number of old cars which included a Standard 8 only one year different from Pete’s first car and a converted Standard Vanguard which looked as if it had been a pick-up then a shooting brake. Pete also had an Ensign which came from his father which was a close sibling of the Vanguard. There were lots of interesting old tractors and tracked vehicles all of which seemed to be runners. We met a local who also had a collection of such vehicles and when he realised we were going to Tekapo he immediately offered us use of his caravan in the area – we already had a booking but we have his name for next time and Ross, if you read this, we will take you up some time even if we have to cool the beer next time!

We paused at Burke’s Pass village to look in the earlies ‘United’ church in New Zealand – tiny but worth a halt as there was also a lot of information on the new heritage trail set up round the village which was a stop before Burke’ Pass itself which is about 750m

It was then on to Lake Tekapo - the mountains were partially covered but the lake still had the magnificent pale blue colour. Tekapo lies in MacKenzie country, a vast basin of golden tussock grass with the lake at 2,300 feet above sea level, an area known for sheep. Maori were the first to venture into this area. In 1855 James MacKenzie, of sheep stealing fame, found the pass used by the Maori opening up the area which now bears his name. The Maori name for the lake comes from Taka, sleeping mat and Po, night.

We stayed at the Holiday Park where we did little that day but check in and walk quickly down to the waterside and look along to the end where there is a new ice rink and curling rink, as well as a spa and a number of public and private hot pools. We have used the camp site before but it is now very expensive and the facilities and older cabins are very run down – I found 5 ways to open our window and break in without even trying and of the three stoves in the kitchen one had failed completely and the one we used only had full on or off on the rings we tried. The other kitchen block was closed and one set of toilets was half closed and converted to unisex showers and toilets – not very good for $75 for a very basic cabin with nothing with it. One can see why they do not belong to any of the big federations – they would be flung out. In contrast it was completely as there is no option. The best thing was the powerful wall heater which was required as the door was all warped. On the good side the barbecues are free. We latter found out is fresh hands and a lot of the problems are being address by the new owner, Peter from Auckland.

In the morning we went down to the tiny and very beautiful Church of the Good Shepherd which was open, and there were lots of tour buses outside and swarms of tourists all taking photos of themselves against the mountain backdrop. The Church of Good Shepherd has a plain glass window over the altar with a stunning view of the lake and mountains - far better than any stained glass. I use an earlier picture taken in 1999 for my Xmas cards. Who needs stained glass? The Church was built in 1935 and is now interdenominational and as well as regular services it does a good trade in Weddings. The builders of the Church were instructed that the site was to be left undisturbed - even the Matagouri bushes surrounding the building were to remain. Rocks which happened to be on the lines of the walls had to remain. The stones for the walls had to be procured within 8 kms of the site, were to be left in their natural condition. The original wooden shingle roof has however had to be replaced with slate.

We spent some time talking to Dave Clark who was on duty looking after the church. We have spoken to him several times in the past and he is a huge fund of knowledge about the church and also what is going on in Tekapo. He is also a great walker and was responsible for our first walks up the nearby Mt John, which he used to climb most mornings, and many other tramps over a wide area. We sought advice on some local high country backroads but did not follow the one we mainly talked about but have marked it for a future trip.

Instead we followed canals as much as possible towards Cromwell - there are many private roads following the canals, which connect the various lakes and power stations providing hydroelectric power. These roads are open for use with some restrictions, such as speed, and most are tarmac and to a very high quality, in fact some of the Heritage trails such as the Bullock Trail, use these roads. There has been much argument over the flooding of the valleys but the results are, to us, a number of extremely beautiful areas with good recreational facilities. You can follow these hydroelectric scheme roads for miles along wide canals with pale blue waters and past vast power stations with banks of pipes several metres in diameter bringing the water down from the canals above. The waters are the same incredible light blue colour of the lakes. We turned along the canals to the Mt Cook salmon farm which is signposted. They have expanded over the years, and there were local fishermen seated hopefully between the ponds. The quality here is good and we purchased salmon tails, on the bone, for $9 each. The raw salmon sushi was very popular with oriental tourists. We stopped briefly at Lake Pukaki to look at the views towards Mt Cook, still clear and covered with snow. There is a second salmon farm alongside the main road near Lake Ruataniwha. Our nest stop was Omarama to fuel and have an ice-cream and we finally reached Cromwell at about 1330. Once we had checked into the camp site, booked a trip on the Earnslaw for the following day and emptied some of our kit from the vehicle it was time to look at some of the Gold Mining areas – the Bannockburn Sluicings were the closest and one of our favourites.

The Bannockburn Sluicings are only 5 kms from Cromwell. We have been before but even so it is difficult to appreciate the scale of operations and the magnitude of materials removed. The walks round the area have been re-routed in places to avoid erosion and the main walk now takes about two hours the first time allowing time to read the many explanatory boards and to explore and photograph a little. There are some additions which are not so well signed but the main walk is enough to get a good understanding. The scale of the old operations is awe inspiring - cliffs perhaps a hundred feet high and hundreds of yards across cut out of the hillsides making huge amphitheatres and the whole area between stripped away. One is just seeing little "islands" standing to the original surface level.

Almost all of the operations were powered by water, first ground sluicing where water was just allowed to pour over the edges of the faces washing the gold bearing gravel down into sluice boxes, then latter, hydraulic sluicing where high pressure jets of water were used from below to bring down the faces. The tailings followed complex channels cut into the ground to eventually be washed away down the Kawarau River. During the walk we saw some of the water races and dams bringing in the vast supplies needed to wash away millions of cubic feet of gravel and the complex channels cut to get the tailings away to the river. The water was often reused and we saw an intermediate dam used to collect the water from sluicing before using it to periodically flush the build up of tailings down the tailings races to the river.

One walks through an old settlement, Stewart Town, - a few mud brick houses beside one of the larger dams. In its day it had big orchards with hundreds of fruit trees irrigated as a bonus of the water races. Now the area is once more arid and only a few pear trees and apricots survive - the pears were still hard but the small apricots were starting to drop off the trees so we tried a few. The whole area of Bannockburn is also alive with wild thyme and there is the most wonderful smell wherever one walks as one crushes it underfoot. One can still see the shape of the water races leading from the dam, in some places running beside each other along the slope, each feeding a different set of workings or claim. As they descend the channels were stone lined and complex flumes, aqueducts and pipes distributed the water - there was often more money to be made in supplying water and removing tailings than in the gold itself. Bannockburn is perhaps the best place to get to understand and appreciate large scale sluicing operations and the couple of hours walk covers all the main features.

We got back at about 1730, just in time for a walk round Old Cromwell. Cromwell was a major centre during the Goldmining days and was at the junction of two of the major gold-bearing rivers, the Kawarau and the mighty Clutha. For many years it was just known as The Junction. In 1862 gold was discovered just below Cromwell and the rush was on. As Gold ran out Cromwell became a centre for farming and fruit-growing viewpoint. The Clyde dam, which formed Lake Dunstan, flooded a Old Cromwell. The area is already quite interesting and can easily occupy an hour or two. Cromwell Museum has a lot of local history from the town’s start and initial signification as a centre for the gold fields on to fruit farming. A major part covered the changes on the area when the hydroelectric scheme started.

Before flooding, some of the historic buildings representative of the original town were rescued from the main street and rebuilt mud brick by mudbrick and corrugated iron sheet by sheet above the water level. This comprises the (free) museum area of Old Cromwell. The first building is the Victoria Arms Hotel, then the Masonic Lodge. Both are opposite the parking area. There are then eight historic buildings which were relocated, including the Cobb and Co Store, London House, G Stumbles General Merchant, Cromwell Argus and Jolly's Grain Store. It only takes a short time to admire the buildings, unless you get tempted to stop for a coffee or look at the various arts and crafts – but most were closed by the time we got there. In the period after the buildings had been recorded, demolished and moved the mining companies moved in to mine the glacial drift gravels opposite Cornish Point which had been denied to them because of the town - it is believed that over 4000 ounces were recovered in this final ‘goldrush’, more than enough to reconstruct the old town.

The next day was a trip to Queenstown and a journey in the evening on the Steamship Earnslaw to Walter Peak for a buffet dinner and demonstration of sheep dogs and shearing. On route we stopped first at the Goldmining Centre in the Karawau Gorge for a few minutes to check what they were doing these days. We inspected the huge pump which was used to supply large quantities of low pressure water from the Karawau river which was driven by a Pelton Wheel driven by high pressure water from a water race high above - an interesting interchange.

It was then on to the nearby Chard Farm winery, on a narrow side-road off the Karawau Gorge. It is well worth the interesting trip down the narrow unsealed road which seems to hang unsupported off the steep cliff down to the Karawau Gorge below. We have found their wines consistently good and they are difficult to obtain anywhere other than at the cellar door – they have an enthusiastic following and most are sold direct although they gave us the names of places in Wellington and Auckland where some wines could be obtained. It was Pete’s turn for the tasting and he tried most of their selection. They are very proud of their Riesling and it is one of a small number of NZ Rieslings we like – he had the chance to also try their reserve which is the favourite of the owner’s wife who is German and it is very much in the German Spatlese/Auslese style. The Gewürztraminer was also unusually good – we bought two Rieslings and one Gewürztraminer. The three Pinot Noirs available for tasting were also very good but, as is normal, quite expensive – the best Pete tried was $69 and was not really ready for drinking and certainly not for carrying round in a hot van. If you want a quiet, informative tasting of top Otago wines it is The place to go, and if you want a meal the Gibbston Winery does excellent lunches down the road with a chance to compare their wines, or purchase a picnic from the Cheesery next door. We went without lunch as we were saving ourselves for the evening.

It was then on to Queenstown known in the early Goldmining days just as The Camp. A town meeting was held to decide on a name and somebody said it was a town good enough for a Queen and the name stuck. To some Queenstown is the essence of New Zealand - the centre of the adventure sports NZ has become known for with bungy jumping, rafting, parachuting, parascending, hang gliding and jet boating to name a few. It is a place you really have to visit the first time one comes to New Zealand but much of what it is best known for is not what brings us back to New Zealand - yes we have been on the Shotover Jet boat rides (which are an incredible experience in a rather theatrical way) and we have watched or participated in many of the other activities. It is however thronging with tourists unlike almost any other town in New Zealand. It is also one of the few places where one worries about leaving things or bad behaviour; mostly we regret to say from Europeans.

Despite everything said above we come through and sometimes even stay for a day or two. There is the magnificent scenery round the lake looking across to the Remarkables and all up the road to Glenorchy, one is close to the Goldfields with Arrowtown and the Kawarau Gorge and there are several of the Otago vineyards within an easy drive. There is the superb old steamship the Earnslaw still running as smoothly and silently as when she entered the water nearly 100 years ago, this is her centenary year with big celebrations in the planning stage for October 2012. She was initially built and had a preliminary assembly in Dunedin before being brought up by train to Kingston in February 1912 where she was reassembled and fitted out before steaming to Queenstown for final fit-out and her maiden voyage in October.1912.

The Earnslaw does trips from Queenstown to the Walter Peak Station every two hours during the summer, starting at 1000. The trips can be combined with morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner in the old colonial house. We prefer dinner, where there is a good buffet meal with very plentiful food and a good carvery to the sound of their resident piano player, Bob who has been playing the piano before we made our first visit in 1993. We have his CD at home. Dinner is followed by a sheep dog demonstration and shearing. They used to try to persuade the visitors to have a ride on their bull - the previous one called Robby, which we had seen and Pauline was persuaded to ride, has unfortunately been put down because of arthritis and the young replacement 'did not prove reliable', one wonders what is hidden behind those innocuous words. It is not a cheap trip at $115 including the buffet dinner but the experience of the Earnslaw is un-forgetable and the food very good, with a wide selection and plenty of time to revisit the buffet many times. Highlights were the various smoked and other cold salmons, the lamb roast, venison casserole and lamb shanks, the hot sticky toffee pudding, the NZ National Dessert - Pavlova and a good selection of Whitestone boutique cheeses with guava paste. Even the set-piece sheep dog demonstration and shearing was well worth watching because of his interesting commentary. There was no longer the option of sitting on a bull, but that gave more time to visit the souvenir shop.

The Walter Peak Station is still very active and huge by UK standards running 15,000 sheep, merinos on the high country and Peridales on the flatter parts, along with 800 cows. When they bring the sheep in the shepherds and dogs are now taken up by chopper to the top of Cecil Peak 1975m and they use 15 dogs to bring them all in. The homestead block and demonstration area has now been separated off from the main station and is called the Walter Peak High Country Farm but it still covers 450 acres.

After our couple of days in Cromwell it was time to move on. Follow our progress in Part 4 - Central Otago, the Goldfields and the Snow: Omakau and Lawrence

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