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Touring New Zealand 2016 - part 11

Sunday 6 March

The following morning looked perfect for a backroad adventure so we decided to go along the Thomson Gorge Road, as part of a day trip fromCairnmuir. We went briefly into Cromwell to see if there was any additional information and to look at the Sunday Market. Unfortunately we did not realise it was at the old town which we had passed on the way into town and we could not face driving back knowing there were few parking slots so we could be in for a long walk to get there - and we did not need anything so we set off rather than waste time.

Thomson Gorge Road: Many of the Central Otago Goldfields were very remote in New Zealand and were reached by a number of trails many of which still exist as Back-roads, Summer Dry Weather Roads, 4WD Tracks and Hiking Trails. We have taken the vans along quite a few of these in the past and we decided to repeat the Thomson Gorge Road over the Dunstan Mountains between the old gold towns of Bendigo and Tinkers which is near Omakau. It started as a Maori trail and was then used by goldminers before becoming an access road for the remote farms. Before we did it the first time we spent a long time preparing and had done a few miles along the road from both directions and bought a 1:50,000 map. It was mainly the 5 fords in the central portion which had worried us. There is now an excellent leaflet first published by the Otago Goldfields Heritage in 2004 and updated in 2007, which describes the important features and historic sites, we used the matching one on the Nevis road. We stopped in the Museum in Cromwell and picked up the latest leaflet and the lady was very helpful and gave us some reassurance about the current state of the road which was helpful. The first time we had followed the veteran car club which had taken their vehicles across before Christmas in 2005. The Thomson Gorge Road is classed as a summer 2WD Trail, but definitely 4WD at other times or after heavy rain.

According to the map, the road begins at the Cromwell end either at Bendigo township or at the Ardgour Road. We found in the past that the recommended road from Bendigo was marked as a private road and was in bad condition. Now we heard that there were more vineyards and the road was even more difficult to find and the lady in the information office gave explicit instructions on how to find the'current' entry which cooincided with our GPS waypoints which was reassuring. We enter from the Ardgour Road at Lindis Crossing. This was a good decision. According to the map the two entry roads eventually joined at a triangle, but even with the join marked on the GPS we did not identify it.

We were interested in the old gold mining sites, so stopped at the Come in Time Reef. In 1880 it was the last of the Bendigo reefs to be discovered. Both open workings and tunnel operation were used, known as the Red Tunnel Mine. A marked track leads down past the entrance to a mine tunnel and then on down to the old Eureka battery. DOC have extensively restoried the battery. We were pleased to see the work because for many years DOC had tried to ignore the gold mining heritage in other parts of New Zealand. Portions of the overhead cable-way gear could just be seen high up on the opposite slope, marked by white posts.

The beautiful countryside continued as we climbed over Thomson's Saddle, at 990 metres. We soon descended to the valley and saw the cattle yards. This time we did not do the short walk up Thomson's Creek to see the old stone hut as we had missed the parking. The road had gradually deteriorated and some sections had deep ruts carved by the recent heavy rains and needed great care to plot a path which would not drop a wheel into a hole or rut - the van is rear wheel drive has small wheels and does not have a limited slip differential so is prone to wheel spin or having a wheel in the air and being trapped. Other sections had lost all the metal and were back to bare rock. We had the five fords to cross and unlike last time when we were following a 4x4 we had to stop to look at a couple closely to plot a route, one was a particular challenge as it was filled with big 10-12 cm boulders and other rocks by the recent rains and had a steep exit but we got through. That was the point where the last thoughts of returning the same way disappeared. We could see some evidence of the Thomson Creek Gully Diggings along this section. At the last ford there was a large modern cattle building which looked out-of-place in the valley. We had travelled 29 kms in just over 2 hours

Last time Pauline kept a record of the gates and she had opened, and closed, 15 gates, this time it was closer to 20. This is in addition to the many which we had found already open. The road was wide enough to pass easily in most places and where it was narrow there were long views ahead to see oncoming traffic, even on the sections cut into the hillside along the gorge. There is one section along a narrow crest which we were warned could be subject to high winds but in dry calm conditions there should be no major problems with a car provided the road continues to be well maintained. We enjoyed the journey with its magnificent views and it is a road we may take again, most likely in the opposite direction which also matches the information sheet but only if we are sure it has been maintained - this time it was severely damaged by recent heavy rain which we did not know.

In summary - unless you have done the road before or have extensive backroad experience and a recent update from someone who has crossed we no longer recommend it without a 4x4 with good ground clearance. There is virtually no other traffic to help, no mobile coverage and we would expect to pay for any help or damage. Traffic is almost non existent, this time we met one lady on a trials bike the entire way, last time one 4x4. I will seriously consider a rope and handwinch and some blocks if we ever do it again.

Matakanui/Tinkers Workings: Our exit from the Thomson Gorge Road left us still in backroads and we noticed we were close to Matakanui and I also had a GPS marker for Tinkers, which I recalled was another old gold mining area so we went round hoping our memory of the area would improve as we got there! It did to some extent as soon as we saw Matakunui and we recalled a visit many years ago to Alexandra Museum where we spent a long time speaking to the Curator, Elizabeth who was obviously very interested and knowledgeable about Goldmining. She lived in Ophir and also suggested several places we should look at including the old cottages at Matakanui (used to be called Tinkers in the mining days), the cemetery at Drybread and she was actually the person who suggested a road following the old Maori and miners tracks through the Thompson Gorge to Bendigo, the one we had just done!

Looking back on the write up on our web site showed that we had easily found the old cottages at Matakanui (Tinkers) but the road which we understood led up to the remains was gated so we did not proceed as we should have done - in those days we had not understood that that many back-roads are gated. This time we got to the gate and I thought I recognised the site so we walked through and up to where the workings would have been - there was less to see than I expected and I think in retrospect I may have been confused as many such areas look very similar. It was an interesting fill in of the areas we have read about anyway and we had the chance to have a good look at one of the irrigation channels which was probably one of those originally built to feed the gold workings. More research brought out the information that it was one of the areas where John Ewing (the Gold Baron who also developed St Bathans) was involved and at one time it was the most successful alluvial goldfield in New Zealand.

Omakau: Once we had reached the main road we paused at Omakau at the Muddy Creek Café on the corner of the main road for enormous ice creams. Omakau is an important stopping place for cyclists on the Otago Rail Trail, and there are the usual services – a good little supermarket, Post Office, fuel and garage, hotel and camping grounds.

Ophir: We crossed the main road to take the side trip round the small village of Ophir. Ophir has twenty or so houses left in their original state. Gold was discovered in the area in 1863 and almost overnight the population reached 1000. In its heyday Ophir was the commercial and social centre of the district with a number of stores, a school, police station, courthouse, post office, hospital, two hotels and two churches. Many of these buildings remain and are being steadily restored and the few extra buildings are very much in character. Features such as the wide street with massive kerbstones and stone lined gutters remain. Apart from the odd car you could have been transported back 130 years. Most of the buildings are in private hands however the Post Office is owned by the Historic Places Trust, to which we belong. We have spent some time in the Post Office talking to the postmistresson previous visits. She took over 12 years ago and she found details of some of the mining survey reports for the area dating back to 1890 and other early reports on dredging from the turn of the century. Her predecessor who had been in post for 27 years, had gathered a vast and fascinating number of local photographs and information of all sorts. This time we did not even have time to go in as we saw an advert on the door for the Hayes Engineering Works that said that it was running today. This was an opportunity not to miss - we have seen it in action before but it now only occurs once a month so we jumped back in the van and went straight there after flashing our Historic Places card so they could count us as visitors in their records, every visitor counts!

Hayes Engineering Works: The Hayes Engineering Works is another Historic Places site we have visited before. It is just as it was when it closed in 1952 and is still operational, although it is now driven from an electric motor (or a tractor power take off when required) - previously the power was from a dam driven Pelton wheel is still in place but does not work as the water supply from the adjacent hillside is no more. When they fitted the electric motor they did tests to see what size would be needed and it turned out that the whole system with its belt drives to three workshops only required 2 kwatts and a 3 kwatt (4 horsepower) motor was fitted to give a reserve.

Hayes was an inventor as well as Engineer and initially designed and built his own windmill to power the plant. It was on a tower 12 metres tall with sails of 7 metres diameter, the largest in the country at the time, but was later replaced by the Pelton Wheel to give more reliable power for the works. A major part of his business was however the production of windmills of various novel and patented designs.

His most famous inventions were to do with the seemingly mundane but actually very important job of tensioning the wire for fences. His designs started in 1905 and were soon in use all over New Zealand. They were developed further and the final version produced in 1924 is still in production now and finally won an engineering innovation award in 1982 - that must be a record! You will still find the Hayes brand name on most of the tightening devices at the end of barbed wire fences - we have been checking! The works are well worth a detour for a look when open and it is even better if you can arrange to be there on one of the days when it is powered up with dozens of belts of novel forms driving the tools. It seems to be the first Saturday in every month this year up to April but will vary a lot. We have been there when it is running before and were lucky this time that it was the appropriate Saturday and even more lucky that we arrived just as a tour was starting and that Ken was doing it - he has the farm next door and is a real enthusiast and maintains everything in pristine condition as well as being a very good and entertaining speaker as we found on a previous visit.

The homestead was built in 1920 to replace the old original 1895 homestead which is now a café and shop. We had our own food but the homemade cakes in the cafe, especially the chocolate one, looked very tempting. The maintenance and updating work on the homestead which we had reported in previous years in now completed and the recommended tour is again self-guided using the entrance through the front door, exitting through the kitchen at the back. Ken mentioned that his wife had spent a lot of effort on the work in the homestead. Last time Ken also showed us round the house and pointed out Hayes various inventions and engineering ideosyncrasis in the house including bookshelves supported from the ceiling and one of the first overhead showers and flush toilets in the country. The flush uses a double insulated tube system which is almost silent in operation. The laundry contains a switch for power to the house operated by a chain and the speed of the pelton wheel and hence voltage can be adjusted from the laundry via a system of cables out to the power house. The radio signal was also piped round the house by a system of tubes.

The Hayes family still manages the hardware shop in Invercargill, and it was Irving Hayes who helped Burt Munroe with some of his metal working as he modified his Indian motorbike, and won the speed record. It is all explained in the film The World’s Fastest Indian. The record breaking bike is on display along with many other memorabilia in the shop in Invercargill.

Oturehua Store: Just down the road is Oturehua, an old mining town that had been the source of the cabin we were staying in 1896. The historic store dates from 1882 and still largely in its original state with Kauri counters, box shelving and cabinets still occupy one side in which are displayed many items of yesteryear - well worth looking into as well as being one of the only sources of ice-creams in the area. They also had a magnificent old set of Avery Scales, the type with a big weighing platform and an arm, which you hung weights on and then slid a small weight along.

St Bathans: We then went on to St Bathans, it was the wrong direction but there was still some life in the day. The town is interesting and, like Ophir, time has stood still, although it is perhaps a bit more commercialised. The original Post Office (owned by DOC)Click for larger image is open as a shop and when we visited in 2012 there was a local outcry as it was planned to turn it into accommodation. The Vulcan Hotel is still popular as ever with groups of motor cyclists. What interested us most were the mining remains. St Bathans was the site of perhaps the greatest of the Hydraulic Elevator and Sluicing operations. Starting in 1864 Kildare hill, originally 120 meters high, was reduced by Hydraulic Sluicing to nothing and then in 1880 Hydraulic elevators were used and eventually it was reduced to a pit 68 meters deep. This was the deepest hydraulic mining lift in the world. The enormous hole was flooded in 1935 when mining was abandoned. They only stopped because of fears that the main street of St Bathans was about to collapse into the workings - one can see the cracks in the buildings today.

It is difficult to convey the size of the Lake and surrounding workings full of tailings and faces. We guess that it could be close to a kilometre long and 200-300 metres wide which ties in with statements in one of the books that over 100,000 oz of gold had been removed from a 200 acre area by 1893. An awe inspiring sight and a ‘must visit’. The town hall is open and has lots of early pictures showing it in operation which needs to be looked at. A loop walk is now open and there are some artefacts remaining to see and good views of the lake. The walk does not yet go right round the lake but there are plans to open up a full circumnavigation. It was by now late in the day and Pete did not even have time for a dip in the lake as he often does - very refreshing on a hot day nor could we see how much of the walk was now open - we just got a picture or two with the sun low on the horizon.

The Dunstan Memorial: We finally stopped near Clyde at a roadside memorial to look over the area, now flooded by the hydroelectric dam, where the finds were made which started the important rush to Dunstan. In 1862 two Californians, Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly left the diggings at Gabriel's Gully hoping to win one of the awards for discovering a new Goldfield. They worked their way up the Clutha finding enough gold to keep them confident that better was to come. At one point they panned 40 oz in a week with a single borrowed pan. They kept quiet about their successively better and better finds until they discovered a very rich beach just below where Cromwell is today and where the memorial stands. In the succeeding months they washed a total of 87 pounds of gold with which they returned to Dunedin to claim a reward. They were then told they would only qualify if the new field yielded 16,000 oz in three months, a seemingly impossible change of the goalposts. In fact 70,000 oz was carried out in the remaining 4 months of the year by the Escort as well as that carried by miners. This rush started the major immigration from Australia and changed Otago and perhaps New Zealand for ever.


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Content revised: 18th July, 2020