A Trail of Discovery in New Zealand
He was crouched by the edge of the river slowly swishing gravel around a pan that looked to me like the one I use to feed the dog.
“Are you panning for gold?” I asked.
“Yep”, came back the muffled response. He didn’t even look around probably hoping I would just go away.
“Can you still find gold in this river?” I intruded upon him again.
“Last month a fellow found a nugget upstream worth $10,000”, he replied continuing to keep a close look for a glint of gold that might reveal itself for his efforts.
My heart jumped a beat with excitement as I conjured up the magic of tramping the rivers and streams of New Zealand discovering gold.
Saying thanks to the man’s back I slowly meandered along the Arrow River and back into Arrowtown once upon a time a thriving gold mining town now restored in all its glory the main street sparkling with shops of gold and assorted goods for the traveler. After a visit to the local Museum and over a few pints at the local pub I soon discovered the possibility of finding gold, even today, was a likely event. A section on the river by the town is set aside for recreational gold panning and with perseverance you are almost guaranteed to find a speck of gold for the effort.
In 1862, William Fox, a California miner, was the first to discover gold in the Arrow River and Arrowtown as a community was formed. It was one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world where Fox and fellow miners panned out over 19kg (42lbs) in two weeks.
A walk through the restored Chinese miner’s settlement nearby was a reminder of the historic significance of gold in this region of New Zealand and the hardships of those early times. The discoveries in New Zealand brought a new stampede of prospectors from all over the world.
The entire region around Queenstown, Arrowtown and Glenorchy is famous for its early significance in the days of gold discovery. The most captivating scenery discovered is on the drive through the area where raw jagged stone mountains embrace the deep blue waters of Lake Wakitipu and hide the elusive gold still hidden here. It is a part of New Zealand that provides some of the most scenic vistas in the country and a place for the more adventuresome to enjoy jet boating, bungy jumping, sky diving and much more.
I drove to hidden places down unsealed roads such as Moke Lake on the road to Glenorchy from Queenstown. Though rural all the roads are excellent to drive. They twist and curl around rock outcroppings along the lake where sometimes you seem to be poised high over the water looking almost straight down to the rocky shores and confronted with the surrounding heights of massive rock cliffs.
Leaving the area I headed east to see what I could discover in the heartland of the gold bearing mountains and streams of Central Otago. From Arrowtown I immediately descended into a valley dominated by wild rushing waters tearing through the Kawarau Gorge. Usable land along the Gorge has become one of New Zealand’s internationally known top wine producing regions. It is the location AJ Hackett first jumped off a bridge strapped to bungy cords and a new adventure was born. From the humble old bus that was once the office for the business they now have a large architectural styled building where even those not into throwing themselves off a bridge can stop and enjoy the visit. Viewing platforms make it easy to see everything going on.
I made the easy and visually exciting drive of several hours from Arrowtown to deep into the heart of the Central Otago region where the small towns of Ranfurly, Naseby, St. Bathans and numerous others perch upon the rolling plains and mountains among vast stretches of grass land where Merino sheep are predominant. I didn’t pass anyone on the trip except a couple of local farmers making their way around their farms. It is a quiet and peaceful place.
Annual celebrations of their golden heritage are held throughout these Otago communities with what is named the Cavalcade as the most inspiring. It is a re-enactment of the early gold miners heading to the major discoveries by foot, on horseback and by wagon. Every March people from many walks of life enjoy being a part of the Cavalcade. Starting from several different locations, braving almost the same conditions as the early pioneers for a week or more, they converge on a different town each year. I watched in awe as over 500 hardy individuals paraded through Patearoa where they gathered to enjoy the end of their adventure with family, friends and visitors.
What a sight and experience just to be there. It was easy to be caught up in the excitement as sunburned and bearded faces paraded past beaming with a great personal satisfaction having enjoyed an experience of a lifetime.
“Will you do it again?” I asked one of the walkers who came striding by.
“Mate this was one of the toughest weeks I have ever spent. I can’t wait till next year to do it again.” He replied.
The scenery throughout Central Otago is some of the most spectacular in the world. For me to follow in the wagon ruts and footsteps, via very good roads, of the early pioneers who settled this country added a colourful dimension to my visit. It is not the usual tourist trail and the wonder of driving along in such vast country with the rawness of the natural surroundings encompassing you allows the mind to feel the wonder of the early pioneers.
I found my gold along the way in the discovery of one of those special places in the natural world and meeting some of the finest down-to-earth people who live there. Much like the Cavalcade tramper I look forward to coming back. Maybe this time I will give that creek a pan for some real gold...