You may have formed the impression from my previous blog that central Otago is some kind of desolate, primeval wilderness almost entirely devoid of human activity. However, while it is true that parts of the region are – or, at least, feel – incredibly remote, we came to appreciate it as a glowing testament to man’s resourcefulness and endurance, both past and present. Certainly, there is far more history scattered amongst these hills than in your average New Zealand mountain range, not least because of the gold rush that took place here in the 1860s, when a glut of wealth-seeking miners descended on the Otago valleys to exploit the rich seams discovered here.
The relics of those bountiful times are hard to miss as one drives along Otago’s highways, the most visible markers being the unnaturally smooth hillsides that bear the scars of the miners’ gold-releasing sluice guns. Many of the settlements here were born out of the boom engendered by the mining operations and old parts of towns Cromwell and St Bathans have been almost perfectly preserved since the gold rush. After spending a month surrounded by the characterless architecture of central Auckland, it was a blessed relief to find good old-fashioned stone buildings populating Otago’s more historic towns and villages. Wandering the streets of Old Cromwell Town, with its cottages, stores and stables seemingly untouched in over a century, felt like stepping back into some lost Victorian England village.
These days, of course, the gold is long since gone and the only mining taking place here now is that of tourists’ wallets by the manifold museums and heritage sites set up to preserve and celebrate the region’s historic status. Despite that, though, life continues to flourish here in other ways and during our all-too-brief trip we were introduced some of the most open, welcoming people we had encountered in any country, let alone New Zealand. I suspect the uncommon cheer and friendliness of Otago’s 21st century residents is due in part to a common need for solidarity and community as a form of self-preservation against the landscape. The 19th century gold miners found the conditions during winter impossibly harsh, with many perishing in their first year, and it can’t be much easier for the people who work and live here now.
The sheer distances between Otago settlements would be enough to make even the most frustrated Auckland office workers think twice before moaning again about their daily commute. Entire days spent car-bound days were no problem for us, as we were taking in the jaw-dropping scenery for the first time, but you have to respect the locals who live more than two hours’ drive from the nearest airport and fully-equipped hospital. God knows how the farmers for whom Danseys Pass is their only route to civilisation survive through the winter. And yet, no sense of frustration or urban-envy was at all obvious from those whom we met down there, even from the landlady of the Oturehua ale house who revealed she had spent years of her youth in London. One might have imagined that even the stunning snow-capped mountains of the Ida Valley would seem rather passé if you were waking up to them for the thousandth time but Otago’s people genuinely seem to love their lives here and we were heartened that the eight-year-old granddaughter of a local farmer told us she saw her future here in the mountains and not in some faraway shining metropolis.
After spending a week in one of central Otago’s remotest spots, we began to understand exactly why its residents are so happy here. Despite a very real sense of isolation that was no more apparent than at night when the only sounds – and I mean only – were those of moths fluttering alarmingly against our bedroom window, the manner in which the people here had forged such a contented mini-community across this vast, wild terrain truly fired the imagination as to what it was possible to achieve away from hustle and bustle of city life. Former NZ poet laureate and Oturehua resident Brian Turner apparently finds such inspiration here and an evening spent in conversation with him ended up being our trip’s most thought-provoking episode. Summoned by Margot and Steve for drinks from his nearby cottage, Brian entertained us with a fascinating discourse about mankind’s wastefulness and selfishness and advocated a greener, more self-sufficient lifestyle. Though we took him to task on exactly how one could realistically return the modern world to a simpler, more altruistic age, he certainly gave us food for thought and made us wonder if it were truly possible to live a happy, fulfilled life out here in the lonely mountains.