The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 3 (June 1, 1937)
Old Days of Gold. — Where The Streets Are Lit With Oil-Lamps
What I like about New Zealand (apart from the several things I love about it), is its power of quick-change artistry. It is like a book of small, brilliantly coloured and varied pages; if you are the sort of gastronomically hardened sinner to whom rainbow trout, grilled over a campfire and eaten underneath the lake pohutukawas doesn't appeal, you have only to flick a page, and behold a very fair imitation of Greenland's icy mountains, only much less forbidding, and sufficiently easy for the amateur's alpenstock to make a dent in their sides. In the South, if anything, this infinite variety is even more striking than in our old North Island; which, if I continue to write the flowery truth about the South, will set me down as a backslider and a renegade altogether.
Nevertheless, the way those small clay cottages cling to the black edge of nothingness has its fascination; and the rumble of the green and the yellow rivers.
Dunedin people, in a absentee landlord way, are very proud of what they call “Central.” Sometimes they saddle up and ride into its heart, sometimes their baby cars give an appealing look at the angles and set off to skirt the brinks of cliffs and gorges which are a little too awesome to be a motorist's paradise. One gathers, vaguely, that it isn't only the stern, slightly Scottish grandeur of Central which dwells in their minds, but the romance of the old gold-seeking towns, springing up fifty and more years ago, to harbour some of the wildest characters and strangest legends that ever took root in the soil of a new country. Mr. Bob. Gilkison, of Dunedin, has written an excellent book on the old days of gold in Central Otago, and if you want first-hand information about the “old identities,” you can hardly apply to a better source. I was told by a friend of Mr. Gilkison's that to go with him on a Central Otago trip was an almost unbearably slow process; because, all along the way, old-timers, complete with whiskers and nuggets appeared from their lairs and cried “Hullo, Bob!”
There is tragedy enough in some of the old stories. Mount Misery, Mount Hunger, dozens of other landmarks won their names through the deaths or suffering of pioneer goldseekers, straggling across the great hills, always in hopes of the grand strike which would put them on velvet for the rest of their lives—or, anyhow, enable them to paint bright vermilion the roaring goldrush towns, which look so sleepy to-day. Cromwell, Clyde, quaint little Arrowtown, how much they could say of the way New Zealand diggers had with a mate, a girl, a pickaxe, a good horse and a bottle!—all things which it behoves the well-educated man to handle as well as the next one.
Before visiting Dunedin, I had never seen a clay cabin; and when you do see one, you hardly believe your eyes, so quaint are these ghostly survivals from another time. Yet the pioneers were very proud indeed of their clay cottages, and there is an artistic charm about them which one would go far to seek in tin-roofed, wooden bungalows. Old settlers write that they were warm, dry and comfortable, with only one real disadvantage—the thick clay walls were a happy hunting-ground for fleas. Fleas or no fleas, it may interest New Zealand city dwellers to know that still, far down in “Central,” numbers of their countrymen live on in huts of clay or rough stone slabs, so crudely piled together that one wonders how their sides keep out the weather. Some of the cabins are empty and crumbling into decay, but others show a thin column of smoke, rising above the jade-green of the Kawarau river gorge, the grandest bit of “Central.”
Rivers of yellow, rivers of green. The yellow river tells how, miles to the north, prospectors are washing out alluvial gold, perhaps meagre scrapings which just enable them to keep going with the aid of the Government subsidy, perhaps a more or less reliable £6 or £7 a week. I know one young Christchurch journalist who lost his job during the depression; he “parked” his family, said goodbye to the city, and went out to Central, where he lived in a cabin, washed river gold, and seldom bothered a razor strop. The first year was hard enough, but at the end of the second, he struck the lucky patch about which diggers still dream. Since then, he has been averaging at least £6 a week, and thinks his claim a steady-going proposition for the next several years. His cabin has become a little house, and his family have joined him—young New Zealand growing up with the old gold days under their eyes. Around clay cabins in Otago Central, I saw little gardens, gay with flowers, or boastful with grandiose-looking onions, potatoes and curly kale; and young New Zealand, playing tow-headed and bare-legged outside these little abodes, looked by no means so forlorn as the comfort-loving mortal, who has never been beyond a stone's throw of the talkie palaces, might expect. Nor are the women living in the gold-bearing country of New Zealand entirely cut off from an interest in the world and its affairs. One sees wireless masts popping up on the queerest pinnacles. A souvenir which I am keeping for luck was a specimen of alluvial gold sent to me by the wife of a gold-seeker. A charming, well-educated young girl, page 35 she had once worked in one of London's most famous florist shops, and had written some articles about the varied life of a floral artist, which I had the pleasure of reading. The gold arrived a few weeks later—and I still keep it next to my four-leaved clover, in the expectation that it will turn to millions one day.
Not the glitter of gold alone, but sheer majesty catches one's breath at the first sight of Central. At the Kawarau Gorge, where “scenery” begins, and continues until one gets to Queenstown and the Southern Lakes, the huge black cliffs rise up, so sharp and steep that the sunset is cracked against them like the rind of a pomegranate. All the way from Dunedin to Cromwell, the train rumbles through tussock country. Such trees as dip their green heads into the wind have been planted, in little groups forlorn against the wide-spread yellow. From a little distance, the tussock country looks exactly like a lion's skin. There is the taut-stretched, tawny drum, the lean rocks stretching up for ribs, the high tufts which make the lion's tail. Part of the country is high plateau, splendid, and yet most desolate. But there is no weariness for the eye in this barren gold. The scenery has only one feature which is a nightmare touch; almost as soon as we left Dunedin, the fences bore queer little crescents, sometimes still befurred, sometimes bleaching into mere sticks of skin and bone. The tale of mass rabbit-killing is part of Otago's history. Old residents can still remember how the first rabbits came to “Central,” and to the Mackenzie Country; and how, a few years later, scores of men were employed on every big station, trying to wipe out the hordes whose numbers could not be counted. Evidence that the trapper is still hard at work to-day hangs stiffening on the fences; it is an ugly thing to see, and if you want another touch of the fantastic, nothing could be queerer than the effect of millions of dried foxglove stalks, nodding their withered heads against the cliffs. Evidently some attempt has been made to stamp out the foxglove, and these witch's fingers wag at you for scores of miles, with the bleaching rabbits to keep them company. Mount Hunger … Mount Misery … There is still a touch of the grim and bizarre in the country which gave space to such names.
A lonely thing to see, past Cromwell (and by that time, having travelled all day in the train, you have transferred to a service car, and are sitting side by side with two diggers who have been celebrating in Cromwell, and insist on singing all the way back to their clay hut), is the old garden-patches that have been abandoned, and run into wilderness. The colour of gold is oddly reproduced in marigolds and escholtzias, great banks of them; but the white irises outnumber them, taking little dips and gullies to themselves, while behind rise the black cliffs, and the huts and cabins clinging on their eaves like swallows' nests. The car swoops through white irises on either hand into a thick waft of scent from hawthorn hedges, white and pink, so heavy with blossom that their great plumes trail in the dust; and that is the approach to Arrowtown, which is of all spots in Central one of the prettiest and quaintest to look at, and was the home, some seventy years ago, of a fine, fat, notorious buccaneer, Bully Hayes.
I met in Arrowtown an old man of ninety-six, with blue eyes and a back as straight as a dart. His name was Romans, and on being told there was a stranger in the service car who would like to speak with him about the old days, he strode across the main street, and shook hands with me. There was nothing wrong with his sight, hearing or memory, though I thought he seemed a little bit hurt when I called him an old identity; for, said he, he had only been in Arrowtown three and sixty years. Mr. Romans, who was a gold-digger in the past, is a butcher now, and still makes the sausages, was not in Arrowtown when Bully Hayes was living there; but Bully had quit the town only a short time before his arrival, and his public house and singing-room were well remembered. The singing-room was the place where visiting troupes of concert performers, chorus maidens and other bright blowsy flowers of the old days, could congregate when they came so far from civilisation; and Bully Hayes was their very debonair host. You will find a good deal about him in Mr. Gilkison'spage 36
book, including the fact that he wore black crepe for a long while, and was most pious, after his poor wife had been mysteriously drowned; but was not restrained by this from going blackbirding in the Islands later, where, as the Victorians would say, he came to a just and a miserable end.
Do you know of another town, or townlet, in New Zealand where the street is still lighted with oil lamps? Or is Arrowtown in this way unique? But before I had time to ask Mr. Romans if here, in all the world, there was still a town lamplighter, the service car driver remembered his duty and his schedule, and off we went again. I had time to see, though, passing, more clay cabins under more great hawthorn trees, a very odd little sign-mark; and that was a bronze standard oil lamp, handsome in design if weather-beaten in aspect, which had been erected in honour of the Coronation of King Edward VII. And if anybody, for any reason whatsoever, ever takes that bronze standard oil lamp away, I hope all the choicest spectres of the gold country, Bully Hayes included, will besiege his midnights.
Rain and mist as we ran on towards the Remarkable Mountains. They are well-named; indeed, the whole of this country is an oddity, majestic, lonely, carried out on the grand scale, but with queer patches of pathos, like the white irises. And it was with the memory of the clay cabins still clinging against my eyes that darkness came down. It was not in this gold-bearing district, however, but in another, on the West Coast, that I met the goldminer from up the Howard, who was out with three nuggets in a little glass bottle, going into town, and who intended to get himself either a new set of teeth or a wife, whichever took his fancy when the time came. With gold over £8 an ounce, and every pennyweight of three ounces in that bottle, what was to stop him from pleasing his whim?