Local Central Otago History

St Bathans population 5

This historic mining town 7km from Lombardy Cottage sprang into life in 1863 when gold was found in the shingle of Kildare Hill near the Dunstan Creek. The rush was on and within weeks 2000 miners were sluicing the rapidly diminishing hill. Hydraulic technology, elevating gold-bearing gravels from deep within the ground, turned the 120-metre hill into a 64-metre-deep hole.

The uneconomic mine was abandoned in the 1930s and the ugly hole flooded to create the picturesque Blue Lake – now beautiful for swimming and kayaking.

There are fine examples of 19th-century mining-town architecture including the old Post Office (unusually for this tree-bare landscape, built of solid kauri). Other original cottages are made from the more common hand-cut local schist (as is Lombardy Cottage) and the old jail is one of several corrugated iron-sided buildings.

The Vulcan Hotel​

At the height of the gold-mining there were 13 hotels in St Bathans but just one survives. The Vulcan Hotel, constructed of handmade mud bricks, is today the beating heart of the town and famous for its ghost which has frightened even the most scientific of sceptics.

A World of Difference

“The evening sky is lit only by the stars; silence is pierced by the cry of the birds, the sigh of wind in the trees and the sound of a stream rushing under willows. It is a landscape of space and scale, light and air.”

Central Otago has a continental climate with great extremes of daily and seasonal temperature. It is characterized by contrast: dry plains and massive rivers, ribbed block mountains painted with changing light and broad plains upholstered with golden tussock and studded with schist tors. It is the country’s driest region with summers of extremely low humidity, cloudless hot days and cool nights.

“In geological terms, Central Otago is a massive block of schist (metamorphosed greywacke), part of the 80-million-year-old Zealandia continent, whose surface was eroded over 60 million years and then uplifted in the last 2 million years. The uplift was not as dramatic as that which produced the Southern Alps, but it reactivated faults, producing the alternating ranges and basins found across the region. The rivers were established before the land was uplifted and in some places they have cut gorges into the uplifted rock such as the Kawarau Gorge and the gorge between Cromwell and Clyde where the Dunstan and Cairnmuir mountain ranges were once joined and which is now filled by Lake Dunstan.

Huge castle-like columns of rocks up to 20 m high, known as tors, often top the summits of Central Otago’s mountain ranges. They have weathered less rapidly than the surrounding less resistant schist, which is the basement rock of Central Otago.”  (Te Ara Encyclopedi)

To the north of Lombardy Cottage is Mt St Bathans and to the northwest are the Dunstan Mountains, known by early Maori as Mataki-nui; the wild crashing thunder of the mountains, a name which seems particularly apt in violent northerly storms during which the wind howls about the house making inhabitants grateful for its placid stone construction. Surveyor John Thomson, Thomson’s Track namesake, called the mountains after a castle in his homeland, Scotland. To the east, the dramatic folded mountains, the Hawkduns, are a canvas for the changing light of each day and season’s colours.

The massive schist tor at the Clyde end of the Dunstan Mountains is Leaning Rock, sometimes known by locals as Old Woman Rock for its female profile when seen from a southern perspective.

The gold found in Central Otago’s rivers brought people flooding in during the 1860s – 1880s but later, poorer soils and higher elevation than Canterbury and Southland meant a slower population growth from the development of farming. Artists, many from Dunedin with cribs in the adjacent Cambrian Valley, have responded powerfully to the dramatic landscape. Tourists come to Central Otago for the winter sporting activities making Queenstown and Wanaka among the country’s fastest growing communities.

Oteake Conservation Park

This 65,000ha conservation park incorporating several mountain ranges in the upper Manuherikia Basin is accessible from Hawkdun Runs Road, the first road on the left after St Bathans heading south. The high country tussock land is accessible for a variety of pursuits from 4WD touring (open summer months only) to bird watching and is home to a wide variety of birds and various lizards including threatened skinks. A good 4WD day out is the trip to Omarama and home again via Thomson Gorge Road. Take topo maps H39, H40, 140 and 141 from the library (they are boomerangs). It has good walking tracks and huts for public use. DoC Central Otago Office (03) 440 2040. DoC Twizel office (03) 435 0802 for further information or google it. A brochure is in the study.

Central Otago Rail Trail

Many thousands of visitors enjoy the region each year cycling, walking or horse-riding the famous Central Otago Rail Trail. The 150km route from Middlemarch to Clyde provides a relatively gradual gradient through this timeless land of stark beauty. From Lombardy Cottage, the nearest access point to the trail is Lauder, a 15-minute drive away. The 10.5km section of the Rail Trail between Lauder and Auripo includes the Rail Trail’s most picturesque terrain over viaducts and through tunnels as well as opportunities to experience the unique flora and fauna of Central Otago. A comfortable three-hour walk (or return bike) from Oturehua to Omakau. Rail Trail Website

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