Otago: Eerie episodes haunt Kiwi castle

By Sarah Lang

When the crew of TV2 series Ghost Hunt filmed at Larnach Castle in 2005, the ghostbusters captured what looked like a spectre on camera. And when fellow Kiwi show Spookers holed up in the "haunted stables" one night in June, they got so scared they moved sleeping quarters in the small hours. You could put these eerie experiences down to a bunch of overexcited TV personalities and a trick of the light, but there's a few other encounters to explain.

There's been close to 30 reported sightings of cranky spirits, not to mention touches, pushing and other odd occurrences at the castle. Tasty bait for US show Ghost Hunters International, whose paranormal investigators filmed there in March as part of an attempt to debunk claims of supernatural activity in the world's most notorious haunted spots. The camera zoomed in on what sure looked like a ghost in the ballroom.

William Larnach, I presume. Given the tragic history of Larnach and his family (the castle's original inhabitants), if anywhere in our juvenile country was going to be haunted, this would be it.

In 1871 bank bigwig William Larnach moved from Australia to Dunedin with wife Eliza, their four children and Eliza's sister Mary. His choice of a remote hilltop for their new home didn't please the grim-faced Eliza (while the castle is just 20 minutes' drive from Dunedin now, it was utterly isolated in the pre-road colonial era).

After producing two more children, Eliza died suddenly of a stroke at 38 - whereupon William promptly married her younger, prettier sister, Mary, who also died at 38 of blood poisoning. By now a merchant baron and MP, William married for a third time aged 57: this time to pretty Constance, who at 35 was his children's contemporary.

Five years on in 1898, William wasn't a happy chap. Already teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and inconsolable after the death of favourite daughter Kate, he opened a letter which contained news of his adored wife's affair with his son Douglas. William promptly shot himself in a parliament chamber, aged 62. After scrapping over his unsigned will, the family disbanded, selling off the castle which was used as a home for shell-shocked soldiers and as a mental hospital. In 1967 the Barker family bought it and restored the building, grounds and old furniture and have cared for the castle ever since.

The Barkers don't dismiss rumours of a ghostly presence. Apparently William keeps an eye on the lower floor - he's particularly fond of the ballroom and the billiards room - while Eliza keeps mournful watch upstairs.

Whatever your take on the supernatural, there's many more reasons to visit New Zealand's only castle. Guarded by massive stone lions and carved eagles, it's a magnificent blend of Scottish-baronial and Gothic revival-style architecture, combining Italian marble, Venetian glass, Welsh slate, English tiles and native New Zealand rimu and kauri.

Slanted by the weight of the central hanging-spiral staircase, the four-floor castle is so vast and sprawling that we were glad of our map and tour guide, who filled us in on the history of the family. The elaborate dining room with its antique furniture, heavy chandeliers and waiter's mirror (he couldn't, of course, watch the diners directly) is still used for guest dinners. And its ornate ceiling is so intricately carved with cherubs and the like that they seem wasted in a room where you're not lying down looking up.

William and his wives slept in separate bedrooms, where the seemingly child-size beds are testament to how much smaller people used to be. They were also much smellier - each room had a chamber pot and dips in the one-tonne marble bath were few and far between (by the time the maid had lugged up enough pots of water, the bath would be cold).

By tour's end, I could almost see the Larnachs disappearing into their respective rooms after dinner: the women to the chaise lounge in the drawing room, the men to the library. But we're told we can't leave without checking out the tower, which is as medieval-looking as it sounds.

The incredibly-narrow, winding staircase is well worth the squeeze: up top we're greeted by a sweeping panorama of ocean, harbour and coastline, all the way from the environs of Dunedin to the peninsula's lighthouse-capped tip. In the foreground are Larnach Castle's 14ha grounds with their south seas, rock and heather gardens, native plant trail, fern walk, wishing well and boutique-lodge accommodation.

The glorious views don't end there. Driving northwards away from the castle on the harbour-hugging road, it's tempting to glance away from the wheel to the aquamarine sea, sweep of beaches and hills shading from green to purple. At intervals along the road, sleepy villages huddle in sheltered bays.

Just a kilometre or so down the road from the wee settlement of Portobello is the New Zealand Marine Studies Centre and Aquarium, an underexposed gem where we took a virtual submarine ride and marvelled at sea creatures like the Pinocchio-nosed bellowfish which changes colour at whim.

At the peninsula's end is Taiaroa Head, a former Maori pa turned military fort (established in the 1880s to counter the perceived threat of a Tsarist Russian invasion). Nowadays it's a museum where you can stroll through old tunnels and check out the Armstrong Disappearing Gun, which can be fired from underground.

But it's wildlife, not weapons, that is the main attraction on this small headland. The peninsula is home to a colony of yellow-eyed penguins at Penguin Place and seals and sea lions can be spotted sleeping in the sun on eastern clifftops. Also, check out the Royal Albatross Centre, a bastion of New Zealand's only mainland breeding colony. Plenty of tours, on land and water, offer a close-up gander.

Driving south along the harbour mouth back to Dunedin, I realise I have a whole different perspective on where the city slots into its landscape: at the nape of a peninsula with some spectacular views and wondrous wildlife. Jury's still out on the ghosts.

Further information: Larnach Castle has its own website at www.larnachcastle.co.nz. You can get information about the Otago Peninsula at www.otago-peninsula.co.nz and about visiting Dunedin at www.dunedinnz.com

- NZ Herald

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