The South Island's first gold rush town is resplendent with colourful characters, writes Paul Rush.

"A soft city boy like you wouldn't cut the mustard in a southern shearing shed. With early morning starts at minus ten degrees, hard yakka and long hours on the boards, you'd be pining for your latte lifestyle before smoko."

The atmosphere is congenial at a cocktail hour in The Prospector Restaurant in downtown Lawrence when I make a tongue-in-cheek offer to work for shearing contractor Judy Robertson as a rouseabout.

Her very direct response quickly puts me in my place. They don't mince words in Clutha Country; they just tell it like it is.

Now I know that North Islanders have a shaky reputation on the 'Mainland', but the truth is Judy knows the meaning of hard work and those merino fleeces are very heavy.


The irony of the situation is that I've come to Lawrence expecting to encounter a troop of hard-drinking, fast-fighting, slow-talking Southern Men. The taciturn, weather-beaten men that squint in the sunlight, talk in a drawl rolling their R's and knock back a dozen cans of Speight's in the time it takes to say, 'Good on yer mate'.

Dusty Murtagh, custodian of Weatherstones' heritage ruins of the old Black Horse Brewery, is at the cocktail party too, dressed to the nines in her 1860s' crinoline petticoats and hooped skirts because the citizens of Lawrence are nothing if not authentic and true to character.

I'd asked her earlier if I could meet a fair dinkum Southern Man with a gravelly voice and got a very enthusiastic response.

"Sure you can, I'll take you over to the Coach & Horses pub after dinner, there's a truckload of big, beefy blokes there."

Dusty says this with a golden glint in her eye as if the very notion of fraternising with Southern Men is akin to striking pay dirt in the Dunstan. Suddenly, I'm not so sure I want to meet the real McCoy. I decline, feeling like a wimp and explain that I've had a hard day on the tourist trail. A wave of disappointment washes over her face.

At that very moment shearing boss Judy walks in the door, ducking slightly to pass under the lintel. Over several drinks she recounts sheep shearing stories that would make your hair stand on end. Many country boys have had to hit the road when they nicked delicate skin with the blade or failed to properly trim the fleeces. This makes me feel a little better.

Lawrence proclaims itself the Gateway to Central Otago. Photo / Paul Rush
Lawrence proclaims itself the Gateway to Central Otago. Photo / Paul Rush

My quest to meet southern stalwarts has been accomplished. I've met a walking, talking embodiment of a true blue, husky-voiced Southern Woman. And what's more she drinks gin and raspberry, the classic drink of the goldfields. I'm told the largest gold mine on the Cardrona diggings was called the 'Gin & Raspberry' as the owner offered the drink to all hands whenever a bucket yielded an ounce of gold.

As cocktail hour continues, the raspberry bottle is passed to me to drain the residual juice (Lawrence people are generous to a fault.) The nervous Northern Man has found his niche. In this uncompromising Clutha Country his role is to drain the dregs of the real drinkers.

Lawrence was named after the British war hero of the 1857 Indian Mutiny. The town of 550 residents is reminiscent of Arrowtown with beautiful trees, walking tracks and old gold diggings.

It has long been associated with notable characters and luminaries. The first was Gabriel Read who gained great esteem and a healthy government bonus when he found gold in 1861. Sadly, his last days were spent in relative poverty in a Tasmanian mental institution.

Wooden statues commemorate the first discovery of gold in the area. Photo / Paul Rush
Wooden statues commemorate the first discovery of gold in the area. Photo / Paul Rush

I'm intrigued to meet three wooden characters at the foot of a zigzag path near the Lawrence Four Square store.

Kelly Aitken created the wooden figures in a community art project as a playful depiction of the trio who first discovered gold. Gabriel Read is there in a black top hat, along with Helen Munro, one of the first Scottish settlers who found gold in Munro's Gully, and Black Peter from Bombay who selflessly showed others where to find rich picking but missed out himself.

Lingering in Lawrence is a pleasant experience. The information centre and nostalgia-filled museum in the old Wright Stephenson's building have useful guide maps. Gabriel's Cafe in the old Bank of NZ building offers an excellent lunch menu. The Wild Walnut cafe has a great selection of sweet treats and stands beside a colourful mural and a montage of bicycles and flowers.

Nestled under a wooded hill is Jafa's Motel, the name suggesting that it welcomes Aucklanders. They even define Jafa as 'Just Another Friendly Aucklander,' so our stakes must be pretty high.

The short walk to the Gabriel's Gully interpretative track is well worth the effort. Along the pathway tall poplars stand like silent sentinels on the quiet river bank filtering sunlight onto dappled leaf-littered ground. Dazzlingly-white sheep graze contentedly on lush green pastures while being buffeted by energetic new-born lambs.

Lawrence is full of surprises. Local school teacher, John Woods, created the score to a Thomas Bracken poem to compose our national anthem God Defend New Zealand. His grave can be found in the hilltop cemetery alongside beautiful Celtic crosses and a Chinese section, all enclosed by elaborate Victorian ironwork.

Chinese miners from Guangdong province came to the area in 1866 - at the government's behest - to rework tailings where gold had been lost in the washing up.

Charles Sew Hoy travelled through Otago and became a prominent leader. After watching the Dunedin harbour dredge at work he was inspired to create the world's first gold dredge on the Shotover River and amassed a great fortune.

A local Irish boy, Patrick O'Leary, had a creative genius too. In 1893, at the tender age of 20, the blacksmith built New Zealand's first two-wheeler bicycle. Hand crafting every component except the rubber tyres and driving chains, the young pioneer soon put his creation to practical use by teaching the postmistress how to ride.

The Lawrence Chinese Camp, one kilometre west of the township, was a thriving settlement in the 1870s, with a hotel, boarding houses, physicians, a butcher, gambling facilities and opium dens. Pakeha miners made frequent visits to replenish supplies and spend their gold earnings.

The Chinese New Year attracted many out of town visitors. Chow Shim, the last camp resident, died in 1945 and only the old Chinese Empire Hotel and its stables survive, surrounded by pasture.

I come face-to-face with the old hotel unexpectedly when taking a rest on the newly-formed Clutha Gold Trail, a 'must do' heritage cycle route between Lawrence and the Roxburgh Dam. The 1884 brick building was one of the best wayside inns in its day and was operated by Sam Chew Lain and his Scots wife.

There are plans to restore the hotel and the local trust members say they will respect the Chinese ghost of the hotel, a poltergeist known to successive hotel owners.

I don't see the need to seek out ephemeral characters of the past though. Lawrence has enough down-to-earth luminaries in the here and now.

That's what I love about the town.

Getting there: Lawrence is 92km inland from Dunedin on the main road to Roxburgh and Alexandra. The town neatly blends nostalgia and modernity, offering free wireless internet to all visitors.

Accommodation: Clutha Country offers a wide range of overnight stays to suit all budgets. St John's Court Motel offers modern, well-appointed units on the main road in Milton, just 20 minutes from Dunedin Airport. The Prospector has eight modern guest rooms and excellent dining in the centre of Lawrence.

For those seeking serenity and seclusion in a log cabin set in native bush with 180-degree views over a remote valley, Cascade Creek Retreat is the perfect private getaway. Full catering can be provided through the services of an on-call chef if required.

Paul Rush visited Lawrence courtesy of the Clutha Development Trust.