Otago: A glow from old golden days

By Josie Dale

Josie Dale visits Macetown to recapture the atmosphere of the goldrush days.

Although old Central Otago houses have rustic charm, living in them in the early days was full of privations. Photo / Dean Purcell
Although old Central Otago houses have rustic charm, living in them in the early days was full of privations. Photo / Dean Purcell

We could see the remains of his simple hut perched precariously on a small knob high above the Arrow River. Opium Bob was a miner named for the drug he bought with hard-earned gold.

For the three-hour walk to the ghost town of Macetown, don't go without the Department of Conservation booklet Macetown and Arrow Gorge. The history of the Arrow River area began in 1862, when William Fox's gold strike in the Arrow Gorge started a rush to the district, and Fox's, now known as Arrowtown, was founded.

To avoid many river crossings we left the road to follow the Arrow irrigation pipe. The track wended through a small beech forest to emerge above the river.

It was a full day's struggle for miners, their families and horses to reach Macetown via the Big Hill pack track which veered away from the river.

During winter, the perilous route would be blocked for months by deep snowdrifts. But in 1884 a new road was opened and the journey by horse and buggy was reduced to two hours.

On our way we saw the residue of innumerable dreams and disappointments in piles of stone tailings.

Macetown, known originally as Twelve Mile, was built on a narrow river terrace.

The town was probably named after the Mace brothers, who were among the first to mine the Twelve Mile. They prospered and built a hotel and large store. We could see little evidence of the old town among groves of poplar and sycamore. Twisted apple trees bore only small misshapen fruit.

To the northeast of the road, on a sheltered terrace, Joseph Needham's restored cottage overlooks the river. He was the schoolmaster from 1879 to 1889, when he succumbed to gold fever. The town was home to about 200 people from 1863 to the early 1900s. The nearby Smith's bakehouse, with its rusting iron roof, was the only other restored building.

By the early 1900s most miners had left, and in 1916 only 11 people remained.

During the 1930s Depression the Government subsidised alluvial mining and Macetown was temporarily revitalised. The transitory residents endured harsh conditions for little reward, living in tents or abandoned huts.

Sadly, even in this remote place, vandalism is evident. Both restored cottages have been damaged several times, and illegal 4WD vehicle and trailbike activity has forced DoC to fence off parts of the reserve.

By the time we'd completed the downhill stretch back to Arrowtown we'd walked more than 32km.

Most people drive or cycle into Macetown, but reasonably fit walkers will be well rewarded.

The refreshing solitude of the high country has a gentle knack of reinforcing one's real insignificance in a frenetic world.

- NZ Herald

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