Otago's dreamland is best seen without the summer crowds, writes Mike Yardley.
There's a dreaminess about the Maniototo, its landscape and the light that sets it apart. Beat the holiday crush and fiendish summer heat and explore this special pocket of Otago at its celestial best, clad in snow, and as spring's first blossoms beckon.
From SH1, turn off at Palmerston on to SH85, the Pig Route (or Pigroot), which wends its way through the Shag Valley's ruffled majesty, twisting and turning across fields of golden tussocks and dramatic schist formations, touched up by Mother Nature's seasonal tinsel. Landscapes rise and fall, mountains loom on the horizon and shuffle out of frame.
Why is the highway so evocatively named? Legend has it that when the area was surveyed in 1863 by John Thomson, the valley was overrun by wild pigs, completely unafraid of people. So confident were the pigs, Thomson claimed, that one inquisitive boar rubbed up against his horse.
Be sure to pull over at the signpost for McCormicks Creek Bridge; most travellers blithely race past it. This graceful schist arch is one of the last examples of the old coach bridges, built in 1869 during the Otago goldrush and the vestiges of the province's goldmining history prove the climax of the road trip, as you descend on storybook-pretty Naseby.
At the base of the saw-toothed crags of the Kakanui Mountains, natty little Naseby is a chocolate-box clutch of rose-clad cottages, old wooden churches, time-honoured stone buildings and storied pubs. Explore some of these heritage gems, totems to a bygone age. The watchmaker's, bootmaker's and draper's shops look they have been teleported from Toytown. And check out the apothecary, among New Zealand's oldest standing two-storey adobe (mud brick) buildings.
The Old Doctor's Residence is an enchanting kauri villa and don't miss the Monkey Puzzle House on Derwent Street, previously the Borough Clerk's house and now a B&B, lovingly named in honour of the towering tree in the front garden. But the prize draw is the kauri-timbered Royal Hotel, built in 1863, and run by Jill and Peter Derbyshire. As I basked in the glow of the crackling log fire, Jill was still cursing the window-high snow drifts that had pounded the village just a few weeks earlier. I couldn't have been happier, as Naseby's lanes were still garlanded in thick ribbons of the fluffy, photogenic stuff.
Just as it was 150 years ago, the Royal Hotel remains the social nerve centre of Naseby, where stories are traded, beer and hearty pub fare is consumed — and friendships are forged.
Although Naseby wears its mantle of history lightly and assuredly, the village resonates with purpose. It's most renowned today of course, as the home of New Zealand curling. Like many aspects to daily living, the origins of this local pastime can be traced directly to the goldrush, when Scottish prospectors imported and unleashed the craze on Naseby in the 1860s.
Curling is now played year-round, indoors, at Naseby's International Curling Rink, the only such facility in the Southern Hemisphere. It's easy to give it a whirl, with on-site instructors around to show you the ropes. Think of it as lawn bowls on ice.
International curlers flock to Naseby in mid-August, for the annual winter games.
The verdant expanse of the nearby Black Forest — which is privately owned but includes a public recreation area, encompassing 50km of walking and cycling tracks — is worth exploring. This exotic Northern Hemisphere-style forest, teeming with spruces, firs and cedars, brings those winter wonderland scenes to life, especially when it's cloaked in snow.
Online: See www.maniototo.co.nz.