Seeing a glint of bright fine gold in the river gives Paul Rush a taste of Arrowtown's illustrious past.
Her tumbling waters are crystal-clear, bubbling over a smooth pebble bed where specks of bright fine gold lie. Weak sunlight struggles to penetrate the deep Arrow Valley but creates a fascinating play of light on the golden tussock hills. Scattered larch and rowan trees cling to the slopes, interspersed with bright yellow clusters of broom and gorse.
The river banks are ablaze with pastel pink and purple lupins swaying languidly in the gentle breeze. In many places the schist banks have been disturbed by amateur gold fossickers breaking out gravels to satisfy their latent lust.
I count myself among their ranks. Today's visit recalls my first bumbling attempts to wrest the precious metal from this river 40 years ago. I will never forget my eagerness to scan the fine residue in my gold pan, searching for a tell-tale glint of colour.
What a Eureka moment it was when it actually happened. There, among the fine black sand in the riffles of the pan glinting in the sunlight were flakes of burnished gold. At that moment I felt like Otago's first discoverer of payable gold, Gabriel Read, who found gold dust "shining in the sun like the stars of Orion on a dark, frosty night."
I moistened my fingertip and pressed down on the golden flakes, carefully placing them in water in a little glass specimen bottle and holding it high to catch the sunlight.
However, instead of plunging to the bottom with an audible click they drifted down in a lazy zigzag fashion like a feather floating down from a tree. My precious metal was in fact worthless iron pyrites or "fool's gold".
It was a salutary lesson that an aspiring gold prospector never forgets.
Today however, I'm armed with a short handled spade, trowel and rusted gold pan and I'm hoping for an unexpected windfall.
In any event, I'll be in the outdoors, enjoying the fresh air, mountains, bush and wildlife.
This process of filling the pan with gravel, shaking it and tipping out the lighter material is best described with an alliteration of "p" words — painstaking, patience, persistence and perseverance. There are no shortcuts to success.
The heady days of tripping over chunky gold nuggets in the stream bed are largely behind us.
Over several days I work my way upstream to the main 4WD vehicle crossing. Then I turn downstream alongside the Millennium Walkway to the pretty location called the "Gladden Fields" in Lord of the Rings.
I manage to find many flakes of gold here, just a stone's throw from the bustling main street of Arrowtown. No wonder it's a popular ritual for tourists to hire a gold pan and fossick for pay-dirt in the Arrow. My little bottle of flakes now has pride of place in our display cabinet at home.
Fossicking is a fun activity for the whole family. Whatever age you are, seeing that beautiful metal shining in the pan makes eyes light up at the uniqueness and wonder of it all and keeps you searching for more.
There's still gold in the gentle Arrow River and it will never completely run out.
In a very small way I have replicated the exploits of Maori Jack and William Fox who discovered gold close to the site of Arrowtown in 1862. The Arrow became famous as one of the world's richest alluvial gold-bearing rivers and spawned a densely-packed tent city in the valley.
The story of the Arrow gold begins bizarrely with a fox-hunt. Rumours were circulating in late 1862 of a man named Fox who had gold to sell. Some searchers stumbled over his workings and were threatened with being held captive, but Fox relented and they joined his party on an oath of silence.
Fox collected 19kg of gold in two weeks before the secret was out and the main rush began. The shantytown that emerged was first called Fox. By July 1863 over 2000 miners were on the Arrow and the gold escort was carrying out 6000 ounces a month.
Captain Bully Hayes, a notorious blackbirder and buccaneer, opened the United States Hotel with raunchy stage attractions. The tall, handsome, blond man soon enticed Rosie Buckingham to marry him. Her parents, owners of the rival Provincial Hotel, were not impressed and bribed the barber to cut Bully's hair short, revealing an ear that was cropped as punishment for cheating at cards in California.
Then they created a vaudeville act called the "Barbarous Barber" to ridicule Bully who finally left the Arrow with his wife and moved to Nelson. Many gripping tales of the raw colonial days are portrayed in the excellent Arrowtown Lakes District Museum.
Today Arrowtown is the most picturesque of Otago's gold towns, with well-preserved historic buildings serving as tourist shops and cafes.
I find it remarkable just how affecting the 1860's gold-rush atmosphere is, especially the street of rustic miners' cottages sitting sedately under an avenue of ancient oak and sycamore trees, that burst out into a stunning kaleidoscope of red and gold in autumn.
My most poignant memory of Arrowtown is the heart-rending scene on Bush Creek where Chinese miners' huts tell a graphic story of privation, hard labour, dirt floors, sackcloth windows and hard luck.
My brief experience as a "digger" on the Arrow with a tinge of miner's backache is but a pale shadow of the sacrifices these men made to win the elusive bright, fine gold.
I walk up Soldier's Hill for a wonderful view of the old town, soaking up the atmosphere of the picturesque valley. It's rumoured that wily old Fox was seen working his secret site on the river from this very spot.
The ambience of the Arrow goldfields is best summed up in a poem by David Mckee Wright.
Oh, the days when the shanty was here boys, the rollicking days of old,
The days when the luck was near boys, the days of the first of the gold.
Historic Arrowtown is a pleasant 30-minute drive from Queenstown. A regular commuter bus service operates from downtown Queenstown with pick-ups at the Frankton bus terminal. The town is 20 minutes from the airport.
The main thoroughfare, Buckingham St, has a colonial-style shopping precinct with more than 20 cafes, bars and restaurants and a cluster of tiny heritage miners' cottages on the tree-lined avenue.
Arrowtown is at the heart of the Queenstown Trail with access to 100km of walking and cycling tracks including the old gold workings at Macetown and Bullendale. The nearest ski field is just 25 minutes away, three golf courses are within 10 minutes' drive and award-winning vineyards are close by.