Friday 14 January 2022

Different sorts of gold

 With thanks to Tourism Central Otago for their help

More brilliant weather today, sunny but not too hot - just perfect for a walk up the Bannockburn Sluicings near Cromwell, which I'd never seen before. Local guide and enthusiast Terry escorted my cousin and me on this ramble through some very striking, hoodoo-like scenery. It was all man-made, though - back in the gold rush days, this bit of the country was heaving with people seeking their fortune, turning it upside down - pretty literally - in the process.

Now the rawness has been slightly muted by weather smoothing the edges, and plants like thyme, viper's bugloss and scratchy matagouri; but it's still impressive and slightly exhausting, to look upon it all and imagine the effort that was expended here. Honestly, huge gullies dug out mostly by hand, to get down to the gold-bearing schist that they would sluice - all the unwanted soil and gravel, plus mercury and cyanide used in extraction, being flushed straight into the river, killing the fish. Now, of course, and highly ironically, all this destruction is carefully preserved and protected.

It is really striking scenery, though. Surrounded by dry, brown, bare hills (not the miners' fault - the original forests were burnt by Maori 300 years earlier, to make it easier to hunt the moa [native giant flightless birds]) there are rocky cliffs burrowed into by long tunnels, piles of hand-washed rocks that must make today's builders drool, a network of water-races, some of them bringing that valuable tool from the mountains over 50km away, a huge shallow reservoir, cute remains of dwellings...

To do the loop takes about an hour and a half, minimum, but that is easily lengthened by detours, rests and unexpected treats like vintage but still productive apricot and pear trees. Well worth doing, and I'm glad I did.

Also, because it built up an honest appetite for lunch, which we had at Desert Heart, a nearby winery where we tackled a huge and delicious tasting platter, plus corn tacos, washed down by a first, a rosé slushy, which was fun, and just right for such a hot day. We sat outside again, under shade, and it was gorgeous.

Off-duty now, we drove to historic little Clyde, which I can't remember having visited before - main street of pretty stone cottages with porches, rambling roses and tall hollyhocks, a power station in the turquoise river, and the impressive single-lane metal truss bridge nearby. I wished we had more time there.

But then we had to go back and climb into a 1958 Thunderbird - a very grand way to get to dinner at the historic Bannockburn Hotel, now in its third iteration. Again, we sat outside, enjoying the view, and ate baked Camembert, lamb ribs, home-made Cumberland sausage with truffle and Parmesan fries. Delicious! 

Next we took take part in an unofficial classic car rally. Nobody could be bothered negotiating the Covid regulations that an official one would require, so everyone - and I was astonished how many cars there were - just assembled near a park, chatted for a bit, and then cruised through Cromwell several times, waved at by spectators seated along the road, clearly aware it was taking place. 

And then we rumbled quietly back home again, under an almost-full moon rising.

Thursday 13 January 2022

Bikes, brrrrm and a barrel

With thanks to Tourism Central Otago for their help

Such a good day today, activities and locations blessed by absolutely glorious weather. The Queenstown famil done and dusted, we drove to Cromwell to visit my cousin and have a bit of a taster of this generally overlooked little town. What has, though, earned it some attention lately is a newish cycle trail along the edge of Lake Dunstan that has some properly spectacular sections suspended from the cliffs. Kitted up by Colin on an e-bike, and accompanied by Michael, we drove around to the other side of the lake to do one of its most famous sections.

At Cornish Point, we mounted up and set off along the remarkably busy track. It was a beautiful summer's day, and still holiday time, so there were lots of friendly people out enjoying it all. As did I - blue lake, golden hills, black rock, a good path that had some exciting drop-offs (not literally, fortunately), a few moderately puffy climbs with correspondingly steep downhill rewards, and three clip-on sections. These were very impressive engineering achievements, hugging the curves of the cliffs, and looking airy and non-invasive - if somewhat snug to cycle along.

We rode 5km to the coffee boat, an enterprising local's business that has done so well that there's now also a burger boat, both moored stern-in and welcoming a steady stream of customers keen for a break. The track continued past them along to the head of the lake and beyond, but we turned around here and cycled back to the car, from where Michael and I, both novices but keen, returned to Colin's by bike.

It was a lovely ride, just demanding enough (e-bikes for the win) and with lots to look at: rocky hills, boats on the lake, blue river, neat and very inviting vineyards, open grassland, wooded bits, and a fun bridge where the bike section was a clip-on. The track was mostly well away from the road, well maintained, and really enjoyable for both the physical (un)demands, and the views. The final section was riding past Cromwell's Heritage Precinct, which is full of lovely old buildings. There was some serious family discussion at the end about how far we'd ridden - 40km was reluctantly agreed on - but it really didn't matter, because it had been so pleasant.

The next thing was a visit to Highlands Motorsport Museum just outside town. This was yet another of the many car museums I've had to go to for work and, again, somewhere I've ended up having more fun than I expected. It's a really professional set-up, no expense spared: big modern museum filled with classic and rare cars worth millions, café overlooking a 4km+ racetrack with all the straights and bends, an exciting go-cart track and, most fun of all, Loos with a View. 

There are six of these, each jokily different, and they're such a feature that it's perfectly acceptable to go into the opposite sex's (empty, natch) ones. There are even squeezy bottles to fill with water in one of the men's toilets, to squirt into the urinals shaped like musical instruments, to make them play a tune together. Fun though that is, that particular loo is dominated by a separate urinal which, the label claims, is a caricature of a local. Really?

That night we went out to eat at the Stoaker Room in Cromwell, where they cook the meats in a combination smoker/steamer/bbq they've made out of a wine barrel. We sat on benches at a long table in a marquee, and had an equally long and chatty family dinner (pork belly ciabatta for me, very nice). Afterwards I got called back by the waitress for overpaying by 50c.

Wednesday 12 January 2022

Chinese, cheese, cheers

 With thanks to Destination Queenstown for this famil

I went to jail today. Also to church. Neither is a common destination for me, but that's the joy of travelling - and, especially, being a travel writer shown around by an enthusiastic local. We drove this morning to Arrowtown, a little old gold-mining town where I've been a number of times before, and will happily go again, anytime, because it's so pretty.

And historic, which was my first focus, thanks to David, who showed me round the entertaining Lakes District Museum and Gallery. It was startling to hear that the Otago goldfields have produced 280 tonnes of the yellow stuff - so far. What's even more impressive is that most of it is alluvial, so, much harder to find than in seams underground. They didn't just pan, sluice and dredge for it - on display is a diving suit and helmet, for finding gold at the bottom of Lake Wakatipu. Hopeful people flooded to the area from all over the world, and Queenstown especially took off. I liked the newspaper story from then that described a street scene in the town: "dainty crinolines mincing along, stalwart muscle and sinew parading, gaudy vice flaunting at the corners, swells in broadcloth puffing their cigars". It's a great little museum, well worth a leisurely browse.

Afterwards David took me on a lovely walk around town to places I hadn't found before. After strolling along famously photogenic Buckingham Street past its stone and wooden houses, already dinky but dwarfed by towering oak, elm and sycamore trees, we went into the heritage quarter. Historic buildings like the jail and church are scattered around the neat suburb here. There's a cute little yellow cottage in St Patrick's grounds, that around 1870 was used as a school ruled by Sister Mary MacKillop, who was stern but still couldn't stop the boys from kicking rubber balls at the ceiling, where the marks are still clear.

We ended up at the Chinese Settlement, which today was sunny and attractive but in winter is mostly in the shade and, beside the river, has got down in David's experience to -15C. Though the Chinese were invited here, after all the easy gold had been taken and the European miners had mostly pushed off, they weren't made welcome and lived in tiny, primitive huts on the town's outskirts, and mostly had hard, horrible lives, many of them ending in suicide.

Some prospered though, scoring £100 in gold which was equal to a lifetime's wages back home, and if they could resist gambling it away, their fortune was made - though, when they did get back to China, they were still considered outsiders.

We had a yummy lunch at Provisions with my Destination Queenstown host Micaela before driving out to Kawarau Gorge to goggle at the parade of bungy jumpers dropping off that historic suspension bridge, and to admire the efficiency of the very slick  AJ Hackett operation. 

Gibbston Valley Winery was just along the gorge, so we called in but, oenophile-failure that I am, our focus was mainly on the Cheesery they also have there. Of course, they also sell Southland's signature cheese rolls, bigger than I've ever seen.

After some downtime back by the river in Arrowtown, watching people panning and paddling, and fighting off the sandflies, it was time for a drink at Dorothy Brown's Gin Balcony, which is exactly what it sounds. Lovely view over town, river and hills, and a wide choice of flavoured gins. 

Then it was time for dinner at Bendix Stables - actual old stables with stone walls, cosy nooks and beams. Friendly staff brought us our choice of pork belly bites, sweetcorn fritters and baked Camembert, which was delicious; and then we went back to Dorothy's to go to the boutique cinema there to sit in comfy seats and watch 'The Rescue' about that amazing Thai cave rescue in 2018 - a documentary. Chilling but then heart-warming, and a great way to finish a busy, interesting and enjoyable day.

Tuesday 11 January 2022

Sweet as, x2

With thanks to Destination Queenstown for this famil

Today I felt like a scientist, except that I was doing something pretty frivolous. It was fun, though. I went into Queenstown again - boy, parking is challenging here - and went to Miller Road Fragrance Studio to create my own personal perfume.

It's a remarkably precise and fiddling process. I sat down in front of a rack of five shelves holding around 60 little dropper bottles, each filled with a different scent. They were grouped according to their function in making a perfume - base notes to top notes with carefully graded stages in between - and I had to sniff, select, and combine to gradually build up my perfume, literally one drop at a time, carefully recording my choice of ingredients as I went.

Of course I rapidly entered my standard wine-tasting panic, where I immediately forget the previous one with each new glass that's presented; but Mallory was very patient and helpful in guiding me through the process, and managed to (mostly) dissipate the anxiety. It took ages, though it didn't feel like that at the time, and eventually she presented me with a 30ml spray bottle of my own totally unique and personal scent, labelled with a name I chose: Felice. (Though someone later suggested Pamfume, which I like better.)

I was very pleased with the result, and am glad the recipe is recorded so that I can re-order it any time. Excellent idea, and a fun activity, especially for groups and couples.

I rushed off then for a bite of lunch at Yonder, which is an appealing little café/bar whose sweetcorn and jalapeno fritters I can thoroughly recommend.

Then it was on to the next thing: a honey workshop at Buzz Stop outside town. It's in a little cluster of shops that include a potter, florist, baker and a make-your-own jewellery workshop. Also the City Impact Church, but we won't concern ourselves with that. I browsed around the café/bar/shop till Nick greeted me and a local couple, and togged us up in proper overalls with gloves and netted hat. Then we went out to the garden to the beehives. 

We sat and quietly sweated while Nick, his overalls tied around his waist, hands, arms and face bare, opened up a hive and took out a frame. Of course bees were swarming (not literally) everywhere, but apparently it's all about being cool with them. He certainly didn't get stung as, with a splendid backdrop of blue sky and mountains, he told us all sorts of interesting things about bees - no bee has an enviable life, particularly the incel drones - and got us up close to them, before leading us back to the workshop with one of the frames.

There we took turns at melting the top wax on the frame, and scraping it off to expose the honey, then fitting the frame into a spinner. We held a jug under the tap at the bottom while it spun, collected the honey, poured it into a little jar and screwed on the top: our personally-manufactured (well, packed) honey. And the proof was the sticky label Nick printed out with our own photos on. It was fun, entertaining and really interesting, and how wrong can you go, with honey? Especially when it's also made into very drinkable red mead - so nice, I even bought a bottle. I know!

We ate that evening at Ivy and Lola's, on Steamer Wharf, sitting outside. The food was very nice, though the menu, as elsewhere, was quite short, perhaps because of staffing problems thanks to Covid; but, also as elsewhere, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. It was really lovely to sit out near the lakeside, with a constant stream of relaxed people wandering past, everyone in a good mood - and who wouldn't be, in that setting?

I had a longish walk along the lake afterwards to where I'd had to park the car, and it was a delight - lake, mountains, boats, sculpture, sunshine, kids climbing trees, people using the public bbq or just lying on the beach reading. Gorgeous.

Monday 10 January 2022

Back again

With thanks to Destination Queenstown for this famil

My last work trip was to Queenstown, last July, for the novel experience (to me) of seeing its winter incarnation. Today I'm back to my usual relationship with our top tourist town: coming here again in the height of a hot, dry, brown summer.

Still not over the bitter disappointment of having deliberately sat on the left of the plane returning last time, and then totally missing the most gloriously clear, sunny views of the snowy Southern Alps, purely because of the pilot's whim in for once taking a more westerly route, I made sure this time to select a seat on the left going down. And what did the sodding pilot do? Only fly down on the left of the mountains, so all I could see were plains and sea. Don't talk to me about wind and flight plans and stuff. He did it on purpose.

He did though at least bring us in from the south, which was new to me, and I got lovely views of the turquoise Kawarau River in its narrow gorge, and neat vineyards making a splash of green against the burnt brown hills. It's always a delight to step out of the plane and see the Remarkables up so close, and glimpse Lake Wakatipu's shining blue.

The main purpose of this trip is to review the new Holiday Inn Remarkables Park, which is located in Frankton, near the airport. It's 4 storeys of shiny glass, set in a mildly industrial area but with great views of the nearby mountains, and the public rooms are big and airy and bright.

Not our room, though. The friendly manager told us we had an upgrade to a suite, so it was a surprise to open the door to a living room that felt more like a corridor, long and narrow and also shaded by thick curtains that blocked the views of the Remarkables. The bedroom is nice and bigger, ditto the bathroom, but, really, this is an upgrade? For a reviewer? Tch.

Anyway, since my first activity at a honey shop didn't happen today, we went into Queenstown and ended up happily rocking gently at a table on the roof of Perky's Floating Bar, watching excited people board the horrifying Hydro Attack boats just below, and then dazedly tottering ashore again after their ghastly outing ducking and diving on, over and under the lake. There were others (and a labrador) bravely doing manus off a nearby jetty into that always challengingly cool water; the TSS Earnslaw chugged past; people strolled along the waterfront and chattered at tables outside the restaurants; the crabby busker's dog howled along to his songs; paragliders drifted down from Bob's Peak; the sun shone; and it was all just gorgeous.

We ate at Giant's, the hotel restaurant, where the food was fine and the service excellent, and the views of the Remarkables glowing nearby in the lowering sun were simply beautiful. It's great to be back here again.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

Dunedin rocks. Sort of...

I know it's a privilege, but it also feels quite odd, to be writing a *cough* column about the Organ Pipes just outside Dunedin, which I haven't actually visited, and referencing in it Iceland's Reynisfjara and Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway, both of which I have.

I could also add Bishop and Clerk on Maria Island, Tasmania, and the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. All of them are spectacular and fascinating: weathered hexagonal columns of rock (basalt or dolerite), either upright or horizontal or both, but always fitted together with marvellous precision. 

Though of course, they're not at all - fitted together, that is. They're actually formed by a mass of molten lava cooling at precisely the right speed and in the perfect conditions for the rock to crack into that particular pattern. It's still a marvel, though, that something as raw and violent and unpredictable as an eruption can result in something so satisfyingly neat and geometrical. 

I'm a sucker for them every time. They can be found all over the world, and I would love to see more of them, one day. Probably, though, I should start with Dunedin.

Credit DunedinNZ


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