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.

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