As I approach Allison Paton’s house, I can see her leaning out of an upstairs window, aiming a shotgun at a rabbit in the veggie patch below. It’s everything I’d hoped for from a woman whose full address is “Morrisons, The Pigroot”, and who turns out blueberry pies by the dozen. Without a clean shot, she leaves the rabbit to its devices and greets us at the door warmly. Paton, a fit, tanned grandmother of nine, shows us through her rambling cottage garden and historic home—the former Morrisons post office.
Comparatively little has changed since the 1860s when The Pigroot (now known as State Highway 85) was busy with the traffic of gold miners bound for Central Otago. The ruins of a sod cottage lie near Paton’s property and over the road is a tiny, derelict Presbyterian church, a reminder of a time when the handful of local farming families gathered there weekly. Paton says she often thinks of how hard life was for those early settlers, but after 40 years, she has now become deeply attached to this land herself, raising a family with her late husband and now working alongside her sons, Mark and Paul.
I’m invited on an early morning muster with the Patons. We climb into Allison Paton’s ute as light gently warms the schist hills that surround the valley. Paul arrives with a trailer load of working dogs, and we drive in convoy along The Pigroot before turning onto a farm track and fording a river locals call The Shag. We open and close a succession of farm gates as the track climbs into the hills, and reach the herd of cattle at 700 metres. From here, we look out above the cloud to the Kakanui Ranges, over 30 kilometres of bucking, rolling, volcanic farmland, graduating from tussock at this altitude to verdant grass where it meets the fine blue line of the Pacific Ocean. Here and there, steep-sided volcanic cones rise like watchtowers, sentinel reminders of a hard-won livelihood for the people who have lived among them.
“I love these hills,” she tells me. “They’re good for the soul.”
It’s land that takes as well as gives—Paton points out where a small monument commemorates Dead Horse Pinch, a steep track on which settlers learned through trial and error to use bullocks rather than horses to convey their loads.
It’s cold at this altitude: the sun winks upon the shiny plumes of tussock at our feet, turning it gold, but there’s no warmth in it. “Bit chilly this morning, isn’t it, girls?” Paton says to the cows. The discerning creatures apparently see straight through my borrowed farm gear, huffing condensation and shifting nervously as I approach.
The muster starts with the crack of a stock whip. The herd moves, a river of jostling backs and clopping hooves. For the next hour or so, I’m like the hapless Scotty of the old Barry Crump Toyota commercials, gripping tightly to my seat as we bounce over rough tracks and down steep grades. There’s a complex language to the muster—piercing whistles, whoop-whoops, Get Back Dash’s and Come By Meg’s. Like a visitor to a foreign country, I’m impressed but bemused. We drive and then, mysteriously, stop. The dogs loop back and forth, rising like dolphins, ears pricked as they emerge briefly from a sea of tussock.
Fences are few on this vast, crumpled landscape, and between the distant boundaries are bogs, gullies and schist cliffs. Add to this the excitable dogs—Paul has to pay particular attention to a huntaway whose previous owner nearly shot her in frustration—and 70 obstinate beasts (or, as I hear them called, “silly old tarts”). Cloud can descend suddenly, making it impossible to see more than a few metres ahead. “That’s when you really want to know your fences, because they offer the only clue to where you are on the property,” Paul Paton explains.
“Our predecessor, Eric McLew, was up here and got stuck in cloud once. He had no idea which direction to go in so he let his horse’s reins go slack, hoping it would guide him home. It did, but it was a new horse, and when it finally stopped, he realised it had led him to the farm he bought it from, several hours’ walk away in Hyde.”
I have my own love affair with East Otago, having spent summers with my uncle Graham Thurlow and his family in Goodwood. As a child, we spent weeks at a time living like country kids. Blissfully unaware of the effect of soaring interest rates and falling subsidies, we woke up in the gabled bedrooms of my aunt and uncle’s 160-year-old farmhouse, with clean days of air and land and sky and hills stretching before us. We picked red currants that shone like rubies in silver bowls, drank spring water, dammed the creek and played in an abandoned 19th-century cottage.
Lying still in paddocks, we suppressed our giggles so that the cows would surround us and lick our gumboots, and our farming cousins took us for wild rides on quad bikes, cheeks tingling with cold and exhilaration.
In farm life there were glimpses of adult dichotomies that introduced the idea of living between two truths, such as the farm dogs that were desperate for affection, but couldn’t be patted too much lest they lose their work ethic. We experienced hard physical work—one year, we helped with shearing at the hill-country run, working as rousies to keep the shearers’ holding pens full. I loved the urgency of keeping up with the lightning-fast shearers—the soft, greasy pressure of a sheep’s flanks against my knees, the staccato rattle of their small hooves and the clatter of the busy race. There was a cadence to the noise and smell and action, the gathering together of sheep that had been scattered over vast distances, the brief physical closeness between human and animal with its yield of swathes of wool, and the final naked spring of each sheep as it leapt relieved to huddle in the yards.
The landscape took its own place in my psyche. My aunt and uncle’s farm looks towards Mt Royal, and the long flank of this hill has become for me an emblem of the area’s beauty, thrust upward magnificently against a clean flash of country sky. Like a screen onto which light flickers and plays, it projects different moods with each moment, pocks and ridges appearing, then flattening out into gentle contours. Its permanence acts as a foil for the more-transient elements of the countryside, augmenting the beauty of sound and movement and smell; as swallows dip overhead and stock graze watchfully, the air is full of lanolin and sheep droppings—a bewitching potion of rural glory.
Returning to my aunt and uncle’s farm for one final visit before their retirement to Dunedin, I wanted to explore the links that local people have to this landscape.
I find myself sitting at the dining table with my uncle, Graham Thurlow, and two local farmers, Simon Englebrecht and Scott Clearwater. They’ve been in the cattle yards since early this morning, loading stock onto a truck, and it’s time for a yarn and a cup of tea. The room seems dwarfed by these burly visitors, cups of tea hanging at the end of their arms like pieces from a doll’s tea set. Talk turns to animal-handling and Graham describes a cow that went for him recently when he separated her from the mob to check a sore foot.
“She started to move towards me; I thought, ‘Here we go’, so I dived onto the barbed-wire fence and flipped over into the next paddock. Next thing I look up and there’s the cow sailing over the top of the fence after me.”
Clearwater asks me where I’m from and there’s an awkward silence as I confess to hailing from everyone’s least-favourite super-city. I don’t think I’m imagining the shudders on their side of the table.
“I’ve got a brother-in-law in Auckland,” says MacAndrew, “but I just get in and out again as quickly as I can.” “I’ve never been,” says Englebrecht. “I hate cities. I don’t even like going to Palmerston.”
We move on to more solid ground—East Otago. Clearwater explains that he’s the fourth generation to farm in Goodwood; Englebrecht and his wife, Kirstin, currently farm at Stoneburn and have recently settled to purchase the Thurlows’ farm.
“Goodwood’s special,” he says. “The fact that there are still native trees here meant a lot to me. I grew up with lots of trees and possum-trapping and it’s great to think we’ll be able to pass that on to our kids.”
There’s a sense of contentment as the men talk about what their families have been enjoying in farm life. Englebrecht’s son Oscar shows real flair for working with dogs and Clearwater shows us a photo of a litter of puppies that his kids are excited about.
“We’ve got time to be neighbours in the sense of helping each other out and getting to know each other here,” says Graham. “There’s more wealth somewhere like Auckland, but only in one sense. To be honest, when I go to Auckland these days, I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country, in terms of what’s valued.”
I meet local farmer and Waihemo Community Board chairman Rod Philip in the historic rooms of the Waihemo Centre in Palmerston. Local boards have met here since the early days of settlement, and a plaque on the wall commemorates past chairs of what was the Waihemo Council, including Philip’s famous relative, the 19th-century politician and land-activist Sir John McKenzie.
“It’s the combination of the hills and the changing light,” suggests Philip as we talk about East Otago’s geography. Some landmarks are particularly meaningful; Philip points out Puketapu, the giant volcano that presides over Palmerston’s loose cluster of housing and industry. At 333 metres, the volcano seems to guide people from the north, south and inland approaches to the junction town. The cairn on its summit commemorates McKenzie, later Minister of Lands, who patrolled the boundary of a farm at the mountain’s base after emigrating from Scotland. Riding his horse along the farm’s fringe from dawn to dusk while he saved for his own piece of land over the course of two years, McKenzie became aware that much of the land that stretched out around him was owned by just a handful of men, a fact that struck him as unjust.
The Highlander was sensitive to land issues, having witnessed displaced crofters huddling in a churchyard when he was a small boy. With strong ideals about the egalitarian opportunities this new colony should afford, he determined to enter politics. His Gaelic brogue, belligerent manner and minimal education became a trademark of sorts, and he became known as ‘Honest Jock’ McKenzie. He gained support, and by the 1890s was considered the country’s leading expert on land issues. Appointed Minister of Lands in 1891, he saw the Land for Settlements Act passed in 1894, legislation which gave the government right of compulsory purchase and allowed them to ‘burst up’ some of the great estates of the day, on-selling them in medium-sized farms through a ballot system.
This achievement prevented New Zealand from being controlled by a virtual aristocracy of the wealthy and established the family-farm model that has long been the backbone of New Zealand farming. It would be a legacy to be proud of, if McKenzie had not also pushed through large acquisitions of Maori land to promote his ideals of redistribution for agriculture.
“The story is tragic,” writes historian Tom Brooking in his biography of McKenzie, Lands for the People? “Because in imposing their modest dreams on another people McKenzie and his colleagues lost an opportunity to build a New Zealand which brought all the benefits and advances of the social laboratory to both races.”
Puketapu is one of about 200 volcanoes arranged in a line running north and north-west of Dunedin. Aligned along faults, the 14–20-million-year-old cones are composed of ash and lava flows, explains a former Otago University professor of geology, Tony Reay. “Many of them contain green pieces of rock known as olivine nodules—crystals that have come from about 85 kilometres down in the Earth’s mantle and are probably what’s known as source rock, the rock that heated up and got the volcano going.”
There are other clues to the land’s rich pre-history. In the 1980s, the country’s largest fossil was unearthed at Shag Point—a 6.5-metre plesiosaur from the Cretaceous. At the site, University of Otago geology professor Ewan Fordyce and some associates noticed that fragments of bone passed into a large oval boulder. Realising it was “something big”, they returned later with a rock drill. Extracting the plesiosaur—a large, marine dinosaur—took 30 days of working on the foreshore between tides.
“We got it up in blocks of up to 100 kilograms, pulling it up the slope on an old car bonnet that was attached to a Land Rover,” says Fordyce. The fossil, which was named Kaiwhekea katiki, continues to attract worldwide scientific interest, partly because it is unusual to find a plesiosaur with the head still attached to the vertebrae.
The mouth of the Shag River has divulged evidence of the area’s early human settlement too. From the 19th century, excavations have revealed that moa-hunting communities camped at the river mouth for months at a time, until moa became extinct about 600 years ago.
Memoirs from the late 19th century tell of local children turning up bones and bits of pounamu necklaces on expeditions to local beaches, and a greenstone hei tiki that was found in the loose sand at the edge of a rabbit burrow.
Otago Museum houses many of these treasures now—including a moa egg the size of a small football, whistles and a selection of adzes designed for butchering moa.
For Ngai Tahu, whose story the river mouth preserves, the East Otago landscape provides metaphysical reminders of their history. When the Arai Te Uru canoe returned from a kumara-gathering expedition in Hawaiki, it met bad weather and capsized on the reef at Shag Point. The kumara baskets that floated to shore are remembered today in the haphazard distribution of the Moeraki Boulders strewn on the beach. After swimming ashore from the wreck, some of the Arai Te Uru’s crew set out in the night to gather firewood. They were told to be back by morning but several didn’t return in time; they were turned into features on the landscape, such as Puketapu, the sacred hill, sometimes characterised as a female servant, and other times as a chief.
“So, the hills are where we come from, and they might have something to do with where we end up too,” suggests David Ellison, the upoko (chief) at Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki Marae. “They connect us to our pre-life and our after-life.”
Ellison is a local historian who leads the vibrant marae that perches on Karitane’s hill, overlooking a beach and ancient pa site on the Huriawa Peninsula. Ellison grew up in Karitane, and like many others in the area, his life is a rich tapestry of historical strands. He remembers when you could gather paua around the Huriawa Peninsula without getting your feet wet, and experienced a “bitter-sweet” childhood that was marked by the deprivation and social change of war. He is the descendant of an early whaler, as well as Puketeraki.
Like Moeraki further north, Karitane witnessed some of the country’s earliest Maori-Pakeha relationships, forged on what were mutually advantageous terms.
“In a way you could say we were the founding place of biculturalism,” Ellison suggests. “We’re very proud of that. We were lucky that most of the whalers were happy to adopt a Maori way of life.” Some historians suggest that Puketeraki and other Otago hapu may have welcomed connections with whalers to strengthen their ranks against Te Rauparaha, who terrorised the South Island with raids from the North in the 1820s and 30s.
Shortly after, the church came to East Otago. Missionary James Watkin is remembered fondly by the people of Puketeraki, and in the fashion of the region a volcanic cone bears his name, yet apparently the minister took little joy in his duties. Though he became fluent in Maori and was pleased with the eager uptake of reading and writing, he never reconciled himself to the wild atmosphere of the Waikouaiti whaling station, the cold or hardship. Wangling a more palatable post out of the Wesleyan church, Watkin departed after four years, famously greeting his replacement with the dramatic, “Welcome to purgatory!”
Watkin had come to East Otago as part of an immigrant scheme organised by Johnny Jones, a whaler-turned-entrepreneur who is sometimes remembered as “the man who bought the South Island”. Raised in Sydney to ex-convict parents, Jones had risen above the whaler’s usual lot by investing in New Zealand whaling stations. By 1838, he turned to agriculture as whaling dwindled. He purchased land at Matanaka, near Waikouaiti, and recruited a dozen Sydney families (as well as Watkin, for added moral fibre) to break it in. None of the immigrants were taken by the new ‘settlement’—a collection of buildings on a windswept clifftop with views to a carcass-strewn beach.
Five of the original farm buildings still stand on the clifftops at Matanaka, now registered as a Category 1 historic place. They provide an evocative window into the early settler experience. Surrounded by long grass, they stand weather-beaten and dramatic against a vast canvas of sea and sky. Johnny Jones’ vision eventually bore fruit: a decade after his purchase of Matanaka, the first boatload of Otago Association settlers arrived in Dunedin. Historian A.H.McClintock writes that it was fortunate Jones’ agricultural settlement was “in so flourishing a condition, without which the Free Church colony would have all but perished.” It was a step up from the whaling era, when wild pork and Maori potatoes were the main sources of fresh food.
By the 1860s, the settlers’ vision of a tame home country had been somewhat realised in East Otago, just in time for record low wool prices and plagues of rabbits that would get the better of farmers for decades to come.
“The evil is on too gigantic a scale to be put down by shooting parties,” wrote visiting English author E. Katherine Bates when she visited the Waihemo Grange estate in 1887. For 16-year-old Alfred Dillon Bell of The Pigroot’s Shag Valley Station, this change in fortune was catastrophic: plans to send him to Cambridge were shelved and he returned to the farm to help keep things afloat.
Pursuing his love for science in the evenings, he conducted experiments in a laboratory that still stands as he left it, in the grounds of the Shag Valley Station homestead. Bunsen burners, microscopes, jars and bottles line the shelves and notebooks full of scribbled data lie open on the benches. High-octane gasoline was piped into the laboratory from a separate gas room and used not only in Bunsen burners but also furnaces, for ore extraction and analyzing minerals. An x-ray machine, probably the first in New Zealand, was used to confirm broken limbs several times in his role as unofficial doctor to the people of the Shag Valley region—his grandson Alf once used a slide to prove to the doctor that he did indeed have a broken bone.
While the resources in his laboratory may have been meagre by Cambridge University standards, Bell excelled as a chemist, biologist, photographer, astronomer and electrician. He did the microscopic work for the first recorded slides of the tuatara’s third eye, was invited to the Pasteur Research Centre in Sydney to try to find a rabbit bacillus, and in 1876 went to the Philadelphia Exhibition, where he saw Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. He came home and set up a functional telephone line between two houses at Shag Valley, probably the first telephones in New Zealand. He identified scheelite in the rock at nearby Macraes Flat, a finding of crucial importance to the First World War effort when scheelite was required to harden the ends of shells—the only other known source was then in Canada.
Bell was popular with visiting clergy, with whom he sparred on topics of comparative religion and literature, but had little time for social networking and was ruthless with any hint of pretension. His son Frank’s diaries tell of his caustic “I run a small mutton shop” when asked what he did by a fellow passenger on a trip home from England. His reply ensured social climbers left them alone: “In actual fact we shore about 70,000 sheep at the time,” he writes.
Brenda and Frank Bell continued their father’s legacy of home-cooked science par excellence, setting records for round-the-world two-way radio contact from an amateur rig in the shearers’ cookhouse. They used shortwave radio at a time when longwave radio was perceived to be more effective. On October 28, 1924, Frank made contact with a teacher in Mill Hill, London. The event caused a media frenzy and for a time the isolated Shag Valley Station was flooded with cables, wires and letters from around the world. The New Zealand government soon reversed its preference for longwave radio, converting the navy and airforce to shortwave, and subsequent experiments around the world proved that shortwaves of less than 200 metres are reflected back to Earth by layers of ionised gas, bouncing around the world very efficiently. Not long after Frank’s success, Brenda made the first two-way radio contact between New Zealand and South Africa.
Stories of resilience and the ingenuity born of isolation are exciting to Alison MacTavish, a local historian who welcomes me to the Moeraki house she shares with husband Dugald. It’s raining when we visit and we rug up to tramp across a rough fringe of felled pine forest to the MacTavishes’ garden patch, where apples glow like jewels on nearly bare trees. Alison digs in the pocked earth, lamenting the damage their ducks and geese do to the garden, and turns up a large handful of purple potatoes.
“These are the same potatoes the whalers ate,” she says, adding that they don’t boil well, although they make wonderful potato bread. “An old Moeraki identity down at The Kaik gave one to me and I’ve grown them ever since.
“They grow incredibly well here. I love their shapes and colours, and the fact that they grow of their own accord.”
For MacTavish, these purple-tinted spuds, along with the apples on her locally sourced heritage trees, nourish in more than just a physical sense, helping also to foster community and keep alive the heartbeat of this place, with its unique geography and history.
“I’m exploring the idea of celebrating what grows well here,” she relates. “Cherry plums, banana passionfruit, Maori potatoes and apples grow in such profusion here that they’re undervalued. I’ve been spending time over the last year or two trying to do different things with them to make them really special foods. I’ve made fruit leather and crystallised the plums—they’re working well as a replacement for raisins. I’ve had a lot of pleasure from that ability to be resourceful, to invent something new. Our ancestors were extremely creative with what they had to hand. We’ve lost a lot of that creativity and the resilience and independence that it lent communities, because we can get things from anywhere in the world.”
MacTavish says that, compared to many places, East Otago retains a good deal of its original flavour. “I think we’ve largely resisted being homogenised. And in a way, our isolation is becoming our strength. This is a little corner of New Zealand that has been less touched by the developments of the last 30 years or so. We don’t have much dairying. Our sheep and beef farms are still small-scale. This isn’t an area where corporations own farms—they’re still family farms. There’s a sense of local identity and community.”
Deep shafts of gold in the East Otago hills have promised wealth at various times. Relics of 19th-century mining still stand in places with Wild West names such as Waynes and Macraes. The ‘mushroom town’ of Nenthorn briefly housed 2000 people, then disappeared when the gold proved uneconomic to extract.
Near Macraes Flat, Nenthorn is now part of a block of DOC conservancy land that is preserved as habitat for critically endangered grand and Otago skinks. Clumps of tussock ruffle across the Nenthorn plateau like the fur on a great sleeping animal and outcrops of schist rise up like informal monuments—this is sometimes called ‘Stonehenge Country’. Both of these separate, although similar species are about 30 centimetres long, with gold- and black-patterned bodies that appear virtually invisible on the flecked grey sparkle of the schist.
“Otago skinks are harder to spot than grand skinks, although they’re slightly longer and chunkier,” says Andy Hutcheon, DOC’s grand and Otago skink recovery programme manager. “We survey photographically but there’s still only a one-in-three chance we’ll see an Otago skink even when it’s there.”
The grand skink is more active. Hutcheon recalls a research assistant who witnessed a grand skink give birth to its live young: “Apparently the newborn skink popped out running. It didn’t even look back, just hurtled to the other end of the rock and grabbed a fly.” Conveniently, the species share diet and habitat preferences. “They’ll both eat pretty much anything they can fit in their mouths,” he says.
Two predator-proof fences offer a reprieve from mustelids and feral cats, which are a particular problem here, and trapping has proven to be a cost-effective way to offer partial protection across a greater area. Though it doesn’t save the skinks from their natural predators—New Zealand falcons patrol the area from the sky, plucking them from among the tussock ; an echo of prehistoric times when Haast’s eagles cast even larger shadows on these flats.
Gold is still wrested from Macraes Flat. Since 1990, OceanaGold Corporation has operated an open-cut mine, an underground mine and a highly efficient processing plant that grinds ore to the consistency of talcum powder. The company has also developed a trout hatchery in association with Fish&Game and is about to establish a trust fund for the benefit of the local community.
Close up, the open-cut mine is a dramatic demonstration of earth-moving—one and a half kilometres long and 250 metres deep, the main pit reverberates with the constant whine and beep as machines cut away at its fringe. Gigantic diggers fill 190-tonne trucks with just a few scoops of their buckets. A portal leading underground allows further ore extraction which is carried out by a fleet of electric-hydraulic drill rigs, 50-tonne dump trucks and remote controlled loaders.
My uncle Graham remembers mustering sheep across the land where the mine now works. Although OceanaGold has rehabilitated waste ore, stacking it in mounds that are then sowed in pasture, he admits today’s landscape is “completely unrecognisable”. He’s not opposed to the mine, though; the impact on the landscape is something many in the community are willing to accept.
“They’ve created jobs for 600 people from all over Otago,” Rod Philip explains. “It’s a stepping stone for a lot of people; the young fellow next door to me trained as a driller’s assistant and is now managing a drilling company in Africa.”
There’s spin-off for other businesses, such as local engineering firms and machinery contractors. “In one sense the mine has underpinned the community,” Philip adds. “In the 1980s, we were just like any other small New Zealand town—there were a lot of empty houses. The mine stopped that decay.”
There’s no clear plan to suggest what might take the mine’s place in the community. At a grassroots level there’s a growing focus on ecology and tourism; yellow-eyed penguin trusts have numbers of hoiho rebound in several monitored sites along the coast, and coastal ecosystems are being restored—notably Hawksbury Lagoon and the Tavora Reserve, which has populations of kekeno (New Zealand fur seals) and hoiho and a recovering dune system. It’s been suggested that the popular Otago Central Rail Trail could be extended from Middlemarch to come through East Otago. Fleur’s Place at Moeraki attracts foodies, and through The Kaik and Shag Point, to Waikouaiti and Karitane, a network of cute miners’ cottages and cribs recall the charm of a simpler era.
Sometimes it’s in celebrating the past that a way forward can be found, says Alison MacTavish. “I think we need to nurture our small communities. In the past, our small communities were incredibly resilient. We need to develop that resilience again and part of it is about celebrating what’s unique about where we are.”