Between Alexandra and Clyde, on the true right bank of the Clutha River but walled from its swift flow by a thicket of willows, there is a patch of the most unusual landscape you will find anywhere in this country. Dunes of river gravels, loose, barren and arid, wind-blown and burnt by the fierce Central Otago sun and frosts. Their forms are surprisingly regular, with parallel ridges and troughs and frequent cone-shaped craters, though only an aerial view fully reveals the place for what it is—a man-made moonscape, an undulating heap of industrial wasteland from a century of mining for gold.
The Earnscleugh Dredge Tailings are a historic reserve, a 170-hectare memento from heady days when plundering the land while pursuing its riches and simply walking away when no longer profitable was considered an acceptable use of a valuable resource.
From the outside, the reserve appears desolate and lifeless. The gates to it are locked, and now the footbridge over the Fraser River is washed out too, requiring a detour. Not that anyone seems to mind; even locals avoid the place. Earnscleugh is a most unlikely wildlife refuge, unless you visit with Brian Patrick.
Patrick is New Zealand’s butterfly and moth man, an ecologist specialising in insect-plant relationships, with particular and lifelong interests in Central Otago’s weathered rockscapes. He knows the name of every plant and every insect here, making distinctions out of the multitude.
One spring day, just as another rainstorm was clearing and its spent clouds were drawn like a heavy drape off the Otago sky, I walked into the unlikely wild of the Earnscleugh Tailings with Patrick. What from the outside appeared like an industrial apocalypse proved to be an oasis of wildlife—a treasure trove of beauty, small and delicate, though apparent only if you are prepared to get down on your knees and look closely to see what poet William Blake called “a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower”.
The world’s first gold dredges were developed near here. No one in particular can claim the credit for them as the process of evolution and refinement was at once collaborative, competitive and decades long, but the machinery perfected on the Clutha, with upgrades and modifications, is still in use today, in gold-mining operations as far afield as Alaska and Malaysia.
In just two months of work prior to August 1862, prospectors Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly washed up and collected some 1100 ounces (34 kilograms) of colour in the Cromwell Gorge, instantly earning the Clutha and its tributaries worldwide fame as rivers of gold. But with the subsequent boom and massive influx of diggers, the easily found gold was quickly exhausted and extraction became more industrial in scale and technology. The dredges—scooping out the auriferous gravels from the river bottom and washing, sorting and separating them in tumblers and over mesh screens—proved the most productive.
During the heyday of gold-mining, more than 150 such dredges plied the Clutha and its tributaries. Fortunes were made and lost, as were many lives. But the fever burned bright, sparked by spectacular finds, such as that of Lady Molyneux, a dredge which recovered 1234 ounces of gold in just one week, worth nearly $2 million at today’s prices. Soon, Central Otago ran out of natural coal, which was the main fuel to power the machinery, and through necessity, the Sandhills on the Shotover and the Fourteen-Mile Beach in the Roxburgh Gorge became the world’s first gold dredges powered by electricity. Clutha operations soon followed suit, and a hydro power plant was built on the nearby Fraser River that turned water into electricity, and electricity into gold.
Eventually, the river bottom, churned over so many times, ran out of gold too and miners turned their attention to the river banks. It was not economical to dig up dry land and sieve it to separate out the gold, but prospectors came up with an ingenious solution: to create an artificial and moveable inland lake on which a river dredge could float. Water assisted extraction and cut the electricity costs by a third. Thus followed an era of ‘paddock dredging’, four generations of working and reworking the river terraces of the Clutha, the results of which are the Earnscleugh Tailings.
The grinding din of the dredge, which worked 24/7 for decades, was horrendous. The inhabitants of Alexandra apparently got used to it, though the dust plagued them like desert sandstorms, and when the dredge hit particularly hard rock, the lights in the entire town dimmed.
“You can picture the dredge as a giant earthworm chewing its way through the land, back and forth, many times over,”says Patrick as we climb up onto the tailings. “Gold was the nutrient extracted in its belly, and this here is its excreta. The most curious thing to me is that this totally man-made environment mimics natural river terraces and, as it was abandoned, and as farming and other human activities intensified around it, the tailings have become a refuge for wildlife and plants.”
Patrick bends down to the shale and picks up a shred of lichen, yellow-green and, after the recent rain, fat like a succulent. “Tumbleweed lichen,” he announces, “Chondropsis semiviridis, extremely unusual because unlike almost all other lichens, it does not attach itself to the rock but lives blown about by wind. Its closest relative lives in the Nullarbor Plain in Australia.
“And over here,” he pivots towards a grasshopper perfectly camouflaged against the bone-white stone, “is Alexandra grasshopper, Sigaus childi, found nowhere else in the world. Very ancient, too. May even pre-date the river itself.”
Patrick was nine years old when, in 1963, the last dredge ground to a shuddering halt on the Earnscleugh Tailings. He grew up in Invercargill, in a family with a staunch Presbyterian tradition, with a garden as his playground. “I’ve always been interested in insects,” he says. “My earliest memories are of collecting caterpillars around the garden, putting them in jars and a shoebox under the bed, and watching them metamorphose into butterflies. It’s one of the greatest spectacles of life and I never tire of it.
“My parents were enthusiastic gardeners but I always saw them struggling against nature and getting frustrated with it,” he says. “They had an idea of how things should be and nature just didn’t co-operate.”
Mind you, Patrick wasn’t helping the situation. His parents were eradicating cabbage butterflies at one end of the garden, while he was releasing new ones from jars at the other.
“Back then, I didn’t have books or mentors, I only went by what I saw in the garden. I didn’t know what was native, or introduced, what was a crop or a weed,” he says. “To me, it was all life, a wondrous web of connections and interdependence. And it’s stayed that way ever since.”
I follow Patrick through the miniature desert of the tailings His eyes are quick, the sweeps of his butterfly net accurate and efficient. Every few steps, we are down on our knees, and I’m glad for the magnifying glass I’ve brought, for most of life here is diminutive, its beauty easily missed.
What from eye level looks like green bristles on the surface of stones, up close becomes a veritable forest of cushion plants Colobanthus and several Raoulia species with mats of Muehlenbeckia and clumps of tiny succulents, Crassula colligata, freshly swollen with rainwater. Porcupine shrub hides its flowers and fruit inside the barbed-wire exterior, safe from birds but food for lizards and insects that shelter within. There are lichens everywhere, like paint on an artist’s palette—the yellow-green Rhizocarpon, red Xanthoria and the off-white Xanthoparmelia with the texture of blistering paint.
Small is beautiful, smaller even more so. Patrick points to a tuft of native grass and its microscopic flowers that are pollinated by the wind.
Above it all, wild thyme—so gnarled and noble that each clump resembles a bonsai tree—provides shelter and stability, acting as a nursery plant. There are mats of sheep sorrel and stands of Californian poppies and lupins, the first tendrils of Viper’s bugloss, and here and there poplars have taken root, though in this barren land even their saplings look like giants. Plants native and introduced, weaving together into a new web of life. Walking around and following Patrick, I cannot shake an impression that, if by some grandiose human folly life on Earth was completely wiped out, this is what its rebirth might look like.
Mini-fauna for which we barely have names crawl and hop over this skin of new plant life, recolonising and healing the wasteland. There are nearly 450 species of moths in Central Otago, almost all of them native, and some, such as the day-flying heliothine, are endemic. There are chafer beetles—flightless and nocturnal—wolf and trap-door spiders, and five species of grasshoppers, two of them as yet undescribed. The rockscapes are a haven for skinks and geckos, though they’re quick to disappear into crevices among the stones with a flick of a tail.
“In New Zealand, evolution has been especially original in its experiments,” Patrick tells me as we crest a ridge in the tailings, the hill dropping at our feet, steep, loose and fine like a mountain scree slope.
“It’s a common theme through a lot of our flora and fauna. We have skinks and geckos that bear live young, frogs that don’t go through the tadpole stage, grasshoppers that don’t fly. There is nowhere else where you get that. These islands are a world unto themselves.”
From those early days of watching butterflies chew their way out of the chrysalis in the shoebox under his bed, Patrick went on to become one of the country’s foremost entomologists. He was a science adviser for DOC, covering Otago and Southland all the way to the subantarctic, then the head of collection and research at Otago Museum. He spent six years establishing Central Stories, the new Alexandra museum, before becoming an ecologist for Wildlands, a consultancy working with conservation groups and developers alike in ecology and in biodiversity surveys, and advising on sustainable land use.
“If we fight nature, like my parents did, we’ll never win, just create no end of problems for ourselves,” says Patrick. “The key is balanced and sustainable use. Which is why we prefer to work with developers, instead of fighting them. We can influence their decisions and actions, modify their behaviour, implement more sustainable solutions.”
He swipes with his net, twirls the handle to entrap the catch, fiddles inside the mesh with a large glass vial, then hands me the container. Inside, there is a butterfly the size of a thumbnail, the patterns on its wings not unlike those in the plumage of a pheasant, but frosted and furry.
“Boulder copper butterfly,” he explains. “Found nowhere else but here, on the tailings.” For a few silent moments we watch the fluttering jewel, then Patrick opens the vial and the insect is out, instantly going to ground, disappearing among the rubble.
“Typically we’d collect a sample like this and take it away to study,” he says. “Science traditionally studies things in isolation—an animal, a plant, a phenomenon. But that’s becoming an increasingly outdated way because in doing so we miss the connectivity and interdependence of life. If you study things out of context, away from their environment, you get out-of-context results.”
Every species is dependent on others in a shifting set of relationships governed as much by the many creatures as the external forces that act upon them. There’s no one point of balance, but an ever-changing equilibrium, a synergy that makes the web of life both diverse and robust. Sometimes introduced species force out natives, sometimes exotics become surrogates for native species now missing.
Like the explosion of life taking place in arid kauri gumlands in the north, the industrial wastes of tailings such as at Earnscleugh have an important function in New Zealand’s ecology. Here, ecological rejuvenation happens on its own terms, in thin and arid soils among non-native shrubs, even pest species, with little intervention from conservation agencies—but it supports a cast of invertebrate life that exists nowhere else.
As we hike back across this moraine of human toil, Patrick keeps pointing out plants and insects, and I’m struck by the industry of nature itself. Even this most artificial of landscapes seems perfectly natural to the plants and creatures that now inhabit it. Lichens have taken to rusty dredge buckets with such cohesion it is impossible to say where rust ends and the lichen begins. Weathered sheets of scrap metal have become solariums for skinks and geckos and hunting grounds for spiders. In the absence of kowhai, the kowhai moth has made itself perfectly at home among the lupins.
Given time, the tailings will blend into the natural landscape again, their plants and animals weaving a new web of life over the mined gravels. There is already a visible difference between the oldest workings and the most recent, indicative that nature can sometimes be more resilient and diverse than we expect.
“‘Native’ and ‘introduced’ are just labels we give things,” says Patrick. “Nature itself doesn’t care for any form of ecological purity. We’d do well to learn from it. In one way or another, we’re all introduced here.”