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Above Worry Level: From St Bathans to Ranfurly, on the high plains of the Maniototo

Published
February 25, 2024
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A map I had made in 2020, with St Bathans at top centre. The Taieri Gorge Railway, now called the Inlander, by Dunedin Railways, now runs only as far as HIndon, just short of the greater part of the Taieri Gorge proper: the gorge section is now being considered for a lengthened Otago Central Rail Trail.

EAST of Queenstown lie the high plains of the Maniototo, and the road called the Pigroot, which runs through the Maniototo from Alexandra to Palmerston. Maniototo means ‘plains of blood’, though it refers only to the red tussock. Red tussock which isn’t red all the time, either.

As to the name Pigroot, it may refer to the once disastrous condition of the road, as if uprooted by pigs, though now it is fully sealed.

The Maniototo. The road shown is a side road, as the Pigroot is now sealed.

Some distance off the Pigroot, I stayed at the old semi-ghost town of St Bathans, where there is a freedom camping site at the local St Bathans Domain, and took pictures of a great sunset.

Alternatively, you can stay at the Vulcan Hotel (1863), said to be haunted by a ghost called Rosie, who torments sleepers in Room 1. There’s a Medium story about a possible encounter with Rosie, and also a press story, here.

The Vulcan looked a lot like the more famous Cardrona Hotel, established in the same year. Clearly, this was the standard look for miners’ inns at the time.

I met the woman who owned the Vulcan Hotel. It was for sale at that time, along with the pubs further on down the Pigroot at Wedderburn and Naseby.

It was pretty quiet when I was there. All the same, a lot of these places really swell in the summertime, when they cater to cycle tourists on the nearby Otago Central Rail Trail and the neighbouring roads. Who are thirsty, obviously enough.

Inside the Vulcan Hotel

Historic photos inside the Vulcan Hotel

St Bathans is an old gold-mining town. There are a couple of lakes, Blue Lake and Grey Lake, which didn’t exist before the 1860s but were created by the activities of the gold miners.‍

The chief method of mining in this district was to aggressively sluice the easily eroded hillsides with jets of high-pressure water.

And that’s basically how the lakes were carved out.

You can go boating and swimming on the lakes, and hike on trails around them. When I went swimming in it just recently, the Blue Lake was surprisingly warm!

The Blue Lake in two different lights

Here’s a short video I made at the Blue Lake:

There are several other old buildings in the township as well.

An old community hall

Not sure what this building was

The site of William Pyle’s store

The old St Bathans Post Office, also said to be haunted

As it is a fair way from the rail trail, which otherwise sticks close to the Pigroot west of Ranfurly, St Bathans would probably be a complete ghost town today — no pun intended — if it weren’t for the fact that the Blue and Grey Lakes and its general old-time atmosphere brings in a bit of tourism.

Only a literal handful of people live there all year round. But it seems that some people are moving to the town now and building new houses, drawn by its charms.

It all looks very summery in the photos above, but the scenes in which an aged swagman staggers along the streets in the snow, in Jack Winter’s Dream, show what St Bathans can be like in the winter.

Clickable Thumbnail leading to Jack Winter’s Dream, on NZOnscreen.

As does the lead photo in the Medium story about Rosie, and this photo of Pyle’s General Store in 1903.

Snow at William Pyle’s general store, St Bathans, Central Otago — Photograph taken by F M Pyle. Paterson, M, fl 1966: Photographs, particularly of St Bathans, Central Otago. Ref: 1/2–027134-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23193076

There are some other wintery photos and anecdotes on the following link, ‘Snowpocalypse 1863’.

There are other interesting places close to St Bathans, including the Ida Valley (on the Otago Central Rail Trail), Drybread, where a colonial cemetery is being excavated, and Cambrians, a little settlement where the handful of people who live there are restoring the native forest.

A little further on down the Pigroot I came to another town called Wedderburn. The Wedderburn tavern was even more picturesque than the Vulcan.

There are lots of slowly rusting farming implements around the side.

And then I turned up a side road to the town of Naseby, which advertises itself as “2,000 feet above worry level.”

There used to be twenty pubs at Naseby, of which the Ancient Briton (originally 1863) and the Royal (1865) are the only two survivors now.‍

Three views of the Ancient Briton, on Leven Street. The red fruit is the cold-hardy rowan, the only fruit tree to grow north of the Arctic Circle and popular at higher elevations in Otago. Most varieties of the rowan can be eaten if cooked and made into a jelly, though they are bitter and somewhat poisonous when raw.

The Lodge at the Ancient Briton

The Royal Hotel, on Earne Street

The town also has other historic buildings and generally tons of charm, and a few more places to stay at.

The old post office, opposite the Naseby Recreational Reserve in Derwent Street

The Dust Movies Community Centre

Dust Movies

The Museum

As with many touristy places and cycling destinations in New Zealand, Naseby has a facility where you can refill your water bottles. It is in the Naseby Recreational Reserve which lies across the road from the old red-and-white post office and is close to the corner of Derwent and Avoca Streets: see refillnz.org.nz/where-to-refill.

Like St Bathans, Naseby’s also some way off the Pigroot. But it seems to have a bit more critical mass and is not quite as remote either.

I think that that indoor curling rink is new, just in the last five or six years.

You can continue up the side road from Naseby to Kyeburn Diggings where there are no longer any miners but still a surprisingly large pub, hotel, and restaurant called the Danseys Pass Hotel (est. 1862), also known as the Danseys Pass Coach Inn, and then on to Danseys Pass via a road that is, from the Inn onward, simply a bedrock ledge in places.

The Danseys Pass road is very scenic, but whoever’s driving is advised not to look at the scenery. A bit like the Skippers Canyon Road near Queenstown in other words, though not quite as bad. Heavy vehicles, campervans and caravans are not allowed because they cause problems for people coming the other way on narrow sections.

According to the international Dangerous Roads website, “if there’s any hint of bad weather, you should not be up here.” On the other hand, there are a great many trails that lead off the road into a rocky wilderness on both sides, the Oteake Conservation Park, a paradise for mountain bikers. And to reiterate, it is scenic.

Through Danseys Pass you travel on to Duntroon on the Waitaki River, an area that’s the subject of another of my posts.

I also stopped into Ranfurly, which is a larger town with interesting art deco tearooms built in the 1930s and the similarly classy Ranfurly Hotel, and a good place to stock up when you are back on the main road, though not as picturesque as some of the other places. It’s a major stop on the rail trail.

An information panel about the old railway at Ranfurly

The Railway Station, Ranfurly (the trains no longer run)

The main street of Ranfurly, with the Ranfurly Hotel. Photo by Grutness, 16 May 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Centennial Milk Bar, Ranfurly. Public domain image by Pseudopanax (14 February 2023), via Wikimedia Commons.

The Old Post Office Backpackers in Ranfurly

The Off the Rails cycle touring company, in Ranfurly

There’s more about this part of the country in one of my books, The Sensational South Island, on sale on this website a-maverick.com.

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