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Amazing Arrowtown: New Zealand's Colonial Time Capsule

Published
June 13, 2020
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ONE place I never get tired of visiting is Arrowtown, north-east of Queenstown, New Zealand.

Here’s a map showing the location of Arrowtown in relation to Queenstown; and also the location of a spot called Refuge Point, across Lake Wakatipu from Queenstown, which I’m going to mention in this week’s story as well.

Arrowtown, Queenstown and Refuge Point. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top. Red boxes and names of Arrowtown, Queenstown and Refuge Point have been added in prominent black type for this article.

As towns, Queenstown and Arrowtown both date back to the early 1860s gold-mining era.

Photograph in the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery, Arrowtown

Photos of Arrowtown’s original, restored Police Hut, and a wagon mouldering outside

But they’ve since developed in completely different ways.

Queenstown, on Lake Wakatipu, was not only a mining town but also a service centre for colonial sheep-farmers from day one, and soon became a popular lake resort as well. In the old days, you got there by train from Dunedin to Kingston at the foot of the lake, and then by way of a lake steamer such as the still-surviving Earnslaw, which would stop off at Queenstown and then continue to the top of the lake.

The BBC TV series Top of the Lake paints the head of Lake Wakatipu as a grim spot full of dark goings-on. Actually, the real-life top of the lake is full of tourist destinations. Destinations like Kinloch, Glenorchy, the Routeburn Track, the Dart Glacier and the aptly-named Paradise Valley.

(I just found out that the Paradise Valley’s another Lord of the Rings filming site. If you’re into bagging LOTR sites, it’s another reason to go there.)

A well-established resort by the end of the 1800s, Queenstown was to grow like a mushroom in the post-World War II era of international mass tourism and air travel. A lot of this growth was a bit ticky-tacky. And more fun for the tourists who got a gondola and skifields, than for tourism workers who had to put up with a more or less perpetual housing shortage. Many of the benefits of the tourism industry have been captured by local landlords: a state of affairs winked at for years by local councils made up of the same.

A newspaper headline from 1972, in the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery

In stark contrast to bustling Queenstown, Arrowtown had declined to only about two hundred residents by the start of the fifties. For one thing, Arrowtown wasn’t on the big lake that pulled in most of the tourists. Tourists who kept Queenstown going from strength to strength after the gold ran out in the late 1800s and even as sheep-farming began to decline from the mid-1960s onwards.

To make things worse, Arrowtown was at the foot of the mountains that had once yielded so much gold, in a location that got practically no sun in winter. You can see the mountains that loom over the town in this display of photos of Buckingham Street, the main street of old Arrowtown.

Historical backgrounder with photos, in the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery

In short, the town was becoming a ghost town.

But Arrowtown did have one thing that Queenstown was starting to lose as it chased the tourism dollar.

And that was character. Character that the remaining burghers of Arrowtown decided to promote as the basis for their own tourism revival and gradual re-population, given that they didn’t have Queenstown’s lakeside attractions.

A tourism signboard (which seems to be in need of renovation itself)

A drystone retaining wall propping up the end of Buckingham Street, as seen from Butlers Green

The shops of Buckingham Street in summer

Buckingham Green, the main town square of Buckingham Street (first of three images panning right)

Here’s a video of Buckingham Green in the summertime, which also shows something of the street including the last pub still open in Arrowtown, the New Orleans Hotel.

Here are the Buckingham Street shops just after mid-day at the start of winter this year (June the twelfth), followed by the residential part of Buckingham Street. There’s still a little bit of sun but it’s about to set behind the mountains for a month or so, I hear. And if it snows, apparently the hardy Arrowtowners can forget about it melting till the sun decides to reappear.

Old hand-made gutter and kerb

Buckingham Street houses (cottages, really) in winter

The local museum, the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery, is supposed to be the best small-town museum in New Zealand, though that title’s probably contested by other small towns. But certainly, few are as historic as Arrowtown. Here are a few photos from the museum: others are shown in context, elsewhere in the present post.

The museum is built around an old set of stables, from 1876

New Zealand’s first hydroelectric scheme, as far back as 1886! The first of many.

Strict gun control in modern New Zealand means that six-shooters are generally only to be found in a museum. Things were a bit more like the Wild West back in the day, however.

A beautiful 1880s map of the top of Lake Wakatipu and some of the country behind, published under the authority of the surveyor James McKerrow, who is now commemorated in the landscape himself (e.g., Lake McKerrow).

A mock-up of the colonial town. Actually, about all that’s changed in modern Arrowtown are the means of conveyance and a slightly different flag.

One thing I didn’t record, as I was running out of space on the camera, was the soft music in the background, a lot of it colonial tunes.

The second half of an arts documentary that screened on New Zealand TV back in the eighties, compares Arrowtown to Queenstown in some depth. You can access it here (unfortunately, the video can't be embedded.)

There’s also an earlier, classic 1954 documentary about the two towns which I’ve put up already, but which stands repeating as it’s one of the earliest to mention Arrowtown as a destination. It also shows the Buckingham Street cottages and the Lakes museum, which opened in 1948. The Royal Oak Hotel, outside of which a couple of grizzled ex-miners appear, was converted into shops some years back.

In contrast to North Island tourist destinations, neither town makes much of its Māori heritage. In the first place, Māori were always less numerous in the South Island than in the North. Researchers have documented some 7,000 Māori pā or villages in the northern three-quarters of the North Island, but only a few hundred villages in the southernmost part of the North Island and the whole of the South Island put together.

In the warmer regions of the country the Māori lived as farmers, in considerable number. But the colder, windier southern regions didn’t suit Māori crops. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle and a consequently smaller population was more typical of those regions.

Even so, there were several permanent villages in and around present-day Queenstown, including the village of Tahuna on the site of Queenstown itself. And a great many temporary hunting and fishing encampments in the surrounding country.

And even the harshest parts of the South Island interior were important as way-stations en route to reserves of pounamu, or greenstone (a form of jade), which was greatly prized by the Māori and traded all the way up to the top of the North Island. The Māori name of the South Island, Te Waipounamu, means ‘the waters of greenstone’. The South Island was officially named ‘South Island or Te Waipounamu’ in 2013.

A great many legends and tales are told of Lake Wakatipu, facts that point to long-term Māori presence. One legend holds that the lake occupies a trench formed when a sleeping giant, Matau, was set on fire by a hero named Matakauri.

Display in the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery

By tradition, the trench created by Matau’s body was more than a thousand feet deep before it was filled by the melting snows: an estimate which is in fact the actual depth of Lake Wakatipu over most of its length. Perhaps an old-time Māori sounded it with a lengthy cord.

The long, comparatively narrow lake was known to pulsate up and down as the water slowly slopped from one end to the other (it still does). This natural phenomenon was attributed to the beating of the giant’s heart, said to have survived the destruction of the rest of Matau’s body and been preserved as Motu Manawa (‘heart island’), known to the colonists as Hidden Island, near Refuge Point.

As to how Refuge Point got its name, well, that seems a bit obscure, though someone may know. Perhaps colonial lake-sailors were able to take refuge from strong winds blowing down Lake Wakatipu from one direction or the other, as the has a significant kink just there.

Or perhaps it was bestowed by the colonists after hearing another, less mythical tale of the southern Māori. In the early 1700s by the European calendar, Haki te Kura, the daughter of a chief who dwelt at Tahuna named Te Wiri Roa, is said to have swum across the lake to Refuge Point. According to a history published in 1952,

One day, confidence gained, and provided with a bunch of dry raupo [rushes], Haki Te Kura set forth before day-break and swam the two-and-a-half miles across the cold waters of Lake Wakatipu, using the Cecil and Walter Peaks as her guiding beacon. She landed safely at Refuge Point, and lit a fire to warm her chilled body. Te Wiri Roa observed the fire and proudly sent a canoe across to bring his daughter back. The mark of the fire at Refuge Point can still be seen, and is called Te Ahi o Haki Te Kura. The guiding peaks are Ko Kamu o Haki Te Kura. Kawarau Peninsula also bears the name of the Maori woman swimmer as Te Unuku o Haki Te Kura.

Rather you than me, as the saying goes.

All the same, with the coming of the Europeans that began soon after the mapping of New Zealand’s coast by Captain Cook in 1769, South Island Māori migrated to the coast to trade with the newcomers. Much of the South Island became almost deserted inland save for seasonal foraging-parties, and was sold to the colonisers in the seaports on the understanding that a tenth was to be reserved for the Māori vendors: a tenth that would no doubt have included such sites as Tahuna. The South Island Māori also supposed that they were to get certain other benefits, such as schools.

Yeah, right. That didn’t happen (save insofar as education did become compulsory for all a generation or so later). Instead, colonists in search of gold to mine and land on which to run sheep soon pushed into the interior and occupied a landscape that they supposed to be untouched by human hand, or as nearly so as made little difference.

(The government report I just mentioned documents a later, 1998 settlement between the Crown and the largest South Island iwi or tribe, Ngai Tahu, whereby Ngai Tahu obtained some redress for earlier bad faith.)

In the meantime, Queenstown and Arrowtown sprang up as British settlements, the chief minority element being a sizable population of Chinese miners.

Information sign for the Arrowtown Chinese settlement, with the surviving general store (‘Ah Lum’s Store’) behind

From an outdoor signboard

A closer view of Ah Lum’s Store

Display in the Lakes District Museum and Art Gallery

Some restored cottages in the Arrowtown Chinese Camp are shown in the next few photos. They normally have a fireplace close to the door, a distinctive feature of these types of cottage, and roofs generally made from flat, beaten tin rather than corrugated iron. There’s also one amazing cottage that’s set into the hillside with steps leading up to it.

One of several local information panels

The author (right) with a friend, visiting the miners’ cottages in 2013. This looks as though it’s the first one above.

The few Māori that lived year-round in the region after the coming of the settlers seem to have been somewhat assimilated individuals, forced to adopt a European lifestyle in an increasingly Europeanised interior. People such as the sheep-shearer ‘Maori Jack’ Tewa, after whom the Queenstown suburb of Jacks Point is named. Tewa is commemorated as the first person to have discovered gold at Arrowtown, in 1862.

And the stockman Henare Te Maire, interviewed in old age by the researcher Herries Beattie, as the last person known to remember the Māori names of many localities in the Wakatipu region such as te Puna-tapu, also known as Bobs Cove.

The barren landscape of the Wakatipu region, upon which the Māori had found it impossible to raise their traditional crops and where even New Zealand’s rather delicate native trees also struggled to grow, was soon covered with hardier species of deciduous summer shade trees, pines and redwoods from the Northern Hemisphere. Trees that reminded the settlers of home, just as they also did in Queenstown.

Another Chinese miners’ cottage amid luxuriant summertime trees. (The cottage looks as if it might be the last survivor of many on this patch of ground.)

Plaque in Buckingham Street, near the cottages on the street

Trees which also seem to furnish an inexhaustible supply of free plums, if you time your visit right.

Alternatively, you can hang out in the many modern-day cafes and restaurants.

Ramshaw Lane, just north of Buckingham Street

One irony that’s always struck me is that perhaps no part of New Zealand is less exclusively or distinctively ‘Kiwi’ than these tourist towns of the south, with their deciduous trees, pines and redwoods and minimal Māori influence. I mean, seriously, you might as well be in the Sierra Nevada.

Come to think of it, that’s where a lot of the miners in the Queenstown region did come from: chasing gold from the original forty-niner discoveries in California through Australia in the 1850s and ending up in New Zealand in the 1860s.

There’s one last tale to tell about Arrowtown. For a time, the town was home to a future Catholic saint named Mary MacKillop, who dwelt for a few months there in the mid-1890s in a cottage that still exists.

Even in her day, many said that MacKillop was destined for sainthood. But she doesn’t seem to have been a doctrinaire, which is perhaps something else we can count in her favour. Though the two faiths were enemies in places like Northern Ireland, Mary’s best friend in Australia for many years was a Presbyterian woman named Joanna Barr Smith:

If this is your first visit to Rome, dear Sister Mary, what a rare enjoyment it will be to you. There you have so many means of enjoying it that other people have not. Your habit will be an open sesame to you where my flounces and furbelows would be a bar to my entrance — for I have not abandoned yet the world, the flesh, and the devil — and still prefer a dress of silk to a gown of cotton.

Predeceased by Mary, Mrs Barr Smith paid for the future saint’s remains to be transferred to a perpetual tomb after emotionally-overcome followers had removed so many handfuls of dirt from Mary’s grave to take home and venerate that there was a risk of improper exposure of whatever was left.

Nothing like that could possibly happen in Australia or New Zealand these days. But as L P Hartley so famously wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

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