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Behind the Scenery: Striking Historical Gold in New Zealand

Published
May 23, 2020
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WELL, I just tuned into the new BBC series The Luminaries, now screening in New Zealand. It seems we’ve got to see it first.

That’s because the series is set in New Zealand: in the South Island’s gold rush days of the 1860s.

Map on the wall in the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, Dunedin

Too often, people travel to New Zealand for the scenery or adventure in the wilds, and miss out on the history. And yet there’s plenty of it. Lots of my blog posts have talked about the historical aspects of New Zealand.

"Queenstown’s the centre of a fascinating district, where the present is filled with natural beauty. But where the romantic past is always visible beyond a screen of leaves. Arrowtown was once a roaring mining town of thousands. But the main street no longer echoes with shouts and cries and ragtime from the packed saloons. It barely hears the whisper of the autumn wind in the trees the old prospectors planted. Many of the old building still stand, though. And you’ll even find a few of the prospectors who have stayed on and mellowed with the town. Remembering, these men can tell fascinating stories of the past. The Lakes County Museum takes you back too. Back to the days when this [gold] lured men from the ends of the earth. From California, from Australia, from China. . . . All that’s far in the past. . . ."

Those words come from a great documentary about Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown, where I live, that was made in 1954:

New Zealanders used to devour books about their local history, too.

Eichardt’s hotel, in the background, has hardly changed since 1878

Fair use is claimed for these historic book covers

As I say, all this has been eclipsed by scenery and bungy jumping aimed at overseas tourists. Even the Kiwis’ own appreciation for their past has been eclipsed by the idea of the nation as a scenic wonderland.

But I think there’s a case to be made for dusting off some of the old history and putting it online as well. Some of it is, of course, like the short film above. Or this story about historic Arrowtown.

In a country where the present is filled with natural beauty, I’m going to keep on looking for the romantic past that’s “always visible behind a screen of leaves!”

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