Sidetracked in Southland (Part 3)

December 30, 2022
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IF you have come south via the Southern Scenic Route and then gone east along the coast, as described in my two previous blog posts here and here, you should return via Otautau: a close-knit regional centre to the north of Riverton/Aparima.

Western Southland, centred on Otautau. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

Otautau is on the Ohai Line, a branch railway from Invercargill to Ohai, a small coal-mining town shown at the top of the map above. The Ohai Line mostly carries coal from mines at Ohai and another nearby mining town called Nightcaps down to Invercargill’s port at Bluff.

A short distance south of Otautau, at Fairfax, there is a railway museum called the Fairfax Train Station, run by a couple named Colin and Anne Brown.

You can’t really miss it, as there is a big windmill on the site. Colin built the windmill about four years ago, after a trip to the Netherlands. The blades used to run free until Colin noticed that the strong winds of Southland were making them spin dangerously fast: now they are firmly linked to an electric motor that serves as a brake.

Colin and Anne had a farm at Pahi, further west, and moved to Fairfax some 27 years ago after learning that the local school was being closed down and sold off, lock, stock, and barrel. They thought it would make a wonderful lifestyle property to retire to while a son took over the farm, and they were not disappointed. There is a ball court on the grounds: this suited Anne, who coached netball.

Schoolhouse, now a house

While Anne coached netball, Colin, who had moved buildings for a living in addition to being a farmer, was at a bit of a loose end. So he decided to establish a railway museum on the site.

Several old rural railway stations were being closed down and removed at the time. So, Colin hauled the former Orawia Station to the grounds and built a replica of the former Fairfax Station, which had in the meantime been hauled away to serve as the Fairlight Station on the tourist run known as the Kingston Flyer, which has been mentioned in Part 1 of this series of posts. Colin’s expanding museum became known as the Fairfax Train Station, though no trains stop there anymore.

The entrance to the Fairfax Train Station museum is on the Fairfax-Isla Bank Road, which branches eastward from the main road at that point. It is just across the Ohai Line railway tracks, which are still in service.‍

Looking into the Fairfax Train Station from the Fairfax-Isla Bank Road

Heading into the Fairfax Train Station from the Fairfax-Isla Bank Road

Colin says that the Ohai Line used to carry passengers occasionally when he was a boy in the 1950s, such as to the sports at Otautau on Labour Day, which falls in late October.

When the Browns moved to Fairfax, the Ohai Line still carried logs and grain as well as coal. Today, it only seems to carry coal.

The replica Fairfax Station

By the old windmill and ‘Orawia’ Shed

Some of the railway carriages at the Fairfax Train Station served as tiny homes for railway workers, in their day: tiny homes that could be railed to wherever they were needed. What a great idea!

Colin also has masses of old photographs and news stories. Some of them are also online these days, of course, such as this story about the museum from 2017.

A steam train in full flight in the mountains of the South Island, probably in the 1950s or 1960s

Colin also acquired two police holding cells from the former Queenston Police Station when it was demolished shortly after the turn of the millennium. These turned out to be a score, as their interiors dated back to the 1880s and had probably held some real desperadoes in their day.

I like the sign saying ‘Make it Click’: imagine explaining to the sergeant that you hadn’t shut the door properly. Not to mention the little decal saying ‘Slammer’.

The old jail cells

The Browns also have a daughter who works as a rousie (wool gatherer) with shearing gangs and also bales up black wool for sale to craft knitters. There is no mainstream commercial market for black wool, as it can’t be dyed any other colour. Those farmers who have the odd black sheep give its wool to the Browns’ daughter for free and she parcels it up for the craft knitters, who use it in small amounts to make patterns.

Here is a walkaround video I made at the Fairfax Train Station, with Colin, in August 2022.

Heading a little further north, you get to Otautau, where I took some rather dramatic photos lit by low sun, under skies that otherwise seemed pregnant with snow.


The Museum at Otautau

Main Street, Otautau

There is quite a craft scene in these parts, and it is possible that some of the black-sheep knitwear may turn up at the Otautau Gallery.

The Otautau Gallery

Otautau Gallery Exhibits

There are two freedom camping sites at Otautau, the Alex McKenzie Park and Arboretum and Holt Park. As of the time of writing, the website NZ Camper says that Holt Park has facilities, but the fact is that they have been demolished, and you have to be very self-contained. About all they now have at Holt Park are toilets, at the other end of the football field and locked between games as it would seem, though there are public toilets a bit further away.

Holt Park, Otautau (freedom camping)

Next to Holt Park, there is a walkway named after former Otautau mayor Kenneth Davidson QSM, who helped to develop the nearby sports complex and who died in 2022.

The Ken Davidson Walkway, next to Holt Park

They take their war memorials seriously in this part of the world, and Otautau is no exception. A highly visible memorial on the northern edge of town, close to the public toilets and the Ken Davidson Walkway, has a couple of sheds alongside, each containing a captured enemy gun and an interesting historical display.

The Otautau War Memorial

One of the two exhibit sheds next to the war memorial at Otautau

Carrying on northward, you pass through the coal town of Nightcaps. Ohai, the terminus of the railway line, is a few kilometres to the northwest; though if you are heading for Mossburn and Queenstown by the most direct route you would then have to double back through Nightcaps.

Information panel at Nightcaps

Representation of a coal cart about to enter a mine tunnel at Nightcaps

And so, back to Queenstown. I could go on endlessly about other places you may come across along the way, and perhaps I will in a future post.

By the way, the Fairfax Train Station doesn’t have a website. If you want to give the Browns a ring to check and see if the Fairfax Train Station is open for visitors on a given day, their number is +64–3–225–8866.

If you liked the post above, check out my book about the South Island! It’s available for purchase from this website.


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