The Old Gold Road: Dawdling to Dunedin on the Pigroot Trail

January 4, 2020
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BETWEEN Queenstown where I live, and Dunedin, the capital of New Zealand’s Otago region, there are two main roads. One goes through fertile farmland to the south and the other curves northward through a rocky semi-desert.

A long stretch of the northern road bears the colourful name of ‘the Pigroot’. One theory is that in the 1860s and 70s, the stagecoaches and bullock-carts transporting gold and miners to and from the diggings near Queenstown chopped up the then-unsealed road so much that it looked like it had been rooted by pigs!

Here’s a map of northern Otago. It includes the Pigroot, along with a number of places and attractions I’ve blogged about already such as the Paradise Valley, Snow Farm and the Taieri Gorge Railway. Plus, places that I’m going to be writing about in this post and the next: St Bathans, Wedderburn, Ranfurly and Naseby on the Pigroot, and the coastal communities of Waikouaiti, Matanaka Farm, and Seacliff. I’ve added some of the colourful names of other localities such as Moonlight, Roaring Meg, Mount Buster, Drybread and Devils Staircase: all real miners’ names, I reckon!

Otago is probably the most historic part of New Zealand when it comes to colonial heritage. The central parts of even quite remote towns like Queenstown date back to the 1870s, as you can see from this pair of photographs of the same spot in Queenstown:

Ballarat Street, Queenstown, in the great flood of 1878. This section of Ballarat Street is now called The Mall. Image MA 1259793, Te Papa.

The Mall, formerly Ballarat Street. Note the building with ‘1872’ at top. You can see the same date in the earlier photo.

Otago locals are very proud of their heritage and there are lots of books about it, such as this one:

'Historic Otago' by Gavin McLean, published by David Bateman, Auckland, 2010, ISBN 978-186953-777-7. Fair review claimed.

If you are feeling energetic you can cycle from Middlemarch through to Clyde by way of the Central Otago Rail Trail, 152 km of disused railway line. This involves cycling along the western half of the Pigroot after you reach Kyeburn, till Clyde.

As elsewhere in Otago, there’s a Scots bias to the placenames here, with plenty of ‘burns’ (i.e., streams). Rumour has it that an old-time government surveyor charged with mapping the north Otago interior, John Turnbull Thomson, wanted to ink local Māori placenames onto the official map wherever they existed, but was over-ruled by prejudiced superiors.

Though Māori were never as numerous in this rather difficult land as in the North Island, there were still plenty of Māori placenames. For instance, the Māori name for much of northern Otago is Maniototo, which means ‘plains of blood’. Not actual blood, but rather the red tussock that’s native to this semi-arid land and which normally gave it a rather Australian appearance.

I decided to travel to Dunedin via the Pigroot in November 2019, which is to say, another springtime journey. A sign celebrating the Māori name for the region makes an interesting contrast with a (temporarily!) greened-up springtime landscape.

Forbidden to honour the Māori — so the story goes — Thomson gave many localities Scots-border-dialect names that refer to farm animals such as cows (‘kye’) and sheep (‘wedder’). And so north Otago is sometimes called ‘Thomson’s Barnyard’.

It was Thomson who painted this amusing image of the difficulties of getting around in the days before there were any roads or railways:

Reproduction photographed in the Otago Museum

On one of the more impressive peaks, Thomson bestowed the name Earnslaw, meaning ‘Eagle’s Crag’; which was also the name of an actual border village. And which is also how Queenstown’s vintage lake steamer got its name.

Turnbull also named the jagged mountains near Queenstown Airport ‘The Remarkables’. Which is fair enough, if you’ve ever seen them. (You’ll get to see the Remarkables real close up if you ever fly into Queenstown International Airport, believe me!)

If you are driving between Queenstown and Dunedin and not on a cycling holiday, the slowest but most scenic way is to take the Pigroot right through to Palmerston and come down the coast through Waikouaiti.

This coastal area north of Dunedin has long been a getaway for Dunedin-ites, with a healthful reputation.

Karitane, one of the few spots locally to have kept its old Māori name, was at one time a famous training centre for community childcare nurses who helped out young families across the country. These were known as ‘Karitane Nurses’ and along with a parallel organisation known as the Plunket Nurses, they helped New Zealand to achieve the lowest infant mortality rate in the world at the time.

Karitane Nurses in 1929, from URL

That was back in the days when New Zealand had a progressive reputation for that sort of thing. A reputation that’s a bit threadbare these days.

Further down the same coast, Seacliff was also the site of a famous mental hospital, or lunatic asylum as it was more bluntly known a hundred years ago. Well, all I can say is that it’s hard to think of a more gothic name for such an institution than Seacliff. It even looked gothic. All well intentioned, of course.

Seacliff Asylum around 1910. Alexander Turnbull Library via the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography entry on architect Robert Arthur Lawson, image 1/2–002563-F

People from Otago have had a really big influence on New Zealand social policy, and I’ll have more to say about that in another post.

Along with the Taieri Gorge Railway, there’s also another scenic train that runs up this coastal strip as far as Moeraki, where the beach is littered with curious spherical boulders. These are concretions, the products of a slow process of accretion around an initial nucleus, like pearls, though they don’t look as flash. Still, they’re fairly unusual.

My Road Trip

Heading east on the Pigroot, I turned left up a side road to St Bathans. It was November, but there was still snow on the mountains. A sign prominently advertised the Vulcan Hotel, est. 1863.

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, along with the pubs further on down the Pigroot at Wedderburn and Naseby. It was pretty quiet when I was there, but a lot of these places really swell in the summertime, when they cater to rail trail tourists. Who are thirsty, obviously enough.

Inside the Vulcan Hotel

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

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

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 there’s quite a nice campsite.

There are a number of old buildings and halls in the township, apart from the Vulcan Hotel.

St Bathans would probably be a ghost town, if it wasn’t for the fact that the accidentally-created lakes now bring in quite a bit of tourism. But it’s not right on the Pigroot, and that means that life must always be a struggle.

A little further on down the Pigroot I came to another town called Wedderburn, one of those barnyard names. The Wedderburn tavern was more substantial, having been built more than twenty years later, when the region was starting to become a farming district.

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

After that I had recourse to the Ancient Briton in Naseby (also 1863, though substantially enlarged since I suspect) and the Royal Hotel (1865, more original-looking). Actually, I was driving and only took pictures.

But seriously, there used to be twenty pubs in Naseby, of which the Ancient Briton and the Royal are the only two survivors now.

The town also has other historic buildings and generally tons of charm.

Like St Bathans, Naseby’s also some way off the Pigroot. But it seems to have a bit more critical mass.

Well, I think that’s probably enough for now. I’ll continue my journey through Waikouaiti, Matanaka and Seacliff in another post.

My first book, A Maverick Traveller, is available as a free download in PDF or epub on my website, If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website, as well.


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