Let patience prevail and all will be revealed
Driving into Naseby in early spring, you might be forgiven for thinking there must have been some massive civil emergency that required all the inhabitants to run away.
The well-tended main street has a large park with a children’s playground but no children. There are a few interesting looking shops but no shoppers. A closer perusal reveals that one whole block of early settler buildings is in fact a museum but it’s closed. So are both pubs and although there are sufficient houses to suggest a population of at least a couple of thousand, only a very, very few have smoke coming out the chimney. This is surprising as even in late August it is still bitterly cold. So where is everybody? The answer is that mostly they are at work – in Dunedin and Christchurch and Invercargill.
Located in the middle of the Maniototo, a region known for its harsh winters and baking summers, this old Central Otago gold mining town is now mostly a collection of cribs or holiday homes for up to four thousand ‘cribbies’ that swell the population during the ‘season’ to enjoy hiking, cycling, fishing and swimming.
The rest of the time it is almost a ghost town with a permanent population of just over one hundred.
I say almost because if you scratch the surface you will soon discover that modest as their numbers may be, native Nasebyites are around. Not only that but they are tenacious, enterprising and highly motivated to not only keep their town alive, but to see it thriving through a number of quite unique initiatives.
On first acquaintance Naseby may look like a well maintained museum that only comes alive when the holiday makers arrive, but it is in fact a thriving little community with a number of surprising assets, not least of which is its dynamic history.
LIKE SO MANY OTAGO TOWNS, gold lies at the heart of Naseby’s beginnings with the alluring metal first being discovered in May 1863 in the nearby Hogburn.
It took just three months for two thousand miners to gather on the goldfield and to found a town they initially named Parker’s, in recognition of the brothers who led the party of five that first discovered gold. In quick succession the town was renamed Hogburn, Mount Ida and finally Naseby. Why it was named Naseby, after a small market village in Northamptonshire that was distinguished only by a catastrophic defeat of the Royalist army there during the English civil war is no longer known. However as Naseby, the place prospered.
This was perhaps inevitable given the rich pickings to be had on the goldfields. Only a couple of months after its discovery, the first gold escort was on its way to Dunedin with 4300 ounces on board, worth nearly six million dollars today. By 1878, the population had doubled and the town had grown to accommodate three banks, a fire brigade, fine council buildings, a couple of lodges, a hospital, a police station, an impressive court house, a town hall, eighteen stores, fourteen hotels, two butchers and three churches – everything required for reasonably sophisticated urban living. It was also often uproarious and public brawling outside the numerous saloons that sold everything from cheap rotgut to fine whisky which made for a lively courthouse. It is hard to say if the selection of establishments catering to more carnal requirements fuelled the fires or quenched them, but they did a good trade.
To facilitate sluicing operations on the goldfields, a network of water races was established, some of which represented quite astounding engineering achievements given the difficulty of the terrain and the fact that only hand tools were used. The Mount Ida water race, which was constructed from 1873 to supply water to the goldfields, was a staggering 108 kilometres long and it still supplies water to the township and to farmers in the area. It starts way up in the headwaters of the Manuherikia River and then winds its way along the Hawkdun Range siphoning off more and more water from the streams it encounters on its way towards Naseby.
Such was the success of the town that it was confidently expected to remain the commercial and cultural centre of the Maniototo as well as the seat of local government. Alas, Naseby was to fall prey to the same fate that condemned so many small towns as the new century approached when it was bypassed by the railway line. Naseby’s loss was Ranfurly’s gain with the rival township springing up 12 km away almost overnight, rapidly attracting all the services away from Naseby.
When the last of the easily won gold ran out in the 1930s, the town declined further and by the 1980s, it had become New Zealand’s smallest borough.
However Naseby was far from finished. Almost forgotten for decades, the old wooden Victorian buildings remained in remarkably good condition, a combination of the hot dry summers and frosty winters that minimised rot and the fact that nobody was knocking anything down to make way for fresh development.
TODAY NASEBY’S VERY ORIGINAL historic buildings define the township and a culture of preservation and restoration has taken the place of benign neglect. Dirt cheap, well preserved old cottages became ‘get aways’ and Naseby was reborn. Today the town’s motto is ‘Naseby - 2000 feet above worry level!’ and you don’t have to be here long to discover that it is indeed a wonderfully relaxed place.
Adding to the general charm of Naseby is the extensive surrounding forest, the first trees of which were planted in 1899. Forest is a relatively rare thing on the mostly empty plains of the Maniototo and it remains a significant part of Naseby’s attraction. The township is nestled into the edges of the forest which has become a major draw for bikers and walkers. Although privately owned, much of it is accessible to the public and one particularly popular track follows the final stretch of the Mount Ida water race, an easy level path suitable for all ages and fitness levels.
More adventurous bikers can access over 50 kilometres of additional track running through the 500 hectares of Oregon, Douglas fir, Larch, and Corsican pine that now cover what was the sluiced ground of the goldfields. These tracks have earned the reputation among mountain bikers as being the very best in New Zealand with many fast downhill sections and natural berms to challenge the most skilled riders.
Heath Lunn, the man in charge of operations and planning for the forestry company that owns ‘Ernslaw One’ is himself a keen cyclist and hopes to soon open a further 50 kilometres of riding track. The forest, which covers some two and a half thousand hectares in total, is managed sustainably and there is a programme to breed New Zealand’s native fresh water crayfish in the forest’s fire ponds for commercial harvest. The forest is also home to a growing population of the Karearea, New Zealand’s endangered native falcon.
Also hidden away in the forest, are two dams offering excellent trout fishing. One of them, Coalpit dam, is especially popular for family outings due to its easy access and shallow water that is suitable for children to swim in. Although it would take an especially hardy soul to dip a toe in anything but during the height of summer, it is open for fishing all year and is regularly topped up with fish by Fish and Game Otago.
In fact the lakes, rivers and dams around Naseby are known for the numbers of fish that live in them and some are so heavily populated there is no daily limit. Hunting is also a popular past time with large numbers of red deer, pigs, rabbits, hares, possums, duck and other water fowl to take a pot at.
During the summer there is a swimming dam in town that is filled
each year from the water race. Located up the hill, opposite the camping ground, there’s a shallow end for young children and a deep hole with a diving board at the other. It was empty when I was there but the atmosphere was quite unlike anything I have ever encountered elsewhere in this country. It was rather like something out of America back in the fifties and it was easy to imagine picnicking families lounging on the grass in high summer as children splashed about. It was special.
Those seeking a bit of local ‘colour’ can purchase a gold pan from the Naseby Information Centre and most of the waterways will still reward a patient prospector with the glitter of fine alluvial gold among the gravel. It’s easy to imagine those miners of old, working quietly along lonely streams, perhaps dreaming of homes far away.
The gold miners who founded Naseby did come from all four corners of the world and when it was gone they mostly moved on. Like much of Otago many of those who remained to settle the area were of Scottish descent.
Whereas hungry miners may have been driven to hunt or fish for food, the Scots farmers and small businessmen who carved out more permanent lives here were able to indulge it for the love of the sport. Fishing and shooting were not the only sports they resurrected in the new country and one of them has since put Naseby on the global map.
THE ANCIENT ART OF CURLING resembles a game of bowls on ice with teams of four people competing with each other by sliding large stones towards a goal at the other end. Although it has been called many names over the years, including ‘a really good excuse for a drink’ it is historically known as ‘the roaring game’ after the deep rumble produced by the polished granite stones as they slide across the frozen lakes it is traditionally played on in Scotland. Of course it is also a good excuse for a drink and the tradition of keeping the chill at bay with a warming dram or hot toddy is still very much a part of the outdoor experience.
It has been practiced all over Central Otago ever since the Scots arrived whenever local ponds and lakes froze over with a sufficient depth of ice to support the heavy stones. Curling was first played on the local reservoir in Naseby 120 years ago and indeed it is still played there when the ice is right. Among other trophies that are contested is the Baxter Cup, presented originally by David Baxter to the Dunedin Curling Club 1882. When the Dunedin club disbanded in the late 1880s, it was presented to the Naseby Curling Council and it remains the major trophy of the Naseby Council and the oldest New Zealand sporting trophy still competed for.
The Baxter Cup is required to be played for on natural ice and it is played for on the Centennial ponds. Because the pond was purpose built for curling and is not too deep, it can be played most years. However the biggest and most spectacular celebration of curling remains the Bonspiel, an event that requires much more space.
It is therefore played at nearby Oturehua on the Idaburn dam and no dedicated curler would miss it. Partly this is because it might not take place for several years as curlers wait patiently for the ice on the reservoir to achieve a thickness of 15 centimetres. When that does happen, a national bonspiel is called and teams from all over New Zealand have just 48 hours to get there for the competition.
They play by rules that were established at the founding of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club and the long games carry on no matter how cold it gets, and it gets cold.
Iced up eyebrows and beards are ignored along with flurries of snow and bitingly cold winds while kilts, tam o’shanters and of course regular warming tipples, remain the order of the day.
Because of the vagaries of outdoor ice, the completion of an outdoor ice rink in Naseby across the road from the pond was good news for curlers. From approximately late May to mid-August the Maniototo Ice Rink offers curling along with a canteen, a heated lounge, tuition and equipment hire. This greatly extended the season and was partly responsible for a number of local players becoming exceptionally proficient in the game, even by international standards.
Of course this did not happen overnight and in fact local curlers were still playing the game as it had been played 150 years ago in the old country, until visitors from the old country arrived to enlighten them. With curling now an Olympic sport and with over 50 countries playing the game, tactics and techniques had evolved. The arrival of visiting curlers from Scotland in the early 1970s that brought films showing how to slide and also imparted some of the strategies that had developed in recent years, changed the local game. The curlers of Naseby quickly began to catch up with the rest of the curling world.
However there was a problem. All the countries that competed at the Olympic level used indoor rinks so that they could train all year but the only indoor rinks available to New Zealand curlers were dominated by ice hockey. This got the locals thinking and several leading curlers including Peter Becker, one of the most talented Naseby players, got together and persuaded the World Curling Federation to ante up some serious funding to build a dedicated indoor curling rink.
The funding, while a great start was not nearly enough to complete the job and so Becker and his mates rallied local volunteers from the region who gave up 6000 man hours. With many freebies from local contractors and tradesmen, they set to and built the Maniototo Indoor Curling Rink.
Opened in 2006, it remains the only dedicated curling rink in the Southern Hemisphere and it looks set to remain the only one for some time. There are moves to establish another in Auckland but whereas Naseby was able to complete the job for just over a million dollars, Auckland is struggling to cost it at less than 12 million.
In the meantime, the New Zealand national teams train here which is convenient given that many of them live nearby. The Becker family have contributed mightily to their numbers with Peter leading the senior men’s team and coaching the national team while his wife Wendy leads the senior women’s team. Sean Becker, a farmer in the region, was a long time ‘Skip’ of the New Zealand men’s national team and there are more young Beckers coming on. The Australian team also often trains here but the vast majority of people who use the rink are complete beginners, the majority having made the 12 kilometre detour from the rail trail to sample the sport.
THE GOOD FOLK OF NASEBY did not stop with the construction of their curling rink and using the same local networking process, they then set to and built the first ice luge in the Southern Hemisphere.
Opened in 2008, the 360 metre track is situated next door to the curling rinks, snaking back into the forest. It is a fast and furious run over hard packed snow covered with a layer of ice. Low wooden walls line the track and it is possible to race around the ten curves at speeds of up to seventy kilometres an hour. Tuition is available for both curling and luging and both activities are suitable for anyone of any age with a sense of adventure.
Naturally the luge can only operate during the depths of winter and one local enthusiast seized the opportunity to create an all year luge.
Eric Swinbourn is well known for his motor racing exploits and for his brilliant engineering on both race cars and race bikes and he had been instrumental in building the ice luge.
He had moved from Queenstown to Naseby where he bought the local garage, setting it up as place to restore classic race machinery. His wife Marilyn had a cousin who owned a crib in Naseby and they learned that he had acquired the ‘tin’ luge that used to run on Coronet Peak.
The stainless steel luge had been dismantled and placed in storage in Queenstown and it was apparently destined for scrap. Eric and Marilyn asked that it be donated to Naseby instead and this was agreed. Eric then arranged to truck all the bits to Naseby and it is now awaiting reconstruction as an all-year luge that will run through the trees alongside the other.
Like every local we spoke to, Eric and Marilyn would not live anywhere other than Naseby. Far from missing the bustle of busy Queenstown, they love both the tranquillity of Naseby and the fact that they have never been busier.
The exotic machinery in Eric’s workshop is always worth a look if you are lucky enough to be invited in but if he’s busy, you can drop in next door to the Naseby Motoring Museum in the old corner shop.
Winton Amies is a self-confessed hoarder of all things automotive who some years ago realised he had to tidy up or risk being unable to move about in his home. His small but fascinating space is now a wonderfully organised collection of model cars with a couple of restored classics out the back. It took us a moment to find the right door to knock on but once we had, we received a warm welcome.
When you have had your fill there, you can wander across the road to the Black Forest Café and talk curling to local champion Wendy Becker while enjoying one of her justifiably famous chocolate brownies.
We learn from her that the Early Settler Museum along the road can be accessed with tokens purchased at the local dairy. This seems appropriately convoluted and quite typical of the town.
NASEBY IS A SLIGHTLY guarded secret that requires just a little patience to unravel, but once solved it is a singularly marvellous little place. It’s worth at least a few days and there are any number of accommodation options, including the holiday park, the two historic hotels (which operate restricted hours during the off season), numerous holiday cottages and a couple of very smart private lodges.
Dig just below the surface and you will discover that Naseby is still a gold mine.
The tin luge was donated by a crib owning family who saw an opportunity. The luge had been removed from Coronet Peak some years earlier and was in danger of being sold for its scrap value. There’s a whole other story there one day …
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Interesting crib available as accommodation.
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Main street buildings, part of the Museum – Pub.
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Main street buildings, part of the Museum – watchmaker and boot manufacturer.
Restoration under way.
Eric Swinbourn on his about town transport
Tin luge awaiting reconstruction
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Naseby Motor Museum.
Winton Aimes, Museum proprietor.