An Archeologist’s Paradise
Icross the long bridge near the mouth of the Waitaki River, where State Highway 1 passes from Canterbury into Otago. Here, the waters of the Waitaki spread themselves out lazily, ready for their final release into the ocean after their productive course through a network of hydroelectric dams. won’t see much of the river proper on my journey up the Waitaki Valley, except when I look at the new bridge up at Kurow, and later when I drive beside its waters in its guises of Lakes Benmore, Aviemore and Waitaki.
The main highway is already taking me away from the river, so within five kilometres I will be taking a shortcut west down Seven Mile Road which links with Highway 83, the road that will eventually take me right up the valley.
But just before I turn off, I pay a visit to Riverstone, where Dot Smith is building a castle.
The Smith family have already established something of a kingdom on their farmland here, with giftware shops having taken over some farm sheds, and with the restaurant, Riverstone Kitchen, run by Dot’s son, Bevan. It’s a very popular place, if the full car park is anything to go by, and received good publicity on a television current affairs programme last year, which, understandably, focused on Dot’s plans to build a real castle.
When I arrive, I see a lady talking to a few people as they look over a man-made lake towards the castle that is under construction on the other side. This must be Dot, and when I meet her and Bevan over a coffee in Riverstone Kitchen, I see that her hair is a dark red shade (she is known to have pink highlights at times). A lady who is not afraid to try and fulfil the fairytale dreams that many of us have and create her very own castle is hardly likely to be afraid to be seen with pink hair! Dot is charming and open about her castle and seems to have the simple enthusiasm one would expect of a child, but I see the simplicity as a result of a very experienced understanding of the more important things in life, not least the contentment and relaxed good humour that comes through in her conversation.
Dot’s story is an inspiring one. In 1983 she and her husband Neil left their farm in Wellsford and came all the way down to the wealthy Otago farming district, where the only farm for sale was this one near the Waitaki river mouth, the boniest of farms, its ground having more gravel than soil (the name Riverstone is therefore most appropriate). Their house was in the middle of bare land, Dot used the farm fence as a washing line and the Smiths set about making a living with a dairy farm.
Many years ago Dot started selling dried flowers, “stealing” Neil’s barn for the enterprise, and as the years went by stole bay after bay of the farm’s implement sheds as her giftware shop expanded. Now they are a treasure trove of all sorts of gifts and homewares that Dot sources on buying trips overseas. The former implement sheds are packed with unique and interesting things, from useful homeware to wacky little ornaments.
After years of hard work the Smiths now have six dairy farms and three dry blocks, and Bevan Smith has made Riverstone Kitchen a destination in itself. The restaurant won the Cuisine New Zealand Restaurant of the year in 2010, the first and (so far) only time a South Island restaurant has won the prize, and the first and only time a casual restaurant has won it. Bevan is enthusiastic about the way the restaurant operates, an unpretentious “kitchen” that uses local ingredients, including produce from Riverstone’s own vege garden. This can be seen beside the car park and includes patches of pretty flowers – and a hen house that is a replica of that of Prince Charles at Highgrove.
What can also be seen from the car park is the rising profile of Dot’s castle, on the other side of its man-made lake. Dot says that her original idea had been to have a small castle “tucked away” somewhere, and it was Neil who had pointed to this site and suggested she have a big castle with a lake. It is a huge structure with the massive doors and towers that one would expect of a true castle. It will be their home, but there will also be accommodation, along with a banquet hall, a drawbridge, a ‘secret’ entrance, and two marble lions at the entrance. Gravel from the lake has been crushed and made into concrete blocks that have been used in the construction of the castle, and the building will be heated by a passive heating system whereby coils in the lake will transfer to a heat pump system. The building began in August 2012, and I wonder when it will be finished.
“Like all castles,” says Dot, with her typical good humour, “in 400 years’ time.”
The rising castle is a point of interest for many of Riverstone’s visitors, and so is Dot’s whole story. Dot laughs when she tells me the things she has overheard from certain know-it-all visitors when they have walked past her while she’s been working innocently incognito in the vege gardens. She’s heard wild statements about how many million dollars the castle is costing, all of which have been news to her, she who would argue that she’s still working hard in the garden to make it all possible. Castle-watchers may get more reliable information from the book, Dot: Queen of Riverstone Castle, which was published recently.
ONCE I FIND MYSELF on the inland road, I head for Duntroon, the first settlement of any note in the Waitaki Valley.
But just before reaching it I turn off to Pisgah Downs, to the farm house of John and Betsy McKenzie, where I
will be staying during my time in the Waitaki. Funnily enough, they provide accommodation for the last night of the High Country 4WD Journey from Glenroy that featured in the Lake Coleridge story in issue #55 of this magazine.
Ignoring the turn-off to Danseys Pass I continue to Livingstone, the old gold mining town which now comprises just a few houses, then further up an unsealed road to John and Betsy’s house, 1,300 feet above sea level.
John has followed his father and his grandfather in farming this land, and, having been in the area longer than anyone living today, is a mine of information.
He remembers the time of his childhood, well before petrol guzzling became a national pastime, when there were buses to town (Oamaru) every Friday night, and when the butcher delivered to the farm house (and did so until the 1960s).
Before his time, in the 1920s, his grandfather would go down to the bus stop to find workers for jobs on the farm.
Not far from the farm house are the remains of a Chinese miners’ hut, just some low stone walls of what had once been a poor little hut without windows, on a slope exposed to the harsh high-country winds.
Another old mining hut (made of sods) is still used as a small shed, and has over the years protected engines within from freezing over.
John has memories of an old gold miner who ran the mail service from his corrugated iron shed down the road at Livingstone.
Gold was discovered in the area in 1868 and it was proclaimed a gold field the following year, when a threeyear period of race digging began (the longest race measured around 30 kilometres).
By 1873 the township was known as Ramsaytown, had three hotels, a store, a butcher’s shop, a hairdresser and a saddler. By 1874 it also had a school and it was renamed Livingstone after the African explorer. In 1876 eighty men were working on the races (which had a total length of over 300 kilometres) and at the mine.
By the end of the decade the mining came to an end because the gold was becoming too fine, and summer droughts were causing water shortages. It was revived in the 1930s when the gold price soared but was not successful.
John and Betsy’s son, J.R. has taken over most of the farming now and he lives with his wife, Bridget, and their two sons in another farm house up at a slightly higher altitude. Here, they have two shearers’ huts that are hired by hunters, fishermen, and high-country walkers. Inside the huts some Speights advertising posters play on the idea of the “Southern Man” in the remote southern high country: outside the door you can see the real thing. For those wanting to really get away from it all, they also have an old musterers’ hut, an hour’s further drive towards Mt Pisgah (the journey is quicker by helicopter, as one honeymoon couple has discovered).
THE FOLLOWING DAY, I set off to explore Duntroon and its surrounds. The area just to the south of the settlement is rich in fossil sites and geologically interesting rock formations, and in Duntroon itself there is a fossil and rock museum called the Vanished World.
A few kilometres from Duntroon are the Elephant Rocks, limestone outcrops that have eroded into fascinating shapes. The site is on private farmland but is accessible to the public, and I spend a good hour wandering around the rocks, alone, except for the company of dozens of cows and sheep who are doing an excellent job of keeping the grass short, and thus making the place look as though it were cared for by a team of expert green keepers.
The rocks are in a shallow circular basin of about 100 metres in diameter and are concentrated around its edges so that they form a sort of amphitheatre (it has in fact been the site of concerts). Many could be said to be like elephants, whether they stand alone or are melded together, their sloped grey tops representing the curved profiles of elephant heads, shoulders and rumps that disappear into the vertical faces of the animals’ limbs. From some angles the rocks look like a herd of elephants stumping slowly across the African savannah.
I was fascinated to see one or two of the sheep stepping out onto the top of the rocks that are right on the edge of the basin, though whether they knew what they were doing was another matter. Perhaps these sheep are more intelligent than the average; the variety of formations around which they graze certainly provides more stimulation than your average rectangular field. I hear a rasping sound, and see that it’s coming from a cow licking the exposed wall of one of the rocks – another intelligent animal, adding a mineral supplement to its diet.
VANISHED WORLD PROMOTES A trail around the local geological sites, including the Elephant Rocks, the Anatini whale bone fossil site (a film set of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the “Earthquakes” (limestone cliffs created by a landslide), basalt columns, and sites where fossils of shells, dolphins and whales have been found.
Many local fossils are displayed at Vanished World, on the main road in Duntroon, and this is where I head next. This fossil centre was started in 2002 by Professor Ewan Fordyce, a palaeontologist from Otago Museum. It is run by Neil Thorpe, who is on hand to show me around and he clearly has an extensive knowledge of the geology and fossils of North Otago. The fossil displays are extremely informative and there is even a laboratory room, popular with children, where visitors can scratch out real fossils from local stone.
Most interesting are some fossils of giant ancient penguins and the cast of the skull and jaws of an extinct sharktoothed dolphin. It was discovered in limestone nearby, having lain underground, undisturbed for 25 million years. It has helped scientists understand a lot more about the animal for most shark-toothed dolphins around the world are known only from single teeth or other fragments.
There is not a lot more to see on Duntroon’s main street, just a garage, a cafe that is not open every day, the old blacksmith’s shop, and the Duntroon Hotel, and across the road an area of wetlands has been developed.
The hotel has been closed for 18 months, but from inside I hear the sounds of sawing and hammering, and going inside I meet Nicholas Evans, who is leading the redevelopment of the place and hoping to have it open within weeks. He tells me it has been a long and frustrating task, the previous owner having surrendered their licence, requiring the new owner to make a new application which must meet all the new codes.
It will be good for the Duntroon community when the “pub with no beer”, as Nicholas puts it, is open again. He plans to build some cabins behind the pub to provide accommodation for cyclists on the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. As I discover over the next few days, this trail from Mt Cook to Oamaru is bringing a lot of visitors into the area.
I HEAD WEST TO see if I can see anything of the castle-like mansion at Campbell Park Estate, a few kilometres to the west of Duntroon.
On the way I quickly stop at the Takiroa Maori rock drawings, right on the main road, beneath an overhanging limestone bluff. It is one of only three rock art sites that remain in the Waitaki Valley (only two of which are accessible to the public).
Twenty sites have been recorded, but, according to the information panel, most “have been lost during developments in the region and submerged in recently created lakes”. While it is a fascinating site with much significance it is also slightly disappointing, as much of the art has been removed (and was taken to museums around New Zealand), and what remains is not very clear, although there are interesting information boards that show what was once there, such as red ochre drawings of taniwha and human figures.
Campbell Park Estate is found down Special School Road, for from 1908 this was the site of the Otekaieke Special School for Boys (until the 1950s it was known as the School for Backward Boys). Since the late 1980s the place has been under private ownership but its impressive (council-owned) Campbell House, built in the style of a Scottish castle, can be seen from the road.
It was completed in 1877 by Robert Campbell, one of the wealthiest of the early runholders (just one of his runs covered most of the land between Kurow and Duntroon. Duntroon was the name of the Campbell castle in Scotland – another branch of the family took the name to Australia, where today it is the name of a suburb in Canberra).
Designed by John Burnside, the first New Zealand-born architect, the mansion features a central light well and it used Otekaieke limestone from the property’s own quarry (which was also exported for building in Sydney, including in the original Sydney post office).
I visit Wendy and Michael Bayley who live on the neighbouring property, Otekaieke Station. They tell me that their lovely two-storey home was the original homestead for Robert Campbell’s run, but the 15-room house was dismissed by him as a “dog’s box” before he commissioned the 35-room castle.
They have both farmed here for decades (and Wendy has lived almost all her life here) so have witnessed much of the life of the school for problem boys next door. At one time there were 70 staff taking care of 100 boys. The older boys were partly occupied with practical work, such as milking cows and running the farm, basket-making and boot-making. Some had brought with them the skills of car conversion and a couple of boys, as punishment for taking off with one of the Bayleys’ horses, were to help Michael on his farm. On that occasion Michael overheard one tell the other that he wouldn’t require keys to the tractor – a hairpin was all he would need to get it going!
They both remember with shock the waste of resources when the education department auctioned off the school’s equipment in 1987 (including good basketballs and two 44-gallon drums of marmite!). Today it is sad to see a complete outfit of school buildings sitting there unused (including a gymnasium, and buildings that were used as offices, staff quarters, kitchens and dormitories). The American owner had an international school here but this was very small and very shortlived. Though the site is kept tidy Wendy believes the buildings are now too old to fulfil the needs of a modern school.
William Dansey (the Oxford graduate after whom the nearby pass is named) ran the land here before it was bought by Robert Campbell and his old cottage still stands on part of the school grounds, and not far away are the gravesites of his two children.
A DELIGHTFUL PART OF this journey was the appearance on the side of the main road of memorial oak trees, planted just after the First World War. They remember local men who died in the war and have been planted as close as possible to the places where they had lived. In some sections of the road they rise prominently from the horizon at regular one-mile intervals, many spreading beautifully above the road.
This memorial is unique in New Zealand and can also be seen on the main highway north and south of Oamaru and on the inland road to Livingstone. There is also a concentration of them in the Oamaru streets (and it is in Oamaru in 1913 that the famous Scott Memorial Oak had previously been planted, in memory of Captain Scott and his polar party, the news of whose deaths was first telegraphed from that town to the world).
They are a perfect sort of memorial: flourishing living monuments that grow old as the men they represent did not, enhancing the landscape (and environmentally friendly!), and hard to miss by the thousands of people that drive past them every day
However, their original number of about 400 has been reduced over the years, some giving way to road development and power lines. A few very young trees are proof that some have been replaced. In fact, in the 1990s, when new concrete crosses replaced the old wooden markers, there were 222 trees remaining.
Prominent oaks on the Waitaki road include one opposite the Duntroon pub, one right beside the cave drawings at Takiroa, and I see an elegant pair standing side by side opposite the Kurow Winery. The white crosses at the feet of the trees reveal two soldiers from the same family: Private R.G. Jefferis, who died at sea in 1915, and Corporal R.S.C. Jefferis (M.M.), who died in France in 1917. THE WINERY IS JUST on the east side of Kurow, near the Waitaki River (where once there had been fruit orchards), and I stop to meet Renzo Mino, the winemaker, who tells me about the wines produced here.
They are known by the name Pasquale, the surname of the director of the winery, Antonio Pasquale, who founded the enterprise eight years ago. It is the only winery in North Otago – there are other vineyards but this is a completely self-contained winery, as Renzo shows me.
Millions of dollars have been invested in the state-of-the-art facilities, including humidity control in the barrel room, and a bottling plant. The latter is very unusual, for most vineyards have their bottling commissioned off-site, which risks exposing their product more to oxygen and temperature changes.
Renzo tells me that the emphasis here is on quality rather than high yield. Grapes are picked by hand, of which there are seven varieties, made into about 20 wine styles. One wall at the cellar door displays international awards, quite a feat for such a new winery. There are three champion wines: Pinot Noir (2012), Dessert Wine (2012), and Gewurtztraminer (2010), as well as seven gold medals.
Renzo’s own history is quite interesting. He emigrated with his wife, Ana, from Uruguay seven years ago, during the years of crisis when he says the country lost a quarter of a million of its three and a half million population to emigration. He had been working 16hour days, eight hours as a supermarket manager, followed by eight hours with a construction company (sleeping four and a half hours). He says that, unlike other western countries, New Zealand was welcoming in the early 2000s, and he came to North Otago in time to help establish the vineyard, working on such things as digging the trenches. Although he could not then speak English, he was soon offered the opportunity to study viticulture. Now, he manages the winery and Ana works at the cellar door.
ANOTHER DAY AND AGAIN I follow the oak trees out to Kurow, the main town of the area with a most interesting history.
It is the junction of Highways 82 and 83 from Waimate and Oamaru respectively, which are linked by the two bridges across the river here. The bridges provide important access to the town for the otherwise isolated Hakataramea Valley on the other side of the river.
This is where All Black captain, Richie McCaw grew up (as is made plain by the poster on the counter of the Kurow Museum), residing in Canterbury, and crossing the river into Otago to play his rugby at the Kurow Rugby Club.
I see that the two single-lane timber bridges (opened in 1881, and each crossing different streams of the river that skirt around each side of Kurow Island) were being replaced by two double-lane bridges in a $20 million project. (The construction has since been completed.)
It is the first time that the weathering, low-alloy steel used for the new girders has been used to build a highway bridge in the South Island. It will not require painting and within a few years its rusting process will turn it from an orange-brown into a darkbrown colour.
Talking of colours, the Kurow Hotel on the main street has an interesting colour scheme.
About ten years ago its two owners could not agree on the exterior colouring, one wanting the blue colour of Speights, the other, the yellow representing DB.
So they painted it half and half, and, for good measure, painted “Lion Red” on the roof. The colour scheme remains today (after a few changes in the hotel’s ownership) and has been used in publicity. NEW ZEALAND’S SOCIAL SECURITY system had its beginnings in Kurow during the building of the Waitaki Dam (1928-34), the first dam on the river, several kilometres west of the town. It served as a work creation project during the great depression, and three men of the town (the doctor, the Presbyterian minister and the headmaster – Dr David McMillan, Rev Arnold Nordmeyer, and Andrew Davidson) formulated a medical scheme for the poor and unemployed labourers who had descended on the area for work (This, it must be said, built on a medical scheme begun by the previous doctor in Kurow, Dr William Watt).
The work was labour intensive (pick, shovel and wheelbarrow) and dangerous, and the living conditions for the men and their families were often appalling – some even lived in makeshift huts on the riverbed. Nordmeyer and McMillan then joined the Labour party which formed New Zealand’s first Labour government in 1935, and together they developed this local scheme into a national welfare system.
NZTODAY ISSUE 57
Dot Smith and her son Bevan in Riverstone Kitchen
This is no fairytale: the castle is under construction.
An artist’s impression of Riverstone Castle
One section of the gift shop
The road towards the Kakanui Mountains at Pisgah Downs.
One of Livingstone’s old buildings is now a residence.
NZTODAY ISSUE 57
The old miner’s sod hut at Pisgah Downs.
The Elephant Rocks
A sheep pretends to be a statue.
A cow is caught in the act of licking the limestone.
The site of the rock drawings at Takiroa.
Neil Thorpe with the shark-toothed dolphin.
Wendy and Michael Bayley at Otekaieke Station.
Renzo and Ana Mino at the Kurow Winery.
The twin oak trees that remember two members of the Jefferis family.
Work continues on the bridge between Kurow Island and Hakataramea.
The dual colour scheme of the Kurow Hotel.