Riding the fields of gold
Small rural areas find it hard to attract tourists and business, but a dedicated group in Otago have turned the old goldfields into the high country ride of a lifetime, and a way to support local communities.
Why hundreds of people are addicted to riding the Otago cavalcade
When you run a cavalcade in dry, high country hills at the end of a long summer, you come up with some creative health and safety rules. “Central Otago in late summer is pretty dry,” says cavalcade organiser Terry Davis. “Luckily, and through diligence to the systems we have in place – smoking only allowed if standing in the middle of a river at least 5m wide – we haven’t started any fires yet.”
The original cavalcade back in 1991 was 220 people and 240 horses. It retraced the historic journey of the Cobb & Co Coach journey from Dunedin to the Dunstan Goldfield, via the Dunstan Trail.
This year will be the 26th cavalcade, and today it’s a far bigger operation. It is so popular there are now nine different trails, each with their own distinct character. Most people still ride horses, but you can also choose to do it on a horse-drawn wagon, take a walking or hiking trail, or – for the first time – cycle a trail.
Following in the footsteps of early gold seekers in
Central Otago has become an annual attraction for many people. There may not be gold in the hills anymore, but these modern-day adventurers do it for different reasons. There’s the comradely energy of other participants, the beauty of the varying terrain with its tussock hills, jagged rocks and mountains, the wild roaming deer and native falcon. You get a sense of New Zealand as it was 130 years ago.
Behind the scenes is a team of volunteers who do the vast preparation and ensure everything runs well during the trails. Terry Davis says that the volunteers who run the event do a power of work and take on considerable stress and worry to make the trails happen. Each one has a dedicated crew: a trail boss, wranglers on horse trails, and leaders on the walking and cycle trails. There are landowners to persuade, health and safety rules to take care of, accommodation and food for people and animals, all provided for in the price.
“There are gophers and first aiders who plan the trails, logistics, and look after everyone for the week,” says Terry. “But the greatest thing they do is to create a feeling of family.”
The result is something very special.
“The chance to get into remote high country stations is such a privilege. We really have to thank the landowners as it’s a rare treat these days. The scenery is exhilarating. Central Otago is like no other part of the country.
“You spend six days with a group of strangers who end up becoming firm friends. We ride with people who muster for a living and get to hear stories from landowners about how the land was settled. It’s quite humbling to realise how tough life is in the remote high country.”
Each year, the cavalcade starts from different points and follows different trails through a range of communities. This year, it’s finishing in Owaka, east of Invercargill.
It’s a big deal for these rural areas. Many are the remnants of old mining towns and the ruins of once-thriving communities. The cavalcade is a unique opportunity for locals to take part and raise money.
Back in the early 1990s, before the Otago Central Rail Trail, rural Central Otago was quite economically depressed. When the cavalcade was started by the Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust, Terry says they quickly realised it could play a big part in local tourism and fundraising.
“The cavalcade was developed, in part, to inject some cash into these small communities by getting them to provide services and meals to the trails along the way,” says Terry. “A local school might earn several thousand dollars in one hit by providing dinner for a group of cavalcaders via donated produce.”
Each year the destination changes. Host towns get to show off their association with the Otago gold rush era, and raise money for the community. On the last day there’s a party atmosphere as everyone celebrates their achievements. It might be a different town every year, but one thing stays the same, says Terry Davis.
“The real reason they keep coming back year after year is that it’s just the best annual family gathering.”
“The combination of shingle rock, tussocks, shepherd’s huts, big expansive views without a road in sight, deer bounding across. It’s real New Zealand like it was 100 years ago.”
Sue Worthington, trail rider
There are no cold beans on the cavalcade. You earn a good breakfast says regular rider Sue Worthington.
“On our trail we have an awesome catering company, Rusty Carrot, doing the cooking. The food is delicious: fresh-baked bread, roast pork, sticky date pudding, and big cooked breakfasts. It's a wellearned luxury!”
She describes riding a cavalcade trail as challenging.
“But not super hard. The ride itself is more than fun – it is exhilarating, even though it is a challenge, sliding down steep slopes, going through small bogs. One of the rewards is you also form a huge bond with your horse who you have trusted to take you through anything.”
Like so many who do the cavalcade, she can't stop coming back.
“It's such a great time, and such good weather that you can't wait, every year, to come back and do it again. We have people from the States and Australia who come over, but mostly we get New Zealanders.”
THERE IS A ‘ TEX-MEX’, almost High Chaparral feeling to the name Pintala. Rather than being built in the Dallas, Texas, area where Nick Bates lived, worked and studied for 10 years, this stunning property is in the South Auckland area of Waiau Pa.
The fact the property was close to Nick’s workplace in Pukekohe was one plus. The views out over the Manukau Harbour, Awhitu Peninsula, the Waitakere Ranges, and even Auckland City, made the proposition irresistible. The added feature, and bonus, was private pedestrian and equestrian access to the beach to ride over.
The name clearly has an exotic feeling and is an acknowledgement of Nick’s passion for breeding and riding Pinto sport horses.
The North American contribution to the look and feel of the property is apparent.
“What influenced the design and development was the concept, and idea, of living in a home surrounded by the equestrian facilities. Accessibility to all these elements was a large part behind the infrastructure design.
“The fusion of rustic-contemporary architecture has long been etched in my mind for this project. The home was designed simply and for functionality. For a smaller home we managed to incorporate comfortable spaces with high ceilings in the living area to create a bit of drama.
“To me it encapsulates a coastal, equestrian East Coast (Cape Cod) of United States look and feel. The contrasting black exterior with pale joinery was a big part to this. The rock element helps ground the buildings and will serve as a common connection from structure to structure as the project progresses.”
WHAT: The Otago Goldfields Cavalcade WHERE: various locations, all finishing in Owaka, 130km east of Invercargill WHEN: February 24 – March 3 WEB: www.cavalcade.co.nz