What with lockdowns and travel restrictions road trips have been a bit thin on the ground over the past two years, but, hey!, I’m now off exploring one of the most dramatic parts of New Zealand . . . Central Otago.
Dramatic, sure. At times even brutal but beautiful too. And sometimes all three put together.
Decided to fly in to Dunedin rather than Queenstown, in part because rental car deals were cheaper there, but mainly because my first couple of days could be spent roaming the back-country roads leading to the lakes district.
Was a bit cheesed off on the flight because I had paid extra for an exit row window seat but when I got there a young Chinese couple had take seats E and F.
What the heck – I’ve flown over this route a good many times. I figured for them it’s probably all new. Let them have the view, so I settled into D, the aisle seat.
Then they pulled the blind up the whole way.
No point in bleating about it.
Hired a car from an off-airport company, New Zealand Rentacar. The collection was smooth enough. It was waiting for me in their section of the airport rental car park.Grabbed the key from a code-entry lockbox and I was outa there.
State Highway 87,the quickest way into the hinterland, rolls across the Taieri Plains from Mosgeil, not far from the airport.
This is dairying country but before long you start to rock and roll up into rolling hills country. Beautiful country. Sheep and beef country.
Then it’s a descent through a rocky landscape that looks more like the plains of Mordor, especially after a long dry summer that has blasted the grass to a burned-off tawny, with nary a skerrit of green to be seen. In places matagouri, also known as Wild Irishman, grows wild. Scrubby, thorny bushes that add to the Mordor mood.
Eventually Mordor gives way to a narrow, fertile, green plain, cradled between the Rock and Pillar Range to the west and the Tairei Ridge to the the east You pass through the town of Middlemarch and a couple of tiny hamlets, now almost abandoned before joining State Highway 85 for the run through to an overnight stop in Ranfurly.
Named after the fifth Earl of Ranfurly, the 15th Governor General of New Zealand, it is the service centre for the Maniototo area.
Railway – boom, bust, boom
When the Central Otago railway line was constructed, it bisected the Maniototo Plain, and Ranfurly became the central point of the line. The county offices, banks and other services were moved from nearby gold mining boom town, Naseby to Ranfurly and from the 1930s the town developed rapidly, adopting the Art Deco building genre.
The Refreshment Rooms are an excellent example of the style.
The law of unintended consequences played a big part in the history of this region. The best thing that happened to the area between here and Alexandra was the removal of the railway line that ran through the valley.
It didn’t look like that at the time – there was wailing and gnashing of teeth from the locals who said the demise of the rail service would kill the area.
Quite the reverse, in fact.
New life in old towns
It took a decade or two before anything happened, but the development of the Central Otago Rail Trail on the old rail bed has resulted in a complete economic revitalisation for the string of small villages along the line of the trail.
Places that were slowly dying and decaying are now bubbling with new accommodations and cafes and other attractions, all of which bring employment opportunities. That means that institutions, like the local school, for instance, see an increase in number or patronage. It is the so-called economic “virtuous circle” where growth multiplies and creates further growth.
Found my accommodation at Hawkdun Lodge, a motel, and found it much to my liking. It’s the small things . . . like heated floor tiles in the bathroom. Luxury. All round a classy operation.
Dinner at the local hotel was a tad average. Meatloaf, chips and veges. I cook a better meatloaf than this modest offering, but, hey, at $25 it’s a bit rich to grizzle about it.
So, Day 1 done and dusted. All went well and on schedule.
Let’s hope it stays that way for the next three days.