Guided by the Southern Man

After the treats of Fairlie and Geraldine we beat a hasty departure and headed further south. 

We crossed into Central Otago with enthusiasm, looking forward to the big, open skies, spectacular cloud formations, golden colours and to meet up with a fellow PSNZ photographer, friend and Southern man Craig McKenzie, who was driving in from Dunedin.

We agreed to meet in Ranfurly with the intent of following Craig into nomad’s land and a DOC camp at the base of the Hawkdun Ranges. He intended to cycle to the top of the range and stay in a DOC hut, while we would stay at ground level, in Moti.

It was not long after leaving Ranfurly that we were in awe of the spectacular golden colours of the infamous Otago tussocks, the big blue sky and the iconic cloud formations of the region.

The weather gods were not on our side so Craig detoured us to a great DOC camp site in St Bathans for the night. The gods were on Craig’s side that evening though as he saved his usual camp cuisine and joined us for a gourmet dinner in Moti!  Granted it was a pre-prepared meal I had purchased from Karaka Cafe in Blenheim, but it was a delicious Indonesian meal which we enjoyed together with a glass or two of a good red. I was woken during the night by the pelting of rain on Moti’s roof and immediately wondered how Craig was faring in his two-man tent alongside us. 

Being a hardy Southern man with more than 20 years successful camping, he has never been saturated or had the tent blown away.  All was good and he was the first man up the following morning, even in the continuing drizzle.

Chris and I have enjoyed numerous holidays and a couple of photography workshops in Central Otago, and the place has a special pull for us thanks to the spectacular landscape, the colours, the skies, clouds and just the intrigue that these combined offer to a photographer.

St Bathans is a quaint historic town that has barely changed since the gold rush days and in the early 1800s was a bustling gold mine town with residency of 2000 miners. One of the main drawcards of the town is the Blue Lake which was created by extensive mining activity in the mid-1800s. How much gold was retrieved from the lake we will never know, but chances are the entire area made many a man wealthy.

We loved the contrasting colours of the lake and the surrounding tussocks and trees.

Craig knows Central Otago like the back of his hand, and we were putty in his hands – literally.  Having a four-wheel vehicle, he was happy to play the ‘tour guide’ and take us into locations one could only dream about, let alone knowing about! There was lots of laughter and jokes about ‘other fellow photographers’ not knowing where we were or wondering where the buildings were located as we walked the land.  Not only did Craig know these locations, but he also knew most of the walking and cycle trails; the history and location of the goldmines of years gone by and much more.  We enjoyed three days of good photography, good conversation, plenty of laughs, good food and wine. What more could you ask for?

The following morning, we thought we would head into St Bathan’s for a coffee at the infamous Vulcan Hotel only to find a note on the door advising us of a delayed opening at noon, due to a doctor’s appointment for one of the staff.  Just our luck! We explored the lake and surrounding historic buildings and all three of us left knowing more about the area than before.  Exploring the interiors of some of the buildings was intriguing, some rooms filled with thousands of dead flies, seeing the torn wallpaper on the scrim walls, and furniture that reminded us of our grandparent’s houses.

One of the highlights for all of us was riding the newly opened Dunstan Cycle trail. Craig is an experienced cyclist, while Chris and I are novices. All three of us had E-bikes although happy to advise that Craig never powered his at all. Our riding day was stunning weather-wise, which bought out hundreds of other cyclists, especially being a holiday weekend too. Feeling a tad nervous, we set out from our base in Bannockburn and quickly hooked up onto the trail. Thousands of New Zealanders (and eventually international tourists) can thank former Prime Minster Sir John Key for his legacy of introducing and developing these cycle trails – for cyclists and walkers alike. We rode as far as the floating coffee cart, which was about 12-13 kilometres (then returned. It is quite safe and comfortable riding, but for novices like us there were a few ‘hairy’ moments.  My biggest fear, which never came to fruition, was falling off and into the water. That did not happen, but I did fall and smash into the rocks at one point bringing a flow of expletives to Craig’s ears! (Sorry Craig). Rumor has it there have been several helicopter rescues from both the trail and the water. There are some tight corners that I chose to dismount for; some very steep hills and narrower stretches, but fellow cyclists followed common sense and cycle etiquette.

The workmanship and engineering feats of the suspended segments of the trail are outstanding.  These segments are steel structures bolted into the rockfaces with batten boards making up the pathway linking into the gravel pathways.  The overall terrain of the trail is undulating with many precarious corners.

On reaching the coffee cart Chris was quick to dismount and get inline to order, along with dozens of others.  I asked the young cashier how many coffees they would serve on a good day, to which she replied about 200.  We thought that was low as there was far more than that cycling on this day. Alongside the coffee cart was another boat on which they had a BBQ offering bacon butties and hamburgers – also well patronised.

The coffee was pretty good; Chris enjoyed his cheese scone and after an enjoyable chat with fellow Auckland cyclists we jumped on the bikes to return to camp.

The coffee cart was developed by a former Heli-pilot/operator based in Cromwell whose business was decimated thanks to Covid.  Not knowing what to do, he and his wife thought about what could be offered along the trail and produced the idea of a floating coffee cart.  Their boats are moored overnight on the opposite side of the lake, with them commuting to and from their home base in Cromwell.  Just shows what thinking outside the square can lead to in tough times.

On our return ride we stopped at Carrick Vineyard and cellar door where we enjoyed a pizza, wine and tea in the afternoon sun, before heading back to our base at the campground. 

Being a Southern man always on the go Craig had more activities lined up for the afternoon which turned out to be exhilarating and deserves its own post.

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