R oxburgh is at the head of Teviot Valley on SH8 between Milton and Alexandra, at a point where the mighty Clutha River emerges from a gorge on its way from Lake Wanaka to the Pacific. The valley below is so broad that it’s difficult to imagine it really is a valley.
There are three towns in Teviot Valley – Millers Flat, Ettrick and, by far the largest, Roxburgh. There are also several sites where there once were towns – Teviot and Dumbarton among them.
The land here is typical of Central Otago – sparse vegetation and outcrops of schist rock. There were no trees before Europeans arrived, but today there are willows lining the rivers, a scattering of pines, poplars, and of course, the fruit trees for which the region is renowned.
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The area hasn’t yet reached the glamour status of Queenstown, Wanaka or Cromwell, but Alexandra is beginning to be affected as more and more people learn about the unique nature of Central – the fantastically stark scenery, the longest, hottest summers in New Zealand, contrasted with severe winters. Roxburgh has all of that – it just hasn’t yet been ‘discovered’.
Getting to Roxburgh from Oamaru by main roads is easy – either from the north via Lindis Pass and Cromwell, or from the south through Dunedin and Milton. But that would be too easy. Instead, we loaded the camping gear into the Pathfinder and set out over Danseys Pass to the Maniototo, then over the Lammerlaws into Teviot Valley. We planned to sleep that first night on the airbed in the back of the Pathfinder and spend the next day or so in Roxburgh.
Danseys Pass is a fabulous drive – a reasonable gravel road over some high, largely uninhabited, tussock-and-schist country and down to the famous Danseys Pass hotel where we had lunch.
On to Naseby for a lap of the town, then Ranfurly, and then south across the Maniototo Plains to a remote corner at Paerau where the Taieri River starts to take shape – viewed from above, these headwaters of the Taieri form the most fantastic spirals.
Then up the Lammerlaw Range to Lake Onslow – a man-made lake created in 1888 to supply water for gold sluicing! There’s a small collection of fishing huts here, as the lake is filled with trout. In more recent times the dam across the Teviot River was raised and then replaced in 1982, and the water is now used in the Teviot Valley for irrigation and power generation.
This is high, remote country where there’s a lot of snow in the winter. A light plane once made a forced landing here in the depths of winter, and when a Dunedin newspaper sent up a photographer in a second small plane, it too had trouble and made a forced landing! All were rescued safely.
We took our time coming down the Lammerlaws, slowly passing from tussock to pasture before reaching the floor of the valley at Teviot where I decided to head east to Millers Flat and then along the Millennium Track that roughly follows the old railway line. This is now part of the Clutha Gold Cycle trail that runs from the Roxburgh dam to Lawrence – a continuation of the Roxburgh Gorge trail from Alexandra.
Millers Flat is a town straddling the Clutha River – the pub, garage and houses on SH8 are connected to the main township on the other side by a blue-painted, arched steel-girder, one-way bridge. Many SH8 travellers pass by, not aware of the main town on the other side.
It’s got a school, a highly respected camping ground and about 40 houses.
For decades, Millers Flat was served by Faigan’s Store, opened by Louis Faigan in the late 1890s. It eventually became Faigan’s Four Square store, and when it was recently threatened with closure it was taken over and run by a local trust. I loved the old-style country-feel of the place. It stocked everything. Outside was a local noticeboard that advertised lost cats, school fairs, rabbit shoots and all the stuff that makes up life in (very) small-town NZ.
A year ago, Four Square’s parent company, Foodstuffs, decided that the store was too small for them to continue supplying it with goods any longer and closed the account. It was bought by local returnee Juanita Garden and her husband Mike Tan, and converted into a stylish café with a small supply of basic groceries at one side. Juanita, a school teacher, is from the family that owns nearby Avenal Station while Mike is a former Naval officer.
It was afternoon when we cruised past the Lonely Graves along the Millennium Track and past the historic pedestrian suspension bridge at Horseshoe Bend. I’d been here before – a beautiful spot with steep hills on both sides and the fast-flowing Clutha streaming past just 10 metres away.
We passed a small hydroelectric station powered by water piped down the hillside. It’s owned by Beaumont Station (one of the largest privately owned farms in New Zealand) which runs well up onto the Lammerlaws.
It was a perfect dinner – blue-vein cheese and crackers, cold chicken, vine tomatoes, with a beer or two for me and wine or two for the Navigator.
The next day we headed to Beaumont across the rickety one-way bridge that is at last getting some serious attention, and headed back to Millers Flat – along SH8 this time.
Back in Millers Flat we had a coffee at Faigans before I went and knocked at the door of 85-year-old Forbes Knight who once owned Millers Flat Transport and knows everything that’s ever gone on in the area since the beginning of time.
Forbes and his wife live in a house they built on a corner of the parcel of land they bought when the town’s main pub burnt down in 1969. We chatted about many things and I was sad to learn that they are seriously thinking about selling up and moving away because the loss of the grocery shop is such a burden to them. “We might move to Mosgiel,” he said.
We hit the road for Roxburgh where I had a mission – lunch in the park with goodies from Jimmy’s!
Roxburgh is famous for (in no particular order) the hydro dam, the Health Camp, its extra-wide main street, its orchards – and Jimmy’s Pies.
Jim Kirkpatrick moved from Invercargill to Roxburgh about 50 years ago and established a bakery. His son Dennis took over the business and has developed it into a lower South Island cultural icon – Jimmy’s Pies are part of the landscape with their familiar signs outside garages, supermarkets, dairies and cafés.
But today, Jimmy’s makes more than just a couple of dozen varieties of pies – the small, busy, modern shop at the front of the bakery has cabinets filled with traditional baking – all to the highest standard.
I wanted one of Jimmy’s mutton pies, and more importantly a cream bun! They are legendary – the size of a basketball, crispy outside, foamy inside with a bucket of cream and a jar of jam! As we entered, the local policeman was exiting – his lunch in paper bags. Everyone goes to Jimmy’s!
My first father-in-law, Cecil James Crawford, was the Roxburgh cop from 1944 to 1950 when his superiors in Wellington decided that Roxburgh, with the dam construction workforce arriving, was no place for a cop with two young daughters. He was relocated to the new state-housing area of Kew in Dunedin.
Senior Constable Lance Davies is from Northland, and when I explained about my father-in-law he welcomed me down to the cop-shop where there were photographs of all serving police on the wall.
‘Old man Crawford’ as he was known in Kew, was a typical old-style cop – gruff, clip over the ear, kick up the bum and chased off home.
In those days, suburban and small-town cops had to provide their own cars and Cecil’s was a 1928 Chev National tourer that he kept until the late fifties.
One of his jobs in Roxburgh was to check on after-hours drinking and he had to carry out one-man pub ‘raids’ – arriving stealthily in his old Chev tourer, he was called ‘the Black Moth’.
Lance Davies loves his job and loves Roxburgh – “This is one of the best stations in New Zealand, certainly the best I’ve worked at.”
Last winter he coordinated the rescue of the convoy of four-wheeler crews who got stuck in snow trying to get over from Waikaia. The people were rescued, but the vehicles remained there for weeks until recovered by the local contractors – Harliwichs.
The town was busy. We sauntered up and down, popping into this shop and that. In the Tally-Ho Wool Carding & Gift Shop the Navigator was in her element – she bought a couple of locally made oven cloths, a tiny brown-and-white tanned skin off a Merino slinky, and a bedroom rug made of raw, tufted wool. Having spent $150 we rushed into the supermarket next door to buy a Lotto ticket, hopeful of winning something big to top up the bank account (we didn’t!).
We crossed the road to a restaurant that brought back hazy memories. It’s now Thai-owned but is still very traditional ‘old’ New Zealand. There were two groups of ladies having lunch. I explained what I was doing and asked what the restaurant used to be called.
“Oh, this was Altenberg’s … it was famous, and it was here for years,” I was told by one lady. Of course it was – I now remembered!
“If you want to know anything about Roxburgh,” said another, “find John Kerr. He owns the hotel next door.”
There are, or were, three pubs in Roxburgh – the rather stern looking ‘Goldfields’ at the Millers Flat end of town, the newer and smaller ‘Grand Tavern’ (obviously a replacement for the older original) at the Alexandra end, and in the middle, the grand edifice of the ‘Commercial’. As we walked towards the Commercial a man came out the back door.
“Excuse me, do you have anything to do with the pub?” I asked.
“Indeed I do, I’m the owner, John Kerr.”
Somehow, John knew who I was and he spent half an hour showing us through this fabulous old, goldfields-era pub, still fully licensed but now run as a backpackers. We marvelled at the size and interior grandeur of this great old building.
I was stunned when he told me how many thousands of bed–nights he has each year. Most of his guests are foreign orchard workers. “I offer cheaper rates for long-term stays, the place is full much of the year. I’ve just had a text from a group of Chinese girls coming shortly for the summer. They call me ‘Papa John’.”
The old hotel guest book – recovered smouldering from the Roxburgh tip some years ago – has an entry on January 8, 1951 from Bernard Freyberg! The hero of Gallipoli and Governor-General of New Zealand was in town leading a group of British bowlers!
Eight or nine years ago, when the Navigator and I were first thinking about leaving Auckland for the sanity of the south, we considered Roxburgh and the former post office which was for sale. It was operating as the Endemic Art Gallery, run by husband and wife team, painter Rebecca Gilmore and landscape artist Greg Slui.
It’s still the Endemic Gallery and Rebecca and Greg are still there! “We changed our mind – took the building off the market and we’ve stayed,” says Rebecca.
We hear the skirl of the pipes, and there, standing in full Highland regalia outside the Highland Pharmacy, is piper and pharmacist Alastair Forbes, whose Friday afternoon routine is standing on the footpath giving a one-man concert. Alastair is a multi-tasker – his chemist shop also sells and hires bikes. The popular cycle trail is helping to transform the town.
We decide to head for the dam – across the bridge (the third to cross the Clutha at this spot) and head upstream.
In 1944 it was decided the country needed to act quickly to avoid power cuts. The Clutha and Waitaki rivers were quickly identified as having huge potential as sites of hydroelectric dams, with the Clutha the preferred choice because it would be an easier build, and in 1947 the Labour government pressed the green button on the project, although the exact location had yet to be identified.
In early 1949, when regular power cuts had become a way of life for New Zealanders, the new National government approved a site at the exit of the gorge between Alexandra and Roxburgh at a location called Tamblyn’s Orchard. Although the government preferred the work be done by private contractors, by July the Ministry of Works were on site and began work – slowly.
By September 1951 the government had had enough of the slow progress and called for tenders to help finish the job. The two major contracts were won by an English company, Cubitts, and a Dutch group, Zschokke, and they joined the Ministry of Works with a target date for commissioning of July 1955.
But progress was still slow. There were major delays and cost overruns, senior staff were being replaced and the workers were put on restricted working hours to keep costs under control. The English workers demanded a 70-hour working week, or air tickets back home. Meanwhile power rationing was in force and the people were angry.
Finally, the government acted and brought in the New Zealand company Downers to head the consortium that would finally get the job done – Cubitts, Zschokke and Downer – and at midnight, July 21, 1956, the lake began to fill. So urgent was the need for power, the project was commissioned with just one of the six turbines installed!
The lake backed up all the way through the gorge to Alexandra and a little beyond. A few small orchards were drowned, along with many historic (mainly gold mining) sites.
At the height of the project there was a worker’s town on the eastern side of the Clutha that, at its height, had 724 houses, a 90-bed hostel, a primary school for 600 pupils, a movie theatre, hall, 17 shops, three churches, a fire-and-ambulance station, four tennis courts, swimming pool, and water and sewage systems. In addition there were two single-men’s camps with a total of 1000 huts.
Today, there is no sign that this town ever existed.
However, it was replaced on the other side of the river by a more permanent village to house the staff that would run and maintain the hydro station. Today it’s all done by a centralised computer in Wellington or somewhere, so this village was also closed and the houses sold to private buyers.
At the time, Roxburgh hydro station was the biggest in New Zealand. Today, it is one of the government-owned Contact Energy generating stations.
While it has been a faithful servant for New Zealanders there have been issues, not the least being flooding in Alexandra that saw the relocation of the main shopping centre, and there have long been questions over how long it can operate. Globally, this type of hydro dam has a lifespan of about 50 years due to silting – and the Clutha River is known to carry huge amounts of silt and gravel. Then there is the fact that the Roxburgh gorge has some fault lines similar to those in the Cromwell Gorge, but in the late forties, little was known of this so little investigation was carried out.
One day, the Roxburgh dam will have to be ‘decommissioned’ – emptied and demolished.
Standing downstream, looking at the concrete monolith and hearing the distant hum of the generators was a restful experience.
It was a warm day, the hillsides were yellow with the bloom of broom, the air thick with the fragrance of thyme and fruit blossom, lambs were baa-ing for their mothers in nearby paddocks, while overhead a couple of magpies dive-bombed hawks that got too close to their nest.
It was so idyllic, we could have stayed forever. But we had a mission – to spend that night at ‘the Obelisk’, a tall column of exposed schist rock at the top of the Old Man Range. Although steep, this is not a terribly tough drive and it took us maybe 40 minutes to reach the top, after a couple of stops to breathe in the mountain air and gaze at the spreading scene far below.
It was cooler at the top (six or seven degrees) than down below (24 degrees). The ground hadn’t entirely dried out from the winter snow and rain, and some soft patches were steaming in the weak sunlight.
This is a fantastic landscape – in the distance, rugged mountain tops and vast patches of snow, while nearby there are the large rock tors and underfoot the ground is either bare, or covered in mosses and lichens.
There’s a television and cellphone tower up here so we had full phone reception. But this is high and remote, and the weather can change dramatically even in mid-summer, so we headed back down the mountain for the serene beauty of Pinders Pond on the back road to Millers Flat. This is a willow-fringed place of tranquillity, the large pond being the result of sluicing in the late 1800s! We were surrounded by an army of rabbits, and seeing trout breaking the surface everywhere.
The next day it was initially foggy, but that burnt off quickly to reveal another stunning day. Before heading for home, we did a last ‘lap’ from Pinders Pond to the dam and back down SH8 for breakfast in Roxburgh.
While the region has always been famous for its fruit, orcharding is flourishing with large plantings of new varieties – apples of course, but increasingly cherries, apricots, and berries – and plenty of evidence of more ground being broken in for orchards. Some of this is investment by locals, but a lot is pure business investment by big-time financiers in Auckland offices. There’s a parallel here with what happened in the dairy industry.
Back in Roxburgh we breakfasted at ‘103 The Store’, owned by Sally Smith and Teresa Bennett, a quite remarkable café in a gift and homewares store. I chose what had to be the greatest ham sandwich the world has ever seen, while the Navigator had a small ham-and-cheese pie-like creation she declared as “Yumm!” Reading material for customers included several copies of this magazine!
With that we were off, heading back to Oamaru on a journey that would take us to Lawrence, Lake Mahinerangi, Middlemarch and the Nenthorn Valley, before spending our third and last night at the historic Golden Point gold-mining area near Macraes Flat – alone save for the deep croaking of frogs. A magical sound.
We’d had a magical three-night, four-day experience.
Although I’d known Roxburgh for many years, I saw it in a new light. While it’s still basically a sleepy, old-fashioned, rural town, and still very much represents ‘old Central Otago’, change is coming – there’s a new shop under construction in the main street, the cycle trails are making a difference, and fruit growing is becoming VERY big business. House prices are very affordable – but not as affordable as Ranfurly where you can still buy a place for five figures.
This is very much Central Otago – harsh, beautiful, extremes of weather, the Clutha River, the orchards – and Jimmy’s football-sized cream buns.
Enjoy it before it changes too much.