Ned Slattery, ‘The Shiner’, was a swagman who marched the roads lesser travelled in Otago and Southland in the closing years of the 19th century. Allan Dick follows in his footsteps along one of those roads less travelled.
If you look at a map of the South Island and contemplate it, you become aware that there are vast tracts of land where there are no roads, and there are other areas where there are some roads – these are roads ‘less travelled’. My story in this issue of NZTODAY takes us through one of these ‘less travelled’ regions. It’s the Macraes Flat–Moonlight–Nenthorn area which sits neatly between SH85 (the Pig Root, from Palmerston into Central Otago) and SH87 (which also heads into Central Otago from the Taieri Plains and takes you through Middlemarch to meet SH85 near Ranfurly).
Today this is a land of Not Much – the biggest hole in the ground in New Zealand at the operating Macraes Flat goldmine, sheep and cattle farms which have been carved out of the tussock, and schist-strewn landscape – and Stanley’s Hotel.
This is country where you need to be hardy. It’s not quite ‘Central Otago’ proper – while it can get hot in the summer, it’s at a high enough altitude that it doesn’t get baking hot as in say, Ophir, but there’s no arguing the fact that its winters can be as cold as anywhere in Central Otago. And it’s high enough for snow to be a common factor – at almost any time of the year.
But this is a land of legend and myth.
Gold was discovered here in 1862 and prompted a series of gold rushes. When the gold ran out in one place, it was found in another, leading to nearly eighty years of mining by various means ranging from panning, to dredging to full-scale mining until it came to a halt in the 1930s, only to be revived in a massive way in 1990.
In those early days miners arrived in large numbers, and the township of Macraes Flat sprang up to service their wants and needs. There were other smaller settlements as well, including Nenthorn and the locality of Moonlight – named, it is said after a cousin of the Australian bushranger, Captain Moonlight. But Macraes Flat was the centre of the area with Middlemarch 40 kilometres one way and Palmerston 40 kilometres the other. At its height, Macraes Flat boasted the usual amenities – bank, post office, school and two pubs and a population that was nudging 500.
Tom Stanley was a wagon driver who bought one of the pubs in 1882 and had the small building torn down and replaced by something far more elaborate, built from the local material which is still available in abundance – schist stone.