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Tales from small town Otago

Posted by on January 13, 2013

Well, another big storm was forecast for the West Coast and lake areas, so we left Wanaka early to beat the rains. Since 3 out of 4 options out of Wanaka were not viable (for a host of weather reasons), we chose the fourth, which is certainly the less traveled, and includes a road neither Jeff nor I had been on before. Ah, I love an adventure!

So we headed off to Central Otago, known for its heat and dryness in summer, and extreme cold and snow in winter. We were counting on it to provide us with the best weather at the moment and it did; we only got an hour or 2 of rain and wind that day, when most of the island around us was getting pelted by one, the other, or both.

Central Otago is known for its gold mining history. In the mid 1800’s, people came from all around to mine for gold and many small towns sprung up for this purpose. Now, after the peak mining days have passed, these small, small towns still exist. We traveled through these towns, which have now reinvented themselves as an art trail (various local vendors selling their wares throughout), a wine trail (vineyards dotting the hills), and also as the Otago Rail Trail. For when the train tracks were removed from this area, it left kilometers of flat paths that the resourceful Kiwis turned into a recreational trail for cycling, walking, and horseback riding. The Otago Rail Trail is 150 kms long; parts can be completed as a day trip, or the full trail can be completed over multiple days.

There are 2 notable stories from this day. I’ll tell you these and let the photos do the rest.

Story #1: Never assume a bare parking lot means an empty pub.

I thought I had learned this lesson in the British Virgin Islands, when we had happened upon a bar that looked desolate from the outside but was teeming with people who had arrived by boat. We experienced a similar situation in Chatto Creek, New Zealand (population 9.5, per the pub owner’s estimation), where we ducked out of the dreary rain and into a presumably empty pub, only to find it abuzz with cyclists chatting and laughing. For the Chatto Creek pub backed up to the Otago Rail Trail, and their daily clientele include more cyclists than folks in cars. Splendid!

Walking into the pub almost felt like we had walked into a party at someone’s home, with its warm wooden tables, NZ sporting and gold mining memorabilia lining the walls with an occasional (and usually irreverent) saying here and there, and a stone fireplace and couches in the corner. As we perused the room, we saw mostly a tour of 50+ year old men and women doing the multi-day cycling trip, but also a biking family (mum, dad, 2 teenage boys), as well as a Finnish couple who we later learned have been summering both in New Zealand (for golfing/fishing) for the last 16 years and in Finland, too.  (I’m jealous!)

We took in the scene, ate our delicious fish and chips (if you know me, you know I don’t really like fish…but the blue cod here is MARVELOUS!), and chatted with some folks. The pub owner (Leslie) mentioned that this was a slow day because of the bad weather and usually it’s chocka (ie, full—from chockablock to chocka, Kiwis shorten everything) both inside and out. What a lovely little find. And as the touring cyclists were leaving, a group of 4 older gentlemen in all white (we got excited that they might be cricketers), came in and were immediately greeted by folks in the pub (think Norm, from Cheers). Being Jeff, he befriended them and found out they were the Omakau men’s lawn bowling club, coming to the pub early since their match had been cancelled due to weather. By the time we left, they were all old friends and Jeff was wishing them well at their match on Saturday.

So what we thought was just a quick lunch to get out of the rain turned into quite a festive experience. The energy was electric and we carried it with us for the rest of the day.

Story #2:  Small town, global outlook.

We visited St. Bathans, a small, small town off the beaten track that is known for its allegedly haunted hotel (a woman of the night was murdered by an aggressive gold miner in Room 1) and its stunning blue lake. We didn’t witness either (clouds≠blue reflections), but we did stop into the hotel for a coffee. As we walked in, it was like walking into Jeff’s past, as we see a couple of Kiwi kids with handfuls of change buying lollies (ie, candy) by the piece. Seven toffee milks for the girl, 17 jaffas for the boy. As the older sister chides “You don’t have to spend it all!” The younger brother smiles devilishly. And spends it all. [That kid was Jeff, 30 some odd years ago, I’m sure of it.]

We were then eased out of our sentimental reverie by the teenaged bartender who asks for our order. Coffee and ice cream, thanks. And as the kids bound away, and we are the only ones in the bar, I can’t help but ask her, “So are you from St. Bathans?” for I simply can’t fathom towns this small and was surprised to see a young person working there.

She happily explained that she is from neighboring Becks. When asked how many people lived in Becks, she responded, “well, Becks is more of an area really” then thoughtfully answered “maybe 6?” Six. People. Wow. I was semi-prepared for this (after hearing about the 9.5 in Chatto Creek) so had to ask “So where did you go to school?” She explained that she went to primary school in nearby Omakau, and was a 5-day border during high school in neighboring Alexandra, before studying primary school teaching at uni(versity) in Dunedin. She is taking a year off because she isn’t ready to start teaching quite yet, but knows that the UK and Australia are options and she’ll figure it out when the time comes. For now she’s just figuring out life.

It struck me how a girl from a town of 6 was so grounded and knew completely what her options were and that the world is open to her. It’s a difference between the US and NZ—the “overseas experience” is almost an expectation for Kiwis, whereas it is the exception for Americans, especially those from small towns.

While this unconventional route was chosen for us by the weather, in the end, we ended up having a spectacular, and very different, type of day. It was more about the people and the small towns than the scenery, which proved to be quite interesting.


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