A one horse town

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St. Bathans, 1879. Photo by Burton Brothers of Dunedin from the Te Papa collection.

St. Bathans, in the Central Otago district of New Zealand’s South Island, was one of the towns that sprang into life after the discovery of gold there in 1862 and it soon held a population of 2000. By the time this photograph was taken, it seems the “rush” was over. A sign painted beside the window of the Montezuma Hotel advertises a “Horse for Hire”.

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Note – “horse”. Singular. One only.

On the left of the photograph is the Vulcan Hotel, a typical “tin” accommodation house for travelers in the ’60s and ’70s. It comes from what the English novelist, Anthony Trollope, called the “corrugated iron period” of New Zealand architecture.

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Writing about his winter visit to the region in 1872, he observed –
Corrugated iron does not make picturesque houses. It is very portable; very easily shaped; capable of quick construction; and it keeps out the rain. It is, however, subject to drawbacks. The rooms formed of it of course are small, and every word uttered in the house can be heard throughout it, as throughout a shed put up without divisions. And yet the owners and frequenters of these iron domiciles seem never to be aware of the fact. As I lay in bed in one of these metal inns on the road, I was constrained to hear the private conversation of my host and hostess who had retired for the night.

“So this is Mr Anthony Trollope,” said the host. The hostess assented, but I could gather clearly from her voice that she was thinking much more of her back hair than of her visitor.

“Well,” said the host, “he must be a — fool to come travelling in this country in such weather as this.” Perhaps, after all, the host was aware of the peculiarity of his house, and thought it well that I should know his opinion. He could not have spoken any words with which at that moment I should have been more prone to agree.

Several websites will tell you that the Vulcan Hotel was built of mud brick in 1882 and was previously known as the Ballarat, yet here is photographic proof that it was known as the Vulcan before that date. The brick version, now a Category 1 historic building reputed to be haunted, is still in business and attracting tourists and ghost hunters.

The permanent population of St Bathans today is 6 to 10, depending on your source. No figures are available for the number of horses.

Lake Wakatipu

English novelist Anthony Trollope visited New Zealand in the winter of 1872, landing at Invercargill in the far south of the country. From there, he planned to visit Lake Wakatipu, 70 miles to the north and already a tourist attraction.

We were unfortunate in the time of the year, having reached the coldest part of New Zealand in the depth of winter. Everybody had told me that it was so, – and complaint had been made to me of my conduct, as though I were doing New Zealand a manifest injustice in reaching her shores at a time of year in which her roads were all mud, and her mountains all snow. By more than one New Zealander I was scolded roundly, and by those who did not scold me I was laughed to scorn….

With great misgivings as to the weather, but with high hopes, we started from Invercargill for lake Wakatip. Our first day’s journey was by coach (after travelling to Winton by rail), which was tolerably successful, though fatiguing…….

Remarkables

The Remarkables at Lake Wakatipu. Some of the scenery Trollope missed on a journey up the lake in a rain storm.

…..We passed up [a] valley, with mountains on each side of us, some of which were snow-capped. We crossed various rivers, – or more probably the same river at various points. About noon on the second day we reached the lake at a place called Kingstown [Kingston], and found a steamer ready to carry us twenty-four miles up it to Queenstown, on the other side. Steamers ply regularly on the lake, summer and winter, and afford the only means of locomotion in the neighbourhood. But no sooner were we on board than the rain began to fall as it does only when the heavens are quite in earnest. And it was very, very cold. We could feel that the scenery around us was fine, that the sides of the lake were precipitous, and the mountain tops sharp and grand, and the water blue; but it soon became impossible to see anything. We huddled down into a little cabin, and endeavoured to console ourselves with the reflection that, though all its beauties were hidden from our sight, we were in truth steaming across the most beautiful of the New Zealand lakes. They who cannot find some consolation from their imagination for external sufferings had better stay at home. At any rate they had better not come to New Zealand in winter.
‘With Trollope in New Zealand 1872’, Ed. A. H. Reed, 1969.

Fortunately for the New Zealand tourist industry, travellers have ignored Trollope’s advice. They descend on Queenstown every year in their thousands for the winter festival and surrounding ski fields. (It’s popular in summer, too).

Crossing the Waitaki river

The English Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope visited New Zealand in 1872, when the country was more suitable for intrepid travellers than “tourists”. To make things even more difficult for himself, he arrived in the middle of winter.

Travelling north from Dunedin in a stagecoach he found the road “as good as any in England” as far as Palmerston “but then there comes a change, and thence on into the bounds of the province the road was very bad indeed”. There was an overnight stop at “a small town called Oamaru” and then….

“Twelve miles of as miserable a road as ever I travelled brought us to the Waitaki river, which is the boundary of the [Otago] province”.

Waitaki river

“It was a piercingly cold morning, and we felt aggrieved greatly when we found that we had to leave the coach and get into a boat. But the dimensions of our own hardships lessened themselves to our imagination when we found that two of the boatmen descended into the river, and pushed the boat for half a mile up the stream. During a part of the way three men were in the water, and yet the boat hardly seemed to move. For this service we were charged 2s [shillings] apiece which sum was not included in the coach fare. …..

There are many such rivers as the Waitaki running into the sea on the eastern coast of New Zealand, very dangerous in crossing, and the cause of many accidents. We were then in the depth of winter, and they are not then full. It is after the winter rains, and after the snows, when the mountains give up their load of waters, that the streams become full, and the banks overflow. In the spring the coaches often cannot pass, and are occasionally washed away bodily when the attempt is made. At other rivers besides the Waitaki there is a custodian, who is in some degree responsible for the safety of travellers, and who seems always to charge 2s a head, whether he presides over a ferry, with boat, and boatmen, or simply over a ford, across which he rides on horseback showing the way”.
‘With Anthony Trollope in New Zealand 1872’ Ed. A. H. Reed. 1969.

Modern travellers have a convenient bridge for crossing the river – no charge.

Waitaki bridge

The Waitaki river marks the boundary between the provinces of Otago and Canterbury.

The Waitaki today provides much of New Zealand’s hydro power from a network of eight dams upstream.

Aviemore hydro dam on the Waitaki river. South Island, New Zealand.

Aviemore hydro dam on the Waitaki river.