November 3, 2008 – Queenstown to Roxburgh, Central Otago, New Zealand
Although it’s the first Tuesday on this side of the Dateline, the U.S. election is still hours away. Between now and the announcement of results, horses will be vying for top spot in the Melbourne Cup, which also takes place the first Tuesday of November.
We watch the news on occasion, such as this morning, when we’re slowing rousing ourselves in Walnut Cottage, news playing in the background.
The day is cloudy, but yesterday was gloriously sunny and – for the first time since the 22nd of October – warm. We made breakfast in our lakeside motel and left Queenstown, a place I’m glad Robin wanted to include on our loose itinerary.
Crossing the bridge over the Shotover River, we stopped to watch the Jetboats. The company there holds the only license for jetboating in the Shotover Canyon. Thanks to his tour directing, Robin has been on the boats as they roar through the canyon, barely missing rocky walls.
From there we drove to the first suspension bridge over the Kawarau Gorge. Bungy jumping has been good for it. A. J. Hackett and a partner started the first operation there on the bridge. They were given a month to trial bungy jumping. When the experiment proved wildly successful, as well as safe, they were given a license that has turned into a multi-million dollar business.
The old bridge, with its single-lane span, was abandoned in 1963 so by the late 1980s it was in need of repair. Hackett shared the cost with the New Zealand government, and the restored bridge is now a major tourist attraction.
We stopped to watch two brave young men tumble over the edge and trust their weight to a cord that looks like woven rubber bands – thousands of them. The second one hesitated slightly, but both took the leap that sent them plunging head first toward the Kawarau River.
Our route took us back to Cromwell, winding through the rocky Kawarau Gorge and back out into what was a fruit-growing area and is now Gibston’s Vine Valley. Okanagan residents will understand what that means and why the first winery, started by an American couple, has now been joined by dozens more.
We stopped briefly above the Clyde dam, the third largest in New Zealand. Wind was whipping up the gorge so we opted to move on to Alexandra to find a spot for our picnic lunch.
In the park by the visitors centre in Alexandra, we shared our lunch with cheeky sparrows. The woman on duty at the centre piled us with brochures for the old mining area we were heading through, and we set out through a rocky landscape.
She had suggested we stop at the Mitchell Cottage, and we’re grateful she did. On our own we would have missed the small yellow sign pointing to a gravel road off the highway. Part of the Otago Goldfields Park, the cottage was built by Andrew Mitchell for his brother and sister-in-law, John and Jessie Mitchell.
Andrew was a skilled stonemason, who had learned from his father in the Shetland Islands. He had come to search for gold, but when he was not living by his mine, he stayed in an iron cottage just below the more substantial home he built for his brother. Like so many immigrants, he missed the flora of home and planted holly, spruce, fruit and other trees, some of which still stand.
Ten children grew up in the small rooms of the Mitchell homestead. From their rocky perch, they looked out on a scene so beautiful it must have eased the longing for home. When Robin walked into the cottage, he caught the scent of memory. He said it was like walking into the Willunga Hill house his family moved into when Robin and his twin David were six years old.
Speaking of the scent of memory, Robin just browned [ummm…matter of degree – I’d call them overdone] the crumpets we’re having for breakfast. That smells like home to me since my mother burned the toast nearly every day of my childhood.
Our last stop of the day was as unexpected as the Mitchell homestead. We were driving toward Roxburgh, where we expected to stay in a backpackers hostel. Suddenly we saw a sign beside the road. “Cottage / Vacancy / $70” read the three lines written in chalk.
We couldn’t stop quickly enough so looked for a turnoff. That appeared in the form of a gravel driveway that circled back to the road. We stopped to talk with a neighbour woman, who said Helen was in town, at the pre-school where we works as a supply teacher. She encouraged us to drive back to the cottage and settle in.
We were peering in the cottage windows when Helen, who’d come home from work, came out to greet us. So we settled into a one-bedroom cottage with an old Orion stove set into a fireplace that looks as if it dates back many decades. Walnut Cottage has all the mod cons and must surely be one of the best values on the island.
If you’re coming this way, e-mail Helen at Helen.M@hyper.net.nz, or give her a call at 03 446 8206 (cell 027 302 8090). You can also check out the Website, whose URL is a simple “Bluecastle”. At 3228 Coal Creek Road, RD 1, you’ll find a warm welcome in a pastoral setting.