Taste of: Prospecting in Naseby

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Peter Barrett

Maniototo has been described as the timeless land, the real Central Otago, the last, loneliest and loveliest land; a place to reflect on complex lives when experiencing the clear and simple definitions of nature in Central Otago.

I first visited for myself in 1973, in a different time — a time when a mother could place a three-year-old on a plane from Wellington with a hostess as the chaperone, only to be collected by my grandmother at Dunedin Airport. I continued making this trip every holiday until well into my university years. What always stuck with me was the drive from the airport — from lots of people to no one — from man-made structures to vast landscapes with sunsets and star filled nights that words do not do justice.


In Wellington we lived on a quarter-acre section. Coming to Maniototo the backyard became endless — the isolation, vastness and the openness creating the clearest memories. It was a place to get away from keeping up with the Joneses. A reality check on life.


Today the Maniototo still conjures up these same feelings but sadly, like everything, it is changing fast. The isolated paradise is now not so isolated. Writing this is not exactly helping but the horse has bolted and my advice to you would be: get here before it does the Queenstown/Wanaka thing.


Talking of Queenstown/Wanaka, people often think of cold winters. However, Naseby Township in the Maniototo is 623m above sea level whilst Wanaka is 283m and Queenstown 311m. If you search ‘coldest recorded temperature in New Zealand’ on Google you will learn that Ranfurly holds this record at -25.6C. The Maniototo is a land of extremes — hot, hot summers and cold winters. Local farmers believe that if there were no fences in the South Island all the stock would be in the Maniototo.


When man first set foot in the Maniototo Valley there were no trees so all the buildings were made of schist rock or mud brick. It was and still is the land of opportunity. The Maori searched for silcrete and greenstone for tools which were used for hunting moa.


Of the name Maniototo, ‘mania’ means plain and ‘toto’ means blood — the plain of blood, supposedly because of all the moa that were killed in the valley. Later, European settlers in the hunt for gold used the Dunstan Trail to the Maniototo and on to Queenstown, crossing four mountain ranges: the Lammermoors, the Rock and Pillar Range, Rough Ridge and the Raggedy Range. There were countless gold mines in the Maniototo with Naseby being one of the hubs.


The Parker brothers are credited with the first gold find at Hog Burn Creek in Naseby on 20th May 1863. Other prospectors were in the area but it was the Parker party that let the word out. By the end of July 1863, 5,000 people were working in the area. By 1864 the population was down to 1,500 and in 1865 it had dropped to around 500 but gold mining continued strongly until 1920. The old gold mine is now covered in Forestry, the Naseby Forest, which sits adjacent to the town and historic cottages.


The town is shrouded by history with 150-year-old trees igniting the imagination. Naseby is a true NZ walk through time — old hotels, watchmakers, bootmakers, post offices, courts, churches and one of the homes of curling with both outside and inside curling rinks. The forest is a gold mine of diggings and bike tracks that can challenge you whether you are an expert or a beginner. The tracks take you down 150-year-old water races, past old water pipes and gold diggings. There are dams everywhere that are as deep as they are wide. If you spent ten days in the forest you would not ride all the tracks.


Naseby Forest is predominantly single track with a working pine plantation. There are a maze of trails and a lot of work is being done to bring the trails up to good condition, including improved signage.  A suggested starting loop, includes riding up Heaphy Highway toward the outskirts of the Forest, and along Busted Butte onto Lee Marvin track.  Then link up with Panhandler and ride through to Hoffmans Dam or alternatively take on John Wayne!


If you are looking for accommodation I can recommend the Ancient Briton Hotel (established 1863; ask for Adrian and Jan), the Church Mouse (a church built in 1906 and converted into accommodation; ask for Susie), or Larchview Holiday Park. For meals at night it is hard to pass up Jan’s cooking at the Ancient Briton Hotel. The Royal Hotel serves good beer, and the Black Forest Café does great coffee. One of the must do’s if you visit is curling at the Naseby Indoor Curling rink, or if it’s summer bring your togs and visit the Swimming Dam.


You are in a land of vast landscapes, so for the more adventurous Naseby is a gateway to get out and really ride mountains such as Rough Ridge, Rock and Pillar, Hawkdun Range. They are literally gold mines. Obviously, show respect and stick to the tracks — local farmers will not take kindly to people crossing their land without permission.