The Maniototo is not only known for it’s vast tussock covered plains, rugged mountain ranges and big skies, it’s also known for it’s hoar frosts and I’m hoping to catch one to photograph on our way through. Although that now looks highly unlikely as so far we’ve experienced the warmest temperatures we’ve had all winter. And after speaking to the locals they’ve told me the last hoar frost was two winters ago. They told me this after cursing at me for wanting a frost. It’s the last thing on earth they’re looking for; the water pipes stay frozen for weeks on end, they can’t do any work, the stock suffer, on and on they went. Yes, they definitely don’t want a hoar frost thankyou very much!
Our first stop after leaving Alexandra was at the historic Chatto Creek Hotel just 15kms up SH85. The hotel was built in 1886 and while it has been added on to over the years, the original structure is mud-brick. In the late 1890s when Chatto Creek was a booming town the hotel was popular with rabbiters working on the early sheep stations. Nowadays it’s a popular place to call in for lunch or dinner at the weekends, and during the cycling season it’s a very busy place as the Otago Rail Trail crosses the main road just past the hotel.
The original Chatto Creek post office, which opened in 1896, was a tent plastered with newspapers for insulation. It was replaced by a public works hut in 1933 and closed in 1975. The hut was shifted to Alexandra but brought back to Chatto Creek in 2004, restored and now sits beside the hotel.
Our next stop over is Omakau, a small farming town on the main road and the first overnight stop for most people riding the 4 day Otago Rail Trail. The 150km rail trail, which starts in Clyde and ends in Middlemarch (or visa-versa) has been the savior of the isolated Maniototo where farming is the main stay. Once the railway line was closed many of the settlements along the route disappeared, others now only survive because of the accommodation and food they provide to passing cyclists. And even though the Otago Rail Trail is now 15 years old, was the first and is the most popular of NZ's cycle trails, some settlements are still just hanging on by a thread. There are very few cyclists during the winter months and most accommodation places close during the off season between May and October.
The old rail goods sheds along the trail have been restored and it’s here that trail riders can self stamp there Rail Trail ‘passports’.
We’ve been parked up behind the Omakau Commercial Hotel for the last few nights, they have a few hard stands with power available. Although, as we’ve now found out, they turn the power off to the sites over winter. Luckily we are self-sufficient so they have allowed us to use the site as a POP (Park Over Property). There are a couple of freedom camping areas nearby, one is by the river, but we decided we'd like the security of parking here while we explore the area.
And it’s been great to head over to the pub most evenings to have a drink with the locals and it's where we’ve also had dinner, three out of four nights! A good solid country pub with friendly locals and great food- something we really enjoy and look forward to finding on our travels.
Beside us and part of the hotel are the McKinnon Stables built in 1880 to house the hotel owners horses when he farmed the surrounding land (it’s also where Speights filmed their “Good on ya mate” adverts), The stables have been restored and are now used for weddings receptions and other functions. This is the back wall of the stables, I’ve been getting up too late to catch the sun on the inside! With the surrounding dry landscape and mud-brick cottages and buildings about, the area reminds me very much of the French villages around Provence.
The ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ main street of Omakau.
A couple of the old commercial buildings have been restored and now provide accommodation for cyclists. I don’t have a photo of the one we were very impressed with and would highly recommend (I will try for a photo tomorrow and post it here later). Mandy, the owner of Omakau Accommodation Cottage & Studio Units was doing some maintenance when we were walking past and invited us in to see the units.
I took a drive exploring the nearby country lanes and came across the sheep in the bottom two photos, they were winter feeding on a paddock full of swedes. The nibbled tops of the swedes made an interesting pattern across the paddock, the sheep weren’t that keen on me stopping to take their photo and soon disappeared stage right.
The poor sheep are weighed down by all the mud on their wool and the cattle are mostly standing in mud up to their knees, and for days on end. There’s nowhere to lay down and rest and sometimes I saw animals resting on the hay they were meant to be eating, often there was no reasonable shelter either. I’m no farmer and I know just about every Southland farm looked the same and I’m sure animal welfare is a priority but I know I wasn’t comfortable seeing the state of some of the stock, especially the cows. Too much intensive farming and dairy conversions? I don’t know.
On a lighter note I also found this paddock of free-range chooks (chickens) on the outskirts of Omakau and unlike the shy sheep who ran off, as soon as I pulled up, they all came running as fast as they could towards me from over near the shed. I assume they thought I had dinner.