Monday 17 August 2015

Historic St Bathans

After 6 nights we reluctantly decided it was time to move on from our comfortable parking spot behind the Commercial Hotel in Omakau.

And not least because we had sampled just about every dish on the pub menu! You would think that our expenses would have been less parked up in the countryside, but I think we had dinner at the pub four out of the six nights. Great for me not to worry about cooking after coming in from a long day of exploring and good for the hotel that we were repaying them for their generosity; free POP = meals in the hotel (although usually a CAP, over winter there is no power available). And I’d have to say that the meals were definitely a cut above the usual pub fare, probably because they do feed a lot of the Otago Rail Trail cyclists during the season. We also enjoyed the company of the locals and regulars each night and had a few good laughs with them.

Our next stop was at the DOC camp at St Bathans' Domain, just 34kms up the road and tucked into a corner below the Dunstan Mountains, St Bathans Range & Hawkdun Range (no wonder it was cold!).  It’s a huge camp ground and we were the only ones there for two of the three nights we stayed. That's if you don't count the hundreds of rabbits running about and the dozens of finches (and a nosy magpie) including the not often seen Green Finch. At one stage I counted 25 Green Finches feeding behind the van. It helped that I fed them a few handfuls of wild bird seed every morning.

Top- Green finches, male & female, centre- Yellowhammer(female), bottom left- Magpie, bottom right- Chaffinch(male)

On the last night another ute arrived and they set up a tent near the entrance, it rained overnight and they were gone early. We actually saw them again in Ranfurly later that day, where they booked a cabin for the night, probably because of their wet tent and the freezing cold weather.

Other than the occupants of the tent, we had St Bathans to ourselves. With a population of just 6 it’s not hard to see why. A track from the camp ground led past the rugby field and it’s rustic posts to the famed Blue Lake and the tiny settlement of St Bathans. Returning via the road we passed an old goat shelter with a new life- when we drove past here on the first day, we thought someone had hung out their underwear. Instead they had cut up their underwear and made flags out of them. And finally we caught a glimpse of spring, two cute lambs in a small home paddock.

We explored St Bathans main street on the first afternoon, it didn’t take long as it’s only  about half a km long. Present day St Bathans, now part of the Otago Goldfields Park administered by DOC, is a remnant of an old gold mining town originally named Dunstan Creek. Gold was discovered here in 1863 and over 2834 kilos of gold was extracted from the three largest mining operations. By 1864 1000 people lived in Dunstan Creek with a further 1000 in surrounding area including around 50 Chinese miners who lived in caves excavated in the local cliffs.

Dunstan Creek was changed to St Bathans in 1866 after miners requested the original name, given by the first surveyor of the district, be re-instated. By the late 1860s St Bathans was well established with 15 hotels, a number of gambling and dance halls and many businesses. Nowadays the local landmark, the Vulcan Hotel is all that remains of the hotels.

The shamrock on the front facade is a relic from the times of rivalry between the mainly Irish settlers from St Bathans and the Welsh settlers from Cambrian just down the road. The rivalry was known locally as “The War of the Roses” and at one time the acrimony between the villages was quite bitter. In the 1990s the hotel was put into a trust with shares owned by locals who lease out the hotel. There is also purported to be a friendly ghost in Room 1 of the hotel.

With nobody about and the welcome mat out at the Vulcan we decided to have lunch there. Well in fact we thought we might go for dinner but when David asked about booking for dinner the rather terse landlady said they were fully booked! ‘Really?’, he said with a raised eyebrow thinking of the masses of people he had seen in the last few hours. Not. I don’t think she liked David asking that. Luckily she was heading home (5 steps out the back door) and the barmaid who took over was very pleasant. We later learnt that there was a car or motorcycle club booked in for dinner.

Jack, the old Labrador kept a watchful eye on arrivals and departures and would barge his way through the front door whenever it opened. He’d then sit out on the road or across in the beer garden waiting for the next chance to return to his cushion in the lounge bar where he would wait to repeat the process all over again. I think Jack owns St Bathans, over the next couple of days I found him lounging on his back in the carpark, waiting for a tummy scratch (if I hadn't passed by he'd have been waiting all day), waddling down to the lake, and sitting on a bench seat up the road.

Unfortunately the weather was not the best while we were at St Bathans so there are no blue skies in these following photos of the historic buildings around town.

This is the most unusual Post Office building I’ve seen in a small town, and rather an imposing one at that. This one opened in 1909 and replaced an earlier small ‘dog box’ that began business in 1864. The building is now owned by DOC.

The Bank of New South Wales building was one of 3 banks in town and opened in 1864. It was also known as the gold office. It was moved to Oturehua (Idaburn Dam area) in the 1970s and the restored building was brought back to St Bathans by DOC in the 1980s.

Below is a selection of cottages and buildings from the main street of St Bathans including a couple that are replicas of old miners cottages that were on the same sites. They’re now used as holiday homes or are rented out for accommodation.

Top right is the ‘School House’, the large centre photo is ‘Rowan Cottage’,  owned by the local builder and timber merchant who built many of the houses in the district during the mining days. Second down on the left is the ‘Billard Room’ which was completed in 1881. It was part of the original Vulcan Hotel complex and was used as a temporary bar when the hotel burned down. Hay was stored in the loft and there were stables at the rear of the building. Bottom centre is the Pipe Shop which opened in 1866, it made sluice pipes for mining and later became a blacksmiths forge.

This cottage has a colourful history with the last occupier coming to St Bathans in the 1930s for his health. He had TB and St Bathans  had a reputation for ‘miracles’ because of the wonderful air. He was a cook for local shearing gangs and known for his short temper. He often got into arguments and would jump out of the truck and walk home, once returning with his shotgun to sort things out.

St Patricks Catholic Church was built in 1892 after the original church was destroyed in a storm. It is one of the few churches left with a surrounding graveyard and many of St Bathans early settlers are buried there.

At the other end of town is the St Alban of the Martyr Church and another favourite to add to my list. The original church blew down in a severe gale in 1870 and it’s replacement met a similar fate in 1883 (the wind must really blow in these parts).

Frederick Dalgety, founder of the stock and station agency Dalgety & Co, and then owner of Hawkdun Station bought the quarter acre section on which the church stood. He then arranged for a new church to be shipped out in sections from Britain, one of the first prefabricated buildings in New Zealand. He imported every item for the church including altar cloths and kneelers. Yet looking at the church and it’s corrugated iron exterior you would swear it was totally kiwi.

St Bathans main street looking down towards the Vulcan and the Blue Lake- through the trees at the end.

These are the old school ruins- the land and the ruins are for sale if you fancy building a home around them. The school was built in 1875 and enlarged in 1885 to cope with the growing population. Cracks appeared in the building after a large earthquake in 1943 forcing the school to close. Classes were held in the Post Office building until 1949.

On one of my walks back to the van, I decided to walk along Cemetery Road, a gravel track with a farm gate across the entrance. The road was not far from our camp at the Domain and I thought it might only be a short distance along the track to the cemetery. It turned out to be about 1.5kms along a rough farm track. I passed the remains of an old stone cottage along the way and being just before dusk there were dozens and dozens of rabbits running in all directions as I approached, it’s the most I’ve ever seen in this rabbit infested interior. The surrounding land alongside the track and throughout the cemetery were pitted with rabbit holes. Some areas were so bad it felt unstable walking over the top.

This is the public cemetery, and it’s where St Bathan’s non-Catholics were buried. It’s still in use today.

And I know you've probably been waiting to see photos of the main attraction at St Bathans, the Blue Lake. You'll have to wait just a little longer, the lake deserves it's own blog post.

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