Gold at the end of the rainbow

I'd crossed the boundary into Southland. Provincial boundaries are lines on a map but they're more than that. Southland was honest. The Ohai Country Inn didn't even offer locks or keys to its rooms. Out the window from there, Southland was beautifully trimmed with high box hedges as thick and smooth as felt. Southland was green under overcast skies, and Southland rolled. The hills rolled, the people rolled their rs.

"Just down there past the chur-r-r-ch."

That was the instruction for the the turnoff to Bluebottle Road and I walked it down. Southlanders were generous. I cut across a farm to reach Rayonier's Woodlaw Forest, and the farmer invited me to pull and chew a turnip on the way through. I followed forestry roads, then a rough fire-truck access to emerge near Otautau.

Southland was doing very well, and you could taste it on your lips as superphosphate trucks dusted the fields and drifts of it floated across on a mild wind. Romneys crowded the paddocks, forests swayed in a gentle wind, flax edgings waved alongside every road. The whole province seemed to be functioning perfectly with the occasional farmer doing no more than touch the levers.

I got to Otautau, and Miriam had booked a little flat on the main street that was once the local TAB. It was Tuesday April 16. I read the Southland Times and its extraordinarily detailed Police File. Southland did have crime. There were 24 instances listed for Invercargill in the previous week. I quote directly, including -

  • A cactus plant and a broken concrete toad were taken from an Esk Street front garden between 9.45 pm on Thursday and 5.15 am on Friday
  • Two Pumpkin Patch jackets (pink and purple), a pair of blue denim jeans, one green and one pink Pumpkin Patch polar fleece T-shirt and two long sleeved white T-shirts were taken from a Lothian Crescent clothesline between 3 p.m on Thursday and 9.30 am Friday.
  • Two scratches made to the driver's side of a car . . . .

That was Invercargill. Gore had seven instances of crime for the week including -

  • The pipe holding a Canning Street letterbox was bent over between 8pm on Sunday and 8.10 am Monday.

Then Te Anau - three criminal acts - a window gone on a Telecom phone box, three windows smashed on a shuttle bus, one hanging flower basket knocked down overnight on Friday.

The Longwood Range rises long and low over western southland. The range is not obviously volcanic. Other South Island irruptions - the Banks or the Otago Peninsulas - retain their skeletal craters, but they're only around 12 million years old. The Longwood Range is ten times older, as smooth as a rainbow, and has a good thing buried at its foot - gold.

Otago has captured most of the South Island's old goldfield glamour, but the goldfield at Round Hill on the southern end of the Longwoods was very big, and in the 1880s supported New Zealand's biggest Chinatown - 300-odd Chinese.

The gold was alluvial - it needed sluicing That meant high pressure water, plenty of it, and the miners looked to the Longwoods. Private entrepreneurs put up capital for water races that could bring water from 45 kilometres away. European mining companies had pushed out the Chinese goldminers by the time the main races were planned, but the Chinese dug them, timbered them, and put in the mile pegs.

I rang ahead to Robin McNeill at Invercargill, the editor of Moirs Guide to Tramping, an electrical engineer and a Southland Tramping Club stalwart. He was one of a group that planned a new Longwoods track across the summits for the views, and through the bush for the water races. He gave me advice on route -

"There's a quarry on the forestry road to Bald Hill. A old track goes in there to the Little Baldy summit. Cross the tops and drop down to Martins Hut at 137 and 258. Then follow the equal contour line . . ."

I looked at the map. It was a long way. The track markers that did exist would be old and difficult to follow. I'd changed my GPS setting to New Zealand grid reference now, and had no trouble with Robin's coordinates, but the hut was well below the bush line, with no apparent track down from the tops.

"Anyone want to come with me?" I enquired with apparent nonchalance.

We came up to the bullet-riddled sign at the base of the Little Baldy track. Unreadable distances to illegible places were stick-welded onto it, rusting away now as one with the base metal.

The Longwoods had disappeared almost as thoroughly as the sign. The cloud drifted through the trees, the bush dripped, and the track was a barely discernible crease. As I pushed through and began the climb to Little Baldy summit, my companion Arthur Williams began to whistle Sweet Molly Malone.

"You're set to enjoy this Arthur?"

"When you go tramping, you take what comes."

The hillside opened out finally into tussock and dwarf trees. Spot the waratah. Visibility was down to around 25 metres, there was no obvious track and the old steel markers were a good 100 metres apart. We spread out seeking that shadowy vertical in the mist that would lead us on, found it, fanned out again looking for the next one. It was easy to lose direction, but we both had compasses and I'd put in a waypoint for the Longwoods summit on my GPS. It was six kilometres away.

The way through was a labyrinth. The tussock trail was marked by waratahs, but thick clumps of flax and dwarf beech and mountain pine grew in haphazard corridors along the tops too, and it became a game, but a serious one, to find the bush markers in this maze - the single bits of old venetian blind nailed to a tree, half enclosed by moss.

There was Arthur whistling Annie Laurie. A souwester donned rakishly over a woolly hat. A bush shirt. Gaiters so old they were worn through in frayed holes. He'd been a tramper with the Southland Tramping Club for 25 years. He worked with wood. He worked part time as a veterinary lab technician - "Basically I study sheep shit through a microscope." And out on the Longwood tops, in zero weather, he whistled All Around the Blooming Heather.

We had a quick lunch and went on, breaking out into tussock again on a big undulating ridge. We lost the markers completely. I fired up the GPS again. The Longwood summit - that way. Even so, we nearly missed it, celebrating our arrival on the wrong knoll then finding the actual trig another 50 metres further on. A line of waratahs led away - shadow lines in the mist. They led away in the the wrong direction.

I hadn't gone into the Longwoods blind. Martin's Hut was close to a road-end on the Longwood's south-eastern flank, and just yesterday I'd prepared for this traverse by following an old track up past the hut towards the tops. I'd wanted to reach tussock and put in a reliable waypoint but hadn't quite made it beyond the bushline before the light closed down. I'd been forced to return without quite getting the waypoint I wanted, but I'd gone close, and I had a reading.

Now, as we tramped away from the Longwood summit, I pulled up that second waypoint and we followed it in. The mist was right down, and for the first time I was totally dependent on the GPS. We bent east, we kept bending east and I had an uncanny certainty we were slowly completing a big anti-clockwise circle. I waited for the Longwoods trig to loom back out of the mist, waited for the phyrric triumph of individual instinct over the clever unit with the seven slave satellites. But then we came to the bushline.

We trawled along the bush edge, hoping to find some track marker, but the afternoon was drawing in and finally we just broke into the forest. The GPS unit was counting down distance to the waypoint. A quarter of a mile, an eighth of a mile - we were bushbashing, closing on it, but equally the forest was closing overhead, and we'd lose signal. Arthur shouted -

"I've found it."

Thirty metres on down the track was the blue plastic strap I'd tied to a tree just yesterday, and right there, as I stooped to touch it, the GPS beeped a lost signal. From then on it was all downhill. Martin's Hut was an old raceman's hut - shelter for a worker, presumably Martin, who'd maintained the water race in the old days. We arrived just before dark and slept soundly on historic hurricane wire beds softened with sacking.

The Great Wall of China - the Great Ditch of New Zealand. We tramped south, following the best defined and longest race in the Longwoods, Port's Race.

A ditch that's 1.5 metres deep, 1.2 metres wide is not in itself remarkable. But we walked an hour in the tree-pillared root-twisted New Zealand bush and the ditch was still unrolling beside us in its calm and constant dimension. It was quite something. Not just the digging of it. The race was still lined in places with timber, and totara mileposts still stood alongside the track. Not just the timber either. We came up to a smooth horseshoe tunnel that had carried the racewater right through a small hill.

One hour in, we came across a huge machine, tilted in the bush with the name Fraser & Tinne, Phoenix Foundry, Auckland cast in the iron. Arthur laid respectful hands on its parts.

"Six stamper rods. This is the cam. It lifts the rods to allow them to drop under their own weight into the mortar box."

He parted ferns, and found a berdan, the rotating vessel with a iron ball crusher inside that milled quartz even finer than the stamper battery. A baker's oven, a steam boiler, the reef mine here had been run by George Printz, an ex-whaler out of Riverton, but it ran only a few years.

"The pay dirt ran out soon after Printz bought the mine" said Arthur. "There were rumours it was salted."

The track to the battery was a good one, unsigned, but well-used by locals. They came in here, but then they went back, for from here on the track was notoriously rough.

We went on. I couldn't believe it was too rough. The map showed that in the ten kilometres that lay in front, the race dropped no more than 40 metres. There'd be no ridges to climb, nor steep hills to descend. The very nature of the race, slow-flowing so as not to scour its own channel, holding to the equal contour line, promised an amiable walk.

We tramped and were soon lost again to the charm of the ditch. Bottles once bumped their way down this slow flow carrying the racemen's mail for posting at Round Hill. Opium too, by one story I'd been told, came longingly down from raceman to raceman. Perhaps you should doubt that one, but not the story of candles. Candles floating at night down through the dark intricacy of the bush - who could resist the glory of that ? Everything I knew about the Chinese told me they'd have done it.

What the map did not show, was that to stay on its contour line, the ditch and the rough path beside it wound in and out of every small crease on the lumbering slopes of the Longwood range. It was ten kilometres? It was probably more. The hours went by with occasional brief glimpses of Southland's pea-green fields and once - the blue sea. The ditch held mildly to its course but then the track did begin to get very rough, and the light to fade. Arthur whistled Jimmy Crack Corn.

We went across totara slab bridges so old that grasses and a hundred tiny toadstools grew upon them. We reached the aqueducts which had carried the race over the two biggest creeks. A few trestles still stood but mostly it was wreckage and we were forced to clamber down and cast around on the far side to find the race again. Big washouts forced us away from the race, and we had to clamber out way up greasy banks, or hand our way down steep faces to get back to it.

We'd planned to bail out of the bush at a point where another old race crossed Port's. That was the legal access out, but my GPS wasn't working in the dense bush and we missed it. We kept on. Arthur was whistling Barbara Allan.

"Do you ever, like - enter whistling competitions or anything Arthur?"

"No. Sometimes I get told to shut up, that's all."

Twilight turned to night. Arthur switched on his headlamp, I probed along with my Maglite. The darkness increased as our lights came on, but we hardly slowed. The bush began to do its witchwood thing. Windfalls barred our path. Crisscross trees hooked us. Sedges hid the path underfoot.

"You know, when the track's this bad, Arthur it's very good to have that dark canal alongside showing us the way. A big thank you to the Chinese labourers don't you think?"

"Yes. And thank you Charles Port."

Then Arthur gave a shout and disappeared.

He was hung up on the side of the race, roped there by roots, one foot twisted up behind him, and only slowly, by anchoring myself to a tree, and extending a Leki to his outstretched hand, did we manage to tug him back onto the track.

"Into the ditch," said Arthur.

"That's a serious fall - two metres,"

"One point five metres," said Arthur, ever the historian.

We came finally to a fence alongside the track. The race swung westward now, but it was time to bail out.

We got to the square mesh of a deer fence, and hung their briefly. We were still high and way and below us, a tiny cone of light went flatlining by. The lights of Riverton glowed away to the east and closer in, we could see the highway lights at Colac Bay. I could smell the sea. In the darkness in front, a stag roared. Didn't matter, we climbed the fence.

An hour later we tumbled into the Colac Bay pub, ordered up beers, a meal and by degrees came to explain the mud, the blood, and the still more somber plan behind all of it.

"And I thought you were just a couple of people from Riverton who'd lost their marbles," said the Colac Bay pub owner Dusty Duston standing back arms folded and taking us all in. "But this is something else."