My Central Otago Connections

It’s more than 60 years since I made the first of many visits to Central Otago. That was in December 1955 and the trip from Auckland in those days took two solid days. With today’s jet services the trip to Queenstown takes  just 2 hours! I was 10 years old at the time of that first trip. I travelled with my younger sister, Judith, aged 8, and my aunt and god-mother, Muriel Bird, for a two-week holiday way down south in Central Otago.  Our destination was Tarras and it was the adventure of a lifetime and remains indelible – it was also the beginning of my many connections with Central Otago. 

Ardgour, RD3. Ardgour Valley, Central Otago,

From SE3 to RD3* 

At half past seven on the dot the Johnston’s Blue Motors “airways” bus left National Airway Corporation’s (NAC) city depot in Customs Street East, downtown Auckland…  and we had begun the journey, on our way to visit our Aunty Elsie and Uncle Vic in far-off Central Otago.

Elsie had 2 sisters: Muriel and my mother, Gladys Carlyon. Muriel, the elder, and Elsie the youngest were still single at war’s end. But Elsie had met a member of the Royal New Zealand Navy, Victor James Davidson, after his return from serving at Guadal Canal during the Pacific Campaign. Vic was a long way from home. He farmed family land in a remote valley in Central Otago, the Ardgour Valley, through which the Lindis River flows.

As Elsie herself was to write in later years …”young people met each other at dances especially during the war years. Girls would meet chaps from the Armed Forces, and sometimes marry, as I did”.  Romance led to a proposal of marriage and on the 3rd November 1945 Elsie and Vic were married at St Marks Church, Remuera.

St Marks Church, Remuera. The graveyard has been removed in recent years. James D. Richardson – Heritage Images Collection Auckland Libraries

Much to the concern of Elsie’s family, the 20 year old would be leaving home for the very first time to travel with Vic all the way to join his world, way down south in Central Otago. What’s more, the family realised, it was so far that it was unlikely they’d see Elsie for some time. Given the distance and the demands of seasonal farm work, visits to Auckland would be few and far between. Then there was the winter. It snows and freezes in Central Otago: the family realised Elsie would find it quite different to Auckland’s temperate climate. The young Elsie was on her way to a new life with innovation every step of the way. As she said later … “I had never heard of a town called Cromwell before I met Vic”.

As a returned serviceman, Vic had railway passes to travel free on train services. So the newly-marrieds went on a honeymoon trip on the train, first to Northland, then to Rotorua. Their final travel took them on the Wellington Express arriving in the capital just in time for the interisland ferry’s night sailing across Cook Strait and on to Lyttelton. On disembarking they travelled by the “ferry train” into Christchurch to catch the express train to Dunedin. After an all-day rail trip to Dunedin they had one night there and then early next morning joined the train to Cromwell. That was another full day’s travel and after another overnight stopover in Cromwell they caught the Railways bus, better known as the Mail Bus, the last stage of their journey to the farm. The bus stopped at most of the farmhouses along the route to deliver mail and pick up any outward letters, finally arriving around lunchtime at the Davidson farm in the Ardgour Valley. Elsie was to write later… “we arrived on a bus that met the train in Cromwell and then travelled  towards Wanaka via Ardgour and Tarras with the mail delivery”. Vic, and his young bride, had arrived, staying at first in a farm house with Vic’s mother and father.

Elsie quickly settled in to the new, somewhat remote, farming life, assisted by her mother-in-law, Mildred, who, with only sons, apparently regarded Elsie as something of a daughter.

The Davidsons first came into my consciousness when I was old enough to realise my mother regularly received letters from Elsie. Mother would tell us about incidents on the farm or what the Davidsons had been up to. I, along with my brothers and sisters, were encouraged to share with return correspondence: drawings at first, messages later. Then my Aunt Muriel had a holiday and visited the Davidsons. Following which there was a rare visit to Auckland by Elsie and Vic, travelling in their old Ford V8 car. At long last I got to meet the Aunty and Uncle I had been writing to, best known until then by their photos and their address: Ardgour Valley, No. 3 RD, Cromwell, Central Otago.

Elsie and Vic later settled in their own house that they occupied prior to 1955. They had no children of their own so when a local mother of 2 pre-schoolers died suddenly, the Davidsons agreed to take the children in, offering a foster home. John and Katherine, thus, became part of an extended Davidson family. Their father, David McK, worked as a musterer on some of the bigger Otago sheep runs.

*SE3 was the postal indicator for suburbs near where I lived in Epsom, Auckland: SE3 was short for South East 3 while RD3 was the abbreviation for Rural Delivery 3, the Davidson’s address in Cromwell, Central Otago.

December 1955 – Southward Bound

So now, here we were, just a few days before Christmas, my sister Judith, Aunt Muriel and me had said our goodbyes to my parents at NAC’s downtown depot and we had begun our adventure.

“Airways” buses left from NAC offices in Customs Street.

The Johnston Blue Motors “airways bus” took us via Henderson (no motorway in those days!) to Whenuapai Airport which was an Air Force base shared by civilian commercial services: domestic flights flown mostly by NAC’s Douglas Dakotas, C-47s, usually referred to as DC3s. These had been military work-horses, most of them inherited from the US Air Force after the war and converted for commercial flights with 30 seats.

NAC’s DC3, Piwakawaka, 1951 – 1968. Marcus Bridle – Peter Lewis Collection

I can’t recall too much about departure except that, once aboard, I was surprised at the steep climb from the rear door of the aircraft to get to my seat near the front. It took a bit for me to work out that, once airborne, the plane would level out in flight. Then, when the engines were started, run-up and revved for taxi-ing I remember the noise and the vibration in the cabin. Some parts of the plane’s structure seemed to me to shudder and the window alongside me resonated, quivering, to the steady throb of the engines. I also recall looking out as we took off to see either hexagonal or octagonal shapes of the concrete runway gradually disappearing beneath the plane. Once airborne I concluded the noise and vibration would be with us for the entire flight. (NAC later refurbished most of the DC3s, including soundproofing in the cabin, and labelled them “Sky Liners”)

That was my introduction to flying!

Not long after settling into the flight a hostess came to see Judith and me to “induct” us into membership of the exclusive “Godwit Club” for young fliers.

The Godwit was NAC’s logo, the small bird known for flying long migratory distances, arriving at global destinations safely and on time.

The Godwit was depicted “flying through” the letters NAC in one of the airline’s first logos and then, later, stylised in another way and which appeared on the tails of planes in NAC’s fleet.

We pinned on our God Wit Club badges immediately and stowed the accompanying certificate of membership. The Club was new, begun by the airline earlier that year: in those days the badge identified children who had experienced relatively rare air travel. It was a kind of brand-recognition and it reminded all those who saw the badge of the growing post-war popularity of air travel, even for kids. These days there’s a much bigger club for all passengers… and with loyalty rewards: all airlines have a points scheme!

Flight South

It was to be an all-day journey with NAC. First stop was Paraparaumu on what’s now called Kapiti Coast. The hostess distributed sweets as we began to descend for landing. Judith and I, like all children, approved of this, but it was really intended for the good of our health!  Sucking on lollies, with swallowing, helped relieve discomfort from pressure on the eardrums as the plane lost altitude. Paraparaumu was a plain aerodrome, as I remember it, with not much better than an enlarged shed for a terminal building.

Aerodrome tearooms – time for a cuppa while planes are refuelled
in this case a Lodestar. Whites Aviation – Tapuhi Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

I think it might have belonged to the local aero club, set apart from the Air Force buildings that also occupied the site, left over from the war. I guess we were on the ground for about half an hour.

New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department chose to picture an NAC DC3 on the stamp commemorating 100 years of adhesive postage stamps in N.Z.

Then, with some new passengers, their luggage and some freight, we were on our way again, soon flying directly over Wellington City with Rongotai air-strip prominent. This had been used by NAC previously but the grass runway became unstable in winter so the airline was forced to move operations out to distant Paraparaumu. (Rongotai became the site of today’s international airport).

Then across the Cook Strait and to the next stop at Harewood, on the outskirts of Christchurch. Having also been an Air Force station during the war, the custom-built buildings and the sealed runway had easily been converted to serve as an international airport from 1950, I think New Zealand’s first. It continues today, following several makeovers and huge expansion.

At each stop I guess the plane was refuelled. Every time the engines were started I noticed a generator, or some such, on a trailer was rolled out and connected to the aircraft – a power booster, I thought, and a member of the ground staff stood by with a fire extinguisher on a long pole which he pointed into each engine, in turn, as they were started.

Cap badge worn by flight crew

This was the last leg of our journey. As on earlier sectors, the Pilot sent back an information sheet which was passed around among passengers. It was the forerunner of today’s announcements over the public address system – and in larger aircraft, informative computerised displays.  The Pilot had summarised expected weather, the air temperature inside and outside the plane, wind direction and speed, the plane’s altitude and speed, and the times those in window seats could expect to see cities, towns or features below. (Pilots were known to add up-to-date sports results on the sheet if there was a big game in progress!) Finally the Captain gave the estimated time of arrival at our destination, Taieri aerodrome just South of Dunedin.  From memory I think we flew at about 3,000 feet (1,000m) on the last leg of our journey that day, over the Canterbury Plains and then along the coastline and briefly out over the Pacific Ocean before turning inland for Taieri, touching down mid-afternoon.

Taieri, too, was an air force station, shared by civilian services, first by Union Airways and then, post- war, by NAC.

DC3 in front of NAC’s headquarters at Taieri Aerodrome
Whites Aviation, Tapuhi, Alexander Turnbull Library

So the buildings at Taieri looked the part even if the runway was grass! There were several other aircraft on the tarmac which, to a 10 year old schoolboy, looked very early biplanes: all wires, with an air of flimsiness and pioneering about them and… small, with room for just a few passengers.

The de Havilland Dominie in NAC livery

They were, I found out, reliable and successful 6-seater de Havilland Dominies made in the mid-1930s, now providing NAC’s linking service to and from Invercargill.

Passengers like us, for Dunedin, took the “Airways” bus into the city.

Dunedin and Leviathan Hotel

We stayed overnight at the Leviathan Hotel, one of the oldest and largest in Dunedin which, to my recollection, had not changed much in outward appearance since it was opened in 1884.It occupied a corner section, its ornate concrete façade on two fronts. Once inside it was all dark colours, little natural light and ancient furniture and fittings in reception. Looking back, it was positively Victorian. Once we had checked in we found the bedrooms were the same. Each had a huge arched window but light seemed forbidden to enter with thick lace curtains nearest the glass and then coarse, heavy  brocade drapes. The rooms offered the bare essentials – just the bed and a bedside table, a wardrobe and a set of drawers. Communal bathrooms and toilets and bathrooms were along the corridor.

Leviathan Hotel, corner Cumberland and High Streets (as was)

For some reason Aunt Muriel had a separate room. We gathered in our room. I can’t recall an evening meal, but I do remember the anxiety about waking up next morning in time to catch the New Zealand Railways Road Service’s bus to Central Otago which departed at 7.30 am.

Fortunately the bus depot was near the railway station, opposite the Leviathan, so when the time came we would merely have to cross the road to the bus stop.

The hotel’s location, near the picturesque station, had been the hotel’s attraction since it was built. Downtown, handy to commerce, warehouses and shops, it was ideal for businessmen, but its proximity to the railway station was most convenient for travellers. This, for decades, had been the Leviathan’s selling point in newspaper advertisements… in Dunedin’s Otago Daily Times and in Invercargill, Oamaru, Timaru, and other provincial dailies.

The railway was prime method of long distance travel in those times. The South Island Main Trunk, Christchurch – Invercargill, was completed in 1879. The 150-room hotel was opened in March 1884 by George Bodley – the Leviathan Private Hotel and Restaurant – with “Bedrooms to let, Board and Lodging – Front Rooms, 22s 6d; Back Rooms, 20s per week:  Beds 4s per day, Dinner 1s 6d”.  In April 1886 the recently widowed Anstiss Silk of Lawrence, took over the lease and ran the place, apparently with a rod of iron, with a change of name – Leviathan Railway Temperance Hotel. It flourished and Mrs Silk extended advertising, encouraging patronage by visitors to Dunedin for A and P Shows, major horse race meetings and the Easter break.

Newspaper advertisements usually featured the hotel’s location near the railway station. And electric lifts!

Dunedin- Roxburgh  

I can’t recall breakfast at the Leviathan but I am certain Aunt Muriel would have arranged something knowing our early start and the all-day bus journey ahead of us. I think we walked from the Leviathan to the New Zealand Railways (NZR) bus depot: it was just across the road. It was art-deco-designed, opened in 1940.

The former NZR bus depot, today the Transport section of the Otago Settlers’ Museum. R. Wilson Brown

The NZR Bedford bus was about half full of passengers. Judith and Aunt Muriel sat together and I took a window seat behind the driver. The seat beside me was soon taken by an elderly man who wanted to tell me, proudly, that he worked making chocolate and sweets at Cadbury’s Dunedin factory. I thought he was trying to impress:  I was not sure whether to believe him. I was expecting proof in the shape of a chocolate bar, but it did not happen!

The name Cadbury, synonymous with Dunedin, began when Richard Hudson opened a biscuit bake house there in 1868 and, shortly after, began making chocolate goods. In 1930 he joined Cadbury and over the decades Cadbury’s Roses milk chocolates, Jaffas, Moro Bars, chocolate fish, Easter eggs and other sweet creations flowed from the factory. It remained downtown in the central business district, a Dunedin landmark where factory tours became a tourist attraction. But Cadburys closed it in 2018 when production moved to Australia.

In 2001 Cadburys used wrappers similar to the original 1930 design

On the road South we passed Lake Waihola, the road winding close to its shoreline marshes – State Highway One has long since been realigned away from the lake and its swampy land, these days a long straight stretch of road. The old road, I noticed, was flanked with telegraph poles bearing what must have been the maximum number of cross arms, each laden with white insulators. I observed that most poles had extra guy-lines to help anchor them in the marshy ground. These poles, I reckoned, carried all the telephone calls between Dunedin and the rest of the South Island, including the rare occasion when my mother phoned her sister Elsie in Central Otago.

NZ Railways Road Services had the biggest fleet of Bedford buses in the world.

At Milton the Bedford made a right-hand turn from the main highway to travel inland. We had made only a few stops but at Lawrence it was announced there would be a slightly longer break in our journey for quick refreshments.

I can’t recall any reference at the time to the fact that this was the closest township to Gabriel’s Gully where in the 1860s gold was discovered, triggering a rush to this area , and other parts of Otago. Lawrence’s population was greater than Dunedin’s at the height of the Gold Rush… in the 1950s it was a mere shadow of those hey-days.

Our trip resumed, soon tackling steeper territory en route to Roxburgh. The bus ground its way up hill and down dale through, increasingly, a fairly barren landscape, all with enormous outcrops of rocks. The steep grades had the driver busy changing to lower gears, each time with a graunch… a pause… a crunch… and then acceleration to power the bus up the slopes. But there was no real speed at all. If only I could look out the back of the bus I am sure I would see a line of cars following us, unable to pass, caught behind us as we crept along.

And then the process was repeated to help slow the bus on the sheer downhill, winding, sections.

I think it must have been at this stage that I realised just how high and rugged the mountains were. I had never seen anything like them in my life before. To a small boy looking out of the bus window, the hills on both sides of the road seemed towering, daunting, perhaps enclosing, enveloping.  And the ranges in the distance were even higher. We would encounter the odd level stretch of road for a short time (Ettrick and Millers Flat?) but soon there were new hills to climb over.

As we approached Roxburgh we saw a sign with a familiar brand name. It was “Roxdale” the trademark on tinned fruit and jam that we so often enjoyed at home in Auckland.

Greggs had the familiar “Roxdale” brand for a time

The road-side sign announced the factory which processed and canned locally-grown fruit, mainly apricots and peaches. Operations had begun as early as 1905 by the Teviot Fruit Preserving Company when it was plain that an orchard industry could be expanded around the cannery. Orchardists found they could not sell all the fresh fruit produced with tons of peaches and apricots going to waste each year. And the produce they did sell was often reduced in value because of bruising during transportation to markets. The growers pressed for a cannery to process preserved fruit: many invested in the project. Coal, to fire the boiler, was readily available from local mines. Only the tin-plate for the cans would have to be imported.

Fruit growing had begun in the district a long time before the cannery opened in 1905. One account says that following indifferent returns from gold in the 1860s, prospector Joseph Tamblyn obtained a few trees and planted them near his cottage at Coal Creek. He found they grew well on the open, sunny, slopes and that they fruited prolifically. Other miners joined him, establishing small orchards and they soon found income from fruit surpassed their poor returns from prospecting. Joseph Tamblyn is remembered with two roads in Roxburgh named after him.

In the newspaper “Tapanui Courier”, June 1894, a correspondent, regretting the restricted local markets for fresh fruit, said a cannery at Roxburgh was the answer. “I am quite convinced,” the letter said, “that there is a big business to be done in canning fruit and vegetables for export, as well as home consumption, and no better place could be selected than the Teviot (the old name for Roxburgh district) to make a start with such an important industry”. The export of fresh fruit from the district, through Dunedin, took new hope in 1905 when the Government promised to connect Roxburgh with a 100km railway track from Lawrence. But it was not completed until 1928! Meanwhile, for nearly 20 years the cannery had been up and running.

So in 1905 an industry was founded which, with better land and air transportation and refrigeration, survives today, a multi-million dollar earner.

The familiar “Roxdale” canning brand disappeared in the early 2000s when local markets were swamped with less-expensive imported tinned fruit from Asia and South Africa. “Roxdale” remains as a brand of organically-grown fruit from Central Otago orchards used in health foods, drink, and supplements.

Roxburgh – Cromwell

Once the bus reached Roxburgh township there was a lunch-break at Teviot Tearooms. Roxburgh was getting better known by New Zealanders since construction began there (at that date) of New Zealand’s biggest hydro-electric dam and power station. (More on the dam later).

Beyond Roxburgh the bus had further steep climbs… one amounted to a high peak… then it was down again along the side of an enormous “geological fold”, descent into a gulley where, at the lowest point we crossed Gorge Creek with its concrete monument alongside.


Memorial at Gorge Creek.
Otago Goldfields Heritage Trust

It’s a memorial to an unknown  number of miners who died in the nearby Old Man Range during the “freeze of 1862” when from July to September there were snowstorms and severe frosts which cost many gold-miners’ lives. Some died of cold, others were caught in avalanches while yet more were swept away in flooded rivers as heavy rain joined the thaw.

No sooner had the bus crossed the creek, the driver engaged lowest gear for the long grind up the steep grade as we went up an over yet another hill.  This took us to the relatively open and irrigated countryside literally “tucked under” the toe of sloping mountains. This was Fruitlands with its orchards.

I was conscious that it was getting warmer and warmer as the day wore on. This was an introduction to Central Otago summer weather when temperatures regularly soar far beyond anything experienced in Auckland!

My fellow-traveller, “Mr Cadbury”, said goodbye at Alexandra when the bus made a brief stop there. I did not know it at the time, but this trip would be the last time I crossed the 70 year old towering stone swing-bridge over the Clutha River.

Alexandra Bridge over the Clutha River 1882 – 1958

By the time I next visited Alexandra the new steel bridge was in use. I can recall the orchards either side of the highway on the outskirts of Alexandra as we departed, and near Clyde, before the bus took the narrowed road through the confines of the winding, uphill, downhill, Cromwell Gorge. I recall Hinton’s Orchard and was later told it was a family business going way back. Sometimes the bus hugged bluffs and cliffs, other times travelling along a narrowed, “shelf” of a road with a sheer drop to the raging Clutha River far below. We stopped every time we came to a railway crossing… and the track criss-crossed many times from one side of the road to the other as we progressed towards Cromwell.  On approach to the town we passed the railway station, turned left to cross the bridge over the Clutha and, immediately, we were in the town’s main street and pulling up at the Commercial Hotel (known as the “bottom pub”) which was the bus stop. By this time, just after 3pm, it was very hot indeed. Without even the slightest hint of a breeze, the main street was apparently a sun-trap, positively airless and baking in the conditions.

Cromwell – Ardgour

We saw the Davidson’s Ford V8 parked outside the pub – Aunt Elsie and Uncle Vic were there to meet us.

Ford V8 similar to Davidson’s.

After prolonged greetings and brief details of our travels we went up the main street to tearooms for cold drinks. Cromwell seemed so old-fashioned to me: most shop fronts looked like something out of cowboy movies. That was my first impression. It was stinking hot in that still summer late-afternoon. I noticed small things. Most shops had a half-hearted, or token, nod in their windows that it was Christmas time. For some reason water trickled down the kerb-side gutters. Many buildings were made of stone. One shop still had a railing on the street front where horses could be tethered.

Aerial view of Cromwell, c 1955.
N.S. Seaward

Everyone seemed very friendly:  the Davidsons greeted almost everyone encountered. At the tearooms Judith and I had chilled fizzy lemonade called “Bottled Sunshine” made by Lanes of Dunedin who, the label said, had been “aerated water manufacturers since 1861”.

(The main street, with most of the shops we saw in 1955, was flooded as Lake Dunstan was created, the reservoir for the Clyde Hydro-Electric Dam commissioned in 1992)

Elsie gathered up a few outstanding purchases in Cromwell before we set off for the Ardgour Valley – the place we only knew through the “RD3” address we wrote on letters to the Davidsons.

As we crossed the Cromwell Borough boundary we left the tar-sealed road, taking Shortcut Road out of town. It would be loose metal now for the 23 miles (37Km) to the farm. In those days the route was as if you were going to Wanaka, then turning off to the right at Lowburn. We passed the hotel and made a stop so Elsie could buy fruit at the road-side stall. It was self-service with payment made in an honesty box. Continuing, we crossed the bridge over the Clutha River and continued to the foothills skirting Bendigo before reaching the comparative flats and then the bridge over the Lindis River, known as the Lindis Crossing. Just before the bridge we saw the sign pointing to Ardgour Valley off to the right: we knew we had had arrived, well almost… just a mile or two along Ardgour Road and there was Davidson’s house. It stood down a long driveway from the road which was a blessing – it escaped the enormous clouds of dust stirred up every time a vehicle passed along the unsealed, metalled, road.  The house stood more or less alone, clad in corrugated iron painted cream with green facings, an orange corrugated iron roof with one chimney. It had an outside garage, a few out-buildings, all surrounded by a fenced lawn with a vegetable and flower garden. Near the back door, high up on its concrete stand, was the water tank. Water (pure and soft, meaning soap was easily lathered) was sourced from a bore at the rear of the house on the river flat. There was an electric pump to periodically fill the tank or to irrigate the vegetable and flower garden. Aunt Elsie said she had never known the bore to dry up, even in the longest and hottest dry spells.

Davidson’s house in later years after they had moved out. NZ Ministry of Culture and Heritage

The house was dwarfed by the towering trees beside it and the steep, high, hills behind it. Between the house and hills – just a short walk away – was the Lindis River.

Under the trees, somewhat closer to the house, was the lavatory. It was a typical New Zealand out-house or “long drop”, made of corrugated iron furnished with just the wooden seat with its oval hole and toilet paper holder. As far as I can recall, unlike many similar dunnies, the Davidson’s facility did not come complete with reading material!  (In later years a concrete lavatory with flush toilet and septic tank was built on the end of the wash-house, offering a luxurious alternative to the primitive out-house)

Inside, the farm-house was lined with plain wooden panelling painted white and with lino on the floors except in the front sitting room which was carpeted. The front door led straight off the verandah into the sitting room… and the back door was through a porch, which together with a bathroom, had plainly been added after the house had been first built.

There was an open fireplace in the sitting room. There were just 2 bedrooms, with several more beds in a separate sleep-out, a semi-furnished former Army hut, in the garden.

The dominant feature in the kitchen/dining area was the old coal range… which had several uses. The fire was kindled with wood and fuelled by coal which cooked meals on the stove-top and in the oven. Hot water was provided to a small tank through a “wet back” circulating arrangement. Then, in winter, the range heated the kitchen and dining room. It also helped to dry damp clothing and linen which was hoisted to the ceiling above the dining table on a frame Vic had built specially for the purpose.

The “Orion” coal range, a left hand model, similar to the Davidson’s

The stove was a patented “Orion” model by H. E. Shacklock, makers of North Dunedin who established an iron foundry business in 1871. Henry Shacklock reckoned he could improve on imported models so he engineered, made and marketed the successful “Orion”. He designed it to use New Zealand coal and to make it easier to install. He also incorporated more flue and damper settings than British models. Housewives, thus, had more control over the heat during the cooking process: important, because there was no thermometer to indicate temperature. Many homes throughout New Zealand, over several generations, relied on Shacklock stoves to cook their meals – as it was in this house – until an electric stove was installed in the kitchen.

A Zip heater above the kitchen bench provided boiling water, its whistle invariably signalling time for a cup of tea!

Zip Water Heater. Trade Me NZ

Tea, like sugar, was purchased in bulk. Tea arrived in small wooden boxes containing one pound (.45 kg) while sugar was purchased in a 70 pound (31kg) sack which sat upright in a pull-out cupboard in the kitchen. (Empty sugar sacks, we discovered, found many useful purposes. In days of old they had lined the inside walls of the detached wash-house, latterly they were used to gather fruit, mushrooms and to carry home trout caught in nearby rivers and lakes. And two or three sugar bags that Elsie had sewn together provided an excellent mat at the back door).

While taking in the new surroundings, we met Vic’s brother, Alan, and the McKs. Dave McK had begun his holiday break, joining his children, John and Katherine, for a few days over Christmas.

Later picture of Vic and Elsie Davidson trying out the new farm motorbike

It’s all a bit different… well, a lot different!

The farming lifestyle was, of course, quite foreign to us but Judith and I quickly settled, joining in routine chores like feeding the hens, pigs and dogs. We watered the gardens, we gathered vegetables for the table and we helped stoke up the fire in the old copper out in the wash-house ready to do the laundry. Pine cones and wood gathered on the farm, then a little coal, was used to fuel the small fire-box under the copper which heated the water ready for washing. You could always tell wash-day because smoke poured out the wash-house chimney.

John McK and the author outside the wash-house 1955

Cold water was pumped from the well into the copper and heated. I guess it was near-boiling. “Rinso” soap powder was added and then the dirty laundry. There was a well-worn, bleached stick – a poker – to swirl the clothes around within the hot water and to lever the sodden linen and clothes out of the water. They would be rinsed several times in cold water in adjoining tubs: on the final rinse “Reckitt’s” bag blue (or blue bags as we called them) were added to the water. The advertisement said “whiter whites, brighter colours when you use Reckitts”. (Reckitt’s blue bags had another useful propose. They were applied to the skin to treat bee-stings: once dabbed on the site of the sting the pain was instantly relieved).

Reckitts Blue Bag, www.old shop              

Lever Brothers Sunlight Soap.

The washed and rinsed laundry would then go through the hand-wound wringer.

Cothes’ wringer. Drying Racks

Vic’s deeply soiled farm-clothes might get extra treatment, a short session on the wooden scrubbing board with “Sunlight” soap worked in to help free the dirt and then processed separately as “the last wash”. Hanging out the clothes to dry and fetching them in completed the weekly chore… well not quite. Elsie then had mountains of ironing to do!

We kids did not tackle milking the sole house-cow, perhaps we were considered too young. But we went to watch the daily task.

Then there was the comings and goings as Vic and Alan went off to see to farm work, like “shifting the water” which entailed re-routing irrigation water from one water-race to another so crops and stock received equal share of available water in the heat of the dry summer.

At that stage Vic had sheep, a few big paddocks of Lucerne for hay and a fair patch cultivated in carrots. The lambs he sold to the meat works, the Lucerne he kept for his own winter feed, selling any surplus. He sold the carrots to the Rabbit Board, a Government agency established to try to eradicate rabbits in Otago. The Board employed rabbiters, some working on horseback, whose job it was to travel across farmland trapping and shooting the prevalent rabbits. Then, in spring, came the blitz against the pests. The Board diced the carrots supplied by Vic and dropped them from light aircraft over those areas worst infested by rabbits. One or two drops of the food were made to get the them used to their new diet supplement, followed by a bigger delivery, more carrots – but this time laced with 1080 poison.

Judith and I accompanied Vic and Alan “doing their rounds” on the farm: the property was such that almost all parts could be reached by car in summer. With hills all around, and more forming a back-drop in the far distance, it all looked “big country” to us: although as we were soon to learn, there are much higher hills not far from Ardgour. There were new sights and sounds. Aunt Elsie insisted on hats in the hot sun and regular cold drinks. We found out the days were longer, with Vic able to “shift the water” for the last time each day at 10pm… in daylight. And that was long before Daylight Saving! Judith and I were kept busy and I think the Davidson’s maintained this to ward off any chance of home sickness!

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve we left the farm for last minute pre-Christmas shopping. I thought we would go to Cromwell, but discovered Tarras was “just around the hills”, about 5 miles (8kms) from the Davidson’s house along Ardgour Valley Road. Tarras had not hitherto been mentioned, I thought, mainly I suppose because it was not part of that address on letters posted to the Davidsons.


We travelled the Ardgour Valley Road and then joined the highway (now SH8), travelling towards Cromwell.  And there was Tarras, a small (perhaps typical?) country centre: not a town or even a settlement.

The Tarras store when owned by Ray Armstrong

It served the several hundred locals, mostly farmers in the district. All buildings were on the same side of the road, first the motor garage and workshop operated by Ray Gillespie, then the country store being run at that time by Harry Purvis and his wife.  Alongside were the tearooms and an  adjacent  small building, looking like a doll’s house, comprised the Post Office and Telephone Exchange. Nearby, along the road (now SH8) was Tarras School – and that was it!

With shopping complete we continued along the highway, passing the odd farmhouse and the cluster of Rabbit Board houses which accommodated rabbiters and their families. I think the last house before we reached the Lindis Crossing bridge belonged to another Davidson, Ronny, Vic’s cousin. Over the bridge and we turned left to get back on to the Ardgour Road, thus completing a loop, and home.

So how had we hitherto missed Tarras in our Central Otago connections? Well, I had not heard of it but this was, perhaps, understandable. As I said, the word Tarras was not included in Davidson’s postal address and although their phone was connected to the Tarras exchange (phone number 5S) it would have been exceedingly rare in those days for us in Auckland to be in touch with the Davidsons by phone. For a start, we did not have a phone in our family home in Epsom to call the Davidsons (or anyone else!) and second, long-distance phone calls (toll calls) were very expensive. And at busy times callers would join a list awaiting a free line to make a connection. Telegrams were sent in times of family emergency, bereavement, etc. So “Tarras 5S” was not familiar as a phone number. All regular contact with our Central Otago relations had been by mail. Tarras did not come into the Central Otago equation until that afternoon, Christmas Eve, 1955!

One of the daily anticipations while we stayed at the Davidsons was the arrival of the NZR mail-bus which passed the farm gate late morning or very early afternoon, Monday – Friday.

We looked forward to mail from home. We had written letters to the family in Auckland, encouraging replies, but given we were away for just 2 weeks, there wasn’t a wide window for correspondence. Judith and I would watch out for the mail-bus, arriving in a swirl of dust, pulling up at the mailbox at Davidson’s front gate. Then we would walk down the long drive from the house to empty the mailbox – hoping there was news from home!   There was always the “Otago Daily Times” newspaper and a couple of times a week the local “Central Otago News” paper. The mail-bus also delivered family letters for the Davidsons, farm accounts and Gestetnered circulars from the many clubs and organisations they belonged to. Occasionally parcels would arrive, items Elsie or Vic had ordered by mail or phone from shops in Dunedin.

The J2L model Bedford, now a motor-home, was the same as the mail-bus

Christmas Day 1955

Not many places in New Zealand boast a White Christmas. But we awoke to a heavy frost on December 25th 1955. Farmland around about was white and there was a new coating on the higher surrounding hills. The chill was soon tempered by the sun: it was going to be a brilliant day, probably very warm.

In fact it got over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) by mid-afternoon.

Also on awakening there were Christmas presents which just showed Santa could find expectant children, even those far from home! I recall there were numerous smaller gifts, games and puzzles and the latest Enid Blyton book in the Secret Seven series. I think the booty must have been sent by my parents in Aunt Muriel’s luggage. My next recollection of the big day away from home was being given the chore, with Judith, to gather peas from the house garden, the first pick of the season. We filled the old wicker basket and then sat in the shade of the front verandah to shell them. Some, I recall, were pretty small but they all went into the pot, a contribution to the midday Christmas meal. Aunt Elsie gathered other ingredients which turned into a festive feast. One of the farm pigs had been killed by Vic and dressed by the Cromwell butcher in time for Christmas. Similarly, home-kill mutton was on the table, along with beef, meat from a cattle-beast killed by a neighbour. Aunts Elsie and Muriel prepared the meal. There were so many dishes that the old coal range was pressed into service to augment the electric stove. Garden-grown potatoes, peas, beans and other vegetables crowded the table around which I think 9 were seated for the meal. Trifle, stewed peaches and fresh cherries smothered in fresh cream concluded the meal.

I thought Vic’s nap, relaxing in his easy-chair in the dining room, was in special consideration of the big meal just consumed. But I was to find out that this was a regular occurrence. After the midday meal he would usually settle to read the “Otago Daily Times”, but soon drop-off for a snooze (often still clutching the newspaper). Awakening some time later, he’d set out on the afternoon’s farm chores. I gather this lunchtime siesta, plus more than a few sleep-ins over the years, prompted the nickname used by locals over the decades, “Sleepy Davidson” or just “Sleepy”.

New Year’s Day 1956

I can’t remember any special celebrations to welcome in 1956. Maybe it was because Judith and I had to have a good night’s sleep ready for the early start next morning, January 1st. Elsie and Vic must have planned this big day out well in advance: it was the special New Year’s Day excursion on Lake Wakatipu aboard the steamer “Earnslaw’ from Queenstown to Glenorchy and back.  From memory we had to be in Queenstown by 9.30am for the “Earnslaw’s” departure so we had to leave the farm by about half past seven, armed with a full-on picnic lunch!

“Earnslaw”, officially “TSS (Twin Screw Steamship) Earnslaw” had been built in Dunedin for New Zealand Railways in the early 1900s, then dismantled, transported to Kingston at the southern arm of the lake where it was re-assembled and launched in 1912. It provided the link to Queenstown (and other jetties around the lake) with the railway at Kingston and so to Invercargill. With no road to Glenorchy until 1962 “Earnslaw” was the only regular access. It transported supplies and tourists to Glenorchy and other wharves, gathering stock, wool bales and produce to be delivered to Queenstown. New Year’s Day was no exception… I think it may have been Mount Nicholas where on the return trip the ship stopped to load 6 or so bales of hay, carried on the foredeck.

We went aboard “Earnslaw” at a wharf right in “downtown” Queenstown. Not long after the ship sailed, plumes of thick black smoke poured from her funnel as her boiler reached working pressure and we got up speed with a steady vibration detectable throughout the ship. The throb of the engines could be heard below. The ship was crowded for this New Year’s Day excursion on the lake.

Latter-day picture of the TSS maritime record

It was another brilliant Central Otago day, ideal conditions for the 50 km trip to Glenorchy, calling at Walter Peak, Mount Nicholas, Elfin Bay and Greenstone. On approach to each of these places the “Earnslaw’s” steam whistle signalled both her arrival and departure. As a “New Year’s Special” the local Queenstown pipe band was aboard, every now and again providing a bracket of items. One member of the band was eccentric, a real clown and attempted to climb the mast, jokingly threatened to jump into the lake fully clothed “for a swim” at one point and “assisted” loading the wool at Mount Nicholas. He countermanded every command given by the crane operator as the bales were hoisted off the wharf and on to “Earnslaw”. He amused everyone who observed his antics… he said he had a better way to do the job! The ship’s crew, of course, ignored him.


We disembarked at Glenorchy… “Earnslaw”, after an extra-long “toooooot” on her whistle carried on to Kinloch across the lake. At the end of Glenorchy wharf was an incongruous, but apt, sight.

The Railways Goods Shed, Glenorchy.

It was the N.Z. Railways-designed goods shed. It was, apparently, out of place because Glenorchy was many, many miles from the nearest railway line, but understandable given that the Railways owned and operated “Earnslaw”.

Open air bus on the Glenorchy to Paradise service

Also at the end of the wharf there were 3 buses waiting to take passengers the 20kms to Paradise, mostly day-trippers, others trampers and hikers. These buses were nothing like I had ever seen before: open-air without roofs.

There was also an aging Service Car waiting to transport the overflow from the buses. It was obvious the extra numbers on that special day had been well catered-for. Judith and the womenfolk travelled in one of the buses while Vic and I were in the Service Car.

The Service Car, destination Paradise, January 1, 1956
L-R: Judith Carlyon, Muriel Bird, John McK, Elsie Davison, Roderick (Ric) Carlyon


I had no idea where or what this Paradise was. Given its name, I thought it must be a spectacle. Our destination was at the end of a sometimes-metaled, one-way narrow road with wooden-plank bridges over creeks, water-races and culverts. These bridges had a maximum load-limit and each bus, with its passengers on board, was too heavy, exceeding the allowed weight. So at each crossing the passengers had to get off the bus and walk across the bridge. The lightened bus would then cross and passengers would take their seats again. The Service Car was much lighter, of course, so we did not have to disembark to cross each bridge. But as we were last in the convoy we had to wait for the unloading and loading process at each crossing!

At Paradise the fine, clear weather gave fantastic views towards the Dart Valley and beyond, the Mt Aspiring area (a National Park from 1964 and now a World Heritage Site). These were the mountains that really impressed me, higher than anything I had ever seen before even though they were some distance off. I think I marvelled that despite mid-summer temperatures there was still so much snow showing along the tops. Uncle Vic had the foresight to bring the Automobile Association map book with him and he showed me the territory we were in and we picked off spot heights. Paradise was connected by road with Queenstown in 1962: before that all access was by boat or foot. Today the area’s known for tourism and with Hobbits: one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies was shot in the vicinity.

We had our picnic lunch in that scenic setting before travelling back to Glenorchy to catch “Earnslaw” back to Queenstown. It was on the return trip I had 2 treats.

Two Treats

The first was afternoon tea in the ship’s below-decks Saloon. Tea, coffee, sandwiches and cakes were available in a semi-formal setting. I marvelled that the portholes were actually beneath the water-line. I took photos, and just as well because later, on my return to Auckland, when I told my father of the underwater portholes, he would have none of it, saying portholes were always above the water. The photos, once developed and returned from Bartley’s the chemist in Epsom, proved my point!

The second treat was the opportunity to steer the ship on one of the legs between ports-of-call. Not sure whether Uncle Vic had arranged this, but I think it may have been a general offer for children to visit the open bridge deck and take the wheel.

TSS Earnslaw showing the open bridge of 1956 – it was later enclosed

A small wooden box was provided so that shorter kids, like me, could see out over the top of the cowling… if one was steering the ship one had to see where she was pointing! Research shows the Captain was probably Patrick Bennetts who was on the crew of “Earnslaw” for some 30 years. He was on hand that day to help the novice helmsman, advising to “keep the nose heading for those poplar trees on the far bank”, and making steering adjustments as required.  He took over, my turn at the wheel ending, when he began the Master’s business of positioning the ship alongside the next wharf.

Just as we pulled into Queenstown the pipe band concluded its repertoire for the day with “Auld Lang Syne”. Late afternoon the adventure on Wakatipu was over. We disembarked “Earnslaw” and began the journey back to the farm in the Ford V8.

Roxburgh Visit

Uncle Vic mentioned visiting the construction site of the Roxburgh Dam to view the work-site. I am sure that at the time we did not realise the magnitude of the scheme. It was, to date, the biggest hydro-electric  project in New Zealand which would harness the Clutha River just north of Roxburgh township with New Zealand’s first concrete gravity dam. It was part of the Government’s post-war blueprint to provide electricity for the masses.

I think Vic arranged the trip to the dam site along with business he had in Cromwell or Alexandra.

Aunts Elsie and Muriel accompanied us – my sister Judith and me. To be honest, I think I better appreciated the scope of the project in later years.

Progress on the Roxburgh project about the time of our visit

But in January 1955 we marvelled at the giant trucks moving spoil (biggest trucks I had ever seen), dwarfed by the Clutha “big country”, the high-sided gorge, and the towering concrete works associated with the dam and then the power station itself.  There was a visitors’ centre and I recall seeing photos, probably displayed by the contractors or the State Hydro-Electricity Department, with final profiles of the power station superimposed over pictures of the landscape before work started. Not only did the size of the power station, penstocks and spillway impress, but I remember the outline of the new shoreline as the Clutha backed up behind the dam in a new Lake Roxburgh, stretching some 32kms.

We must have been on a high-point at one stage of the visit to get a birds-eye view of the construction site as well as the large village that had sprung up to accommodate workers and their families and another single-man’s camp.

The construction village across the Clutha from Roxburgh township

Construction got off to a bad start when the original contract (signed in 1949) had to be re-negotiated with overseas contractors. Lack of progress up to 1953 led to a new contract. At that stage the New Zealand company, Downer, joined the two overseas contractors and construction proceeded with the dam commissioned in July 1956 with further generating capacity added until 1962, doubling the original output planned.

Roxburgh Power Station, opening day 1956

Our visit to Roxburgh in January 1956 was within days of the workers resuming after the holiday break, and there was still some tension in the air over industrial relations on the site. It turned out that in November 1955 a crane driver refused to complete delivery of a load which was on the sling, in mid-air, when the whistle went for a tea break. Dismissed for his actions, he was supported by the New Zealand Workers’ Union which led a strike across the site which lasted for 23 days until it was resolved just before the Christmas break had begun.  This led to a delay in commissioning the power station. Other technical hitches led to further hold-ups which forced the Government ration electricity in the South Island until the first of the generators was commissioned in July, just in time to meet the usual Winter-time peak demand.

Farewell, Alan

One day during our stay we were off to Cromwell to put Alan Davidson, Vic’s younger brother, on the train. Like all young men he had to register with the Labour Department to undertake Compulsory Military Training (CMT). The day had come when Alan would use the Army Railway Warrant he had been given as he set off on the first leg of his journey to Burnham Camp near Christchurch. He would be away for 14 weeks’ fulltime intensive training and then called for periodic training for 3 years, followed by another 6 years on the Reserve List. The Military Training Act had been enacted following a general referendum which strongly favoured maintaining a ready post-war pool of men in defence of the Realm.

Recruits had the choice to do their CMT with the Army, Navy or Air Force – but the 14 weeks’ training had to be undertaken by every able-bodied 18 year old man who was not a conscientious objector. In nearly 10 years some 63,000 men received CMT until 1958 when the rules were slightly changed: then in 1961 a new law delayed registration until men reached their 20th birthday, with ballots, based on birth dates. If the marble bearing your birthday was drawn from the hat, you joined the training. This balloted system reduced the intake, meeting the military’s lesser requirements.

So in the first few days of January, 1956, Alan was on his way to “march in” as part of the latest intake.

We delivered him to Cromwell Railway Station where the train, hauled by a steam locomotive, was waiting to depart.

The station and its associated operations had been built on the only area of level ground available on that (Northern) side of the river. Planners of the railway must have welcomed the small “shelf” at the end of the Cromwell Gorge, conveniently almost opposite the township across the bridge. They must have decided it was adequate for Railways operations and gave the go-ahead. Because Cromwell was a terminus it required more facilities than your usual country station. There was a turntable to turn the locomotive around ready for the return trip and there was a coal shed near a huge water tank, both essential to feed the locomotives. On one side of the tracks there was the station platform: on the other was the goods shed. There were also sidings so waggons could be shunted around and assembled into trains ready to depart. Adjacent to the railway station, across the other side of the highway, were several Railways houses: staff accommodation.

Cromwell had been a difficult place to link by railway, the Cromwell Gorge providing a challenge to surveyors, engineers and work gangs. The line had to dodge the biggest of rocky outcrops, maintain “possible” gradients on the inclines, follow gullies, cross creeks and at times occupy a narrow “ledge” along the wall of the river gorge, high above the Clutha. The railway more or less followed the road through the gorge but engineering necessities for trains meant there were numerous level crossings as the route took the track snaking from one side of the road to the other.

Construction of the 20kms from Clyde to Cromwell began in 1914 and took 7 years to complete.

Although an extension had earlier been surveyed along the East bank of the Clutha River, through Lindis Crossing and on to Hawea, plans to build the track beyond Cromwell were abandoned.

Passenger trains were replaced by mixed (carriages plus goods waggons) in 1951 and in 1956 Vulcan railcars replaced passenger carriages but the railcar service went only as far as Alexandra so in 1958 passenger travel by train to Cromwell ceased. Steam locomotives, hauling goods trains, ended in February 1968, taken over by diesel-electric locos. Declining tonnages, it was said, led to the line being closed in 1980 but the proposed Clyde Dam probably hastened its demise: it would not have been worth re-routing the railway around the dam for such small, dwindling returns.

Cromwell Railway Station as it was when Alan departed

The train on the day Alan was travelling comprised just a few carriages. I think there may have been a few freight wagons attached.  With departure time fast approaching we said our goodbyes to Alan and he boarded the train. I don’t believe there were many other passengers, if any at all. Right on time the platform bell was rung by the Station Master and the Guard, leaning out of the last carriage, blew his shrill whistle, signalling that the train was departing. He waved his green flag in the direction of the engine-driver at the head of the train and Puffing Billy was coaxed into life with, first, a huge plume of steam and then thick, black smoke. The loco’s steam whistle sounded, the guard confirmed the all-clear with another wave of his green flag and, on the second blast on the steam whistle, the train was underway.  A succession of really loud, deep-throated, chuff-chuff-chuffs and the train slowly gathered speed, off into the Cromwell Gorge and out of sight, leaving behind clouds of black smoke. For Alan a new world was opening up – he was off to the Army!

Writing this recollection, I could not help thinking that Alan’s departure that day to serve in the military must have brought back memories for Vic, reliving the time some 15 years before when he, too, set off by train to join Defence Forces. He would have gone with other locals, all on their way to active service during the Second World War. As he farewelled Alan, Vic must have replayed in his mind the scenario of the earlier departure from Cromwell Railway Station, more than likely recalling those servicemen who so willingly volunteered for the “great overseas adventure” of war, full of enthusiasm, but did not return.

Our Central Otago adventure was over – Aunty Muriel, Judith and I returned to Auckland via NAC’s Dakota from Taieri in Dunedin, retracing our route through Harewood and Paraparaumu.

 Subsequent Visits

I just loved the change of lifestyle in Central Otago. The wide open spaces, the rather relaxed pace, routine around the farm chores, fresh air, making new acquaintances, the rich history of places… all these and more meant I was a return visitor, many times over. The first on my own followed as a teenager while still at school. I saved pocket money for the airfares. The Davidsons met me at Taieri and after a shopping day in Dunedin we headed to Ardgour, via Cromwell for refreshments at the middle pub. (Cromwell had three licensed hotels on the main street, Melmore Terrace, in those times – the “bottom pub” just up from the bridge across the Clutha River and depot for the Railways Road Services buses, was the Commercial Hotel, the “middle pub” more or less half way up Melmore Terrace was the Golden Age while the “top pub” was The Victoria.

On this, and following visits, my stay was a pleasant mix of helping on the farm, accompanying the Davidsons to Tarras or Cromwell, meeting locals, or partaking trips or visits around Central – and beyond – either happily coincidental to my visit or specially arranged because of it.


Vic was very relaxed about involving a young city slicker on chores about the farm. I thus learned to drive… starting with a David Brown tractor and “progressing” to the Davidson’s Humber 80 car. With minimal tuition, and even less supervision, Vic showed me how to drive the David Brown and then set me loose from the farmhouse along Ardgour Road to the sheep-yards while he followed later in the car. Great! No pressure to get the gear changes just right and no one to see or hear my mistakes, if any!  It was not long before I was driving a much smaller tractor, a David Brown 2D, which was a horticulture machine used for hoeing, raking and spraying crops.


The David Brown VAD12/V or “2D”.

The 2D was a remarkable machine, developed in the mid-1950s to enable implements to be attached in front, amidships and behind, whereas most conventional tractors had attachments and hydraulics for implements only at the rear. Unlike traditional tractors the 2D’s twin-cylinder diesel engine was at the rear. Its special compressed-air system meant the implements were automatically raised and lowered to follow the contours of the land, “ironing out” the bumps, cultivating every inch of ground. This tractor was a hit with market gardeners and horticulturalists who were “early adopters” but the 2D was not generally popular, a rare breed, only 2,000 were made between 1956 and 1961.

It was remarkable that Vic had researched, and then purchased a 2D. It seemed perfect for his cropping work. Little did I know it at the time but the gear box installed in the 2D was a “steal” from the famous Aston Martin, the car preferred by successive James Bonds.

Alistair Smith driving Vic Davidson’s 2D tractor

Others have said, and I confirm, that it was such a low tractor, and with the weight of the engine over the rear axle, the implements and the tank full of spray, it was an easy and safe vehicle to drive.

Vic would pay me for some of this work up in the crop paddock, using the 2D, or other work by hand. One summer holiday, together with local schoolboy Alistair Smith, I helped weed hectares of carrots, pulling each Fat Hen plant out by hand as we traversed the long rows. The pocket money I earned helped pay my airfares to and from Central. Alistair was from Tarras, son of Jas Smith the supervisor of Rabbit Board operations in the district. Ironically the revolutionary attack on rabbits began soon after he took up the position: poisoned baits were dropped from aircraft. Now here was his son, Alistair, weeding carrots which Vic would sell to the Rabbit Board for this purpose. They were long days with early sun-up and much later sundown than in Auckland: working until 10pm was not unusual. We would take cold drinks and a Thermos of tea plus lunch and “smoko” which Elsie provided. Sometimes we would go back to the house for an evening meal and then return to put in a few more hours. I recall it was back-breaking work and our hands were green for days afterwards, stained by the Fat Hen.

This horticulture – peas and potatoes were also grown – was not always straight forward. Weather played a part (no late or early frosts), and, more importantly, Vic getting water supplies on time to irrigate the crops. The source was the irrigation race shared with other farmers in the immediate district. From the very minute it was Vic’s turn to take the water the valves would be opened and water courses altered to ensure flows to the crops. Vic used two methods … if the water race was near the cropping paddock it was allowed to overflow, seeping through the crops along the furrows. Or water would be pumped from the nearest race to the crops using a pump on the back of the David Brown Tractor and then through 4inch (10cm) pipes to water the plants. Sometimes this would be by the flooding method or via sprinklers inserted at the couplings along the length of the pipeline.

David Brown tractor powering the pump to irrigate the crops

The tractor would pump hour after hour, all night sometimes, taking water while it was Vic’s turn. The tractor would get a respite, a refuel and a re-position as the pipes were adjusted to water the next “set” of furrows, this work sometimes undertaken after dark. Without irrigation there could be no crops and if supply was delayed for some reason, or no water at all, the entire crop was at risk.

Then there was the decision when, exactly, to harvest the crop to get best yield. This sometimes depended on demand of the various vegetables grown, trends in the prices at market, the weather forecast because harvesting potatoes, for example, after rain is difficult – digging in wet, clogging soil. Vic also had to think ahead, scheduling the carrot crop to meet the Rabbit Board’s timetable for aerial operations. And other activities on the farm, such as drenching or shearing his sheep, sometimes dictated when harvests could be arranged.

There was another hazard, probably back-of-mind, but which once hit Vic very hard. The carrot seed he sowed one year was either “out of time” or faulty and very few seeds “took”. There was no harvest. Vic’s contract was to supply the Rabbit Board. So to keep good faith he purchased carrots from other suppliers and paid to transport them to Cromwell. It put the farm’s finances very much in the red.

Barley and Lucerne

In 1969 the Dunedin-based Wilson Company began distilling whisky at Willowbank with first sales made 5 years later. Wilsons put the call out for the supply of barley and Central Otago farmers responded. Vic had a large area of land on the river terraces behind Hitchcock’s house that was suitable, the site of his cash-crops.  He also thought barley would do well on the house paddock, a wide expanse in front of the Davidson’s house, either side of the driveway. For some years Vic supplied many tonnes of barley ultimately made into the single-malt brand “45 South”. I can’t recall why there was a rush to thresh the barley and get it away to Dunedin, but frequently the task was completed in a hurry. Perhaps heavy overnight dew affected the quality, or it was important to harvest at an optimum point of maturity. But I can remember late night sessions. Vic and helpers would be out with the rig, threshing the barley until the late hours and then back on the job at first light. Perhaps Wilsons imposed delivery deadlines. In any case, the timetable was often jeopardised by bad weather or breakdowns of the threshing mill.  Vic had his own International Harvester thresher and lent it to neighbours to bring in their crops. But on one occasion Vic had do to the borrowing when his plant gave up the ghost at crucial harvest time and there was a wait while spare parts from Dunedin had to be shipped in for his thresher. On another occasion I can recall running repairs to the mill when, late one night, the welding plant was hastily taken to the barley paddock. Work on the plant had to be carried out talking care not to set fire to the standing, flammable, crop!            

45 South, the brand name recognised Dunedin’s latitude

Vic grew Lucerne for hay, mostly on the river flats alongside the Lindis, where water was easily obtained.

This called for pumping with the David Brown tractor, but once the water arrived on site via pipes, it was the same method, free-flooding the area irrigated. It was at this source near the Lindis that Vic met with an accident… the driveshaft to the pump flailed and caught his knee. He was out of action for a few weeks. With careful irrigation management and judicial cutting, Vic cashed in on one of the attributes of Lucerne – it is a quick grower. Two or three cuts, maybe more, from the same paddock could be obtained in one season. Lucerne is cut, turned, dried and baled like meadow hay. I was told it was less susceptible to spontaneous combustion and so could be processed and stacked fairly green. This moisture content certainly added to the weight of compact bales for those who man-handled them, finding them heavy by comparison. Vic would stack and retain hay he needed for the farm and sell the remainder.

Driving in Central

The other “freedom” that would never have been entertained at home in Auckland was driving a car at such a young age, first the Davidson’s Humber 80 later replaced by a Holden. Vic figured if I could drive the tractor along the unsealed Ardgour Road, I could manage the car along any road! Never mind the fact that I did not have a licence, although legally I was covered while travelling with a licensed driver.

I think the first time I drove the Humber was to get us home from Cromwell. Thursday’s Sale Day extended into the evening just a touch with refreshments at the Middle Pub. Just on twilight we set out for Ardgour. Vic handed me the car keys without comment and we set off. There was a stop at

Lowburn‘s Welcome Home Hotel for replenishment and then in pitch darkness I began the drive home along the unsealed road (now SH8) for the 20 miles (32Kms) or so. By now it was quite late and, fortunately, we met few vehicles, if any, as I negotiated the winding, rough and in places corrugated and rutted, road.  We made it home all right.

The next time I was driving home from Cromwell I learned a new word. Mid-afternoon we set off back to the house and somewhere near the Bendigo turnoff we came across a road sign “Do not Straddle the Windrow”. Windrow was new word to me. Vic explained the grader was at work trying to smooth the road surface and in doing this the driver took two bites, one in each direction and as he worked the grader’s blade left a mound of stones down the middle of the road. This was the windrow and the sign warned drivers to avoid it, to drive on one side or the other. I chose the left! We later came upon the grader and I recall taking a fancy course to avoid the windrow and the approaching grader. Must have done OK because the grader driver gave a cheery wave. But then all locals did in Central Otago… it was universal practice for motorists to either wave or lift a finger off the steering wheel to oncoming drivers; known or not.  It was part of “Central Friendly”.

Hotel Visits

I have written up experiences at Central Otago hotels in other accounts, but they bear repeating here because these took place in the days of 6pm closing and when one had to be 21 years of age to be served liquor in a hotel.  Defiance of the strict 6 o’ clock closing was a hallmark of most Central Otago pubs. This led to my popularity as a visitor from Auckland because I had privileges!

Legally, there were two exceptions to licensing laws. Both applied only to hotels, thus retaining the trade’s monopoly, and both were part of having guest accommodation.  The first was a small House Bar where those staying in the hotel were entitled to hospitality, including purchasing alcoholic drinks. To prove you were “in the house” as they would say, bona fide guests would show their room key and they would be given access and served until the publican decided to call it a day and close the bar. Technically guests were entitled to buy liquor around the clock. Most hotels had fairly flexible hours for the House Bar depending on the level of patronage as the evening wore on. It would remain open just so long as there were sufficient thirsty house guests (and sometimes a few illegal ring-ins) to make it profitable.

The other exception was the hotel dining room where guests who were having a meal could be served alcoholic drinks, but only until 8pm. There was nowhere near the choice of wines available today: most hotel dining rooms would offer the choice or a beer or a wine. While some might be particular about the brand of beer they were served, wine would be offered merely as “white or red”, without reference to brand, vineyard or whether it was a Cab Sav or Merlot.  The wine available was just whatever the publican had in the cellar at the time and the unsophisticated waiter was moved to serve: white or red!

Central Otago’s After Hours  

It was well known that in rural areas, particularly the West Coast of the South Island and in Central Otago, that there was regular illegal after-hour drinking in some of the more remote hotels. The bars remained open after 6pm, often well into the night. Police formed “flying squads” in Dunedin and Christchurch which, unannounced, would make mid-evening inspections of hotels on the Coast and in Central Otago.

Flying Squads would use the best Police cars for the long trips into Central Otago.

For the most part police found hoteliers were observing liquor laws to the letter, mainly because there had been developed an early warning system among publicans who were quick to pass on the word by telephone that the flying squad was “on the way”.  So as a frequent visitor to Central Otago in these times, I found I was in big demand if I was in the hotel at, say, Cromwell, Lowburn or Luggate, and word had been received that the Squad was on the road.  Publicans had a procedure so that they did not have to clear the bar and close, even though it was long after 6 o’ clock. First, anybody like me from out of town, even from just a bit beyond the boundary, was deemed to be a visitor and would be asked to sign the guest book as being “in the house”.

Once “booked in” we were each given a key to one of the rooms. Mine Host would then select some of the locals (regulars in the bar night after night until the late hours) as personal friends of the “guests”. The Davidsons were no problem in this: relatives of mine. From memory I think that as a “traveller” or “hotel guest” I was entitled to entertain 3 or 4 locals in the House Bar, sharing a few evening drinks. As many illicit drinkers as possible would be covered this way, all assigned to “guests” and on top of this I think the publican’s family could also claim one or two private guests. Once these arrangements were in hand the front door of the hotel would be closed, exterior lights turned off and all those folk inside would often vacate the Public Bar, moving to the smaller House Bar. Because of the long distances covered by the Squad and the efficient warning system, there was usually plenty of time to make these arrangements and when Squad members eventually arrived for their inspection, much to their surprise, everyone in the House Bar could be accounted-for as legitimately on licensed premises after six o’ clock! Sometimes I was asked to show my room key, and once a policeman asked me for my name which was then cross-checked with the Guest Register, but I was never asked if it was true that I was a visitor from Auckland.

Reform at Last  

All this is mentioned because Cromwell pubs experienced this determination by police to try to enforce liquor laws. It also illustrates the lengths that publicans in rural areas would go to in order to beat the out-of-date rules. The hours, 9am until 6pm from Monday to Saturday, had been introduced way back in 1917 as an austerity measure during the First World War. The Government of the day wanted to reduce the likelihood of alcoholism and its perceived myriad ill-effects, at the same time retaining a stable, effective, (sober?) workforce. It was believed that restricting the sale of liquor would benefit both objectives.

Most locals, immigrants, international visitors and those New Zealanders returning from abroad in the 1950s and early 60’s found our liquor laws quaint, restrictive and absolute anathema to any kind of hospitality industry, like tourism and dining out: it was illegal to serve liquor with meals in even the best restaurants. This ended in late 1967 when, after a nationwide referendum, 10 o’clock closing was introduced although restaurants had to wait until 1976 for “Bring Your Own” and other liquor reforms.

Campaign poster: not everyone favoured a change in drinking hours. Alexander Turnbull Library

Central Otago, Naturally…

To the 10 year old, as I was when I first visited Central Otago, the contrast and differences to the life- style I knew was almost overwhelming. The only benchmark I knew was urban Auckland. Rural and remote Central presented a whole new wide world, including nature. And over the decades, and  much older, I still have awe and respect for those natural aspects that gave me so many things to think about 60 years ago. There were so many different, and in many ways opposite, aspects to Auckland and, in many cases, other places I have since visited.


First, there was the climate. I mentioned we experienced a frost on Christmas Day 1955, which ought to have been a summer’s day. In Auckland there’s seldom a frost in late spring let alone in December. But during the morning that day in December 1955 Central’s weather turned from one extreme to the other… and to summer. By the time we were having Christmas Lunch the temperature had risen to around 35 degrees C (100 degrees F as it was then). Auckland in the 1950s had few experiences with 35-degree-days. Temperatures like this are experienced day after day in Central Otago summers, well, in Ardgour, at least. But again in contrast to Auckland, I found none of the humidity which is a feature of its summery days and which can be quite taxing to those working outside. Just as the summer is very dry heat, without humidity, winter has none of the dampness of Auckland’s winters. So while one feels the cold, it’s a crispy, dry cold: difficult to explain but easily understood when you’re in it!

Those Mountains

I have related my marvel, as a 10 year old, at the huge mountains in Central Otago. Their height was driven home when there had been a succession of 37 degrees-plus days at Ardgour, yet there were still pockets of snow “on the tops” along the Pisa Range and elsewhere. These mountains were so high up, I reasoned, that even in Summer it’s so cold up there and snow remains. When I later visited in August school holidays I found an entirely different vista. Mountains and hills were lathered in snow and so were shadowed valleys and gullies. Snow remains for months. It remains a seasonal nuisance to high-country farmers feeding out and having to take extra care of their flocks, to motorists finding roads closed by snow and ice, and to the elderly, particularly, keeping warm. But it has become a multi-million dollar industry with extensive ski-fields developed near both Wanaka and at Queenstown, together with the infrastructure for tourists, skiers and mountain climbers.  The district’s economy has two relative new-comers – tourism and wine.


Vineyards, it was considered, could not withstand the hot dry summers. Mid-summer weeks, when 37 degrees-plus is the norm, dry out the countryside and all but hardiest of plant-life. It reduces soil to fine grey powder, sometimes gathered up into dust storms by occasional unseasonal winds. Whole paddocks seem to be on the move in the worst of these as the fine top-soil is redistributed across the landscape. I can smell the dry-ness of Central Otago, just as when it rains in Central I know a distinctive aroma, perhaps decay of vegetation mixing with the water.

Dry summers stymied agriculture in earlier days. Irrigation was essential to realise the land’s full potential. For over a hundred years both government and private schemes have provided water races in and around Ardgour, enabling stocking and cropping over the summer. Some of these retain routes and works created earlier by goldminers – water was essential for their operations and some very elaborate, and long, waterways were constructed to obtain plentiful supplies.

For More than 100 Years

The first scheme, begun in 1910, took water from an intake on the Lindis River at the rear of Davidson’s house to Bendigo. As with all irrigation races, design engineers had to determine the “fall” of the channels, downhill, to ensure an adequate flow and then there were tunnels under roads, careful “shelf” races cut into, and around, the sides of hills and, in some cases, bridges. Ironically, although the 1910 race began at Ardgour it provided water for distant Bendigo farming properties and belated gold-mining, long after the rich lodes elsewhere had been mined.

1910: Sluicing for gold at Bendigo: copious water required
C. A. Tomlinson, Auckland Weekly News – Auckland Libraries Heritage Images Collection

The race survives: operational. Irrigation for the Ardgour Valley waited until after First World War stringencies and shortages, when, in 1921 a Government project began. Men completing railway construction at Cromwell and road works in Central Otago became the workforce. They brought with them horses and drays, horse-scoops and graders, pick and shovels, to create the water races which have served Ardgour Valley ever since. It remains green year-round, even in the driest and prolonged summers, and the races appear on Google satellite pictures as green ribbons in otherwise parched brown countryside. This is the supply that Vic used for his crops, stock and pasture. In Auckland when we wanted water we turned on any one of the taps in our Epsom home: in Ardgour every drop had been hard won and in summer, it was precious for everyday life.

I think I recall hearing that the Lindis river had never dried up completely in summer: fortunate for the irrigation systems – and for the Davidsons, whose household supplies relied on a bore, no doubt seepage underground from the nearby ever-flowing Lindis.

After more than a hundred years since the first irrigation system, a new one is underway (early 2016) to fetch water to Tarras from the Clutha River near Albertown,  enabling new pastoral agriculture in the district – dairy farming. Few, over the decades, would imagine this could be possible given the searing heat in summers and frozen ground in winters. The complex irrigation scheme, pumping water many kilometres across Hawea Flat to Tarras appears to make this possible. Perhaps the downturn in dairy prices might delay the venture?

The Skies By Day…

Elsie said she could predict rain by looking out her kitchen window. By the shape, colour and behaviour of clouds above the well-named ranges of Cloudy Peak, Elsie could tell it was going to rain down in the Ardgour Valley. As it does in most places, rainfall sets farmers’ agendas. I often heard when I arrived in summer that the spring rains had been good, bad, or indifferent: they were important to set the farming scene for the summer and much reliance was placed on them. Rainfall was different throughout the district because of topography and other features so each farm had its unique own micro-climate. For this reason each farmer had his own gauge to measure rainfall on his land, and in some cases they would have gauges at strategic places around their property. Rainfall indicated by these gauges, whether described as “a couple of mils” or “a few points”, was often the subject of key conversations between farmers, either in person or by phone. Rainfall was crucial.

High clouds, the likes of which I had not observed (or perhaps noticed) in Auckland were so prevalent in Central Otago summers. By mid-afternoon often only a few whisps remained on-high above Ardgour, making their way lazily across the sky. But by twilight the clouds would often be back. Looking towards Cromwell at sunset there were frequently spectacular shows, the sun reflected off layer upon layer of cloud, each in different colours ranging from yellow to orange, to darkest purple and brightest red. These would often last for hours, a real, ever-changing, spectacle until the sun finally dropped below the horizon.

Mentioning twilight, and another difference – in summer it was much, much later than in Auckland… and in winter a long time earlier. Vic reckoned Ardgour had 15 hours (plus) of daylight on the longest day. Official tables back him up. This gave extra-long days to work the farm, and on Vic’s evenings off, to travel to Cromwell, have a meeting and return home before dark. It also meant sun-up occurred long before most people regarded it was time to get out of bed: sleep-ins could be difficult.

… And By Night

I must mention the night skies above Central.  Without the light-glare and light-spillage of a city, the Milky Way was a whole new experience as seen from the remote rural parts. I could never work out the patterns of the southern constellations to find “the pot”, “scorpion”, “Orion” and the others – even the Southern Cross eluded me! But the clarity and “nearness” of the stars was spectacular. It was kind of viewing through spectacles or binoculars, the whole vista seemed clearer, better focussed. It’s easy to accept that the observatory in the similarly remote MacKenzie Country has provided astronomers with some of the clearest views and pictures of the galaxy.

The moon, too, appeared clear and crisp. The full moon’s bright, pallid, light meant that on a clear, cloudless, night you could see across the countryside for many miles. There’s another story, related later, involving the brightness of the full moon over Tarras.

Once I saw the brilliance of a full moon without city lights intruding, I began to appreciate war-time stories which told about crucial battles on land and at sea which had been carefully organised and timed to take place under cover of darkness, ideally about the time of the new moon so that the enemy couldn’t see the opposition.

 On the Alexandra

On a later visit to Cromwell, perhaps in the early 1960s, I was in for a real treat, and a date with history!

I’m not certain where Vic Davidson made arrangements to visit the Alexandra, the last of the many gold dredges which had worked Central Otago rivers for nearly a century. Vic may have been at a Lodge meeting, an RSA function or at a Lions’ Club meeting. But what is certain is that he knew the Dredgemaster well enough to organise a visit to the Alexandra, as it toiled away seeking gold on Earnscleugh Flats near Alexandra town.

I am sure the trip from the farm to the dredge would have been combined with other business and perhaps a shopping trip for Elsie. Mid-afternoon Vic and I crossed the swing bridge over the Clutha River to Earnscleugh. To get to the dredge we had to drive through piles of tailings, shingle in neat stacks in rows all along the riverside, twice as high as a house. This was the spoil, the unwanted stones ejected from an elevator on the dredge, high above the river level, at the end of the gold-mining process.  The tailings were, in fact, the unwanted “rubbish”.  Vic negotiated the car through the tailings and then, some distance from the river-proper, we found the dredge. It was at work, appearing as a small craft sitting in the middle of a great big pond that it had itself created, now almost surrounded by tailings. Its bucket chain was dredging material from the bottom of the pond, once the course of the Clutha River or one of its branches, and conveying the material inside the dredge. It was like a giant insect continually devouring its prey. And it turned out that it was true that the dredge had an unsatisfied hunger for the pay-dirt – the more passing through, the better chance of drawing up, and recovering, gold.

A Kind of Ship

Vic’s arrangements with the dredgemaster worked. Near the shoreline of the giant pond we came across a jetty where we parked the car. Waiting for us at the timbered landing were two men in a large dinghy and, after introductions, we were on our way out across the water to the floating Alexandra.

The dredge Alexandra, July 1937, a few months after launching
Weekly News, Heritage Collection, Auckland Libraries

The dredgemaster welcomed us on board. First impression: the huge size of the ship, for that is what the dredge really was. It towered, the equivalent of 6 or more storeys high, clad in aging corrugated iron. The elevator was much higher still, probably nearly double the height. What we could not see, submerged in the pond, was the cable conveying electricity out to the craft to power the bucket chain and winches. And around us, the vast piles of tailings which dwarfed the pond and, in that setting, made the dredge appear small. But in reality it was enormous. Apart from its size, there was the noise as the buckets, one after the other on the endless belt being continually driven, graunching, grinding, into the rocky bedrock floor of the pond.

Dredge buckets similar to “Alexandra”’s

And then there was the continual shudder and vibration which was evident throughout the whole craft. It must have been like the worst earthquake ever, and the men had to endure this for the whole of their shift day after day! As we toured Alexandra , Vic’s friend the dredgemaster carefully explained its various parts and the process in the quest for gold.

Once the pay-dirt is raised in the buckets it enters a trummel, a giant revolving cylinder, amidships the dredge, with water pouring through it, which, by elimination discards the big rocks, then the stones, followed by shingle, leaving just the small grits and fines which are then washed through matting. Being heavier, gold particles sink, caught in the fibres of the coconut matting. Some silt also gathers there: the men on the dredge are responsible for separating the gold, collecting and weighing it and depositing it at the bank in Alexandra.

While we were on the dredge it was stationery in its pond, its bucket chain gouging into material more or less on the same spot in the riverbed below. The Alexandra was anchored by wire ropes to four points around the pond. Because the dredge was “dead in the water”, without any motive power, when it came time to move the dredge, on-board electric winches operate to draw in – and let out – the wire ropes, one at each corner of the dredge, thus dragging the Alexandra to her new dredge-point.


Clutha River Gold Dredging Company’s Alexandra was officially opened for business mid-March, 1937. Given the long history of gold-mining in Central Otago, this was comparatively quite recent. Designed by F. W. Payne and Son, of London, she was 164 feet (50m) in length and 44 feet (13.5m) wide, with a total weight of 1,300 tons. Each of the buckets had a capacity of 12 cubic feet (.3 of a cubic meter), and the dredge was designed to operate to a depth of 65 feet (20m) and capable of dealing with 320 yards (240 cubic yards) per hour.

Alexandra is launched May 1936: it would be a year before she was commissioned

It was electrically driven by power supplied from the Central Otago Electric Power Board generated at the recently-completed (1936) Roaring Meg station on the Kawarau River. Nearly £20,000 was advanced by Clutha River Gold Dredging Company for the completion of the scheme, the amount to be repaid out of power used by the company. The massive steel pontoons, creating flotation for more than 1,300 tons, were erected by well-known engineers, Messrs A. and T. Burt, Ltd of Dunedin.

At the commissioning ceremony Mr A. V. Forrester, on behalf of the UK-based company, gave a brief history of dredging in Central Otago from the days of the first spoon-dredge on the Kawarau River in 1863. It was a scoop, he explained, made of bullock hide stretched over an iron frame on a long pole, dragged along the riverbed between two boats, then hoisted by a primitive winch. This, like the manual shovel before it, proved the presence of winnable gold, although only small quantities of pay-dirt could be gathered in each scoop. Mr Forrester said that it was natural progression to a steam-powered bucket dredge in the 1880s and about a dozen worked Clutha and Kawarau Rivers. “But few”, he said, “were powerful enough to do the job properly. We are now in the business to clean up with a more powerful, and deeper, bucket chain… and we’re looking at other options to extend our licence. Meantime, the 20 mile (25km) stretch from Coal Creek, Roxburgh up river to Alexandra will be a start”. Then the Minister for Mines, Patrick Webb, made another long speech and finally pulled the lever to set the dredge in action, the first buckets gouging into the Clutha’s riverbed and delivering the pay-dirt to the trummel, screen and gold-saving matting.

“Alexandra” at work on the Clutha River late 1930s, before extensions.
New Zealand Herald

The Company’s dredge, and its considerable investment of £225,000, was ready to go to work.

Well, not quite.

The river levels, which had played havoc during construction of the dredge because they were so low, had now risen to an extent that the craft could not pass under the Alexandra swing bridge to take up its preferred dredge-point. Soon after the dredge had been officially commissioned heavy autumn rains meant the river ran too high: it was a further month before the level subsided, allowing Alexandra to work properly. Official figures released after the first week showed 49 ounces of gold were recovered during 107 hours of operations.  In October, some 6 months after commissioning, record-to-date yield was recorded: 433 ounces after 126 hours dredging.


I suppose after more than 20 years of around-the-clock dredging it was reasonable to think that all Alexandra’s equipment looked a bit old. I recall all the moving parts of the machinery were all well-greased and oiled. Some had two decades of accumulated dust and grime. The workshop on board enabled immediate running repairs: it was obviously well-used. A welding plant was used to frequently strengthen the leading edges of the buckets, worn by the constant biting into river stones and gravel.

I mentioned that Alexandra was really a vessel, and thus she was not without risks encountered on any craft. This was brought home in September, 1938, when dredge-man, H. R. Wright, was removing stones from beside Alexandra when there was a sudden surge in the river’s current, the dredge was swept sideways, crushing the man against the river-bank. His legs were shattered: one was subsequently amputated at Dunstan Hospital.

In September 1939, with exceptionally low river levels, the Company decided to reposition the dredge to Alexandra Flats and to carry out extensive improvements, a new elevator and conveyor, which, together with other works, would almost double her capacity to 2,400,000 cubic yards per annum.


“Alexandra” in later years with new elevator, NZI Temuka

For the year ending March 31st 1944 the Company reported recovering 6,450 ounces, turning the losses of several prior years into a £15,414 profit.


Vic Davidson’s idea to take me to visit the dredge was an inspired one. By the time I was next in Central Otago, Alexandra had disappeared.  Operations had ceased in March 1963, the dredge dismantled.

26 years earlier, on the day she was commissioned, the Minister of Mines, Patrick Webb, labelled the dredge “Awatea of the River”, Awatea meaning “bringer of light”, saying she was the largest and most powerful river dredge in New Zealand, and was the last word in perfect dredge construction and design. “If this dredge”, Paddy Webb predicted, “doesn’t pay, no other is likely to attempt this river”.
Paddy Webb was correct – Alexandra was the last of its type on the Clutha. To date, despite increased gold prices, the likes of the big dredges have not been seen again, though there has been some commercial prospecting on Earnscleugh Flats, a much larger enterprise near  McRae’s Flat.

And what of the tailings, the huge piles of rocks that still dominate the river-scape for miles along the Clutha? They remain, most as barren as the day they were created as spoil dropping off the end of Alexandra’s elevator. They’re apparently accepted as an inevitable legacy of gold-dredging days. One correspondent writing in the local newspaper in the early 1940s said the tailings looked ugly, a blot on the landscape and advocated planting them with pine trees, “because they’ll prosper anywhere”. Except, perhaps, the tailings, since no one has taken up the proposal!

Mention must be made of another dredge, the Austral-New Zealand dredge working the Clutha River and flats upstream of Lowburn.

Austral-New Zealand’s massive dredge at Lowburn

She was enormous, reputed to be the world’s biggest gold dredge, built in New Zealand by Dunedin companies, A and T Burt Limited and Dunedin Engineering and Steel.  The dredge, like the “Alexandra” was powered by electricity and began operations in 1940 with promising returns. In July 1947 it was reported 107 ounces were returned for 107 hours’ work. But yields did not last and operations near Lowburn ended in January 1952 leaving just the one dredge in Central Otago, the Alexandra.

Elsie Davidson’s photo of the Austral-New Zealand being dismantled. On the right of the picture is the bucket-chain, later used as a bridge span.

“Shorty” and “Wattie”

I can’t recall when I first met these two Central Otago characters. I was most probably in my mid- teens, the venue almost certainly the Welcome Home Hotel at Lowburn.

“Welcome Home Hotel”, Lowburn, before it was drowned by the new hydro lake

“Shorty” Sutherland

I believe few people knew this man’s real name. He was known universally as “Shorty” or “Short-arse from Shotover”. I have found he was, in fact, Norman Robert Sutherland, a retired miner who I presume had workings on the Shotover River near Queenstown. When I first met him in the mid- 1960s he lived in a bach near Lowburn. His name was apt. He was very short: his lack of height kind of offset by the very wide-brimmed felt hat that he always wore – it became his trademark. “See the hat, greet Shorty!”

Shorty Sutherland at his digs, Lowburn
Auckland War Memorial Museum Collections

“Shorty” led the quiet, retired, life until news of a proposed high dam at Clyde, and the lake it would create, threatened to flood Lowburn, his home and his local pub, the “Welcome Home Hotel”, and all. He quickly got behind the protest movement and was among those who squeezed their local Member of Parliament until he guaranteed that the new lake behind the dam would spare Lowburn. It was an empty promise. Plans showed both Lowburn and the business area of Cromwell would effectively be drowned and then it was confirmed that the project was going ahead. Wattie colourfully said someone should shoot the Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, for the dreadful loss of so much productive land… and, of course, his personal peaceful lifestyle. “Me, I wouldn’t waste the ammunition”, he added, “and you can tell him that from me!”

His local, the “Welcome Home”, sported a sign indicating that once the lake formed, the pub would be under  60 feet (20 meters) of water.

The “Welcome Home” Hotel, Lowburn. The sign was a premonition

Once the Clyde dam was complete, the new Lake Dunstan quickly formed and Lowburn pub and “Shorty’s” digs were submerged. He moved to Luggate which was the last place I had a yarn with him.

The Local Whisky

That night the Luggate pub was doing brisk business in the bar with visitors on their way home after the Wanaka Dog Trials at nearby Mt Iron. Discussion with “Shorty” and a few others got around to the merits of various brands of whisky, including the local single-malt “45 South” distilled by Wilsons at Willowbank in Dunedin. In those days whisky was my tipple, and I said I could always tell the local stuff apart from Scotch. “Shorty” defended “45 South” and the more expensive local brand from the same distillery, “Wilsons”. I held that these, to me, were inferior leaving a particular, but not unpleasant, taste in my mouth which other malts did not.

Luggate Hotel: “Pick the local brew” said Shorty

When I went out to the toilet “Shorty” saw his chance to prove his point. I returned to find 4 nips on the bar, purchased, as it turned out, by “Shorty’s” mates. This was the test. “Pick the local brew”, Shorty invited. I took each in turn, identifying the first as “Johnny Walker Red”. A quick wink from Uncle Vic and I knew I got that right. After a pause I downed the second. “Bells”, I said. The third definitely was “45 South”, that peculiar tell-tale taste “lingering on the palate”, as wine connoisseurs might say! Another chat between nips which also gave me opportunity to look at the range of whisky bottles in the bowsers behind the bar. All eyes were on me as I savoured number 4. “Black and White” I said. One wag at the bar suggested that I might have to repeat all 4, just to make sure! But “Shorty” was good enough to say “number one and number three correct, number two and four in the wrong order… now, how long did you say you’ve been drinking whisky…?” Importantly, for the point I was making, I had discerned the local brew over the imports. I shouted a round of drinks for “Shorty” and his mates.

It was the last time I saw him. Norman Robert “Shorty” Sutherland died in 1988 aged 86 and rests in the Frankton Lawn Cemetery where the register, fittingly, lists him as “retired gold-miner”.

Wattie Thompson : Central’s Last Gold-Miner

Watson Thompson came from England with his parents in the very early 1900s. They settled in Waikato but  Watson, or “Wattie”, later moved to Ardgour Valley for work.  He enlisted for active service at the start of World War 2 and saw action in North Africa where he was taken prisoner of war, confined for 3 years. Locals aided his escape and he joined them, cultivating vegetables until hostilities ended. I think he may have been a part-time miner in earlier days given that as soon as he returned from the war he began seeking gold, a full-time miner in Central Otago.

Geoff Duff, again.  In his book, “Sheep may safely graze”, Duff says Wattie was the last of the alluvial gold-miners, a remarkable title when it’s recalled that thousands of prospectors had been in the district since 1861 when gold was discovered in the Lindis Pass on what’s now known as Goodger Flat.

Gold was “discovered” twice at the Lindis. Unannounced at the time, a Government Surveyor found nuggets in the river before prospectors  arrived, early 1861,  who also found gold. Word got out… and the rush was on. But it did not last long because of the harsh winter and, a few months later, the deflection of attention to Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence, where more lucrative finds were made, resulting in a much bigger rush to mine the area.

Geoff Duff says that, post-war, Wattie built his own hut up on the Lindis Pass at Camp Creek and prospected there for years. It survives, now part of a Heritage Trail through the Lindis Pass, including, not far away, the remains of the Lindis Hotel (1870s – 1949) which is under restoration.

Remains of the Lindis Hotel, Lindis Pass, 2010

Duff also says Wattie branched into coal-mining for a few years while living “up the Pass”, exploiting a seam at Geordie Hill which, when recovered and bagged, was sold to Cromwell Hotel to fire its furnace. All of which illustrates that Wattie never shirked hard graft.

 Lowburn Days

When I first knew Wattie he was living in a bach on a property near Lowburn, the town originally known as Perriams, after the name of probably the first local settlers, the well-known Perriam family, still farming in the district. Wattie probably shared spartan facilities with shearers or musterers when, seasonally, they arrived to take over for a week or two.  Wattie was frequently linked with “Shorty” Sutherland: they were mates, often found having a drink together at their local, the “Welcome Home” at Lowburn, which had been established by pioneering John Perriam in 1865.

In our first chat, teenager with an aging Wattie, it rapidly became apparent that he was a man of the world, knowledgeable, up-to-date on international and local politics, across economics and aware of social change, earnest and well-read, and a bit of an adventurer. He was one who had thought through matters, forming rock-hard opinion which he was happy to defend, discuss, debate, and pass on. I asked Uncle Vic where Wattie had been educated and how he kept up with the news. Vic said that for years he had a radio in his shack which he listened-to long into the night. And because it was difficult to receive New Zealand radio stations in far-off Central Otago, Wattie tuned into overseas stations – like ABC, Australia, VOA, America  and the BBC – taking in all the various programmes and information they offered. It must have been a battery-powered radio because Wattie’s accommodation was usually without electricity.

I was unaware Wattie had “changed address” until one of my subsequent visits to the Davidsons.

Uncle Vic and I were going to Cromwell and before we left the farm “Wattie’s Bag” was prepared:  some potatoes and a selection of green vegetables. This, it turned out, was a regular contribution by Vic.

His Camp at Bendigo

To my surprise we did not get as far as Lowburn before we swung off the main road, up into the Bendigo hills. There, high above river flats we stopped alongside a crack, a fault-line in the rock, which was, in fact, Wattie’s front door. He was living in a hut at Bendigo created in a cave right in the heart of the 1860s gold mining centre, long-since abandoned, uninhabited (apart from Wattie!), now desolate. The entrance to the cave was so well-concealed that when Vic pulled up in the car to make the delivery, I couldn’t fathom why we had stopped!

Remains of one of the last reminders of Bendigo Gold Days:
Rise and Shine Mine – a latecomer 1933 -1943.
Photo taken by Elsie Davidson, December 1960

Vic said good grazing land for sheep was so sparse up here, parched in Summer, frozen in Winter, that the local farmer counted on “acres-to-each-sheep rather than the normal sheep-to-the acre”. But the plentiful rabbits we saw must have found sufficient nourishment.

Unfortunately Wattie wasn’t at home so I didn’t get to greet him on that occasion. We left the vegetables at his “front door”, a kind of narrow chasm in the rock, where he would find them. We put the sugar bag under rocks to protect the spuds and greens from marauding animals. We continued on our way to Cromwell.

Geoff Duff’s book notes Wattie stayed in a hut at Bendigo, exactly like the miners lived a hundred years before, and that Wattie always believed there was still plenty of gold to be had in surrounding hills. His major prospecting project called for excavation, piling up tonnes of stones as he tried to get to bed-rock… and gold. But in 1971, before he got to the telling quartz strata, torrential flood waters swept debris down the valley depositing stones, boulders and shingle where he had been working, in effect replacing all the material he had for some years painstakingly excavated by hand. He moved camp.

The slopes of Bendigo have since been irrigated, now the North-facing slopes are home to several large vineyards, producing award-winning wines and to international acclaim.  Other parts of the old Gold Town, with surviving relics, are preserved as a public heritage park. Bendigo Station, itself now a tourist attraction, has established a museum exhibiting artefacts from the goldfields.

Merv’s Bach and a Mission

Wattie later took up an offer by Ardgour Valley farmer and Vic Davidson’s neighbour, Merv Trevathen, when he suggested Wattie “shift camp” to the relative comfort of a bach that was vacant on land, a run-off, Merv farmed near Lindis Crossing. The move would not have taken much: Wattie was a minimalist with just the possessions he needed to live, nothing more.

Both Vic and Merv also saw action in the Second World War and I have no doubt their concern for Wattie was out of fraternity with a fellow returned serviceman.

Once Wattie took to an idea or ideal, he became committed; sure of his ground but at the same time he was well-meaning and keen to share his knowledge and point of view. Not in a naturally argumentative way… you knew he had his mind made up about most things and held those convictions close to his chest.

Those who did not know about the “inner man” were surprised when Wattie took on Christian principles in mid-life. Some said he was influenced by cruelty and sacrifices he had witnessed during World War 2. Typically, he became staunch in his belief and decided he should take the message to all-New Zealand. So, carrying a small sign that proclaimed the end of the world was imminent, and that everyone ought to repent while the going was good, he walked from North Cape to Bluff. His one-man mission took months to complete and was widely reported in newspapers, by radio and on television, with pictures clearly showing his sign… with its mis-spelling. I was never sure whether this was an attention-grabbing gimmick or a genuine mistake!

Gold Fever

Even in his later days Wattie suffered periodic bouts of gold fever. He was always improving a cradle, a wooden box-like structure, which he used to prospect for gold. He would make the basic cradle and then over weeks, sometimes months, work to perfect the shape or workings until he believed he had the ideal… the perfect cradle. From memory it had several layers of wire netting, each a smaller gauge, with matting in the bottom on a kind of chute, where the finer material … and the heavier gold… settled while other matter, the “tailings”, was washed out of the cradle.

An old Australian cradle: Wattie would always say the versions he built were better!Then at the end of the day, Wattie would pan the fine material that had collected between the tufts of the matting.

Charlie Perriam, run-holder of Bendigo, recognised Wattie’s gold fever and having received Wattie’s assurance that the latest model of the cradle was optimum, Charlie would organise a gold-finding expedition.

The Perriams were the first family settlers in the Lowburn area, emigrating from Devon in England in 1858. Originally gold-miners at Quartz Reef, Bendigo, they moved to Lowburn in 1865 and went on to build the first Lowburn hotel opening in 1867.  They were very active in the community with establishing the first punt across the Clutha River which lead to linking the hotel name as Lowburn Ferry Hotel. The entrepreneurial Perriams went on to establish a local store and butcher’s shop supplying early gold miners and run-holders alike. Charles and his family continued progress and innovation in business, both in agriculture and with winery and tourist interests.

I gather Wattie often indicated to Charlie Perriam where he next wanted to prospect. This would have been after he had studied possibilities, or recalled one of his many earlier experiences, conversations or tales, about the most likely location of an undiscovered lode.

Coincidentally, it was during one of my visits to Central Otago that the latest iteration of the cradle was complete and Charlie Perriam recognised it was time to once again relieve “Wattie’s” mounting gold fever. I had often heard about gold fever suffered by prospectors: here, now with Wattie it was very real.  Charlie had arranged access with the owner of a back-blocks run and set aside a day for the expedition. To my delight, I was invited to accompany Charlie and Wattie. The cradle, shovels and pans, along with a veritable picnic feast, were all loaded into Charlie’s four-wheel-drive vehicle and away we went. I cannot recall exactly where, but Wattie had a rough map based on his idea about the approximate location. “Many years ago”, he said, “a whole hill-side shifted bringing down gold-bearing rocks and material”. He kept saying “old timers were on to it, they kept talking about this massive land-slide”, inferring, of course, that he was on to a sure thing! I felt a bit like a pirate, searching the vast ocean for Treasure Island on the basis of hear-say and using a cryptic, encoded, scribbled map!

We went first to Hawea and then followed a gorge into the rugged hills behind the lake, fording creeks and following steep tracks forged by stock. I think now, looking at maps, we were on a tributary of the Timaru River, perhaps beyond Deep Spur Creek.

Charlie Perriam. Took Wattie prospecting.

Charlie knew the four-wheel-drive vehicle would be needed! We went through numerous gates. We didn’t see a soul. Then we seemed to be in one vast expanse of hills without any man-made feature. No trees, no fences, no water troughs, no buildings… nothing. Just us. Not a sheep in sight. The tracks ran out: we travelled across-country.  Wattie apparently recognised several of the highest peaks. We pressed on, slowly negotiating the rough and steeper spots. Then in a valley, beside a small creek, Wattie declared we had reached our destination. He assembled his latest-model box and positioned it carefully beside the creek. We set to work helping him shovel gravels and small stones into the cradle. We “prospected”, hence, for an hour or two, before changing location further up-stream. After lunch we resumed work and mid-afternoon Wattie said it was time to “wash up”. He carefully removed the matting from the cradle and scoop- by-scoop placed the “fines” into gold-pans. We were invited to follow his example and swirl the pan around until just the smallest fines, and any gold, remained. To “Wattie’s” disappointment, and ours, there was nothing showing in our first panning, nor in subsequent attempts. He reluctantly suggested we should break camp, pack up and head home. After a cuppa we made our way back through the hills to Hawea where we had further refreshment at the hotel before returning to Lowburn.

When we were alone I asked Charlie Perriam if he thought the trip had cured Wattie’s gold fever. “Yes, he’ll be a changed man tomorrow, less tense and much more relaxed. But he’ll go on studying, or trying to remember, prime prospecting sites and he’ll no doubt make further improvements to his cradle. For now it’s out of his system… until next time”. It had been a great day out. Rather than a pirate seeking treasure, I returned to the Davidson’s rather like the fishermen who took all the right tackle, recognised the best positions to fish, yet still returns home without a catch!

On the evening of November 28th 1979 I was at work, on duty in TV2’s Auckland newsroom when word came in that an Air New Zealand plane was overdue on a round-trip sightseeing flight from New Zealand to Antarctica. We took immediate moves to broadcast a news flash and follow-up information as progress reports came to hand. The DC10 plane, with a total of 257 people on board, was hopelessly overdue, then, mid-evening, it was declared lost: missing.

It was subsequently found that the plane had crashed into the slopes of Mt Erebus, Antarctica, and all on board would have been killed instantly. It turned out there were some well-known personalities on the flight, including mountaineer and Antarctic veteran, Peter Mulgrew, who was engaged as in-flight commentator to explain features, etc , to the passengers.

With so many Kiwis on the flight, almost every New Zealander knew someone, or of someone, or was in some way connected with one of those who died in the crash.

In our newsroom one of the reporters knew his aunt was on the flight. But I was unaware at the time that I, too, knew one of the victims.
Wattie Thompson decided he would like to take the sightseeing flight to see the ice. He had been on the flight in 1978 and decided to go again the following year. “I’m off to see that vast continent again”, as he put it to a friend in Lowburn. He was asked at the same time, strangely, what would happen if something went wrong “way down there” and he couldn’t get back. “I’d be happy to be left there,” Wattie was reported as saying.

But rescuers who had the shocking and testing task to toil amidst the carnage in the ice, working in severe cold and often in swirling, chilling, winds across the crash site, recovered many bodies, 213 of which were later positively identified.

Among them, Wattie Thompson. He was not left on the ice, as he thought he might, but now rests in Tarras Cemetery. For me a trip to Central Otago is not complete without a visit to his grave… and  “another chat with Wattie”.

I was privileged to know Wattie, the last of Central Otago’s alluvial gold-miners, and to have accompanied him in his later years as he prospected for gold in the back-blocks on what must have been one of his last expeditions to find the elusive precious metal that had been so much part of his life.

Amusing Times

Over the years during my many trips to Ardgour, there have been lighter moments.

#1 Strategy required for tragedy!

I think it may have been New Year’s Day when Dave McK arrived at the Davidson’s in time for breakfast.  He looked a bit the worse for wear after celebratory drinks at Cromwell or Lowburn, or both. His first words were “Strategy! Strategy!” The story unwound that on the way home there’d been an enforced stop somewhere near the Lindis Crossing. It was thought the dog in the boot might also like a comfort stop. Once released, the dog took off and was soon out of sight, gone!  Dave got back into the car and continued the journey, upset he had lost his best Huntaway. So when he got to the farmhouse he wanted to tell us all about the tragedy, except in his excited state he blurted out “Strategy, strategy!”. It took years to live it down… when putting up a suggestion, proposal or plan he would be asked …”and what, exactly, is your strategy?”

#2 Money Laundering

A good laundering was the corollary to this tale.

In those days there was but one crib, or bach, in the hills of former goldfields at Bendigo and it was owned by the Braithwaites of Dunedin who took up residence most school holidays. For some reason on this occasion Eric Braithwaite was staying in the place alone, perhaps preparing it before other family members arrived. One evening he visited the Davidsons for drinks and a meal and then returned, breakfast-time next day. His errand was urgent he said, asking Vic if he could borrow a fishing rod-and-reel, complete with hook. Vic immediately offered to go fishing with him, mentioning a spot not far from Bendigo on the Clutha which, lately, anglers had been saying was worthwhile. The trout were rising at dusk.  But before there was further talk of a fishing expedition, Eric was telling about one of his own.  And a bit different, a touch more pressing. “I want the rod to fish for my wallet which is in the long-drop. It fell out of my hip pocket and went straight down into the lavatory”.

…did not apply to Eric Braithwaite!

Eric was given the retrieval equipment and returned later in the day to say he had landed the catch and his wallet, and its contents, were drying out after a jolly good washing. Money laundering the old way!

#3 The Visitors

My mother was staying with her sister, Elsie, during a time when others were also visiting. They departed. My mother was shocked when a neighbour, Eve, asked Elsie, “… and have you got rid of your visitors yet?” Then instantly seeing the funny side, my mother butted in with, “Well yes… all but one!” Laughter followed. “Getting rid of your visitors” has been a catch-cry in our family ever since.

#4 Rafting the Lindis

The Lindis River was just 50 metres from Davidson’s house, a placid stream, no deeper than a metre and super-cold, so it provided refreshing dips in the hot summer temperatures. The easy access through Davidson’s property meant locals often visited to swim there. One afternoon we were at the swimming hole when Mr and Mrs Duff arrived from Tarras for a swim. There was quite a crowd: paddlers, swimmers and Mrs Duff with her new inflatable rubber raft, a Li-Lo.

“Lilo”, popular on rivers and lakes and at the beach

The middle-aged local school teacher tentatively tested the craft’s buoyancy at first, then once aboard lay on it, cooled by the water cascading between the raft and her prostrate form. Others relaxed on the river bank with cold drinks. Kids splashed in the shallows. Suddenly it was realised Mrs Duff was fast disappearing, being gently swept away on her Li-Lo, across, and then down the river. Eddies on the far side of the stream were much faster and the raft gathered speed and was soon out of sight, clearing the intake for the irrigation and on, around the bend. Despite shouted helpful advice about how to arrest her travels, she was gone. Several drivers raced over to the cars and gave chase along Ardgour Road hoping to rescue Mrs Duff before she reached the Lindis Crossing, beyond which lay the spot where the placid Lindis emptied into the turbulent, rushing, Clutha River! They waited for some time on the beach near the bridge hoping to intercept the rafter but Mrs Duff did not show. So they retraced the river back towards the Davidson’s swimming hole. Mrs Duff was found caught up in low-slung willow branches on the far river bank and was soon rescued, none the worse for wear except a little breathlessness and her broken pride… she knew very well that not only would the story get out, but it would be retold many times!

 #5 Phoning Elsie

At last we got a phone in our Epsom home and  my mother often had difficulty phoning Ardgour to talk with her sister Elsie. Manual telephone exchanges and phone numbers had long since disappeared from Auckland when the Davidsons still had their old wall-phone and number, Tarras 5S. My mother would dial 0, the number to place a  New Zealand toll call and when she asked for Tarras, would often be referred to the International operator… “Paris is overseas, in France” was the tart reply. “No,” my mother would say, “Tarras, with a ‘T’ “. Then spelling out the name. “It’s in New Zealand”. Sometimes operators would reveal they had no idea and would hang up, leaving my mother to start again. The real point was that surely there wasn’t a phone number 5S in Paris… it was more likely to be a 9 figure number, even in those days!!

Other Auckland operators could not believe there was a phone number “5S” anywhere in New Zealand. Sometimes the process was helped if my mother said “it’s via Dunedin”: operators there were familiar with the exchanges in the back-blocks of Central Otago and would quickly connect the call.

Manual model, similar to Davidson’s first phone.

Whist on telephones. At the Davidson’s house an incoming phone call would be signalled with three short rings, repeatedly, until answered. Any Boy Scout will tell you the Morse Code for S is three shorts, three “dots” – and Davidson’s number, 5 S with its distinctive three short rings, differentiated from other telephone subscribers further round the valley, neighbours, who were on the same party line. From memory 4 or 5 other subscribers shared the same line, so all “parties” could hear the three short rings for the Davidsons as well as for others. The line was busiest at breakfast-time and in the evenings when farm work was being arranged or (evenings) with social calls. One benefit was that if one of the “parties”, say, the Davidsons, were on holiday, and there was persistent ringing for them, another party could pick up the phone to advise the caller of the reason Davidsons weren’t answering! It also meant anyone on the party line could listen in on other people’s conversations… but this was a no, no – and detectable, I gather, by a “click” that could be heard when another party either picked up the phone or hung up.

There were several drawbacks to the party line system. Only one phone on the party line could be used at once, so during conversations users always had to have in mind that someone else might be waiting to make a call. Before calling the exchange one would pick up the phone and listen… asking “Working?” and if there was no reply, the line was clear and the exchange could be called by briefly cranking the handle. Once you finished the call you “rang off” with another brief crank, indicating to other party-line members that you had concluded your call and that  the line was now clear for other calls. Another drawback was that if the telephone line was faulty, down, or intermittent because it was rubbing against wet tree branches (Poplars in Ardgour Valley), all phones along the party line were affected, leaving a community without  phones: a risk during civil defence or medical emergency.


Davidsons later got the modern version of the manual telephone. MOTAT Collections

Neighbours who shared the party line reckoned they could tell when I was holidaying at the Davidsons – there were many more phone calls for 5s! It was invariably the office calling for an “urgent” conversation. Two weeks is a long time to be away from a busy television news organisation! Fortunately these calls were during office hours when the party line wasn’t so busy, but for longer calls I would tell the office I would call them back in half an hour, motor around to Tarras Post Office/Telephone Exchange where I would lodge a “reverse charges” call to my colleagues.

Tarras Telephone Exchange was only open business hours Monday to Friday. For after-hours calls Davidsons paid an extra annual fee enabling their phone, 5s, to remain in service around-the-clock, switched through Cromwell’s exchange which was open all hours.  The Post Office later upgraded equipment and installed a phone with a dial, and a new number for the Davidsons, 522, which remained well into the 1990’s when the rest of the world had multiple digit phone numbers!

 #6 Stripped Bare!

Word went round that a crib (bach), a distant neighbour of the Davidsons, had been sold with effective date the last day of the month and that the new owners would not be visiting until Easter. It was noted that the numerous fruit trees on the property were laden. So on the first of the new month, long before new owners arrived, we mounted an all-out attack on the place.We were the “waste-not, want-not brigade” and we took a couple of step-ladders, baskets, boxes and crates and picked apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums and a few cherries. We stripped the trees nearly bare. Such a shame if they had been left on the trees for the birds and to rot! And then for the next few days I helped Elsie prepare the fruit for either jam-making or for “bottling”, preserved in glass Agee jars.


Fruit bottled in Summer saw the Davidsons right through the winter months.

She ransacked cupboards and the wash-house to find enough jars. For quite a time everyone who came to the house shared the bounty, taking away a pot of this or that jam.

#7 Under… where, exactly?

Elsie was treasurer of Tarras Collie Club for a number of years. On the day of the dog trials the takings amounted to a tidy sum. There were the entrants’ fees and then the proceeds of the bar. Elsie had a tin with a hinged lid and clasp for these days so that no money was lost. After a busy day at the trials and a few gins in the make-shift bar, it was time to go home. But in the morning Elsie could not find the tin with the takings inside. She recollected that she had slid it under her bed for safekeeping. But there was no sign of it in the bedroom. Several days went by and Elsie became more and more concerned. She began to think she would have to declare the loss. But… just how much was involved? She would have to make a “best guess” of how much the tin contained at the end of the busy trials day and then reimburse the Club out of her own pocket. She was spared the embarrassment when the tin was found under the front seat of the car. Her recollection of sliding it under the bed was just a little astray!

#8 Pigeon Post

The Mt Cook Company bus from Christchurch to Queenstown stopped each afternoon for refreshments at the Wayside Tearooms in Tarras. A regular passenger once remarked that whenever she travelled on the bus she noticed that the number of cups set out, ready for afternoon tea, always matched, exactly, the number of passengers travelling on that particular day. “How do you know how many to prepare for? How is it that there’s always just the right number of cups?” she asked Mary Ruffell who ran the the tearooms.

Mt Cook bus awaits passengers at Wayside Tearooms, Tarras, 1960

“We do it by pigeon post,” Mary explained, “…we have a helper who lives in the remote Lindis Pass. She watches out for the bus each day, writes the number of passengers on a small piece of tissue paper, wraps it around the pigeon’s leg and dispatches the bird to us here in Tarras. It’s our very own Pigeon Post… the bird always beats the bus here, so we just have to retrieve the note and we know how many passengers to cater for. That way we can everything set out so we can serve everyone within the 15 minutes before the bus has to depart”.

The inquisitive woman said that she would watch out for the release of the pigeon next time she travelled on the bus. Perchance, before the woman’s next visit Mary took in a pair of pigeons to look after. When the woman arrived on the bus some time later she told Mary how bitterly disappointed she was not to have seen the pigeon being released in the Lindis Pass. She must have missed it. Mary consoled her, and reinforced the story about Pigeon Post, by showing her the pigeons in the loft behind the tearooms. “There, that’s the one that was on duty today,” said Mary pointing to one of the birds, “the one that you missed being released up the Lindis Pass… you can see he’s a bit tired, not long flown in!”

A real pigeon post operated between Great Barrier Island and Auckland, 1880s- 1910. First airmail stamps in the world. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

The truth was that the “helper” in the Lindis Pass was a woman who lived in a house right alongside the highway. As the bus went by it either slowed to jettison the daily newspaper or stopped to deliver parcels. The woman would quickly scan the passengers aboard and then telephone Mary Ruffell with the number travelling! The house was the furthermost up the Pass with a phone connected to the Tarras exchange. Mary, thus, always knew how many to expect for afternoon tea: no pigeons required!

#9 Road Kill

During a visit to Central Otago my sister Faye reported that while on an outing Vic suddenly stopped the car, backed up, parked on the shoulder and got out. There was no apparent reason for the stop. The call of nature?  Faye dared not ask! Aunty Elsie, as if reading her mind, said just one word “Hare”. Vic popped the roadkill in the boot, to be taken home for dog tucker.

#10 Merv’s Holden Car

Davidson’s nearest neighbours at Ardgour, Merv Trevathen and wife Russell, were on their way to Auckland for a visit. They had not been to Auckland before and had heard all sorts of disturbing tales about traffic jams and the propensity to get lost in the big metropolis north of the Bombay Hills. It was arranged that I would meet them at the top of the Bombay Hills and act as pilot to get them through southern suburbs to Remuera. This was achieved. With others, I helped out as driver for the Trevathens’ local sightseeing trips and visits. It wasn’t until we were farewelling the travellers that it was revealed that the handbrake on Merv’s Holden car wasn’t working… and hadn’t in a very long time.  My parents could not believe that Merv had set out on the trip all the way to Auckland without an efficient handbrake! We saw to it that it was fixed for the return journey.

#11 Alternative Means of Travel 

For the next tale a short history lesson is required. In the late 1970s the New Zealand Government implemented several support measures for farmers to ensure production, and therefore, to both maintain and enhance exports.  First, Producer Boards introduced an incentive scheme – Guaranteed Prices – for wool, beef and dairy.  Then Supplementary Minimum Prices (SMPs) were introduced as further financial support to complement price stabilisation for meat and wool – the Government underwrote returns to farmers so they received a reasonable income to live on and encouraging them to increase farm production.

So one day during the time of these incentives, run-holder Colin Whittleston of Tarras was in conversation with other farmers when he advised “I’m off to Dunedin tomorrow for a meeting”.

“So, Colin, are you taking the Guaranteed Prices or the SMPs?” someone asked.

Everyone laughed heartedly. The wag was asking whether Colin intended travelling in his late-model Mercedes Benz (paid for by Guaranteed Prices?) or in his light aircraft (purchased with SMPs?). Colin appreciated the leg-pull!

# 12 UFO over Wanaka?

An evening with the Duffs was a regular arrangement I treasured whenever I visited: good conversation followed by supper. It was on one of these occasions that Geoff Duff autographed a copy of his 1978 book “Sheep May Safely Graze – the story of Morven Hills Station and the Tarras District”. I have used his book to confirm, or augment, some of these recollections.

The Duffs’ house was up a steep driveway off the highway behind the service station/motor garage in Tarras “township”, its elevation giving wide-ranging views across the Upper Clutha towards Wanaka and Aspiring National Park.

From this vantage point we watched the full moon rise on this particular evening. Later in the night a bright light appeared in the sky, probably over Wanaka we thought, more or less confirmed by looking at a map Geoff produced.  He tried to plot its exact location, using the just-visible silhouettes of some of the higher distant peaks.

There was no doubt – we could all easily see this bright white, maybe silvery, light. It persisted and there was no real explanation, though there were plenty of guesses, most in jest! Our sighting was the kind of stuff that reports of Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) are made of. It was apparent that it was very, very, bright, far more powerful than car headlights or an electric light. It was noted that the light was fading about the time we were having our belated supper, and then, the next time we looked, the light had gone.

Geoff persisted with enquiries next day, determined to try to find the light’s source. Perhaps he was helped by Second World War experiences where, as a military intelligence officer at-the-front, he would plot allied and enemy positions several times daily during the protracted campaign to take Cassino in Italy.

Now, in daylight when he could see across the Upper Clutha countryside and match it with the map, he was fairly certain he knew its approximate location. In true “UFO Busters” style he set off in his car to investigate. Geoff’s clever plotting skills by night and navigation by day paid off when he found the source of the unexplained intense silver-white light.

He returned to Tarras and phoned Davidsons to advise the mystery had been solved when somewhere near Luggate high up in the hills he came across a large farmhouse under construction. It was on a slope facing Tarras and in direct line-of-sight with the Duff’s house. The corrugated iron roof, with its unpainted tinny-shine, created a perfect reflector for the full moon! As we had noted, the intense light faded and had then disappeared as the moon crossed the sky.

#13 Great Debates

These really amused me, all the more so because these debates – let’s not call them arguments – were always deadly serious. The scene generally unfolded somewhere on the farm (this example is in the lucerne paddock), the timing was just prior to harvest (the lucerne hay had to be turned once more, almost ready for baling) and the characters are usually two Tarras locals. Occasionally, as in this one-act scenario, there would be a third in the cast.

Act 1, Scene 1

[Merv Trevathen is driving along Ardgour Road, spots Vic Davidson working in the road-side lucerne paddock and stops for a yarn. Both are leaning on the wire fence overlooking the crop. Vic rolls a cigarette].

Merv: “Whatta ya’ thinking, how many bales do you reckons in that lot?”

Vic: “Well, it’ll be far better than last year, what, with that rain we had, what was it, 3mils a week ago”

Merv: “Yeah, so what’s in it, then?”

Vic: “Gotta be a couple of hundred bales”

Merv: “What? In that case I might be in for a few, cos you’ll have more than you want yaself”

Vic: “Yep, I’ll stack the lot here and you can take it later as you need it for feeding out”

Merv: “I think you might be a bit short of ya estimate, this is the second cut, after all, second time ‘round!”

Vic: “But I got the water to it just after that rain so it’s had plenty, should be good for 200”

[A swirl of gravel dust stirred up by a ute signals the arrival of Clyde Oliver. He clambers out. Vic lights his cigarette again. “Giddays” all ‘round].

Merv: Just saying, there shouldn’t ought to be* as much as usual in this [nods towards the lucerne].

Clyde: Too dry? Missed the bloody water, eh. When I saw it earlier this week it was looking a bit dry!

Vic: No, she’s had plenty of water right through. Looks good to me.  I’m saying 250 bales.

Merv: But look, down that far corner. It’s obvious the water missed there. Them’ll be thin pickings!

Clyde: Well, I forget what you got last year, but it looks real green and solid down by Dry Creek.

Merv: And don’t forget you had the bugs in it before, and there still might be a bit of that around.

Vic: The spray got all those buggers, no sign of ‘em, this lot’s clean as a whistle, very leafy.

Clyde: Well, I’d say 200 bales meself. Wanna hand to bring it in… looks like tomorrow… is it?

Vic: Yeah, thanks, I gonna finish turning it now, so as soon as any dew dries off in the morning…

Merv: I reckon you’ll be struggling to get 200, never mind yah 250, Vic. But we’ll see.

Clyde: Yeah, see ya in the morning after breakfast.

[Exit Merv to get on with shifting his water, Clyde on his way home and Vic gets back on the tractor]

* “Shouldn’t ought to be” is an expression heard widely throughout Central Otago

Act 1, Scene 2

[Late the following afternoon, in a corner of the lucerne paddock beside the new stack of freshly-baled hay. The job complete, Clyde and Vic are having smoko]

Clyde: So what’s the count?

Vic: Guess? You were keen to say yesterday. Do I remember correctly… 200 was it you said?

Clyde: Yep. You said 250. Merv reckoned yer wouldn’t see 200. Who nailed it?

Vic: 270-odd here on the stack and a few collapsed bales still to pick up.

Clyde: 270! Christ! At that rate, it’s your shout!

And our Morality Sketch ends with the same result, whether a discussion between farmers about lamb prices, number of bushels of barley in the house paddock, or yield from the potato patch. Everyone guesses but no one really knows!  As the observer of so many of these very earnest conversations, I always found them most amusing!


Apart from those who holidayed at Davidson’s, there were a surprising number of folk who called at the farmhouse. These visitors were always welcomed by me when I was staying because they provided a bit of variety and good reason to boil the Zip for a cup of tea! The most frequent were neighbours or near-neighbours, some making a social call, some coming to borrow a bit of farm machinery to complete some job or another. Occasionally they come looking for Vic’s help, their project or activity having struck trouble. Another “set” of callers were checking up on, or contributing to, club or recreational activities the Davidsons were involved in – and these were many over the years.

Then there were others, locals, known to the Davidsons who most likely would pop in about “smoko” time, just in time for “a cuppa”!

Occasionally the Race Man would call… he was employed to ensure all the irrigation water races were free-flowing, that there were no leaks and the manual sluice-valves kept operating… these were relied on to  divert water along the races to various farms.  The first race man I met was on horseback, but the farm motorcycle soon became preferred.

Another caller, probably a couple of times a year, was the Rabitter, one of the Rabbit Board employees whose task it was to reduce the rabbit population. He usually travelled on horseback, riding his “beat”, the territory he worked in the hills between Ardgour and Tarras and near the Lindis Crossing. He was sometimes accompanied by a sack of stoats which he would send down rabbit holes to chase out the quarry. Other times he set traps and snares. I once saw him with a rifle, so some Rabbiters also used this method against the pests.

There were other callers, no matter that the house was quite remote, well off the main highway. The coal merchant popped in regularly to top-up supply for the coal range and laundry copper. Then there was the traveller from liquor merchants in Dunedin, Meehans, looking for Vic’s order, usually a dozen large bottles of Speights beer and a bottle of whisky! The meter-reader from the Power Board was another regular visitor.

“The agent” was another regular caller, the man who travelled the district to inspect stock prior to its purchase and transportation to the freezing works. Vic would have advised he had stock for sale and corralled the sheep in the yards ready for the agent who chose the ones he wanted, sorted them and marked them.

Corralling the sheep for the agent. I am
accompanied by (left) Alistair Smith

The sheep would be held in the yards ready for the truck the following morning.

And since I was often there during school holidays, there would be visits by Davidson’s friends and relatives from Dunedin, or those from even further afield in the course of a tour of the South Island.

The Agonies of Television

The Davidsons were among the first in Ardgour Valley to purchase a television set in the mid-1960s. Once installed in their sitting room they had to find a way to get transmission. They joined locals who formed the Ardgour Television Society, each family contributing money to help pay for a translator enabling a TV signal to reach the Valley.  The Society took advice from NZBC and decided to install the translator high up on the Pisa Range, more or less at the back of Lowburn and well above the winter snow-line. It would take the signal from NZBC’s Dunedin or Hedgehope transmitter, boost it and re-broadcast it, the signal beamed towards Ardgour.

It required power. With mains supply impossible on the remote mountain, a solar panel was provided to charge the batteries. From memory, members of the Society journeyed up the mountain and installed the translator in DIY style, led, I think, by Cromwell’s electrician at the time Michael Williamson. The equipment, housed in a metal box, had to be cemented in, anchored well against stormy and windy weather frequently experienced on Pisa.

A few families further north, in the Lindis Pass, joined the Society when it was found they, too, could receive TV from the Pisa translator.

“Snow” on the Screen

But it was only ever a partial success. Weather conditions frequently affected reception on the

mountain – subsequently the signal delivered to Society members was often poor. As per the Society’s Constitution, they took it in turns to venture up the mountain (an all-day, miserable, trek by tractor in winter) to check on the equipment and make any repairs. When there was no picture at all in winter it was usually because thick snow or ice covered the solar panel, preventing batteries being charged and no power supply.

Members would put up with poor, or no, TV reception for a few days before the decision was taken to visit the site to check on the translator. Vic Davidson made this trip several times, sometimes taking visitors with him. He would lash an old sofa to the farm trailer and tow it behind the David Brown tractor. It was a rough ride. Once at altitude on Pisa there were no roads, sometimes tracks: in other places it was a cross-country climb. Apart from the adventure of tackling the Pisa Range on a tractor or 4-wheel-drive vehicle, the view on a fine day from the translator site was very worthwhile.

Despite periodic check-ups, the translator delivered only so-so picture quality on TV screens in Ardgour and in the Lindis Pass. Some nights it was impossible to see the picture through “snow”, just a mass of white lines moving across the screen, other nights the sound was perfect but picture-wise there were only vague, almost eerie, moving shapes on-screen.

Every possible action was taken by Vic to improve the picture on his TV set in the sitting room. The roof-top aerial would be checked, re-positioned and then moved again. The aerial was moved out from the house, more or less in line-of-sight with Pisa, but with little improvement. The wires into the house from the aerial would be checked. The set would be moved around within the sitting room… all, often, to no avail: once again there was no improvement in the picture. TVOne, the only channel, was elusive. Then Vic’s own remedy seemed to work. He discovered, and don’t ask me how, that silver paper sometimes helped. He would take silver lining from a cigarette packet and wrap it around the aerial cable near where it entered the set. He would slide the crimped paper up and down the cable until the optimum picture showed on screen. Very non-technical but Vic swore by it.

The Davidsons, and the half dozen or so other families in the valley, endured indifferent TV reception for years.

“Not Worth the Cost of the TV Licence…”

As I worked for the NZBC, I got some of the blame, especially when time came around to renew the annual TV licence.

“We are not getting our money’s worth!” said Vic, “subsidising the system with our fees when we don’t get clear coverage, on top of which we have to pay the costs for the translator!” He had a point. But things came to a head in 1976 when TV2 became available in Otago but was not available on the translator. Vic received notice to renew his TV licence and his litigious nature kicked in. “I’m only paying half the fee because we receive half the service, just one TV channel, and then only now and again,” he told officials. Sensing a dangerous precedent, they insisted on full payment. Vic dug in and the matter was headed for a court case in Dunedin when the Post Office (the licensing agent) backed down.

Some little time later I was in Dunedin on TV2 business and I met with the Transmission Engineer to ask him when the Broadcasting Council’s technical team would be taking over the Mt Pisa translator from the Ardgour Viewers’ Society. Many other translators throughout New Zealand had already been transferred from Societies as part of nation-wide coverage plans. I thought it was about time Ardgour viewers got free service! He referred to his coverage map and confessed that he, and therefore the “system”, did not know there were families living in Ardgour Valley! On top of which he had no knowledge of the Pisa translator. I must have tickled a nerve: soon after that the BCNZ made arrangements to take over the translator. Reception, of both channels, immediately improved. TV3 was added later, The Society was wound-up: it had fulfilled its role to introduce TV to some of the more remote parts of Central Otago.

Further Litigation

Vic had long been concerned about the intake, the channel where water was diverted from the Lindis River into a main water race which took irrigation supplies to farms for miles around. Numerous farmers depended on it, taking it in turns to “have the water” for stock, crops, or pasture. The intake was just behind the Davidson’s house but its exact position was subject to the river itself. Sometimes, after increased Spring-time flows, the river’s main channel would meander and large stones, tumbled in the currents, would partially block the intake. Vic said Catchment officials did not oversee the intake properly and, as a consequence, it was not well maintained and optimum flows were not available for irrigation. Regular testing of water flows proved this, Vic would say, so farmers were being cheated their water rights, which they paid for.

After one prolonged exchange between Vic and the Catchment Board, a bulldozer was deployed along the river bank to clear stones and re-cut the channel leading to the intake. But this was make-shift action, Vic said, and it was not long before he was in correspondence again with Catchment authorities. This ended in stalemate so Vic began legal action against the Catchment Board, alleging it was not properly carrying out its obligations under the law. This eventually led to a hearing in Court. A formula was agreed and the Judge said he would review the matter in 6 months to ensure compliance. There was immediate further work at the intake.

Dog Trials

Sheep dog trials, competition taken very seriously by many high country shepherds, are held under the auspices of the Collie Dog Clubs throughout New Zealand. Vic Davidson was a member of his local club at Tarras which enabled him to compete (and eligible for prizes), in local trials and to take part at other clubs. This he did, sometimes travelling long distances if he had a promising dog which he thought might do well. In later years Vic was listed as Judge in the Collie Club calendar, and again he journeyed when invited to judge events by Canterbury, Otago and Southland Clubs.

The trials test the skills of both farmer and dog in, typically, everyday tasks carried out with sheep on the farm such as mustering, rounding up, and driving the flock to, say, new grazing paddocks or to the shearing shed. The dogs have this work-ethic in their blood and they’re bred for it.

Two Divisions

There are two quite separate competitions: each must be completed within a specified time limit.

Heading, usually carried out on flat paddocks, tests the ability to drive 4 sheep to, or around, certain points on the course, usually concluding in manoeuvring them into a small pen and closing the gate, “Yarding”. The collie dogs carry this out this work in silence, answering the shepherd’s whistled, shouted or hand signals, an exercise of close collaboration between man and dog, and dog and sheep. These are the events Vic often judged.

Huntaway, the other division, is said to be a unique New Zealand event, testing the breed which some say originated in Hunterville in the Rangitikei district.  In contrast to Heading events, this contest is carried out on sharply rising, steep, ground. Markers or discs erected at set distances on the face of a hill indicate where the sheep must be driven… between the markers up, and across, the steep territory: much longer distances than the Heading course. One contest is between discs straight up the hill, another is up a marked zig-zag course.

A Huntaway at work… barking at the sheep

The dogs are encouraged to bark to help drive the 4 sheep and because they are often a long way from the shepherd, out of earshot of his voice, the whistle has to be used. And if the wind is in the wrong direction, hand signals have to be relied on. This relies on the dog constantly watching the shepherd to get direction. Huntaway dogs usually run long distances as they marshal the sheep between markers. The trial ends when the sheep are driven past a certain point, often against a fence-line so they are easily and quickly rounded up before the next competitor begins.

At the Trials

I enjoyed dog trials and didn’t miss an opportunity to attend, either with Vic or another local farmer, both locally or afar. The organisation of each event, overseen by a Club Committee, was no mean feat. The courses had to be prepared, entries canvassed and fees taken, judges and timekeepers appointed, “liberators” (to let the sheep out on to the course at the right moment so each competitor can get a fair start) and then a mob of sheep “lent” by a local farmer. Lunch, or dinner as it’s referred to in these parts, had to be ready for helpers and visitors around midday , preparation often in the hands of a school committee, an RSA women’s committee or such-like, women-folk who looked forward to the annual sheep dog trials as a fund-raiser. At Tarras the cookhouse, used just once a year, was a small shack near the Heading course: at its heart an old coal range which was stoked up on the day to provide substantial hot meals at midday and hot water for tea and coffee. Without electricity laid on to the shack and its cramped quarters, the women did well to cater for all those at the event.

Some men preferred stronger beverages which were served from the cookhouse later in the day when it converted to a bar, as per terms of the one-day Special Licence to Sell Alcoholic Liquor. Refreshments, I recall, were often prolonged sessions, long after the trials and prize-giving had ended. When darkness descended the bar was lit by the headlights of a few well-placed vehicles.

With experience as a regular spectator, I soon got familiar with sheep dog trials. I became used to the commands given by competitors and found these differed from district to district. A shepherd who, telling his dog to lay-off, shouted “That’ll do!” was invariably from South Otago or Southland. “Stand”, “get in behind” and “walk up” were often heard, as was “wayleggo” (which most dictionaries attribute derivation to New Zealand), short for “Way here, let go!”, meaning to end the task and return to the shepherd. For the Huntaway you often heard “Speak Up!”, the shepherd encouraging the dog to bark to help move the sheep. Shepherds’ directions were given in two other ways. Most competitors had a whistle with which to signal commands.

The shepherd’s whistle

These were the flat shepherd’s whistle, usually worn on a lanyard around the shepherd’s neck and giving a single shrill tone. The number of whistles, some short, some long and some a combination, directed the dog. Hand signals were also important as used by some shepherds and in some cases this direction was augmented by a stick, staff or crook: some of these were ornately carved and I think they may have been used at the trials by several generations.

As a frequent on-looker, I also saw the various events within the two main divisions. In the Heading there was the likes of the “Long Pull and Yard” while up on the hill it was the Zig-Zag. In the Heading a great deal of patience on the part of the shepherd was often called-for as the dog took its time to carefully manipulate the sheep through the obstacles of the course. Collies are “eyeing dogs”, so often paused during their work, waiting to connect eye-to-eye with the sheep, a sort of hypnotising superiority.

A sheepdog often eyes a sheep, staring it down, during trials

Within a minute or two of each trial beginning, the dog would have sensed which of the sheep was the leader of the group and would concentrate “staring down” that animal, willing it to do what the dog wanted, hoping the others would follow. The shepherd was always in close contact with his dog, walking the course following progress, but only within certain designated boundaries as the contest progressed. At one stage he is permitted to walk up to the pen to open the gate, but must remain there, hand on the gate, as the 4 sheep are “yarded” or penned. Then the shepherd must close the gate on them, ending that trial.

The much more robust Huntaway dogs, on the other hand, were more boisterous, bullying rather than cajoling.

I often heard from the competitors, each fancying his chances, but dependent on a variety of factors which might affect their performance. Too much wind on the Huntaway course might spook the sheep. Shepherds thought that trials conducted in drizzle might also be hampered by niggly, uncomfortable, sheep. After a few slow, or incomplete, runs some competitors did not like their chances, citing “uneducated sheep” who were unpredictable! Similarly, in the Heading events contestants did not like to see defiant sheep, stamping their front foot at the dog in an act of rebelliousness. Some triallists reckoned late afternoon Huntaway runs were not ideal because the sheep had been cooped up all day in the heat awaiting their turn, thus slow to react to direction. I gathered some of these excuses were probably to make up for a poor showing on the day!

I also became familiar with the rules. Dogs to be tethered at all times unless actually trialling, no bitches on heat allowed anywhere near the trial grounds, and convention –  and that where a competitor’ was having a hopelessly disastrous run, it’s manners to pull out to let the next competitor start without unduly wasting time.


Latterly I would accompany Vic Davidson when he travelled to judge trials. Once on-site he would be given a list of the contestants and their dogs and he would take up a position that enabled him to see the course, often sitting in his car on a mound or slope. It was his “office” for the day. The trials were a fairly strict routine. Once the competitor was ready the 4 sheep would be liberated on to the course and allowed to settle. The bell would be rung once they were still to indicate the timer was on and the trial had begun. Vic, the judge, watched proceedings intently. Alongside him sat a clerk (sometimes me) to note down points deducted for mistakes and poor performance. Vic would call out the reason, and the number of points to be deducted, so I got quite used to the process. “Off the line”, “crossed the line”, “nipping sheep’s ankles”, “stopped for a piss”, “stopped for a sniff”, “bad run out”, “ignoring commands” and “excessive run out”, were frequent calls for a loss of points. (By the way it was the dog which was penalised for stopping for activities above, not the shepherd!). Sometimes the timekeeper would call “time!” before a competitor had completed the trial: that was the end of the exercise for him, usually all hopes dashed of taking a prize. In colder weather Vic would have egg-nog to fortify him, prepared by Elsie before he left home. There would be a welcome break for lunch, and then back into the trails to complete the fields. The trials I attended were all one day affairs, but in their hey-day there would be so many entrants that events would carry over several days.


I went to Darfield with Vic where he judged. It was a long day… first the journey from Tarras, then a day of trials (I clerked for Vic), the prize-giving, some food followed by an extended session in the bar. I was driving the ute back to Tarras. It was late at night, long after petrol stations had closed, and we were short of gas. I got on to the Lindis Pass and cautiously cruised in neutral down every slope we came to, thus saving petrol. But there was no way of being extra-economical because most of the steep up-hill stretches required lower-gear work. Vic seemed unconcerned about the situation. We left the road at Morven Hills Station to get fuel. Vic said, despite the late hour (it must have been after midnight), there’d be no problem. Once at the farmhouse Vic saw a man about a top-up after which we were soon on our way again.

Morven Hills Woolshed, built in the 1870s, largest woolshed in New Zealand

Vic, himself, had mixed success at the trials with a number of dogs he entered over the years. I recall in my rather tender years that one aging collie dog that repeatedly failed to perform was put down. As Vic put it “…died of lead poisoning”. I liked the euphemism!

Dog Trials were no recent activity – Tarras Collie Club has been in existence many years. Likewise, Lowburn, a popular event which, at its prime, scheduled events over 3 days: the annual trials  interrupted only by Depression and World Wars, the course now moved to higher ground following the filling of Lake Dunstan.

Vic Davidson was a Life Member of the Tarras Collie Club.

A recent innovation has been experimentation to show off modern shepherding which frequently involves mustering by helicopter. “Heli-Trials” were held by Tarras Collie Club where 4 pilots, airborne shepherds, showed their expertise using a helicopter to direct sheep through two exercises, the short – and long – head and yard. While some traditionalists decried the competition, those defending it said helicopter stockmanship was becoming commonplace here as a cost-effective method of mustering.  Those who took part in 4 helicopters were amazed that for the most part they could drive 3 sheep along the trails course just as neatly as 3,000 head in the hills.

Years earlier I had seen the potential for traditional sheepdog trials to be shown on TV. I would like to think that some of my urging colleagues at NZBC Rurals in Hamilton helped influence thinking that led to a very successful television series, hosted by John Gordon, which endured for several seasons.

Golfing Days

Both Elsie and Vic were keen golf players, members of the Tarras Golf Club which had been established in 1953 some 30 years or so after it was recorded that social games had first been played in the district. The new Club immediately mapped out a preferred 9-hole course more or less centred on the proposed new hall near the Recreation Grounds on State Highway 8. The hall would be the Clubrooms, its headquarters, where golfers would gather and leave from (after a briefing) and return to (the 19th). The 3 land owners agreed and the course created, formally opened in July 1956. It’s still very much in use today. Golfers faced several unique hazards as they went around… they had to cross the State Highway at some stage during the game and players had to avoid hitting their ball into a water race alongside one of the fairways. The golf links are grazed so additional hazards are created by sheep, though fences protect the putting greens. There are 9 holes but when played twice the course’s different tees provide alternative starting points and make it an interesting par 72 challenge. For years Vic and Elsie were on Golf Committees – Vic was part of the greens committee which oversaw maintenance and preparation of the links, latterly with the help of Geoff Duff who put in many hours watering and grooming the greens. Elsie took her part in Ladies Golf Union affairs.

The Merino sheep embodied in the Club’s logo

I was never attracted to golf as a player but was happy to caddy for Vic or Elsie, and while most tournaments were at Tarras, I also travelled with the Davidsons to Wanaka and Cromwell. It was a whole new set of jargon, rules and conventions. It was also another way to meet the locals… the game played as Canadian Foursomes provided plenty of opportunities.

One year in September I caddied for Vic at Tarras in extraordinary circumstances. I gather it was the main annual tournament so most local players were there plus many visitors.  At the Clubrooms before they ventured out for the afternoon’s play they were given the usual list of starting tees, etc, and then they were advised that Vic Davidson’s caddy would be arriving during play, flying in from Auckland. So if players on the 5th fairway saw a plane circling about 3.30pm, they should mark their places and move aside to let the aircraft land.  Disruption, they were told, would be minimal. Having dropped Vic’s caddy, the plane would immediately take off and once it was airborne players could resume.

This was, in fact, me arriving for a 2 week spring holiday with the Davidsons. Because both Vic and Elsie were busy with the big golfing day, they had arranged for Ernie Collings to pick me up at Alexandra Airport in his Cessna plane and land me “on the 5th”. Ernie was at the airport’s terminal building to greet me off the South Pacific Airlines flight.

SPANZ flew DC3 planes into smaller centres like Alexandra. Graeme Ayson, Walsh Archive Collections, MOTAT

Having gathered my suitcase, I was soon in the small plane and we were headed for Tarras. In the crystal-clear air it was an absolute eye-opener, spectacular viewing of Central Otago from the air. There must have been early and plentiful spring rains because the countryside was much greener than I imagined. I could pick out roads and landmarks and soon enough we were overhead Tarras and the golf course which we circled, just once, before Ernie landed the plane in the middle of the 5th, while a  couple of players waited off to the side. Thanking Ernie, I disembarked and within a minute or two he was off again, heading home to the airstrip on his farm not far away. I had a chance to thank him with a “shout” when, later that evening, he turned up as arranged at the 19th, bringing with him my luggage. Meanwhile, I had found Vic on the course and caddied for him for the remainder of the day. We reckoned that what had happened at Tarras that day was unique: even top international players at exclusive overseas golf clubs could not have their caddies arrive in this way, interrupting play while the plane landed mid-fairway!

The Local Hall: Hub of the Community

The public hall is the hub of most rural districts, often “social headquarters”,  especially, if like Tarras, there is no local hotel or tavern.

Although there were earlier ones, I have always known a hall fronting State Highway 8 opposite the golf course. For travellers motoring south, the hall is the first sign that they are approaching Tarras. The building was purpose-built to cater for the many local groups and organisations that would be using it, based on experience with the “old” hall.

Looking back, the district has quite a history with its halls.

1920s: Tale of Two Halls

Geoff Duff in his book “Sheep may safely graze” says, in the days before there was a hall at Tarras, that local woolsheds or the schoolrooms were used for meetings, parties, wedding breakfast etc.

Discussions immediately following World War One tested support for a hall, but these came to nothing. Tarras local, John Shadrock, realised a need and filled the gap in 1922 when he converted his large storehouse, adding meeting rooms etc. and it became a focus for local functions.  A once-weekly movie session, provided by the travelling projectionists “Hulls Electric Pictures”, was added in the 1930s.

Horace Hull began exhibiting movies in Central Otago from 1909. His outfit visited centres, such as Cromwell, Lawrence, Alexandra, Omakau and Clyde and then extended further afield from 1917 to Pembroke (name later changed to Wanaka), Lowburn, Hawea and Tarras in 1917 on what the Hulls advertised a “periodical visit”.

“Cromwell Argus” newspaper advertisement 5th March 1917Mr Horace Hull operated the “kinematic” projection machine while Mr J. Parker, pianist, provided mood music to go with the silent movies. “Mr Parker…” one write-up boasted, “…is a high class player: among other performances he has competed for the world’s playing record”. Advertisements during World War One often featured movies from the Front… and Mr Hull donated a percentage of the takings to local patriotic causes. The advertisement suggested a “periodical visit” to Tarras, and there’s little evidence Mr Hull exhibited there often until some time after World War One.

From the 1930s Mr Shadrock’s hall in Tarras provided a venue for regular weekly visits Horace Hull who by this time had his equipment set up in his vehicle. He parked it alongside the hall enabling the movies to be projected through a hole in the wall on to the screen inside. About this time the “talkies” arrived.

In the meantime Ardgour residents subscribed funds for their own hall which was completed in 1924.

Following World War Two there were again talks of building a new hall at Tarras as a memorial to those from the district who made the supreme sacrifice for their country.

Mr Shadrock offered to sell his hall to the community, but some locals wanted a new one, while those at Ardgour said they were happy with their own hall and would therefore not financially support a new one at Tarras.

In 1953 a new approach succeeded: public meetings agreed the two existing halls would give way in favour of a new community hall to be built on a corner of the recreation ground on the northern outskirts of Tarras. A building fund was opened, widely supported by those sports and other groups who would be using the new hall. Those involved were allowed input to its design and amenities. The Rugby Club donated money so that hot and cold showers could be included in the dressing rooms. A government subsidy, available to assist War Memorials, was drawn-on and the sale of the two old halls assisted the fund.  Building began late 1954 and the hall was opened on Anzac Day 1955. A Grand Ball was held the following night to celebrate the opening of the new community facility. It quickly became “home” for meetings by many organisations. The large stage enabled plays to be presented, political campaigning also took place there and the building was headquarters of sports clubs as well as “clubhouse” and “nineteenth” for the golfers. Private parties were held there to celebrate weddings, anniversaries and other family milestones, added to which it was a polling place on election days.


But it burned down in January 1968. During a function hosted by the Rugby Club smoke and flames were noticed near the switchboard at the rear of the stage.

I recall stories that despite best first-efforts, the fire quickly took hold. Locals who turned fire-fighters were overwhelmed and soon the whole building was on fire. There was little water for firefighting so a local farmer rushed off into nearby paddocks, attempting to turn water from a main irrigation race to one that passed near the burning hall. The idea was that members of Cromwell Volunteer Fire Brigade, once they arrived with their fire engine, could tap into this resource.

But the best plans did not eventuate, Cromwell fire-fighters had to make the last part of their 30km journey by private car after their fire engine “died”.

The hall was a total loss.

Most Tarras folk suffered a sense of this loss because so many organisations utilised the facilities: their use had considerably increased over its 14 and a half years’ life.

I recall a vivid description of the fire in a letter to my mother from Elsie Davidson. The topic was repeatedly mentioned in other letters and in the years following 1968, it was often brought up in conversation. It was obvious that the loss was profound to the community, and to individuals within it.

Curtain Down on Drama

The Davidsons felt the effects mainly with the loss of Tarras Drama Club property. They were among dedicated club members who produced, and took part in, plays presented in the hall for local audiences. Many of their one-act productions were taken on to the British Drama League competitions with considerable success. The Tarras Club often took Provincial titles and I seem to recall that one year they were judged best in the South Island, progressing to the national finals.

The hall had provided storage for the Drama Club’s property. Wardrobe accumulated over many productions was lost, so too were properties, scenery, stage lights, dimmers and makeup.

This spelled the end of the Club. Without a hall, wardrobe and equipment it went into recess and, despite efforts, was not revived.

A New Hall

A committee was formed to oversee a replacement hall. Funding shortfalls were eventually overcome and a new facility was planned, this time the committee ensuring it would be constructed of non-combustible materials and that fire-fighting equipment was installed.  It was built on the site of the old hall and opened in July 1973 known as the Tarras War Memorial Community Centre.

Tarras War Memorial Community Centre opened July 1972

Except the Drama Club, most groups, sports clubs and organisations resumed use of the new facility: some had amenities specially incorporated to cater for them. Today it’s managed by a local committee.

Fishing on Hawea

Lake Hawea. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collection

Vic Davidson was quite a keen fisherman in what little time he could spare for angling. His favourite spot was on Lake Hawea, trolling was his preferred method with Rainbow or Brown Trout the quarry. He owned a boat, a 3m open dinghy with an outboard motor which, with the addition of a few well-placed sacks, sat snugly on the farm trailer, easily towed by car to the lake. Vic also had a good array of fishing tackle, lures, nets etc. My visits to Ardgour invariably triggered at least one day’s fishing.

My fisherman’s tales are not so much about the ones that got away, but the unique experience of fishing Lake Hawea.

In the early 1950s the lake was part of the proposed Roxburgh hydro-electric scheme. Its outlet into the Hawea River at Hawea township would be dammed so that the raised lake would provide an enormous reservoir for the new power station and dam to be built at Roxburgh, some 200 kilometres downstream. (I have mentioned this power station project elsewhere).

The scheme went ahead: the biggest electricity generating plant, (in those days) was constructed on the Clutha River at Roxburgh and the dam at Hawea, with its new outlet and control gate completed. This enabled control of Hawea’s outflow, more or less guaranteeing even volumes all-year-around to feed Roxburgh.

Once the dam was completed near Hawea town in 1958, and the control gates closed, the level of the lake was raised some 20m to its optimum working level.  This meant the map of the lake’s shoreline was altered with bays, beaches and inlets flooded. Vegetation, fences, buildings and farmland was drowned: the original homestead at Hunter Station went under. Some holdings were reduced, particularly paddocks of flat land around the lake, requiring the boundaries of some runs to be altered and in one case, victim of part of the 1,000 hectares’ pastoral land swamped, a farmer had to transfer sheep to new grazing at Hawea Flat. The government paid compensation for land taken. The State Highway between Hawea and Makarora, around The Neck, etc, had to be rebuilt on higher land before the old road was drowned.  It remained unsealed for years and even during construction was subject to slips and washouts.

Road sign indicating the separation between the two lakes. Shellie Evans, NZ Ministry of Culture and Heritage

The roadmen built the picnic spot and boat ramp at The Neck, so called because it’s the narrowest point  between Hawea and Wanaka Lakes, separated by a high glacier rock.

Hawea, towards the Hunter

It was here that Vic preferred to launch the boat, at The Neck , some 20kms up the lake from Hawea town. The Neck was so-called because it’s where there’s a very narrow separation from Lake Wanaka.

On occasion we put the boat in at Hawea town but this meant the distance to the fishing spot was more than doubled, I’d say approaching 10-15 kms. So putting the boat in at The Neck instead of at Hawea town halved the cruise up the lake to Vic’s preferred fishing spot. It was towards the Western shore, towards  Hunter Station,  opposite Silver Island. Vic reckoned (correctly, as per the map) that several steams flowed into Hawea near this point, bringing with them food that trout like. The Hunter River, at the head of the lake, is the major tributary flowing into Hawea.

Once the boat was in position off the Hunter we would pause while our rod, reels and tackle were sorted. Vic had his pet lure to start with, carefully rigging it. If, after a while it did not work, he would replace it with his second preference, and so on during the day. Though I must say it rarely came to that – we usually had good bites and, sometimes, a prize Rainbow trout. Me, the novice? Well, I started as I meant to go on with a bright shiny lure that caught my eye. Hopefully, I thought, it would also attract trout.

Vic would reduce the speed of the boat to more or less just moving along and we would put out our fishing lines, trailing them behind*. Lures were often polished steel, silver, or with red and blue colouring. The idea was that trout, attracted to the spinning lure in the current of our backwash, would take the lure – and the hook.

Having picked our days, weather-wise, I spent pleasant time fishing Hawea with Vic usually in very hot, still, weather under cloudless skies and on a lake with hardly a ripple. Apart from the purring of the outboard motor, it was absolute peace and quiet, more or less silence, (except for one occasion**) and, what with Elsie’s prepared lunch and a few whisky-and- lake-water snifters it was just a great experience (again, except for one occasion**).

*I believe this form of trout fishing has, meantime, been outlawed.

** More about these exceptions later.

The Effects of the Drowned Lake

Vic’s favourite spot off the Hunter was over a drowned patch of forest. In more shallow waters during the 1960s you could see the tops of the trees below. These branches were decaying, subject to collapse over time. But in those days the trees remained standing below the surface and Vic thought that passing trout might find food in and around the branches. This was one reason that this was his preferred spot. Food source or not, we caught numerous trout over the sunken trees.

There was a price. In shallower spots the lines sometimes caught in the trees as they were trolled behind the boat: the nylon would snap, the lure lost, with the inevitable interruption to fishing while the tackle was replaced. As I recall it, the fish were all of good size, in superb condition and I can’t recall catching any undersized ones that would have been returned to the lake.

On one of her rare visits to Central Otago my mother accompanied us on one of our fishing expeditions on Hawea. She was fine until we took up our usual fishing position above the drowned trees. We went inshore to stop, prepare our lines and take refreshments. We reached the shallows. Mother looked over the side of the boat and spotted the trees looming up from the depths. It unnerved her. So unnatural, she said as she looked down through the water on to the tops of the skeleton-looking branches.  I could tell she was uncomfortable for the rest of the day. Even catching a couple of trout didn’t soothe her. And whenever anyone asked about her day on the lake she would mention, with disturbed recall, the eerie, spooky, sight of the drowned trees.

The Exceptions

I mentioned two exceptions:

#1 Silence shattered.

When we stopped the boat’s outboard motor for smoko or lunch, or to switch over the fuel tanks, the silence on the lake was total, just the odd drone of a flying insect going by of the lapping of the water against the boat.

But one day, the quiet was shattered by a sharp boom that was heard from across the lake, about 4 kms wide at that point. Then we saw a shower of dust rise up from the distant, eastern, shoreline somewhere near Silver Island. These explosions continued intermittently throughout the afternoon, each followed by a huge cloud of reddish-grey dust.

That was in the early 1960s. It turned out a construction team was blasting a new shoreline road around the bluffs, probably in the vicinity of the aptly-named Rocky Point, to give better access to Dingle Burn, and beyond. Run-holder Ian Sarginson was frustrated that there was no road access to his Dingle Station. Earlier there had been a crude road around the bluffs but it was swamped when the lake level rose in 1958. Since that date, all materials in and out of Dingle Station had to be moved, uneconomically and weather permitting, by barge or boat. The government was asked to assist in building a new road – after all, it had raised the lake level for its State-owned hydro works!  But the quote from Ministry of Works to create a new road higher up the cliffs was beyond the means of the farm accounts, so Sarginson paid to move in men and equipment to do the job. He could do it cheaper, he said, and though the project was dangerous to hew out the rocky bluffs with a sheer drop to the lake below, a shelf was carved out, just wide enough for a one-way road. The team completed the 16 km section of road in 1963 including many bridges and culverts.

Vic surmised that the blasting we saw, and heard, that day might create underwater vibrations which could upset the fish, but we did quite well nevertheless.

#2 Stormy Waters

We had chosen this particular fishing day because of promising favourable, fine, weather. Sometimes if there was any doubt about conditions on Hawea, Vic would ring Hunter Station: he knew the run-holders, the Gillespies, and would get a weather report. This day all was well, weather-wise and we set off for Hawea, the boat in tow. For some reason, and I can’t recall why, we launched the boat at the ramp near Hawea town and travelled up the lake, passing The Neck and turning right to head for our fishing spot opposite Hunter’s station. We fished a couple of hours, stopped for a late lunch and fished some more. I think we had 5 trout between us. Then the weather changed, rapidly closing in, the cloud-base right down and the wind got up, rain was imminent. With no bright spot on the horizon and the promise of more of the same weather, or worse, we stopped fishing, changed fuel tanks, put on life-jackets and set off for the boat ramp at Hawea. The wind got up, and so did the waves on the lake. We found, travelling more or less Sou-West, that we were heading into the wind which was getting stronger and cutting up the lake. The chop became waves. Progress was slow: to speed would have been uncomfortable for us and likely resulted in taking a lot of water into the boat. We kept a heading we thought would take us towards The Neck, where we would make the slight turn, to a more southerly course, to Hawea Town.

The slow slog towards The Neck meant twilight was upon us. Vic suggested we might continue and find The Neck and beach the boat there rather than attempting the continued slog to Hawea. Every wave was thumping the bow in s shower of spray as we cut through the water. We were getting soaked. It would soon be dark. We shouted agreement  that by now we were about halfway to Hawea so The Neck could not be far away. Navigation was difficult in the failing light. The lake was still rough with squally rain-showers passing over us. Our sun hats, even pulled right down, had become hopelessly inadequate protection from the rain. The wind-swept showers stung against our faces. It was not pleasant. In fact, scary. From time to time we could just make out the shoreline. Sometimes the tops of hills were silhouetted in gaps between wind-driven clouds. We both agreed we must be somewhere near The Neck and that, if we were going to try to get to Hawea, it was time to make the turn down the lake. One of my fears, unvoiced, was that in the dark we might run aground on a remote shoreline, or worse, pile into a bluff. There were several promontories sticking out into the lake.

Vic mentioned that at some time we would need to swap fuel tanks again, to the third one which, thankfully, we had on board. But I did not fancy stopping our progress – to wherever we were going – to attempt this in the rough waters. Far better, I thought, to keep going, head-on into the waves.

These thoughts, and the question “are we lost?” recurred.

Vic shouted with some finality… “well, we gotta be near to The Neck now, I am going to change course to take us to where I think Hawea is!”

The waves, now off our bow, caused the boat to roll much more. We were in the widest part of the lake. But we carried on. I concluded these conditions were more difficult should we have to stop to change petrol tanks.

And then, a miracle. We saw a light ahead, a long way distant, but nevertheless a light. Was it a beacon to head for? Let’s not zero in, I thought, on a light that turns out to be a farmhouse on a lakefront property, or worse, a light on-shore, well away from the lake!

“Where is it?” I asked Vic. “I reckon it’s the light outside the pub at Hawea,” he replied. I hoped he was right. If we continued to see the light, I reassured myself, we must have uninterrupted passage to it – which meant we wouldn’t be running into any of the shoreline bluffs or knolls. The relief of seeing the light was short-lived. Passing squalls and low cloud meant we periodically lost the light from view, disappearing for what seemed long periods. Were we veering off-course in the squall and had we lost our beacon?  Then, fortunately, it would reappear and after each of these black-outs we realised the light was getting brighter as we approached. Then it would “go out” again, probably hidden by passing rain squalls. It was very comforting when it reappeared, our “leading light” was back. Comforting  in the belief that the light we were putting so much trust in was, in fact, the light above the doorway at the Hawea Hotel.

And then the outboard spluttered several times, its way of demanding a change of fuel tank. The motor stopped, the boat drifted.  It rocked and rolled like a bucking bronco. Mainly by touch and feel, I guess, Vic un-clipped the hose from the empty tank, attached the new one, squeezed the bulb to prime the fuel and after restarting the motor we were underway again. I bailed out water that had slurped over the gunwales while we were stopped.

Drawing ever closer to the light, the outline of the Hawea Hotel on the waterfront could eventually be made out. The beacon we had homed in on was, indeed, our saviour… taking us to more or less exactly where we wanted to go. Thank God for the hotel publican who decided to keep the light on that night!

And as we got closer to the township the rain cleared, the showers became less-frequent and we could see our way to the boat ramp – and the Davidson’s car and trailer. Vic reversed the car and trailer down the ramp and left the car in reverse gear so that in the pitch-black darkness we had the benefit of the reversing lights.  The stirred-up lake gave a few anxious moments but between the two of us we managed to get the boat on the trailer and towed up out of the water on to dry land. Vic and I hardly mentioned our hardship and, probably, the very lucky escape we had to successfully reach Hawea. We were both wet-through, soaked to the skin. We paused for a welcome tipple “to warm up” before heading for the farmhouse at Ardgour.

Despite the late hour, Elsie emerged from the bedroom to welcome us and prepare supper. We dried off and changed clothes. We bragged about the half dozen trout we got. Elsie’s attention was on the catch. She planned to cook one trout for tomorrow’s evening meal: the rest she would preserve by bottling. Otherwise, not much about our day’s fishing was revealed. Until now!


Dates and events in the above section have been augmented with material from “A Pretty Good Place to Live – Lake Hawea & Hawea Flat” by Barbara Chinn.

The Organisations Davidsons Belonged To

In mentioning some of the activities in Central Otago I have touched on organisations that Vic and Elsie Davidson belonged to: both were involved as active members of local clubs. I found the range of their interests, and the dedication they gave, remarkable for people living so far from where most of the action took place, 30kms away in Cromwell. But even in the days of the rough, unsealed road between Ardgour and Cromwell and the late nights returning home from meetings, they retained avid interest in the clubs, etc, they belonged to. Some organisations they belonged to called for long trips… to attend “away” sporting matches, for example, with teams travelling all over the province while other groups journeyed for Central Otago meetings, often in Alexandra, or for Otago-wide affairs generally held in Dunedin.

Vic in his youth played both rugby and cricket. He told me that on practice nights or match days he would often have to get a lift to the Clubhouse, sometimes walking miles to neighbours for his ride. One day after a rugby match, he told me, he set out from Cromwell for home on foot and walked some miles beyond Lowburn before being picked up by a couple of farmhands. But their destination was Bendigo, so he had to walk the rest and arrived home well after dark.  Vic kept up his cricket in Cromwell until the 1960s.

In earlier days he Vic had been Sunday School teacher at Ardgour. Geoff Duff in his book “Sheep may safely graze” writes that when the Ardgour School closed in 1940 the building was retained and used as supper room for functions held across the road in the hall. But every Sunday it reverted to a schoolroom with religious instruction for local children, led by Vic Davidson. So now Vic, who had been schooled in the same classroom, was now out the front as teacher! Geoff Duff reports that Vic’s weekly classes were very popular. It was wartime, Vic was in the Navy, but could be persuaded to hold classes when he was home on leave. The Sunday School went into recess and did not survive when he was posted overseas. The Ardgour School building was moved to Makarora in 1942, its third location… it had served at Waenga, railway construction site in Cromwell Gorge, before being shifted to Ardgour.

In later years Vic took up lawn bowls, playing at weekends over the summer for the Cromwell Club, offset in Winter by curling: both Vic and Elsie were pictured in newspapers as they encouraged the stone along the ice: the story and photo about intense wintry conditions in Central Otago went nation-wide via the Press Association.

I have mentioned life membership of the Collie Dog Club: Vic was very keen on dog trials, both participating and judging. Elsie, as mentioned, was sometime Treasurer of Tarras Collie Dog Club.

Vic was long-time member of the local Lodge and often visited branches throughout Otago.

As a returned serviceman – Vic saw action with the Navy during Pacific conflicts at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands – he was a very active member of Cromwell Returned Services Association.

He attended its meetings to manage its affairs, an off-shoot of which he would regularly make welfare visits to aging or sick former servicemen in rest homes or in hospital. I was often with Vic when, en route to Cromwell, he would call in at the Ripponvale Home, to provide a little company to elderly residents and leave gifts. It was a certainty that he would be in the Anzac Parade and attend the service every year. I accompanied Elsie and Vic on several of these occasions. After a moving service, the parade would march from the RSA rooms to the town’s war memorial at the foot of the main street in a reserve on rising land just before the bridge over the Clutha. This area is now drowned, the site of the original War Memorial beneath Lake Dunstan.

The last Cromwell RSA Anzac Day Parade in 1984 before the lower part of town
is flooded. Commercial (“bottom”) Hotel and Road Services Depot in background

Vic also belonged to the Cromwell Lions Club and assisted in various projects to enhance community welfare. The Club, for instance, raised funds to provide the town’s first resuscitators for the likes of the fire brigade and in 1970 gathered some 50 babies’ bottles towards a drive to assist infants in recovering war-torn Vietnam.

I think Vic was part of the Lions’ initiative to rescue a bucket-line, originally off the old Bendigo Light Dredge, and position it as a bridge to Charlie’s Island in the Clutha, later renamed Lions’ Island. (The island was swamped by the new Lake Dunstan, but the bucket-line off the old gold dredge was removed, salvaged and returned to safe-keeping at Bendigo).

Vic was a member of Federated Farmers and in younger days belonged to the local Young Farmers Club.


YFC lapel badge

In later years he returned to coach the local YFC’s debating team, travelling widely for competitions, and often bringing home a trophy, including the Otago/Southland Regions title, qualifying Tarras to compete at the national contest.

Given his background, and the business he was in, I guess Vic would have supported the National Party, though at times during his “discussions” (others would call arguments) he showed plenty of scorn for government policies or moves he disagreed with.  If he didn’t like what those in Wellington were doing, he was the first to say so!

His long-time Member of Parliament representing Otago Central for National from 1954 had been John George. He retired before the 1969 election, replaced by the Party’s Murray Rose. He was MP for just one three-year term when Otago Central electorate, dyed in the wool National, was caught in the Labour Party’s call “Time for a Change”.  In a political stunner, Labour candidate Ian Quigley ousted National’s incumbent, Murray Rose.

Quigley, who had campaigned hard, was well-known in Cromwell as a Borough Councillor and a member of other local government bodies. He owned and operated the motor garage and workshop in Cromwell’s main street just opposite the bottom pub, the Commercial. (Vic patronised the business for most of his vehicle and engineering needs). So while some Cromwell folk could understand Quigley’s popularity, most in the rural electorate’s hinterland were absolutely staggered. Being represented in parliament by a Labour MP took a lot of getting over! No one had given Ian Quigley much chance but his majority of 1,500 said he was duly elected. It was, however, a one-term gain for Labour.

Ian Quigley’s newspaper advertisement in 1975

Despite mounting a serious campaign in 1975 Quigley could not dominate. At the next election Otago Central electorate returned to its tried-and-true National and its candidate Warren Cooper, Mayor of Queenstown, was elected: he remained in Parliament until 1996.

I have mentioned both Vic and Elsie’s love of golf. Both held office in their local club and Vic for many years oversaw preparation of the greens and fairways at Tarras, assisted, hands-on, by Geoff Duff in his retirement.

Elsie regularly travelled to Cromwell for monthly meetings of various organisations she belonged to. She was on the committee of the Cromwell Travel Club… and arranged me as a guest speaker to talk about, among my other experiences, travel to a destination unlikely to be visited by Club members, Mururoa Atoll in the South Pacific. I related events there  and what I saw when France was testing nuclear devices.

Elsie also belonged to the Tin Hat Club, an offshoot of the RSA and she was also on the women’s committee of the RSA from time to time.

At Tarras and in Cromwell Elsie belonged to Women’s Division of the Federated Farmers.

Women’s Division of Federated Farmers lapel badge. Te Ara. Encyclopedia of N.Z.

She was an enthusiastic member in her early days in Central as a young wife and stranger to rural life when she was  probably grateful for the camaraderie and advice the Club offered. She participated in produce and cooking contests, and attended meetings, including “exchange” or “at home” gatherings in other Otago centres. Elsie retained her interest into her old age and was honoured for her work by WDFF.

To enhance her garden, Elsie always grew a few roses but with indifferent results. Climate, wind and soil conditions seemed against her most caring efforts. Then she joined the Central Otago Rose Society and with advice about manuring and cultivation, plus the benefit of a few recommended hardy species, Elsie had the joy of rose blooms in the front garden.

Rose Hips

Local women made pocket money (they call it pin-money) and at the same time socialised by gathering rose hips from the plentiful briar bushes growing wild across Central Otago.

For some ladies it was good money: not quite a business but lucrative, nevertheless. I suppose after picking the fruit for a few years they got to know where the prolifically-bearing plants were located, and were prepared to travel some distance to get the best. Wearing gloves was compulsory against the thorns and the object was to strip the bushes bare of all fruit showing any colour… the berries changed to orange, then red, as they ripened.

Rose Hips, laden with Vitamin C

The best time was early autumn immediately after the first frost: the hips were at their most potent then. Payment was on the weight of the hips picked: an agent in Cromwell would buy the bounty on behalf of the Dunedin company that processed the fruit into rose hip syrup, an additional concentrated source of sugarless vitamin C. It was fed to infants in their bottles between milk feeds, and in drinks for toddlers. A 1953 newspaper advertisement reads…“Mothers never need worry about scurvy… Vitamin C is always to hand with Robinsons. It provides nearly five times the amount of Vitamin C that baby gets from one orange!” Robinson’s Rose Hip Syrup was also considered good insurance for adults against wintry coughs and colds… and a great soothing drink, hot or cold, in the event the prevention didn’t work! The company also sold its well-known barley water. The syrup’s off the market, meantime, and I note rose hips are now used in lotions for the skin, advertised by herb shops: “ideal to remove stretch marks”, for arthritis and in concentrate at pet shops… “cats must have Vitamin C!”

Moving House

In the 1980s Vic and Elsie Davidson moved house to a newer, larger house. It was still on the farm, a little way along Ardgour Valley Road from their old place and had been home of the Hitchcocks, Betty and Eric, who had retired there from Dunedin. The house was cosy, it had a good source of pure bore water in the garden under the biggest, and best-bearing, Walnut tree in Central Otago.  Eric was a returned soldier so shared RSA activities with Vic. Eric helped Vic about the farm with various chores, centring on anything in the light engineering line, Eric’s career before retirement.  The Hitchcocks accompanied the Davidsons on one of their rare trips to Auckland. In much later years I would visit Betty in residential care in Alexandra and without fail she would recall the sights and sounds she saw during that trip, still flummoxed by the size of the city and the pace of life in Auckland. What would she think of it now!?

The Hitchcocks lived in the Ardgour house for many years before Eric died and Betty moved into Cromwell, later Alexandra. So when Betty moved out, the Davidsons took over and lived there a good few years until Vic’s death and, later, Elsie moved to Ripponvale near Cromwell.

Wanaka, Pigeon Island (now Mou Waho) and Haast

One of my trips to Central Otago when I was a youngster included a cruise on Lake Wanaka out to Pigeon Island, now better known as Mou Wahoa. It must have been a highpoint left above the water when the big glacial move occurred ions ago, It’s more than 100 metres above the lake. We took tracks, climbing to the top only to find beautiful views … and a small lake (Arethusa Pool) at the top and, in it, a small rocky outcrop. We summed it up… an island in a lake on an island in a lake in an island… in the ocean!  We had a great day with lunch at Pigeon Island before making a slow troll back to Wanaka wharf. Today the island’s a conservation site, predator-free and home to the rare flightless Buff Weka.

Wanaka waterfront, scenic in all seasons

I recall on this visit that I saw the burnt-out Tourist Corporation Hotel, when the town’s settlement was confined to the lake-edge, and there was a farm between Wanaka town and Glendhu Bay. These days it’s more or less all fused into one and houses in subdivisions stretch way back in suburbs from the lake front, ironically most do not now have the view across the water! Tourism, mountaineering in Aspiring National Park and winter ski sports on nearby peaks have “made” the town, to say nothing of the annual air show that attracts thousands.

Wanaka was my “land fall” into Central Otago on another trip.

The Haast Pass road, a remarkable piece of civil engineering in most inhospitable country, opened as an unsealed highway in 1966 to link Central Otago with the West Coast. I was keen to travel it because those that had made the journey sang its praises… not necessarily the state of the road, but the scenery was unsurpassed. Having a reliable car, a Daimler, I decided to have a motoring holiday accompanied by friend Ross, crossing to Picton, then through Nelson and into Westland. Thence the Haast Pass down into Central Otago.  It was decided to have a few days on the West Coast. At Ross we saw a great nod to the past in the local fire station. Hanging on the walls, high above the new appliance with pneumatic tyres were  4 steel rimmed wheels of an earlier model, probably a Dennis. It was if the old steel wheels had been kept just in case these new-fangled blow-up rubber tyres didn’t work out!

We had a good look at both Greymouth and Hokitika. At both towns I brought a bottle of Bacardi Rum, not for myself because I didn’t drink the stuff but to sell once we were back in Auckland. Bacardi and Coca Cola was a very popular drink with the young set, but almost unprocurable because of import restrictions. But it was well-known that importers who supplied the West Coast had licence and could get the liquor in. My plan was to flog off the Bacardi once I got home in order to help travel expenses. And it worked: it easily sold at a “slightly” inflated price to those who were missing their rum and coke!

We called in to visit the Glaciers and stayed a night at Lake Paringa, one of the few accommodation places on the lower West Coast in those days. The motor camp was spartan, the sand-flies and mosquitoes plentiful, the Dimp repellent worked overtime!

Through the Haast Pass

Then we traversed the new Haast road and could see the huge cuttings, the road carved around  bluffs, the numerous culverts and bridges and massive fillings. Many of the road-building scars were still evident, vegetation not yet having had the chance to regenerate. I made a promise to return once the bush and greenery returned. I have not, to date, made it back there.

Before leaving Auckland someone said to me that if I was travelling the Haast only in one direction (and I was, south-bound) to remember to be sure to stop frequently and look back, otherwise one misses half the sights. It was good advice. We picked safe spots to park and took in the vistas and panoramas we would have otherwise missed. The coastal scenes were wild and rugged.

The Pass itself is the lowest crossing of the Southern Alps, Gold prospector, Charles Cameron, tramping alone East-West, is considered to be the first pakeha to navigate the pass in January 1863. He was followed by Julius von Haast and party who found it tough going. Swollen rivers delayed progress and they began to run short of food. Haast declared the name of the pass in honour of himself when he thought at the time that he was the first European to make the traverse. But when he discovered remains of Cameron’s camp, and a flask that he had buried during his trip, Haast realised he was not the first, but the name stuck! Sir Johann Franz “Julius” von Haast (1 May 1822 to 16 August 1887) was a German geologist who travelled New Zealand on geological and other exploration missions. He founded Canterbury Museum in Christchurch.

Bridge at Gates of Haast. Gujral Tours

After our crossing through the Great Divide we came to the Gates of Haast, a series of rapids on the Haast River, right beside the highway. This, to me, signalled we were well on our way to Central Otago. We passed Makarora and then The Neck where Lakes Wanaka and Hawea nearly join, and on to Wanaka.

A Wedding and a 21st Birthday

A highlight of the trip with Ross was an invitation to attend a wedding dance being held in a shearing shed near Tarras, a real country way of celebrating a marriage of two locals with family, friends and residents. I guess 200 gathered in and around the shed, there was a bar dispensing drinks, tables laden with food and a local band trying its best to please the crowd. Once the rock n’ roll music started there was no shortage of younger folk gyrating on the dance-floor, in fact the well-oiled, “lanolin-ised”,  bare boards in the shearing shed.

Ross and I cut away early (we thought it could go on ‘til sun-up!) but we did not escape completely. A number of teenagers got in their cars “chased” us back to Davidson’s place, and to the caravan in the garden where we were camped. They started a small party of their own. We did not have any contributions towards beverages and I could hardly raid Vic’s drinks cabinet, so a short time later the group, in a roar of car engines, took off looking for a real “party”.

With the approach of my 21st birhday I had told my family that I did not want any fuss. I thought I could avoid a big party… and the trip to Central Otago with Ross Partly happily provided “an out”… we would be in Central on the 16th May! Any celebrations would be among Aunt and Uncle at the farm. Elsie’s cousin from Christchurch, Jo Glasgow, was also staying with the Davidsons at the time. To mark the day of my 21st Ross and I had booked a “flightseeing” trip, a look at Queenstown and surrounds from the air. So, accompanied by Jo, we motored across to Queenstown’s Frankton Airport. It was a beautifully clear day so Ross and I had great viewing from the light plane as we circled the lake, the town and the hills. It was exhilarating. With Jo we did our own sightseeing in the car, out to Skippers and round about before heading back to the farm. We had a chore for Elsie… to pick up vegetables she had ordered by phone from her favourite garden at Lowburn. This done, just on twilight, we got on the road again.  Having arrived at the farm we gathered our bits and pieces from the car, restored them to the caravan and then took the vegetables to the kitchen. All was quiet at the house, Elsie and Vic in the dining room. Greeting exchanged, it was suggested we go into the sitting room with the warmth of the fire. Once the door opened there was all kinds of shouting and cheering… Elsie had staged a surprise party for me: the guests were all my Central friends! I was flabbergasted! So how could I have been fooled by such a pleasant surprise? Well, the purchase of the vegetables was a plot to track our progress on the homeward journey. The gardener phoned Elsie immediately we left to let her know we were on our way. And the party-goers’ cars? They were parked out of sight in an adjacent yard near the implement shed.

Well done the Davidsons! It was a very pleasant evening. And one or two items my mother had sent with me in the car “for Elsie” were, in fact, presents for me from my parents! Mother’s pottery expertise turned out a desk-set for pencils, pens, paper clips etc (which I still have after practical use on my office desk over the decades). The decorations include an elaborate ceramic key with the date, May 1966. It was birthday not to be forgotten despite being far from home and a reluctance to formally celebrate!

Hunter’s Gold 

I visited the Davidsons in 1976, time off from a very busy period when I was helping establish a news service on the brand new TV channel, TV2, operated by South Pacific Television.

TV2’s new name and logo, 1975

The company announced “Hunter’s Gold”, an ambitious drama series to be filmed in Central Otago, a yarn set in gold mining days.  An 1860’s “town” was established near Queenstown, its main street realistic-looking cardboard cut-outs and painted scenery complete with pub, shops and the gold office. Shooting took many weeks and I arranged a holiday while the production was underway. The aim was to go and have a look at the project, quite one of the biggest undertakings “in the field”, on- location shooting. One or two cameramen who usually worked for News had been seconded to help, so I would be catching up with them. By arrangement, the Davidsons accompanied me. We met Executive Director, Tom Parkinson, and he gave us a great welcome, and virtually the run of the place. We were there on a “catch-up” day, when assorted scenes were being shot to finish sequences, to complete shots spoiled when rain interrupted filming and to redo scenes that needed improvement.

Scene from “Hunter’s Gold:. Dale Gardiner, NZ On Screen.

Consequently there were more actors around than usual, ready to go on the set when their scene was called. We marvelled at the number of people required for the production – Vic was keen to observe the teamwork, each person a specialist in their own craft, between them contributing to the finished product. Vic was also intrigued by the various horse and carts, brakes and wagons that had been assembled to appear in the production. I introduced Elsie to the continuity girl who in turn introduced the woman in charge of wardrobe, and that opened the doors to see the costumes, and Elsie told me later, added interesting  discussions about the research that had been undertaken to ensure an authentic, period, look on screen. We could hardly believe all the support vehicles and equipment on hand in Central Otago for the production. Later in the visit we got to meet some of the actors while they were waiting for their call to the set. And once we were on the sets we were amazed at the finish of all the painting and textures to ensure an authentic look.

We felt we were back in the 1860s, walking down “main street” of a bustling gold mining town.

Elsie and Vic’s afternoon on the sets of Hunter’s Gold was the talking point in conversations for a long time after their visit, repeated all over again when they finally got to see the finished programme, not on TV, but a on VHS tape which I supplied. They took it to a neighbour’s place to watch it, all 13 episodes, over several evenings. “Watching the programme through all the “snow” and with sound distortion on your TV set at home is just not on,” I said, before forwarding the videotape to them. For the Davidsons the whole show came alive, they saw the scenes that were being filmed on the day they were on the sets, but of course in totally different context. “It all seemed so real!” Elsie said.

Much more elaborate than the VHS I sent the Davidsons – TVNZ later released the TV series on tape.

Executive Director Tom Parkinson would have been pleased. Hunter’s Gold was an outstanding success with TV2’s New Zealand viewers and it was sold overseas to many TV companies, including BBC which showed it in prime time.


Over 60 years of visiting central Otago there have been changes…

  • The drowning of part of Cromwell town, Lowburn and thousands of hectares of farmland to create Lake Dunstan to “feed” the Clyde Hydro Electric station which commenced generating in 1992.
  • The main highway from Cromwell to Tarras (SH8) was sealed in the early 1960s
  • The Ardgour Valley Road was sealed nearly 20 years later in the 1980s
  • Manual telephones (Davidson’s number was 5S) gave way to dial telephones (no. 522) in April 1961
  • Tarras Rural Fire Brigade was established in the mid-1980s
  • Tarras was put on the map in 2004 when nationwide TV showed the maverick, reclusive Merino sheep, Shrek, being shorn, with subsequent publicity, much of it raising funds for Tarras School.
  • State Electricity erected pylons and lines from Roxburgh to Twizel via Lindis Pass in 1960s with attendant workers’ camps and equipment depots.
  • Rabbit Boards were dispensed-with in 1997 after several Central Otago farmers, concerned at the rabbit epidemic and their destruction, started their own eradication campaigns by unofficially importing and releasing controversial rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD) virus, deadly to rabbits.
  • After 30 years in an inadequate Skyline garage, Tarras got a new fire station, opened in 2012
  • The influx of tourists, campers and sightseers, accelerated with new “destinations” like ski-fields
  • Conversion of hitherto unproductive land to vineyards
  • A massive new irrigation scheme at Tarras enabling the otherwise unthinkable: dairy farming in Central Otago


RCC 2015/ June 2019


Papers Past National Library of New Zealand

Lowburn Collie Dog Club : 100 Years of Sheep Dog Trials

“Sheep may safely graze”, Geoffrey P Duff,  published by the author, 1978

“Goldfields of Otago”, John Hall-Jones, Craig’s Design and Print 2005