Bright Fine Gold

Otago was founded by Presbyterians. The idea was to build a place where all the best parts of Scottishness would flourish in a community marked by decency, order, probity and piety. The immigrants arrived and laid out a city and built churches. Almost as soon as they got here they founded a university and made sure that secondary schools of the finest quality were developed. It worked for a while. A very short while, actually because the plan was subverted by an unforseen discovery. The Otago settlement began in 1848 and gold was found in Gabriel's Gully in 1861. The lure of fast money and lots of it drew people who had a different set of values than those of the settlers from the Free Church of Scotland. They rushed here indiscriminately from all over the place.These two influxes of people: the Presbyterians with their conservative love of order and dedication to education; and the entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, prospectors are what give Otago its particular character. The two streams intertwine and blend and can't be easily separated now, although some parts of the province lean more to one side than the other. I think Dunedin might lean slightly to the Presbyterian side. Queenstown, where we spent the weekend, leans definitely to the prospector side.

Driving inland on Saturday, I was impressed again by how definite and extreme the landscape of this province is. Through the Manuka gorge the frost was still lying in the shadows at 4 in the afternoon. By the time we reached the Kawerau gorge, the temperature was down to 2 degrees and the hills were white around us. We parked the car in the snow lying in the Wakatipu Vicarage driveway and emerged into that golden clear Central Otago light to gape up at the mountains rising perpendicular in every direction. On Saturday evening there was a very pleasant dinner with the vestry and ministry team, and then it was church on Sunday at Arrowtown and Queenstown.

David Coles, the vicar, was the bishop of Christchurch for 18 years before he came to the parish with his wife Joy. He lent me a jacket on Sunday morning when it became apparent I had miscalculated the amount of insulation a human body needs to stay functioning in that part of the world. It was -3 degrees in Arrowtown. The lovely little wooden St. Paul's church is in pretty good nick, all things considered, but the piles have dropped a bit since the days when the gold miners worshipped there so there are places around the doors and between some of the boards where draughts get in. One blew down my neck for much of the service. I left my cope on for the duration and I'm sure I could think of a liturgical justification for that if I really had to. Arrowtown still looks like the 19th Century prospector's town it was and is. It is leafy and charming and even with a cracking frost draped over it, looks inviting.

Queenstown, where we raced for the next shift, looks like it has sprung out of small beginnings over the last twenty years and draped itself haphazardly and indecorously and busily around the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Which it has. At 9 am on last Sunday, which was only one day into the Winter festival, the traffic was heavy and every table in every cafe was full of people breakfasting on Danish and Caesar salads and Cappuccino. The gondola chugged busily away gliding tourists up the hill. People thronged into the sort of shops where if you wanted a merino sweater or a set of snowboarding boots, you could spend all day weighing up the choices, but if you wanted a ball point pen or a packet of macaroni you could look all you wanted but your chances of success would be somewhat marginal. Everything in Queenstown seems new and angular and modern, made of glass and concrete although sometimes dressed up with schist or wood to give that authentic Central Otago sort of look. There are hotels and motels everywhere. EVERYWHERE. And all of this is set in a landscape of such aching beauty that if I lift up mine eyes to the hills for even a few seconds I instantly forget the object lesson in how not to do town planning that lies at every hand.

Modern though it all might be, though, the atmosphere of the place harks back undimmed to the people who flocked here in the 1860s to try and find something bigger and better for themselves. The place is still dominated by the energy and life and entrepreneurial spirit that comes from being a magnet for people from everywhere. EVERYWHERE. In the middle of it, there is the quaint little stone church of St. Peter, where, after parking underground, I celebrated and preached for their patronal festival. The church was nearly full, and the congregation contained a good range of ages and nationalities.There was an informally dressed choir led by their truly remarkable organist, Mark Wilson. The kids made a little St. Peter's fishing net, and the people all gathered around afterward for yet another excellent dinner. It was great.

We drove home late in the afternoon. In the hills between Alexandra and Roxburgh the fog was freezing in the trees, turning them into silver filigree in the fading light. It had been a long day, but a satisfying day. The Wakatipu parish is in good heart, possessed of the same sort of energy and vitality and openness to the future that marks the town. It's gold. Bright fine gold. It would be great to find more of it.


ElizH said…
What a superb description of the area. Makes me want to rush straight down there. Wellington has just rain, rain and more rain.
daharja said…
What a beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing.
Brian R said…
Back in the 60's I first visited Queenstown and fell in love. I considered retiring there but, when I revisited in 2006, I realised although nature was still beautiful, humanity had spoilt things and it was not the best for retirement. Instead I have now fallen in love with Dunedin which is far more suitable for a retired person. I am still to visit Queenstown in winter. I am sure it is beautiful for a short stay.