Explore Central Otago
ARROWTOWN, at the confluence of the Arrow River and Bush Creek 23km northeast of Queenstown, still has the feel of an old gold town, though on busy summer days any lingering authenticity is swamped by the tourists prowling the sheepskin, greenstone and gold of its souvenir shops. Nonetheless the town is very much a living community, with grocers’ shops, pubs and a post office and a great range of accommodation and places to eat. Arrowtown has a permanent (and increasingly wealthy) population of around 2400, but in summer, when holiday homes are full and tourists arrive in force, it comes close to regaining the 7000-strong peak attained during the gold rush.
The best way to appreciate Arrowtown is to linger on after the crowds have gone. If you’re visiting from Queenstown and not staying over, consider coming for lunch, spend the afternoon hiking, swimming in the river or biking up to the former mining settlement of Macetown, then catch a movie and dinner, making sure you get the last bus back.
If you can, visit in late April when the town is at its best, the trees golden and the streets alive during the ten-day Autumn Festival (w arrowtownautumnfestival.org.nz), with all manner of historic walks, street theatre and hoedowns.
There is considerable doubt as to whether American William Fox was actually the first to discover alluvial gold in the Arrow River in 1862, but he dominated proceedings, managing to keep the find secret while recovering over 100kg. Jealous prospectors tried to follow him to the lode, but he gave them the slip, on one occasion leaving his tent and provisions behind in the middle of the night. The town subsequently bore his name until Foxes gave way to Arrowtown. The Arrow River became known as the richest for its size in the world – a reputation that drew scores of Chinese miners, who lived in the now partly restored Arrowtown Chinese Settlement. Prospectors fanned out over the surrounding hills, where brothers Charley and John Mace set up Macetown, now a ghost town.Read More
As gold fever swept through Otago in the early 1860s, prospectors fanned out, clawing their way up every creek and gully in search of a flash in the pan. In 1862, alluvial gold was found at Twelve Mile, sparking the rush to what later became known as Macetown, now a ghost town and a popular destination for mountain bikers, horse trekkers and trampers.
Macetown’s story is one of boom and bust. At its peak, it boasted a couple of hotels, a post office and a school, but when the gold ran out, it couldn’t fall back on farming in the way that Arrowtown and Queenstown did and, like Skippers, it died. All that remains of the town are a couple of stone buildings – the restored schoolmaster’s house and the bakery – and a smattering of wooden shacks. The surrounding creeks and gullies are littered with the twisted and rusting remains of gold batteries, making a fruitful hunting ground for industrial archeology fans
On first acquaintance, it isn’t massively exciting, but the grassy plateau makes a great camping spot. Indeed, arriving for a couple of days with a tent and provisions is the best way to experience Macetown’s unique atmosphere.
Arrowtown’s hidden Chinese history
Arrowtown’s hidden Chinese history
The initial wave of miners who came to Arrowtown in the early 1860s were fortune-seekers intent on a fast buck. When gold was discovered on the West Coast, most of them hot-footed it to Greymouth or Hokitika, leaving a much-depleted community that lacked the economic wherewithal to support the businesses which had mushroomed around the miners.
The solution was to import Chinese labour; the first Chinese arrived in Otago in 1866, their number reaching 5000 by 1870. The community settled along Bush Creek, its segregation from the main settlement symptomatic of the inherent racism of the time – something that also manifested itself in working practices that forced the Chinese to pick over abandoned mining claims and work the tailings of European miners. Even Chinese employed on municipal projects such as the Presbyterian church got only half the wages paid to Europeans doing the same job.
A ray of light is cast amid the prevailing bigotry by contemporary newspaper reports, which suggest that many citizens found the Chinese business conduct “upright and straightforward” and their demeanour “orderly and sober” – perhaps surprisingly in what was an almost entirely male community. Most came with dreams of earning their fortune and returning home, so, initially at least, few came with their families; a process of chain migration later brought wives, children and then members of the extended family. Few realized their dreams, but around ninety percent did return home, many in a box, sent to an early grave by overwork and poor living conditions. Many more were driven out in the early 1880s when recession brought racial jealousies to a head, resulting in the enactment of a punitive poll tax on foreign residents. There was little workable gold by this time and those Chinese who stayed mostly became market gardeners or merchants and drifted away, mainly to Auckland, though the Arrowtown community remained viable into the 1920s. Once the Chinese had left or died, the Bush Creek settlement was abandoned and largely destroyed by repeated flooding.