Gold's merry tune murmurs on wind

A sentinel from sluicing days at Switzers.
A sentinel from sluicing days at Switzers.
A view of Waikaia from the town’s cemetery.
A view of Waikaia from the town’s cemetery.
Oweena Frew (left) and Janine Donaldson.
Oweena Frew (left) and Janine Donaldson.
The Waikaia museum and bottle house.
The Waikaia museum and bottle house.
The magic wishing tree (left) and the interior of the Waikaia bottle house.
The magic wishing tree (left) and the interior of the Waikaia bottle house.
Preparing a 150th banner, from left, Jo Smith, Catherine Baldock, Joslyn Henry and Roslyn Standish. Behind them are Mathew Standish and Jonty Baldock.
Preparing a 150th banner, from left, Jo Smith, Catherine Baldock, Joslyn Henry and Roslyn Standish. Behind them are Mathew Standish and Jonty Baldock.

As Waikaia celebrates a 150-year past this month, visitors keep discovering a lot to commend the town in the here-and-now. Michael Fallow reports.

Best not get too terribly close to the edge of the man-made precipice at Switzers. It can feel like a slightly precarious place, atop a cliff where half a hill should be, although the feeling is fitting for a goldrush town that the miners sluiced away from under their own feet.

Look past the cannon-like sluicing guns that still stand sentry and you'll see Waikaia perched prettily in the distance.

Switzers was a wild, short-lived outfit, formed, deformed and abandoned in brisk, emphatic fashion. Waikaia was where they wound up next. Those who stayed created a town that was never staid. A town with sterling heartland credentials but which never quite let go of the more wild west elements of its past, in contrast with the general cultural climate of agricultural worthiness nearby.

Nowadays, there's something of a gold revival in the wind. Waikaia Gold has received consent for a $12-million eight-year dredge project on the Waikaia River floodplain due to begin operation by the end of March. The district's support for the project stems not only from general contentment at the post-mining restoration plans, but those expected 40 jobs.

The townsfolk know from experience that when people come, more than just a few of them start to show an interest in coming back, time and again.

It's perhaps telling that the population, which scarcely towers above 100 in the winter, increases to maybe 1000 in the warmer months for the balance of recreational pleasures on offer.

One of the locals, Oweena Frew, is discussing a house-swap holiday with some American visitors keen to return. They would stay in her home opposite Waikaia School, and she in theirs at Martha's Vineyard, New York.

But every bit as significant is that so many people from the town's neighbourhood, like Gore just 54km away, look to Waikaia for getaway refreshment. It has its own feel.

Writer Janine Donaldson, whose book Seeking Gold and Second Chances has been published as part of the 150th celebrations, says the town and district should celebrate all of their past, including the wild bits.

And if you think the wild west talk is overstatement, consider the shootout with the Tibbits brothers, or the time the redoubtable Sergeant Patrick Herlihy got a posse together to go in search of Frank Erwin.

Or the horsewhipping of the postmaster.

Those were ungentle times, folks. The title of her book reflects the presence of some people seeking to leave their past behind them, such as the man the locals still called Dr Daplyn, although he was in truth a self-taught chemist and dentist who had been done in Dunedin for malpractice and embezzlement. He made himself a pretty good life until he drowned at Fortrose.

You'll find a mural outside the Waikaia Hotel

It was calico and canvass in the days of pick and pan

For the cry of gold was magic to the hardy mining man

It was huts of mud and tussock

It was streets of ruts and slush

And the nights were wild and woolly

In the heyday of the rush

Inside the pub, Wendy-Jane Williamson looks down at her press-for-service bell.

"People are too scared to push it, would you believe?" she marvels.

That might be because the button is placed in the centre of a gin-trap. The button works but the trap doesn't. Or it might be the other way around; your reporter's notes are unclear.

On the walls you'll find Southern Odyssey celebrations of hard cases like the formidable Herlihy, an officer with a strong line in summary justice, and local goldminer Ted Cady, a small man and something of a dandy, who went on drinking sprees with a feather in his hat and carpet slippers on his feet. Which was no excuse, of course, for a barfly called Sandy to hang him on the billiard room door by his necktie until he turned blue.

Not that the nights are riotous and uproarious now, Wendy-Jane lightly adds. People get to know each other too well, or soon get to, and they just get along.

The Waikaia store has just been bought by Invercargill couple John and Jude Cresswell. Why did they come?

"She made me," John explains.

Why was that?

"For the better weather and the lovely people," she says. "And we were sick of working really hard."

How's that gone for them so far?

"We've never worked so hard in our lives as the last three weeks," she laughs.

Waikaia's most eccentric landmark is, of course, the three-storey bottle house next to the old-fashioned museum. Every one of those bottles was washed by the locals, says Oweena Frew - and then they had to do it again because the cement wasn't initially good enough and had started to rot.

Look closely and you'll be shocked - shocked! - to discover that one or two of those bottles may have once contained alcohol, but let's not be censorious. The light inside the structure is lovely, particularly when under nighttime illumination.

A newer landmark is a cairn to commemorate, at last, not just the European miners, but the Chinese who came after them, adept and hardworking enough to gain wealth that the first-triers had left behind.

Another eccentricity, for sure, is the magic wishing tree outside Linda Taylor's lavender home, complete with a painted hand-space for children to activate the magic. And they use it. They really do.

Spend any time in Waikaia, especially in summer, and you can expect to see people in happy recreational mode.

The Southland Times was there on a Wednesday, so it was Dad's Army day at the golf course and a busy one at that. Drive past a couple of kids fixing the chain of an upturned bike and they will look up and give an open, friendly look at the passing car.

You can, of course, go goldpanning and fishing, or take part in any number of organised tourist activities, should you care to.

Alternatively, you could let the kids run just a bit feral. Winding Creek, one of the great unofficial spots for the younger ones, must be among the most-dammed stretches of water in the South Island. Older adventure-seekers ride their trailbikes on the tracks below Switzers.

The tennis courts are busy, Saturdays especially, and although we hesitate to say the footy grandstand is cute, let's just say its has a compact potency.

Nearby, the camping ground is humming with families, and when we go past the school - one of those blessed schools that seems only to declare a need and find that the locals have rallied to address it - and there's a burst of applause and cheering. One young lad has just ridden his bike, without training wheels, for the very first time.

Also there, amid parents preparing a 150-year celebration banner for this weekend are young Mathew Standish and Jonty Baldock, the boys we passed minutes earlier, fixing their bike.

Now we know their names. Mathew was going to be singing during the weekend celebrations.

It's hard not to get to know people, easily and quickly, if you spend any time at all in Waikaia.

Typically, you'll be glad to.

Therein, surely, lies its future.

The Southland Times