New Zealand- Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 363 (173)
Sunday 6th March (2005)
Being the earlier riser of the two of us, Sandy was up and about this morning long before I was even awake. She thoughtfully sent me a text message to my phone to wake me up. I got up and packed in quiet seclusion by myself – my much-preferred method.
After a banana breakfast, we were packed, in the car and on our way under bright and sunny skies. Our destination for this morning’s drive would be a small town on the other side of the Lewis Pass called Murchison. The guidebook tells of the possibility to go panning for gold there, which neither of us have ever done. I made sure to fill up the car (or rather the fuel tank) with fuel and was quite shocked at the NZ$32 (€18,56) price tag for the three quarters of a tank of petrol. Okay, it’s still very much cheaper than back in Europe but it does seem like a lot of money for fuel given the fact that we’ve only been here in New Zealand for a few days. For such a small car, I would have expected a bit better fuel economy.
Although we had to pass through some mountainous terrain to make it through the Lewis Pass, the roads were not nearly as windy as the drive from Kaikoura to Hanmer Springs and we passed through some truly spectacular scenery on the way. At one point, we stopped at what seemed like the highest point of the pass where the wind was blowing up a storm. The force of the wind took us both by surprise. As when we opened the car doors, the resulting whirlwind that swept through the car took hold of our map and sent it hurtling into the skies and out of our reach. We both waved goodbye to it and took a photo for prosperity.
About half way between Hanmer Springs and Murchison is the isolated Maruia Springs resort. I had mentioned to the hostel owner in Hanmer Springs that I was a little disappointed at just how false the Hanmer Thermal Reserve pools were and she told me that the springs at Maruia are a more natural setting. We stopped at Maruia and went to take a look at the springs and they did at first look seem to be the real deal but on closer inspection, they turned out to be fabricated baths with realistic looking boulders placed around the edges of each pool. We left without taking a dip. The rest of the trip up to Murchison was otherwise uneventful save for the odd stop here and there to admire the scenery.
We found our hostel pretty much immediately upon entering the small town of Murchison. It’s actually nothing more than a ground floor house that has been converted into a hostel. The only person that was in the house when we arrived was a guest that was sitting in one of the armchairs reading a book. A notice standing on the floor had a phone number printed on in with an arrow pointing to a phone on the kitchen counter. I called the number and spoke with a child, presumably the owner’s son, but the kid told me that his Dad was out playing golf and wasn’t due to return for several hours. I told him that we had just arrived and needed to check in and he told me that he would send over a van, whatever that meant. Shortly thereafter, a van did indeed arrive and the cleaner woman came in with an armful of fresh linen. She checked us in and relieved me of NZ$50 (€29) for tonight’s accommodation. Whilst she proceeded to make up all the vacant rooms, we wandered over to the information office to ask about gold panning and other activities here. Apparently, gold is still commercially mined here with the riverbeds and riverbanks teeming with small flakes of the yellow metal. This weekend has also found Murchison hosting its annual Buller Gorge river festival. Just a short drive out of town down on the river, a river rodeo competition was still in full swing so we decided to grab a bite to eat and head on over there to take a look see for ourselves.
We managed to find a place to park on the narrow dirt track off the main road and made our way down to the river. With no actual path to walk on, the climb down there from the dirt track was quite an exercise in navigation in its own right. The rodeo was taking place in one of the rapid sections of the river with about a hundred spectators and canoeists altogether. From what we could see through our layman’s eyes, the participants were navigating their way through the rapids whilst performing tricks as they went. It was quite entertaining for the hour or so that we were there but the sun was beating down on us so we slowly made our way back to the car. Sandy was exhausted by the climb so by the time we made it to the dirt track, I had to go and get the car to come and collect her.
Since we were now very close to where we could partake in a spot of gold panning, we drove over there to see what we could see. There are actually several attractions all in one at this little spot just off the main road. A metal swing bridge just wide enough to carry a single person spanned the river which, for a small fee of NZ$5 (€2,90), we could cross to the other side and back. On the other side were some walking tracks and some old, derelict gold mines. There was also a jet boat operator there and, or course, the gold panning. For NZ$10 (€5,80) each, we would receive a bit of tuition on the art of gold panning using a gold panning bowl and a small spade and then sent down to the river’s edge to try to pan for our own gold. With the cost of getting across to the other side of the bridge, I had to pay a total of NZ$30 (€17,40) overall. Panning for gold is definitely an acquired art but after our few minutes of tuition, we managed to find a few scrapes of gold at the bottom of our pans. The real trick, however, was maintaining concentration on what you were doing whilst being besieged by literally hundreds of pesky little sandflies. They look innocent enough but when the land, which the frequently do, they bite and we hadn’t thought to bring any repellent. By the end of our brief tuition, Sandy had to go back over the bridge to buy a bottle of repellent. There was simply no way we could have continued otherwise.
After dousing ourselves all over with repellent, we set about trying to pan for our own gold down by the water’s edge – where the bloody sandflies were at their most populous. Irritation from the persistent flies aside, we did manage to scrape together a few flecks of gold. Indeed, it is everywhere all throughout the sand and shale of the riverbanks. Our own attempts at panning, however, left much to be desired and I found myself giving up on it in favour of just trying to pluck the golf flakes right out of the sand directly with my fingers. I think I got much more sand than I did gold so tomorrow I’m going to bring a very small flat object, like a screwdriver, to simply lift the bits of gold out with. I reckon that will be much more efficient.
By the time we were finished with panning for gold, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was now persistently raining. Slowly but surely, we were getting soaked through to the skin. We made our way back to the hostel to clean up. After preparing and eating dinner, we spent the rest of the evening talking with various other hostel guests. One in particular, a Dutch man, looked awfully familiar and it transpires that Murchison is now the fifth place on our travels that he has been in the same place as us – Koa Tao & Bangkok in Thailand, Siem Reap & Phnom Penn in Cambodia and now Murchison in New Zealand. It’s a small world after all.