I’m fascinated by the Wild West (nothing to do with the disturbing crush I have on Val Kilmer as an extremely consumptive Doc Holliday in Tombstone, ok, well, maybe a little to do with that), so I thought it was pretty cool that New Zealand had its own version of the Gold Rush, and there are still old mining towns around that you can go and visit. Really, I wanted to visit one of the ghost towns, like Macetown or St. Bathans, but unfortunately those are only accessible by a road where a bunch of people got trapped in the snow the day before I was there, so I had to settle for Arrowtown, which is a cutesy, touristy former mining town only about a twenty minute drive from Queenstown, and is home to the Lakes District Museum and a partially re-created Chinese Settlement.
Arrowtown is indeed pretty cute (though it does feel like the town is trying just a bit too hard to be all quaint and old-timey), and I suspect it’s downright gorgeous at the height of autumn, judging by the leaves that were still clinging to a few of the trees when I visited. The building the museum is housed in is also aiming for adorable (and mostly succeeds), but it is obviously new-ish, being built on the site of the old bank (you can view the ruins inside). Entrance is 10 NZD, which is fairly standard for small museums in New Zealand (doesn’t mean I was thrilled to pay it, but I was used to it). The museum basically aims to cover the history of Arrowtown, and, more generally, of the Gold Rush in New Zealand; we entered through a hallway covered with posters telling us about the discovery of gold in Arrowtown in 1862 by a fellow called “Maori Jack” (because he was Maori, of course), which was followed shortly by an influx of settlers and various mining and sluicing operations. However, the first actual room of the museum (or maybe the last, if I went through backwards somehow) was somewhat disappointing as it just had a random collection of generic pioneer-life bits and bobs (look kids, a butter churn!), without much explanation provided.
The basement was more my style than the first upstairs room, being a re-creation of Old Arrowtown, complete with mannequins. The nicest surprise came when I opened the outhouse door and was met with a recorded voice telling me to go away (complete with buzzing fly sound effects), and an old miner availing himself of the facilities (I’ve encountered this gimmick at a good few museums now, but it never fails to delight).
But yeah, the mannequins ran the whole gamut, from Poops Magee up there, to a drunk in the saloon, and an industrious baker and printer in their respective shops (Arrowtown had its own newspaper, and there were historic reprints available for a small donation). There were some random boards about Chinese settlers set up in the schoolhouse, which were interesting to read, though they would have been easier to peruse if they were actually up on the walls, instead of sitting on the floor.
As I mentioned earlier, there was also the vault from the old bank down here, though alas, it had been stripped of gold nuggets before the bank closed, as a sign soberly informed me. The museum had made the dubious artistic decision to put a banker dummy inside the vault, lurking creepily in the dark, which gave me a bit of a shock when I first looked over.
The other upstairs room was much better than the first, and focused on the stories of the immigrants who came to Arrowtown to participate in the Gold Rush; not only Chinese people, but also Brits, Germans, Australians, and many others. This collection included some of the culturally-specific objects they would have brought with them (rather than the generic crap in t’other room); I was particularly intrigued by the collection of opium smoking paraphernalia and the sauerkraut making machine (though I wouldn’t particularly want to use it; I hate sauerkraut!).
The museum also had an offer where for $3 (plus a $10 deposit, which we got back when we returned our pan), they would loan us a pan and spade for as long as we wanted, and we could pan for gold in the Arrow River behind the museum (where mining started in Arrowtown in the mid-1800s). Even though it was near freezing when we visited (there were actually patches of ice on the riverbank), we couldn’t resist taking them up on it, and crouched near the river for almost an hour, though we didn’t find anything in the end. Not even a gold flake or two.
After our gold panning adventure, we trudged to the other side of town to look at the old gaol. Much to my dismay, I found a sign on the fence informing us that if we wanted to go inside the gaol, we could ask for the key at the museum! I really wish they had a sign at the museum mentioning this, because I didn’t even realise you could go inside the gaol, and even though I would very much have liked to explore it, there was no way I was walking back to the museum and then uphill to the gaol again, especially after all that gold panning (I did bravely ford the river in search of more fruitful gravel, after all, just like a grizzled prospector!). So if you do find yourself in Arrowtown, remember to acquire a key before heading for the gaol!
We crossed town yet again to go to the Chinese Settlement (Arrowtown wasn’t really that big, but being outside in the cold for so long was getting old), which is now operated by the Department of Conservation, and is free to visit. They suggested the settlement would take 40 minutes to walk around, but if you’re a fast reader and walk quickly (because you’re freezing your ass off and want to get back to a warm car), you can easily see it in half that time. Ah Lum’s store is the only building that has been restored to any significant extent (Ah Lum was apparently the unofficial head of the Chinese Settlement, and was well-respected by even the white settlers, especially after he saved the life of a white miner), but there are a few other shacks lining the cliff face that you can poke your head into. It was frankly kind of depressing; the shacks were dark, dingy, tiny, and not particularly well sheltered from the elements.
Thanks to the accompanying signs, we learned more about life would have been like for the Chinese men who settled here (lonely, most likely, since most of the miners left their families behind, and never saw them again. Though apparently there wasn’t much open hostility towards the Chinese from the white settlers until they started to open businesses of their own in competition with the white merchants, and even then, Arrowtown was spared the violence rife in other mining towns). The huts were a bit grim (albeit in a historically accurate way), but the rest of the park was rather pretty, and had a real autumnal feel (I love that whole wood-smoke, leafy vibe. Autumn is my favourite season by far, so I’m pretty happy that I get to experience it twice this year!).
As we headed back to our car, we came across the “X” marking the spot where the first piece of gold was found (by the aforementioned “Maori Jack” aka Jack Tewa), which was a nice surprise. Despite the cold, I really enjoyed our day in Arrowtown (actually, the cold probably helped with that, by keeping other tourists away. We were the only ones bold/stupid enough to pan for gold), though I still would like to see some of the ghost towns someday – I think I’d prefer them to a town full of souvenir shops trying to get me to buy big tacky pieces of jade or kiwi statues made from every conceivable material (probably even gold). (Though the ghost towns aren’t likely to have millionaire’s shortbread for sale… It’s always a struggle between my hatred of people and my love of creature comforts. Cookies usually win.) 3.5/5 for our Arrowtown experience as a whole; even though the museum and the leaves weren’t all they could have been, I still had a good time.