Many people visit Arrowtown for the walking and cycle trails. The town is surrounded by unspoilt countryside, and it is quieter than nearby Queenstown. But I was here for the history. I wanted to walk the streets and imagine that I was back in the gold rush era of the late 19th century.
The Chinese Miners of Arrowtown
The Chinese Miners’ settlement was a good starting point. Here you can see the remains of the stone huts built by the miners themselves from rock hewed from the hillside (one hut was actually built into the hill). Their living conditions were cramped, with low doors and ceilings, and each miner had a small strip of land for growing vegetables. I wondered what it must have been like to spend the day digging for gold, and then spend the evening working your plot before collapsing exhausted into a tiny cabin.
Life was hard for the Chinese miners. The climate in Arrowtown was colder than they had been used to, and the locals were hostile. Although the Chinese had specifically been invited to New Zealand to work in the Otago goldfields, they faced prejudice and resentment from the Europeans. They kept themselves going with a strong sense of community, and by observing traditional festivals such as the Chinese New Year. They could socialise in Ah Lum’s store, where they could also buy small luxuries such as spices, tea and opium. And, of course, they dreamt of going home with enough money to start a new life in China. In the event, some of them never went home, but grew old and died in New Zealand.
Along the Historic Road
From the Chinese Settlement you can walk along the Historic Road to the other end of Arrowtown, where the European miners lived. Although their cottages have since been modernised, you can still see the contrast between their living conditions and those of the Chinese. The houses were modest, but adequate, and set along a wide, tree-lined, avenue.
This part of Arrowtown still has quite a colonial feel. There are several heritage buildings, including the old post office, shops and churches. The old Bank of New Zealand building is now the Lakes District Museum, with displays relating to the history of Arrowtown and its gold miners.
Gold Panning Then and Now
Gold was first discovered in Arrowtown in 1862 but it wasn’t long before the stocks were depleted and it became increasingly difficult to find worthwhile yields. However that doesn’t stop people from trying their luck even today. I saw an advert for gold panning lessons – “Success is guaranteed,” it said. However, I suspect the returns are insignificant. I watched people panning in the Arrow River and heard a woman tell her friends, “I found a gold nugget here in 1992”. Clearly not a common occurrence!
Further along the river was a monument – “X marks the spot” – showing where gold was first discovered. Below it was a time capsule to be opened in 2062. A neat way of bringing past and future together.