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Travel Story

Footprint not faded

Gold mining, rabbits and wine shaped New Zealand’s Bannockburn township

I went to Indonesia for a few months about 10 years ago. The landscape was lush and awe-inspiring. Each rice padi seemed more resplendent and Technicolor than the last. My traveling companion, Melissa, and I took reams of shots, confident that we would be able to catalogue our travels with the chronology of the astonishing natural beauty we encountered.

Once home to Canada, we had the shots developed. The anticipation was excruciating. Would the pictures do justice to the glory of Indonesia? We had not labeled the rolls, but we were certain that we would remember everything. We sat down and quickly plucked the shots from the pregnant envelopes. Rice padi. Rice padi. Me in a rice padi. Goat in a rice padi. Melissa and I in a rice padi. Some guy in a rice padi. Rice padi. Rice padi. Bloody rice padi.

Hmph. Granted, they were all nice rice padis, but one shot would have sufficed. Thank goodness for digital… and although I thoroughly appreciated my time in Indonesia, it still brings a twitch to my eye and a shake to my head to think of all those damned rice padis.

New Zealand, however, does not suffer from RPHB (rice padi homogonous beauty). Quite the contrary. Of all my travels, this tiny country offers the widest spectrum of geography, flora and magnificence. From rainforest, to tropical jungles, from deserts to natural springs and waterfalls, New Zealand boasts it all. The only thing that New Zealand lacks is large predatory animals (apart from us), which is okay by me.

This past visit – visit number six, to be exact – I had the fortune to revisit Bannockburn, a small township outside of Cromwell in the province of Otago on the South Island. Bannockburn has been shaped by three major factors: gold mining, rabbits and wine.

It had been 11 years since I was last in Bannockburn and I was excited to reacquaint myself with this stark and tortured desert. Images retained included desolate rolling hills, glaring sun and rabbits. A lot of rabbits. More on that later. I had stayed in what Kiwis refer to as a "crib" or "batch" (cottage in Canadian). It was a very small cottage with a single pull-out bed that gobbled up the room when extended. I had spent a few days there with a Danish couple I had been traveling with. But with the years came many, many changes to Bannockburn, and I had no idea of what was in store for me.

Bannockburn, the "Heart of the Desert," was founded as a gold-mining site in 1867. Mining in the area had started in 1862, when good alluvial gold had been found in the flats. Prior to the availability of large quantities of water for sluicing (flooding or drenching sediment with water to find gold), tunnels were a practical alternative way to mine the gold found in distinct layers of the gravel. Water was valuable and sold by the "head" and towering pinnacles give an indication of how much was sluiced away. They were left to denote land claims. Gullies were also created by sluicing operations that removed a huge amount of material to uncover the gold bearing layers.

Very little vegetation had grown in this area due to the low rainfall and lack of soil. There are stories of some miners even washing away their own homes in their insatiable quest for gold.

The eerie roughness of Bannockburn was sculpted by these miners. The area holds water races, dams, tunnels, thyme-paved tailraces (a channel for floating away mine tailings and refuse), sludge channels, shafts and crumbling cob and sun-dried brick buildings. There are ruins of small stone sleeping hutches that are now embedded in gorse, fireweed and foxglove, assimilated by nature into the rugged terrain. Poorer miners, bitten by gold fever, would sleep huddled in caves or rock shelters near sluice faces. Sluicings and tailings (refuse or dross remaining after ore has been processed) form a large part of the severe landscape of Bannockburn today. Spectacular cliffs of yellow clay flanking the scenes impart the tales of the gold rush of days gone by. Wandering the hills, there is an echoing ghostliness about Bannockburn. The wild thyme that covers the hills steeps the air with its heady scent. By 1867 a known total of 2 million ounces of gold was taken out of the province of Otago.

The quest for gold was arduous and dangerous. The quest for rabbits… not so much. On my first trip to Bannockburn, there was a sign along the road that read "no rabbiting." Rabbits are not considered cute or popular in Bannockburn and the sign was nearly illegible from the many bullet-holes that mocked the naïve bylaw. The rolling hills seemed to keel and pitch with the waves of tawny rabbits that blanketed the soil. On my previous visit I was not involved in a rabbit "seek and destroy" mission. This time, however, I was given the opportunity by my host.

"The rabbits say hello and have invited you for tea, in fact," my host disclosed upon return from his fruitless morning rabbiting expedition. He half-smiled as he shook his head and grabbed himself a coffee. I had not been a contender for the morning rabbiting expedition. I had proven my strengths in the preceding evening’s foray. During this expedition I had excelled at holding the torch (Kiwi for flashlight), lighting our way, instead of spotting for rabbits. I had also been adept at nattering away about how dark it was, how pretty and calm it was, how New Zealand was so nice, etc. I did not speak in a whisper as Bannockburn’s famous Pinot Noir controlled my volume – nothing to do with me, really. As a result, I had demonstrated that I was expert, in fact, in warning rabbits, possums, and any remotely aurally-enabled creature within a couple of kilometres that at least one human was about, and that they should get the hell out of there.

But truth be told, there are far fewer rabbits in Bannockburn and Central Otago than before. Farmers implored the government for assistance, as massive areas were rendered useless for agriculture as a result of the blight of rabbits. An introduced virus was given lip-service for many years… but nothing official eventuated from the discussions. And then a certain hitherto unnamed band of farmers took action. A "rabbit virus" was imported and slathered across the area. According to a very reliable Kiwi source, "The virus spread rapidly; the government agencies were up in arms and investigations were implemented to find the culprit farmers. The rabbit population on our land and throughout Central dropped markedly and land has gradually recovered to bear herbs and grasses again."

There are rumors of this virus being misused, and it is possible that problems may transpire in the future. But to this day, not a single farmer has been held responsible and no one has come forward or pointed fingers. The job was well done, so keep it to yourself.

For anyone who has spent quality time with a proper Kiwi, this DYI resourcefulness is genetic and at times admirable. So I probably didn’t scare away quite as many cute, furry cotton tails in my Pinot Noir-empassioned monologue as previously implied.

Which brings me to the wine. Bannockburn is internationally renowned as one of the few places in the world where the fussy Pinot Noir grape has found a home outside of Burgundy. The microclimate and the diverse assortment of gravels and clays suitable for viticulture provide a fantastic basis for Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Chardonnay. There is also a modicum of Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. Bannockburn is a unique area of extremes. The wines are produced from vineyards situated on the lower north-facing slopes and terraces of Bannockburn. The semi-continental climate results in greater daily and seasonal extremes of temperature than found elsewhere in the country. This large diurnal temperature variation contributes to flavour intensity and also gives depth of colour and stability to the wines.

There is a range of soils in Bannockburn, from windblown sands to heavy silt loams and weathered schist. Most of the soils are derived from loess or alluvial deposits, often with underlying gravels allowing free drainage. Summers are hot and dry, autumns cool and generally dry with cold nights. Rain falls evenly throughout the year and averages 325-700 mm per annum. Thanks to the low rainfall, there is a low incidence of botrytis and other fungal diseases, which reduces the need for spraying. At 45 degrees south, Central Otago is the world’s southernmost winemaking region. Central Otago is also the fastest growing wine region in New Zealand. Sixty per cent of the region’s vineyards are in the Cromwell district.

"This is God’s country when it comes to Pinot Noir"

— James Halliday in Panorama 2000.

The first wine grapes were planted in Central Otago by John Desire Feraud in 1864. Over the next 20 years he produced many award-winning wines. His stone-built winery, Monte Christo, still exists but only as an historical site.

Winemaking did not pick up again until the early 1980s, with the first commercial wines produced in 1987. Presently there are six: Bannockburn, Akarua, Carrick, Felton Road, Olssens of Bannockburn and Mt. Difficulty.

Bannockburn is no longer exclusively the barren and imposing desert of a decade ago. In kind with the metamorphosis of the area, my beloved crib had been moved to the edge of the property and replaced by an impressive adobe-style home with radiant heated flooring. Out back, a large outdoor fireplace had been built, a welcoming hearth for late night imbibing, chatting and general carousing. Trees gild the area as a result of the stalwart dedication and love of the Cameron family. Lovely little nooks have been tenderly created and adorned by the artistic and illustrious Jill.

I waited a couple of days to revisit the crib, the wee home that to this day occupies an exclusive corner of my heart. I wandered down from the adobe with the keys. I wondered if any preserved fragrance from the walls of this magical batch would unlock yet another memory, as I retraced footsteps from years ago.

I unlocked the padlock and opened the door. It was familiar, but I was not assailed by the delightful barrage of "remember whens" I had longed for. But then something caught my eye, which quickly filled with the tug of a tear. I beamed. Affixed to the wall, the ink faded but still perfectly legible, was the note that Abbie, Nicolaj and I had left to thank Rob and Jill for their generosity in sharing this beguiling haven with us. Us, the grubby backpackers from 11 years ago.

"Dear Rob and Jill, thanks again for everything – we’ve had a lovely time. It’s Saturday and we are off to Te Anau – much love, Gillie"

Okay, "perfectly" legible might be an exaggeration. It was my demented doctor’s handwriting. However, I was transported by that note. It is always daunting to return to a place that occupies a special place in one’s heart. Although it is possible that an area has not changed so much, it is errant to assume that we will look with the same eyes, after years of experience, travel and the general passage of time. The note struck me with a warmth unexpected but very much welcome. It was proof of existence beyond the present moment, of a path tread and recorded in the annals of a once barren yet beautiful land.