Summer drives: Macraes, a mine of heritage

By David Thomson on Fri, 4 Jan 2008 | Latest News | Feature articles | Summer drives | Otago Daily Times
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Relics of mining days gone by at Golden Pt.

Otago's modern gold rush is taking place today on a scale that will astound you at Macraes, site of the largest gold mine this province has ever seen.

Trucks the size of multistorey houses lumber out of the massive Fraser's Pit, each carrying a load of rock equivalent to several thousand wheelbarrow-loads. Yet, seen from the public viewing platform, diggers and excavators look like mere toys dotted in the pit below. Map of Macraes drive.

A few kilometres north, gold is extracted from the rock at Oceana Gold's processing plant.

The area in between has been transformed since the modern open-cast mining operation started in 1990: massive heaps of overburden, settling ponds, and large man-made hills - many now replanted - define the landscape, and roads have been casually realigned and rerouted as the miners march through.

So far, close to 2.5 million ounces of gold have been extracted by the current operation. The mine, as well being Otago's largest ever, is also the biggest in New Zealand today. There's plenty more gold to go too, for Oceana Gold has only worked over half of the rich 40km seam.

Knowledge of gold in this area dates back to the beginnings of the original Otago gold rush: it was first discovered here in May 1862. Soon afterwards, the small town of Macraes sprang up to meet the miners' needs.

Stanley's Hotel, which operates to this day, is one of the original buildings from that first rush. Just across the road a small picnic area has been created around more old stone buildings and various relics of the original gold-mining age. A couple of hundred metres south, a walkway leads through the

Macraes Flat wetlands area, and beyond that there is a massive art installation in a paddock.

The best place to get a sense of mining old and new is, though, at nearby Golden Pt, where Otago's best-preserved stamper battery sits in a large shed, dwarfed by the current mining activity all around.

Operational into the 1950s, this battery was used to extract gold and - during both world wars - scheelite, a mineral used to harden steel for military uses.

At Golden Point, you will also find a range of old mining relics dotting the landscape, an old mining shaft cut into the hillside, and mud-brick cottages from the mining days.

Getting to Macraes is simple, yet it is also half the fun. From Dunedin, drive north to Palmerston and turn inland along the Pigroot. The turn-off to Macraes is well signposted, shortly after Dunback.

The road to Macraes - 15km on - is sealed all the way, and continues for a further 20km into the top of the Strath Taieri, intersecting with Highway 87 south of Hyde. From here, you can turn south for Middlemarch to complete a loop trip from Dunedin that will involve less than three hours of driving in all.

The quiet Macraes road is, in my view, one of Otago's finest both for enthusiasts - who will delight in its twists and turns - and the general traveller - who will find the landscape through which it passes amazing.

Because the road climbs high, the views are spectacular: back to Palmerston and the East Otago coast early in the journey, north to the Kakanui Range in the middle, and across the Rock and Pillar Range and into Central Otago towards the end.

Choose the right day - fine and not too windy - and this is one of the finest trips Otago has to offer.