Fool's Gold

by Dave Mitchell

Sou-westerly clouds scud across the pre-dawn sky as we park up at the Skippers' turn-off. It's toasty inside the car. Outside, it's shockingly cold. We face a grim weather forecast. An ark might be needed if the gods deliver the promised floods of biblical proportions.

An ambitious day lay ahead- climbing over Mt Vanguard and Advance Peak into Macetown, and then back to Skippers Saddle. The terrain is familiar enough to me having ridden the loop in a previous millennium. Although the first mountain biker in modern times must have been Stu Challenger, who rode and shouldered his venerable cyclo-cross bike along the route, following the trail of countless miners, musterers and adventurers who have tramped the tops through the ages.

We launch down Long Gully and the old Skippers Pack Track. The sun bravely attempts to light the tops as we cross the creek at Mathers Camp. A mini rainbow clashes with pink peaks and ominous dark clouds to provide a picture of meteorological confusion. The track descends rapidly on a hard pack of fine schist and clay, hugging the contours and gullies of the steep tussocked slopes. All too soon the track spits us back out onto the Skippers Road.

The sparrow's fart start pays dividends with the absence of traffic. The road gets a thrashing from rafting and bungy operators- it's pleasant not to be eating their dust for a change. Skippers is a spectacular area with the schist-blue Shotover River charging along below the road. And it's laden with history. Excess layers of clothing are peeled off as we make our way past the old Long Gully Hotel site, marked by a couple of chimneys sprouting from the turf. In its day the hotel entertained an endless stream of miners coming and going from the Skippers' gold fields. The steep, narrow road- blasted and dug by hand from the vertical rock walls- clings precariously to the broken terrain, as it follows the river up to Mt Aurum Station and beyond to Branches Station.

The easy travel ends as we leave the road at Deep Gully. The restored Skippers schoolhouse stands on the opposite side of the river amidst an ever-expanding plague of wilding pines. The town of Skippers once supported a population of 700. Little is left of the houses, banks, hotels and shops. We follow a rough old track up the west ridge of Mt Vanguard (1780m). It becomes unrideable about a third of the way up so we hoist our bikes and continue on animal tracks cutting through the snow tussock. The contours ease just short of the summit allowing us to ride the final leg to the top. Time to refuel, rug up and imbibe in the vista. 360-degree views take in the Remarkables on the far side of Lake Wakatipu with the Kingston Valley beyond. The snow-clad peaks of Aspiring National Park loom large and glaciated to the north.

'Hint of Goat' litters the track and pervades the air as we ride north along the tops. A herd of the pests is cruising below us, merrily munching everything in their path. I feel a primeval urge to shoot them. The wind has fortuitously dropped to a whisper and the clouds have scurried to the coast. Perhaps it's a sign.

Advance Peak approaches, its old mines and supply tracks clearly visible. A party of trampers from Gore is as startled to see us, as us them. Our greeting meets a cascade of rolled r's. Scant evidence remains of the five companies that worked the Sunrise Lobe System high on Advance Peak. Only the Mountain Maid and Sunrise Lease were ever profitable and the effort to operate them was monumental. Working underground must have at times been a relief in this harsh environment. We enjoy a pit stop by one of the collapsed mine entrances before our long 800m descent.

The oversized wheels of my 29er roll comfortably over the loamy soil. Broken by hard frost, it's like lumpy porridge with ruts. The track becomes increasingly overgrown as we descend, with sub alpine shrubs hiding rocks and ruts. We reduce speed in anticipation of a section of switchbacks on the lower ridge. Sawyers Creek is below, catching air as it ducks and dives to join the Gold Burn. Gravity has encouraged the larger rocks to creep down the mountain, congregating on this particular section of track, giving us untold grief. Flax, toetoe and large, menacing spaniard populate the lower quarter to complete the sting in the tail.

A wagon track used to amble beside the Gold Burn, but has almost disappeared. The thick undergrowth forces us to briefly drop into the creek bed. The afternoon casts a long shadow over the Homeward Bound Battery, built to process the quartz via an aerial tramline from the eponymous mine. Upright and almost intact, this massive battery is actually the third on this site and was relocated from the remote gold fields of Waipori. It is impressive- each stamping head weighing in at a cool 536kgs. We soon arrive at the mouth of Scanian Gully and yet more gold mining relics. It marks the end of the singletrack and the start of the Macetown four-wheel drive track.

The first miners arrived in Macetown in 1862. It started life as a tent town on the terraces above the Arrow River. A few years later the West Coast gold rush almost drained the town. It took quartz mining to add some permanency to the place, which lasted for around 40 years until WW1 and low returns precipitated the final exodus. Macetown's tree-shaded streets and green grass create a park like atmosphere. A great place to camp in summer. Worth avoiding in winter.

Before the Arrowtown track was built it could take three days for a return trip, longer in grotty weather. It takes us just over an hour to ride out. The balmy temperature makes for a pleasant late afternoon blast through the 22 fords. Willow trees crowd the riverbank on both sides. The rough track climbs over Big Hill Saddle and down to Sawpit Gully, Bush Creek and eventually Arrowtown. The river disappears below as we climb high above its flow. On the fast downhill that follows, we pick up the Arrowtown town-supply water line. It alternates between old riveted pipe and new welded stuff. Numerous high-pressure leaks make pretty little rainbows while squirting water around like an irresponsible gardener. An old dam in the gorge is full to the brim with shingle and perhaps a smattering of gold. The final half dozen fords are deep and wide. The late afternoon light reflects awkwardly off the surface making it tricky to see the bottom or judge the depth. The final ford delivers us to the Arrowtown domain- wet-footed and tired, but bikes spotless. A bite to eat and we close the loop with an early-evening spin on the tarmac back to our patiently waiting car. No ark required.

Nitty Gritty

  • The full Skippers-Advantage-Vanguard-Macetown loop is a big day but there are plenty of shorter versions... just riding Skippers Pack Track, or continuing up the road to Branches Station is worthy. Or pack a picnic and spend half a day riding in and out of Macetown from Arrowtown. The Classic NZ Mtb Rides South Island  book has the good oil. Available from Ground Effect for $39. 
  • In Arrowtown, sneak down the alley next to Saffron and drop into Blue Door Bar for a post-ride snort. Upstairs is Dorothy Brown's. An eclectic picture theatre and bar screening the current crop of off-Hollywood flicks- or quench your intellectual thirst in their excellent bookshop. 
  • Pick up the 'Guide to the Macetown Historic Reserve' from the Information Centre in Arrowtown for a brief history of the area. 
  • If you're curious about the local gold mining history then search the library for copies of 'Gold Fields of Otago' by June Wood and 'New Zealand Industrial Heritage' by Geoffrey Thornton.