Whether it is clad in autumn’s foliage finery, dappled in winter snow, or sprigged up by the first blossoms of spring, Central Otago’s Highway 85 traverses a landscape of awe and saga.
Best enjoyed as a self-drive road trip, just south of Oamaru, turn off State Highway 1 at Palmerston, which takes you on to State Highway 85, also colloquially known as the “Pigroot”. This fabulous inland highway twists and turns across undulating fields of butter-colour tussocks and wrinkled hills, loosely scattered with schist stacks, and the pancake-flat expanse of the Maniototo Plain, as snow-capped mountains rise and fall on the horizon.
Why is the highway named after pigs? The locals believe that when the area was surveyed in 163 by John Thomson, the valley was overrun by wild pigs, completely fearless of people. In fact, Thomson claims one inquisitive boar rubbed up against his horse.
Pullover at the signpost for the McCormicks Creek Bridge, which most travellers race past. Built in 1869, this superlative schist arch bridge, is one of the last examples of the old coach bridges, erected during the Otago goldrush. The main service town is Ranfurly, which is a major base for riders on the Otago Central Rail Trail. The town was monstered by a spate of arson attacks in the 1930s, so most of the shops and buildings were reconstructed in Art Deco style, which, like Napier, has given the town its signature appeal.
Top drawers include the Ranfurly Hotel and the time-honoured Centennial Milk Bar. But my favourite regional highlight is fairytale-pretty Naseby, just 10km from Ranfurly, nestled at the base of the Kakanui Mountains. You could be forgiven for thinking this fetching little village has been teleported direct from Toytown. Walk the lanes to delight in the clutch of rose-clad cottages, old wooden churches, elegant stone buildings and storied pubs. There’s the Watchmakers, Bootmakers and Drapers shops, along with the Apothecary, possibly New Zealand’s oldest standing two storey adobe (mud brick) building.
The Old Doctor’s Residence is a graceful old kauri villa and keep an eye out for the Monkey Puzzle House, previously the Borough Clerk’s house and now a B&B, named in honour of the lofty Monkey Puzzle tree in the front garden. But the prize draw is the kauri-timbered Royal Hotel, built in 1863, and run by Jill and Peter Derbyshire. Just as it was 150 years ago, the Royal Hotel remains the social nerve centre of Naseby, where stories are traded over the roaring open fire, crisp lagers and hearty pub fare. And as an overnight base, the guestrooms, while compact, are cosy and toasty. Big Ears and Noddy would approve.
Like many aspects to daily living in Naseby, the origins of the curling craze can be traced directly to the goldrush, as it was Scottish prospectors who unleashed curling (and whisky swilling) on the village, in the 1860s. Curling is now played year-round, indoors, at Naseby’s International Curling Rink, the only such facility in the Southern Hemisphere – in close proximity to the downhill luge course. Curling is relatively easy to get the hang of, and the on-site instructors are only too happy to show you the ropes. Think of it as lawn bowls on ice, and you will be half way there.
You’ll also want to explore the verdant expanse of the Black Forest, which is actually privately owned, but includes a public recreation area, encompassing 50kms of walking and cycling tracks. This exotic Northern Hemisphere-style forest, teeming with spruces, firs and cedars, brings those winter wonderland Christmas card scenes to life, especially when the forest in draped in snow.
Thrifty Car Rental has handy locations in Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown.