“The walk up the Arrow River to the gold mining ghost town of Macetown is a much-loved summer pilgrimage for locals of the area.”
Macetown was first settled in the early 1860s as a result of the discovery of gold in the Arrow River. At first the rush was for alluvial gold but later the miners turned their attention to the hills where several quartz mining operations were established. When the gold ran out, the town slowly died and by the 1930s, Macetown was just a ghost town.
There are two ways to get to Macetown, the track up and over Big Hill or along the scenic Arrow gorge. The latter, described here, is a 15km, easy route, a combination of a 4WD road and foot-track that follows the Arrow River.
In summer, set off early to avoid the midday heat, taking sun protection, water and lunch. In winter, check the track and road conditions, especially after snow or heavy rain which can make the route impassable as there are numerous river crossings.
The foot-track and 4WD road both begin in Bush Creek, a small tributary of the Arrow River. The foot track climbs up and around a hillside, high above the vehicle road, thus avoiding several river crossings. It follows an irrigation pipeline, passing through dramatic schist pillars and crossing a shallow stream and picturesque waterfall with conveniently-placed stepping stones. The views of the river and the steep-sided gorge are spectacular in all seasons but in autumn the poplars are golden-leaved and the hillsides are ablaze with colour.
After 20-30 minutes, the foot track descends steeply, crosses the Arrow on a newish bridge and joins the 4WD road. There’s a steady climb to Britannia Terrace where you will see mine tailings and the ruins of old stone cottages. Look down to Scoles Tunnel where the Arrow River was diverted so gold miners could work the river-bed in the 1860s. In summer, stop on the way to pick tart gooseberries and sweet raspberries growing wild on the side of the road, and smell the sweet pastel-coloured lupins which flower profusely in at this time of year. You might also see geckos sunbathing on the rocks.
Further on, an ancient slip has blocked the valley creating the Arrow Falls above which is the intake for the Arrow Irrigation Scheme.
The river bends to the left and the road meanders up the gorge passing an old homestead and abandoned water races. The Big Hill Track joins the road at Eight Mile Creek and soon after you enter Macetown Historic Reserve. The old township site is further on at Twelve Mile Creek.
Very little remains of the once-thriving township, established in 1864 and named after three gold-mining brothers, John, Charles and Harry Mace. A bakehouse and an original cottage belonging to the Needham family have been well-restored, and the remnants of a main street can be seen along with crumbled stone walls and fruit trees where cottages once stood. Daffodils still appear in the spring, a reminder of flower gardens planted long ago.
It’s a peaceful place nestled among the hills and you can easily visualise the townsfolk walking up and down the main street, children tarrying on their way to school and miners setting off to the river in search of gold.
While most of the gold extracted from Central Otago was alluvial, three quartz-crushing batteries operated beyond Macetown. The most accessible by foot is the well-restored Anderson's Battery about 15 minutes from Macetown where the road ends. It’s the only known all-metal stamping battery in Otago and well worth the extra distance.
On the return trip late in the afternoon, the cold river water on the sun-warmed schist has a distinctive yet indescribable smell, and the river silt leaves a shimmery silver powder on your skin. The play of light on the golden tussocked hills and the dark shadows cast by the high mountain ranges and deep gorges is magic. It’s a long day but there is a basic camping ground at Macetown if you want to stay a night and do the walk over two days.
* Before walking to Macetown, visit the local museum to learn about the colourful history of the region. Also explore the restored huts and store at the Arrowtown Chinese Settlement on the banks of Bush Creek. Chinese immigrants lived here during the gold rush era.
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