• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras Rd

Looking across Lake Dunstan towards Bendigo.

Mike White heads up the Cromwell-Tarras road to merino and wine country.

Wattie Thompson lived in a place few knew of, and died in a place even fewer reach. For 50 years, he mined for gold around Central Otago, building rudimentary shacks in remote valleys, content to be one step removed from the world.

One of those places was in the back of Bendigo, among the tors and tussock beyond Cromwell, where Thompson continued to pan for gold decades after everyone else had given up.

John Perriam, Bendigo Station’s owner, remembers Thompson and the hut he had on the property.

“It was bloody hard to get to. Right in a very tight canyon up in the Bendigo Creek. Never got any sun. No windows in the house, just a door. Just a wood stove for heat.”

Thompson would divert the creeks so the gold was deposited in places he could get to, wait for spring rains to bring down fresh gravel, and spend summer sifting it for gold. Popular fable had it that he rarely sold the gold he found, that he lived on his war pension and hoarded the rest.

Read more: Growth towns in NZ: Cromwell's new boomA Southern man goes for gold in Garston growing hopsBuilding a straw-bale house – and a new life – among Central Otago's hills

Perriam’s brother, Bob, recalls Thompson showing him a jar of gold nuggets in about 1970, and John still has a small vial of gold that Thompson gave their father. After Thompson died, opportunists traced his steps and combed his huts with metal detectors. If they found anything, they never said.

Thompson’s shack eventually got washed away in a flood, but the remains of other stone huts that sheltered goldminers before him still pock the land around Bendigo. Miners started prospecting here in 1862, in the wake of Central Otago’s gold rush. The small mining settlements of Welshtown and Logantown were established, a school was built, and miners eventually switched from panning the creeks and sluicing gravel to digging shafts into the hard quartz rock. By the early 20th century, most companies had gone bust and most miners shifted on. The land they left behind became part of high-country stations like Bendigo, which John Perriam took over in 1979.

The view from an old goldminer’s cottage in Welshtown, Bendigo.

Perriam became a national celebrity in April 2004 when a merino ram that had evaded mustering for six years was found living in a cave high on Bendigo. Named Shrek, he became an international star, being shorn on live TV, relieved of the 27kg fleece that had almost blinded him.

For seven years, Shrek and Perriam travelled the country, raising millions for charity, and before he retired, Shrek was earning more than an All Black for an appearance. The then-Prime Minister held a reception for him; books were written about him; he was flown to an iceberg to be shorn; and when he died, his hide went to Te Papa.

Perriam says Shrek knew how important he was, and would wander into the house from his shed and demand attention. “He didn’t follow me, he led me. Honestly, he was like a lab dog on the end of a rope. Even at airports, he was the first one onto an escalator going to the first-class lounge.”

Though Shrek died in 2011, he’s still synonymous with Bendigo, and Perriam is creating a park dedicated to him at nearby Tarras, complete with a large statue. Hundreds of thousands of sheep have roamed Bendigo’s hills over the decades, and Perriam, 72, isn’t sentimental about them. But Shrek was special.

“I was with him every day,” he says. “He trusted me, and I trusted him. He was a human being.”

Ex-accountant and international rugby referee Lindsay McLachlan among  Peregrine Vineyard’s new plantings at Bendigo.
While Bendigo is famous for its merinos and the wool they produce, Perriam is honest that much of the land is “rabbit shit”, as far as sheep farming goes: arid, crumbling, rock-riddled slopes only supporting briar and matagouri and offering sanctuary for rabbits. But when Lindsay and Jude McLachlan drove up the Bendigo road in 1998, they said it was “love at first sight”, and bought 30ha from Perriam.

Lindsay was a Dunedin accountant and international rugby referee, but had grown up around farms and was keen to return to the land. Jude was raised in Westport and originally thought Central Otago was a horrid place, devoid of green, but had gradually seen beauty in the browns of the area. They’d looked around other spots for growing grapes in Central Otago, Lindsay says, but “the moment we came up here we said, ‘That’s it.’”

The area was protected from southerlies by the Dunstan Range, had high sunshine hours, got less than 300mm of rain a year, and virtually nothing fell from February to April when grapes were ripening.

When the McLachlans shifted to Bendigo, there were only the Perriams at one end of the valley and themselves at the other, where there were “just two pine trees and the rest was rabbit-infested wasteland”, remembers Jude.

“It was so isolated, if you saw dust coming down the road you ran out to the front of the house to see whose car it was,” says Lindsay. “But it was just this beautiful open sky and no lights, and when the night sky comes in, it’s awesome.”

Read more: Clyde: Where the heart is | Top wine picks from Central Otago

The McLachlans bought into the Peregrine wine company in 2007 and now own it. And while they have other vineyards throughout Central Otago, it’s Bendigo they believe is truly special, with an unrivalled purity of fruit. They now have 160ha there, some planted, some waiting for the right time and right use. Jude looks after their pigs, chickens, bees and goats, while Lindsay is in charge of their 60 cattle (which help with compost production), and their mob of Wiltshire sheep that control the vineyard’s weeds. Their entire operation is organic, and Lindsay says he can see a time when they’ll be totally environmentally sustainable, including tractors powered by the sun.

What they have created is the rural life Lindsay, now 64, imagined when he quit accounting and the international whirl of rugby refereeing. “It’s exactly what I’d want in life. This will be me – I won’t leave here easily.”

Others have started arriving, too. Bendigo’s reputation for growing grapes has led to numerous other wine companies planting in the area. And it’s not just grapes – John Perriam recently sold land to a cherry company for a $70 million development. Tourists have also started exploring the old gold mines and taking advantage of great walking and mountain biking.

Lindsay accepts Bendigo’s visitors will increase, and already has to pull tourists’ vehicles from ditches or the ford near their house. He recently found a motorhome that had been stranded in the creek overnight, its occupants still inside.

“You’re my hero,” the woman cried out. “It’s my birthday – worst day of my life!”

When Lindsay towed them to safety with his tractor, the man offered him $100, but when Lindsay shook his head, the man tried again. “Okay – $200!” he said, only for Lindsay to tell him they didn’t need to pay for this kind of thing.

Architects Richie Pearce and Libby Morgan beside one of their cabins tucked into Bendigo’s unique landscape.

Libby Morgan and Richie Pearce are the latest arrivals in Bendigo, shifting into their home overlooking the upper Clutha basin in October. The couple were working as architects in Auckland but wanted a lifestyle change that wouldn’t see them sitting in front of computers nine hours a day. So in 2016, they came down to Wānaka and began looking for some land.

“We wanted something with an x-factor,” says Pearce, “but we weren’t quite sure what that was.”

A land agent mentioned a 4ha block John Perriam was selling, and when they asked what the likely price would be, the agent told them, “Look, it’s going to be at least in the twos.”

When Morgan and Pearce drove up to the site and stared out at the view, they suddenly panicked that the agent meant $2 million, rather than $200,000, “because we were standing up there thinking, this is amazing”. Fortunately, she had meant $200,000, and Morgan, 28, and Pearce, 34, managed to win the auction for it.

So, for the last year, they have designed and built their own house, along with two tourist cabins, secreted in the rocks and scrub, in a landscape that’s almost from another country. It’s Bendigo’s first tourist accommodation, and is so different, and sufficiently far from the beaten track, that they see the cabins as being “a holiday away from your holiday” for travellers.

“We’re so glad, not only that we made the move to Wānaka,” says Pearce, “but even more so that we’re out here – it’s just a whole other level of, relax.”

Fiona Robinson
When Fiona Robinson and husband Matthew shifted to Tarras 12 years ago, they bought the old garage and petrol station, and turned it into their home and a shop selling vintage wares, furniture and fabric. John Perriam’s late wife, Heather, paid for radio advertising for Robinson’s new shop, without telling her. Robinson says it was a sign of how friendly people are. “Mind you, it can be a bit loose at times. Even though I have all these beautiful things for sale, someone can just come in with a duck for us [to eat] or something.”

Lucy Weatherall arrived in Tarras in 2012, set up her catering business, and three weeks later gave birth to twin boys. The local rural women’s group were immediately on her doorstep with books and baking. When Weatherall’s mother died a few months later, everyone from neighbours to the local book club arrived with food and flowers, and the women’s group did her garden. “We were just like, what? This is incredible.”

Weatherall never imagined living in Tarras, but says it’s a perfect location between Queenstown and Wānaka, where most of her work is, and it’s a wonderful place for her boys to grow up.

Marilyn Duxson and John Harris were also amazed by the reception they got from locals when they bought 6ha of “useless land” beside the Clutha River from a farmer and set up Maori Point vineyard. “We thought there might be a bit of defensiveness about these new people doing weird things in our place,” says Duxson, “but it was, ‘Wow, a vineyard in Tarras, yay!’”

Lucy Weatherall, who runs her catering business from Tarras.

Moreover, the Central Otago wine community was incredibly supportive, keen to ensure all wine from the region was of high quality, and perhaps unsure the couple knew what they were doing.

Harris and Duxson were both science professors at Otago University and originally bought a quarter-acre in Wānaka, where they planned to build a holiday home for skiing. But then they saw the Tarras land for the same price.

“We bought it,” remembers Harris, “and then looked at each other and said, ‘Now, what do we do next?’ So that was the depth of our planning.”

Harris, 78, was going to take a winemaking course, “but when I looked at the syllabus I realised about 90% was chemistry and biology that I knew very well, and the other 10% was stuff you had to be shown in a winery.”

Meanwhile, Duxson looks after the vineyard. “People say to me, don’t you get bored out there in the vines after your intellectually demanding academic life? And I go, no, I’m intellectually engaged out there. I’m looking at the vines, wondering what they’re doing. Once you’re trained in science, you always think about the world and what’s going on and make hypotheses.”

Tarras Church, which the local community came together to purchase.
On a knoll not far away sits Tarras Church, a symbol of settler piety, and contemporary community action. Nearly 100 years ago, land was donated by a farming family and an inter-denominational church built. But in recent times, congregation numbers have dwindled to the point Presbyterian services ended and Anglican services are only held monthly. When the Presbyterians indicated they wanted to sell the church, the Tarras community decided to act, calling a public meeting and setting up a charitable trust to buy the church.

Local lawyer Felicity Hayman, who heads the trust, says the aim is to preserve it as a church but also make it a community facility for meetings and concerts. “New Zealand’s not got a long history… it would be a terrible shame if it was turned into someone’s holiday home.”

John Perriam is also on the church trust. His daughter, Christina, got married there; his wife, Heather, was the church organist and her funeral service was held there.

 “It was a special place for her,” says Hayman. “I think she’s looking down at John and saying, ‘Right, make sure this happens.’”

Heather Perriam is buried a few kilometres away in the Tarras cemetery, surrounded by bluebells and daffodils, and roses rescued from properties submerged when the Clyde Dam went in and Lake Dunstan formed.

And also there is Wattie Thompson. In his later years, Thompson became religious and set off around the South Island on foot bearing a placard that read: “Repent. Remember the Saboth witch is Saturday to keep it. Repent.”

“We came across him over on the West Coast,” remembers John Perriam. “We pulled up and Wattie recognised me straight away and said, ‘How are you, Ringo?’ I must have had a haircut like the Beatles.”

Nobody knew a lot about Thompson’s background. He’d been taken prisoner in Italy during World War II but evidently escaped and lived on a farm there for several years. Perriam believes that war experience scarred him, but Thompson kept his secrets to himself and kept to himself. So nobody knows where his fascination with Antarctica came from, given it seemed so bizarre and remote from his existence in sun-baked and bleached Central Otago.

He was so determined to see the southern ice, he joined an early flight over the continent, only for cloud to obscure the views. So Thompson, aged about 70, booked another ticket, and was aboard Air New Zealand flight 901 when it crashed into Mt Erebus in November 1979. John Perriam’s father found a boulder from the area Thompson mined at Bendigo and brought it to the Tarras cemetery, where it serves as his headstone, now speckled with lichen.

Perriam says when he dies, some of his ashes will stay with Heather in Tarras, but he’d like some to end up on Bendigo, “up top there somewhere”.

Ann Scanlan, the shepherd who discovered Shrek – and died of cancer in 2014, aged just 53 – is up there too, Perriam says, as he looks towards the highest country.

“She’s got the best view in New Zealand.”

Miners' cottage ruins at Bendigo.

Where to stay


Cabins for couples on the Bendigo hills, tucked into an otherworldly landscape. Simple cooking facilities, spa baths, wonderful views. From $200 per night; Loop Rd, Bendigo,  ph (021) 053-6241, idyll.co.nz

Aurum Cottage and Loft

Accommodation is limited in Bendigo and Tarras, but there are many options not far away in Cromwell. Aurum Wines have two lovely boutique vineyard units. Self-contained, peaceful and with log burners for chilly evenings. From $250 per night; 52 Burn Cottage Rd, ph (03) 445-3620, aurumwines.co.nz

Freedom Camping

There is a beautiful picnic area at Bendigo on the edge of Lake Dunstan with toilets, boat launching and magic views across to the Pisa Range. 

Where to eat

Tarras Country Cafe

Fantastic cafe in Tarras township on SH8, perfect for a stop before or after travelling over the Lindis Pass. Everything from cheese rolls to lamb shanks and beef burgers, with customers warmed by the sun or open fire. Ph (03) 445-2821, facebook.com/tarrascountrycafe

The Cloudy Bay Shed

On the road towards Cromwell, turn off to this spectacular spot, recently opened by Cloudy Bay. Wine tastings, platter food, light snacks, incredible views. 45 Northburn Station Rd, ph (03) 777-6059 

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.