A massive hokioi at the OceanGold Heritage and Art Park watches over a range of historic gold-mining relics.
A massive hokioi at the OceanGold Heritage and Art Park watches over a range of historic gold-mining relics. Jim Eagles

Fly with the eagle at Otago

THE ferocious figure of a giant eagle stands poised on the ridgeline, huge talons ready to strike, piercing eyes fixed firmly on the valley floor, known as Macraes Flat.

What could it be looking for? The giant moa once eaten by this monster - the Haast's eagle, known to Maori as hokioi or pouakai, the largest eagle that ever existed - have long gone and the paradise ducks on the trout pond nearby would hardly make a mouthful.

Gold, perhaps? Miners have been extracting gold from this area of East Otago since 1862, first panning for alluvial gold, next crushing it from quartz, then dredging it from the waterways and these days extracting it from vast quantities of schist rock dug out of the ground.

But, no, it turns out the mighty hokioi is looking for tourists. Not to eat, luckily, but to fill the economic gap which will be left when the Macraes Flat gold mine eventually closes (possibly about 2020).

Twelve years ago, when New Zealand's largest gold mining company, OceanaGold, sought to expand its operation at Macraes, one of the main concerns to emerge from community consultation was what would be left behind when all the gold was gone.

The creation of a visitor attraction, aimed at helping the development of a local tourist industry, became one of the consent requirements.

The result, the OceanaGold Heritage and Art Park, is an unusual mix of historic gold-mining relics, works of art such as the hokioi, an artificial wetland and trout hatchery and the massive mining operation itself.

The park is still taking shape but already a few thousand people a year are making the trip to East Otago, about 1.5 hours' drive out of Dunedin, to take a two-hour $30 tour.

The tour begins at the little settlement of Macraes, once a mining boom town with four hotels but today a peaceful place with just one hostelry, Stanley's Hotel, opened in 1882 - supposedly built by a stonemason who was paid in ale, which explains why some of the walls are at funny angles.

There is also the old billiard salon (now the tour information office), a bootmaker's shop, a church and the Macraes Moonlight School (roll 14).

But the story really begins further down the road at Deepdell Creek, where in 1862 a prospector called James Crombie first found gold and sparked the initial gold rush.

The Golden Point Historic Reserve, on the banks of the creek, is a haven of tranquillity with just the mine manager's house, a couple of crumbling mud-brick cottages, an abandoned tunnel and some discarded mining machinery. However the Callery brothers' stamper battery across the creek - which is "still in working order", says Graham Wilson, who is showing us round - provides a solid reminder that not so long ago this peaceful valley would have been a noisy place.

The vast, modern-day mining operation conducted by Oceana sends a message that making a gold omelette requires breaking a lot of eggs.

Monster trucks rumble round a network of rough gravel roads - 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year - carrying massive loads of schist to a processing plant from a series of enormous pits (the biggest will be 1.5km by 3km and 250m deep) and an equally enormous 28km-long network of tunnels.

There the rock is pulverised, heated and treated with assorted deadly chemicals to remove the gold - about a teaspoonful in every 190-tonne truckload - before being cleaned up and trucked away again.

There's a strange fascination in watching this dangerous and destructive process.

Yet, in many ways, the most remarkable aspect of the whole business is the way in which, at the end of the blasting and pulverising, the countryside is put back together again.

Some of the pulverised rock is being used to fill in older pits - though the largest will eventually be turned into a huge lake - and the rest is being shaped back into the typical domed hills of East Otago.

"There are very strict rules for the reconstruction of the landscape," says Wilson.

"For instance, that hill there" - he indicates a mound nearby - "is too smooth so we're going to have to roughen it up and add a few rocks before we've finished.

And you see that patch of green there?" - he points to an area on the other side of a pit that is slowly being filled in - "That's where we tried out a new kind of grass we thought would do better in these conditions but it's turned out to be too green."

Amid this recreated landscape the planned tourist attraction is being developed.

In one valley a boardwalk has been built through a wetland so visitors can enjoy the birdlife.

Near the entrance to the processing plant is a trout hatchery, where up to 20,000 fish a year are being raised by mine staff in a partnership with Otago Fish and Game.

Under the supervision of artist John Reynolds, the summit of one of the rebuilt hills has been moulded into a kowhaiwhai shape and planted with 15,000 golden spaniards - spiky plants that, as I can testify, are not to be trifled with - but which combine to give the giant spiral a lovely golden colour.

Rather less successful is Reynolds' planting of thousands of snow tussock in a grid pattern, next to the Macraes cemetery, where the old miners were buried, creating what is said to be the largest artwork in the country.

Personally I'd find it hard to disagree with the local art critic who left a toilet in the middle of the pattern.

Inside the nearby former Catholic church, artist Jason Hoon Lee has installed light boxes featuring photos of clouds taken in the area.

On a valley floor just over the hill from the main mine pit, media artist Gavin Hipkins has erected a series of billboard pictures - which I found quite intriguing - designed to lead the eye to one of the waste rock stacks soaring in the background.

According to Wilson, the Tui Brewery folk were invited to put up one of their billboards here, saying something like, "This is a work of art ... yeah, right!" but the suggestion was declined because there wouldn't be sufficient traffic. Pity.

But the highlight for me is the 9m-high stainless steel hokioi created by sculptor Mark Hill, which stands on top of the waste rock stack.

Because of my name - Eagles - I've always had a particular interest in the giant eagle which was once top of the food chain in this country.

It's a particularly appropriate choice for East Otago, because bones and nest sites found in these hills suggest that centuries ago hokioi were once common.

What's more, the great eagle has the air of a guardian, keeping a watchful eye on Oceania Gold to make sure the company lives up to its undertakings to continue restoring the landscape to its former rocky rolling beauty, and to decorate it with more works of art.

Further information: You can find out more about the Macraes Flat tours at oceanagoldtours.com or phone 0800 465 386. Bookings are essential because the information office is not permanently manned.

Jim Eagles visited Macraes Flat as guest of OceanaGold.

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