Jackie Breen, from DOC’s Heritage team, tells us why the picturesque Gabriels Gully in Otago is on her hit list of historic places to check out this month.
Unsurprisingly, as a member of the Heritage team, I love visiting heritage sites. Whenever I travel I’ve got a list of places to go.
Gabriels Gully and the Otago Goldfields Trail are top of the list this month (if only I wasn’t stuck in Wellington) because on 23 May 1861 Gabriel Read discovered gold in the valley, not far from the town of Lawrence.
Gabriel’s find was the start of New Zealand’s first major gold rush. I find it amazing that one man’s action dramatically changed the course of our country’s history – so much so that Gabriels Gully is number 27 in the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.
The discovery that transformed a region
Gabriel poetically described his find as ‘shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night’. It transformed our economy and brought a huge influx of migrants.
By Christmas, the rugged isolated region was flooded with around 14,000 fortune seekers who pitched their tents on the Tuapeka and Waipori fields.
Dunedin’s population rocketed to become New Zealand’s largest city and Otago became the wealthiest province in New Zealand.
The rough life of a gold prospector
Life wasn’t easy for the prospectors, and a savage winter in 1862 drove 7,000 of them out for good. The gully is a picturesque place today, but back then it would have been dirty, muddy and dangerous.
The miners literally moved mountains – the original gully floor was 50 metres below where it is today!
These hardy souls are also reported to ‘have contributed largely to the national skill at swearing’, which always makes me smile.
Other aspects of the gold rush have the opposite effect. Chinese miners arrived from 1866. They were shunned by the Europeans and a borough council by-law prohibited them from living and doing business in the township of Lawrence. They settled at Evans Flat just north of the township; the oldest and most important Chinese heritage site in New Zealand. In the 1880s, persecution increased when the authorities introduced a poll tax and an annual residence tax specifically for Chinese immigrants.
The man who triggered a gold rush
Gabriel himself was an interesting, contradictory character. He was one of ten children born to well-to-do parents, and was educated, religious and restless.
When Gabriel was young he was seriously injured in a hunting accident that left him prone to fits of violence and eccentricity, but as an adult he was praised for his generosity, candour, altruism and sense of public duty.
He received a £1,000 reward (worth more than $100,000 today) from the Otago provincial council for discovering ‘payable quantities’ of gold.
Despite the windfall he sadly ended his days in the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane in 1887, leaving his wife an estate worth just £96.
Things to do in Gabriels Gully
If you find yourself at the Gabriel Read Memorial Reserve and fancy a stroll there’s a family-friendly loop track. This meanders past relics of the area’s mining heritage, with lovely picnic and swimming spots – although it’s a bit chilly for the latter!
If walking isn’t your thing, check out the goldfields museum and Chinese Camp down the road in Lawrence. You can also hunt pigs and goats in the reserve.