Bill and I hit the road right after work today to take advantage of the last fine weather scheduled for the next few days… it’s supposed to be rather squally for a spell.
I left work around 2:30 pm, meaning I had only seven more hours of daylight… sorry to rub it in, all you Northern Hemipshere citizens. So we headed for the fabled Skippers Canyon, home to a LoTR location (you knew there would be a LoTR connection, right?), a ghost town from the 19th century gold rush and a road so dangerous that rental vehicles are prohibited and even if you have your own car, the Skippers Road is exempt from coverage in insurance policies.
Back in August, when I was renting Skylon, my campa, the guy who did the booking warned me there were three places I could most definitely not take it. One, 90 Mile Beach up near Cape Reinga, a beach of deep sand where tourists notoriously get their rental vehicles stuck and abandon them at high tide. Well, duh. Who would take a car on deep sand? Two, a hardcore 4WD road basically up Mt. Cook. You just have to look at a map and see that would be a bad idea. And three…
First, much love to Bill, my very used, and not always gently, 1994 Subaru Legacy Turbo 250 Station Wagon. Bill handled the steep inclines and declines, hairpin curves and loose gravel with the greatest of ease.
Second, an apology to Bill… honey, I’m so sorry I took you down those two stretches of road that were really fit only for a high-clearance vehicle. Or a tank. If I’d known, I would never have tried it. If there had been a place to turn around, we wouldn’t have gone further. But you came through for me, buddy. Even when you scraped your belly on boulders or groaned with effort to get through deep sand or tipped into a pothole big enough to build a hot tub in, you never snapped an axle or let a tire get flat or crack your gasline. You, Bill, are a rock star.
To be honest, aside from the two hellish spots mentioned above, the road was not bad at all. I could see it being a nightmare if one was afraid of heights or just a lousy driver, but I’ve been on many a road in worse shape, especially on some of the mountain tracks I took Kali, my much loved Ford Focus back in Colorado.
The most amazing thing to me about Skippers Road was that it was built in the 19th century. By hand. When they found gold in them thar hills round about 1860 or so, they needed a way to get to the shiny stuff and get it out, not to mention a route to ship in all the essentials that the miners would need… booze, broads, bibles, etc.
The road stretches for some 18 km (about 12 miles) through beautiful, dramatic schist landscapes, bordered by snow-dusted mountains. Near its end is the location used in “The Fellowship of the Ring” as the backdrop for where the Nazgul and their horses are standing when Arwen challenges them to cross the river and take Frodo from her. A little further along is a bridge that people bungy off of (this is New Zealand, after all) and at the end of the road is what’s left of Skippers, a once-thriving town that sprang up around the gold boom.
And it was a real town, with a school and its own rugby and cricket teams. They’ve restored bits of it and let others fall into romantic decay. The old cemetery is still occasionally used for burials and there’s a campground back behind what looked like old stables. At first I thought ooh, a campground with no one else around, cool. It would be a little creepy, though, to stay in the middle of a deserted town, especially one where I felt at times a presence, the sense of being watched. It freaked me out a bit and I was glad to know that valiant Bill could get me the hell out of there if we needed to bolt.
Strangely, one place I didn’t feel weird was the cemetery. I like old tombstones. I like to see the fonts, the language used, the details of the dead that someone felt were important enough to record. Of the people buried there, most were from somewhere else… Scotland, Cornwall, China. It made me think about the old cemeteries near where I used to live in Colorado, and all the foreigners buried there, from Norway and Germany and yes, Scotland, some nationalities and even names unknown. They were contemporaries of most of the folks buried at Skippers, all of them people who ventured far from home in the second half of the 19th century in search of gold or some other precious metal. It’s a period of history in which I have no particular interest, but standing in the Skippers cemetery I did start to wonder what it must have been like in those decades of one mad gold rush after another, how many people actually migrated to the boomtowns, how many dreamed it would really change their fortunes
It also made me wonder why there were so many booms during that period, from California and Colorado all the way to the South Island of New Zealand. Was it because travel and communication had just become (relatively) easier than in the millennia before? Was it a fad, the “thing to do” for a spell, like leg warmers or Twitter? Why did some people from, say, Scotland end up in Colorado and others in New Zealand? Did many go from one boom to the next all around the world?
I had no answers to my questions, but on the drive back I did stop a few times at pieces of the original hand-laid schist walls to admire the work and think about the people, the horses, mules and donkeys who built that long, lonely, snaky road to what was once “the richest river in the world” and is now deserted, save for a thriving population of rabbits.
If you want to read more about Skippers Road, click here… There are also some cool vintage photos I couldn’t quite recreate with my fancy 21st century digital camera.