All that glitters is not gold.
(Featured image: Schist Hot! The historic potters hut on the Old Man Range, Central Otago. Photo: Ross Mackay)
IT WAS GOLD THAT FIRST BROUGHT THE HOARDS TO OTAGO. PROSPECTOR GABRIEL READ FOUND SO MUCH OF IT IN THE LAWRENCE AREA IN 1861, HE SAID IT SHINED “LIKE THE STARS IN ORION ON A DARK FROSTY NIGHT”. WORD GOT OUT AND, BY CHRISTMAS OF THAT YEAR, 14,000 HOPEFULS HAD ARRIVED TO WORK THE GOLDFIELDS. TODAY, THEY COME FOR THE ADVENTURE SPORTS AND THE BOURGEOIS DELIGHTS OF THE REGION’S VINEYARDS AND COMMUNAL TABLES. BUT ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT GONE. THERE’S A SPARKLE HERE THAT STILL LURES: THE GLISTENING OF SCHIST.
In the driest and most inland region in Aotearoa, the landscape is sculpted in schist. Schist is a metamorphic rock formed from shale or mudstone. Its shine comes from quartz and lustrous minerals like mica, mixed with sand and sediment shed by weathering rock on the Gondwana supercontinent 200 to 300 million years ago. When the Australian and Pacific plates collided, the mixture folded and was pushed deep. For another 100 million years or so, it endured extreme pressure and heat. More tectonic uplifts eventually shoved the schist to the surface, and now we see it as the serrated edges of Central Otago’s mountain ranges.
Schist’s brutal origins can beget potentially dangerous ground conditions. The rock forms what geologist call “inhomogeneous units”, making weathered schist prone to landslides. But they also beget gold. In Otago, this happened during the extreme heat phase in what is known as the Otago Schist basement; when the sediments got really hot, minerals were released: tungsten, arsenic and, conveniently, gold.
Gold originally ran in seams through the schist, but erosion saw most of that treasure end up in streams and rivers. That’s what attracted the miners. Today, people drawn to Central appreciate the remaining rock for its rippled layers, creviced, crumbling and glinting in the sun.
This stone is hot. The miners and publicans of the Gold Rush era used it out of necessity, but today its “schistosity”—the streaks of gleaming reds, glittery greens and blingy blues—is in fashion, and it’s back as a construction material of choice. And for those who have the patience of panners, a strong back and a good eye, splitting and stacking the rough-edged stones to create borders, cladding and buildings is a skill worth trying to master.
“SPLITTING AND STACKING THE ROUGH-EDGED STONES TO CREATE BORDERS, CLADDING AND BUILDINGS IS A SKILL WORTH TRYING TO MASTER”
That’s why a group of 10 of us turned up at Cromwell’s Otago Polytechnic campus last autumn having signed up for the two-day drystone walling short course. It’s popular. There’s often a waitlist, with students travelling from as far away as Australia to learn the art of schist, sometimes making a weekend of it, combining wine tasting and wall building. Our group came from Auckland to Oamaru, a mix of white collar and landscaping professionals, as well as a few people like me, an ex-Wellingtonian—transplants transfixed by the stone-studded topography.
We were armed with safety glasses, leather gloves and a fraction of the hopeful enthusiasm of those long-ago miners. They had no choice but to work with schist because there were few trees, so building materials were scarce, and the need for shelter pressing. All we were going to build was a simple garden accent, with guided instruction every step of the way.
Our stonemasonry lecturer, Michael Dacombe, led the ten of us first to a schist wall. Built by the last group of novice stonemasons, it stood proudly as we admired it, but only for a moment; Michael told us to disassemble it. It seemed so wrong, but this, he said, is the best way to learn.
We started with “coping stones”. Lined up on top, their sharp edges are placed pointing up at 90-degree angles, making the wall look like a Palaeolithic fortress. Working as an assembly line, with no distinction between the strongest or the smallest of us, we passed each stone from person to person. Starting at the top, we worked our way down. We separated the schist into piles of similar shapes and sizes. Then we learned how to rebuild it: beginning with a base 800mm wide, narrowing to 600mm on top, and a string tied to a batten at each end to make sure we stayed within those parameters.
I had to wonder how those early settlers did it. Not knowing much about the “hist of schist”, I imagine there was a lot of trial and error. From what I’ve seen, the level of stonemasonry skill varied widely. At the end of the road that runs by my house in Central, there’s a graveyard fenced in by schist that’s stacked and held together with a sandy mortar. The wooden gravestones have long since disintegrated. A little further down the track, along the bank of the Clutha River / Mata Au, you could easily miss a much more rough-hewn wall of stacked stones built straight into a rocky outcrop—a very basic shelter for an early gold miner.
More sophisticated structures dot the region, preserved by the dry climate. Some of the tiny shelters built by the Chinese gold miners who settled in Arrowtown still have their wooden doors with handles that, when pulled, allow you to step back a century. Bending under the low metal roof, setting foot on the damp earthen floors, you can sense how life was on freezing cold nights and icy mornings. In the Roxborough Gorge, Chinese homes were built into the cliffs by walling off cave mouths and the spaces under overhangs. The schist is so perfectly and tightly stacked that they look new more than 150 years on. Mitchell’s Cottage in Fruitlands was built by Andrew Mitchell, a craftsman from the Shetland Islands. A gift for his brother and sister-in-law and their 10 children, the cottage is now a Category I Historic place, still standing strong under the watchful gaze of the Old Man mountain range.
For our simple wall, we first laid a foundation using some of the biggest and most impressive stones. Michael stood on them, paced back and forth. Made sure what we’d started with was sturdy. Laying each successive layer, we tried to remember to test the steadiness of the stones regularly as we balanced one on top of another. Working in groups of five, we built two sides of one fence, which we joined in the middle by shoving in “through stones” at regular junctures. Then we “knitted” the structure by scooping up a mixture of split stone shards, gravel and dirt, and dumping it into the centre. The best line of the day? “I’m not sure the Romans would like it!”
We only used two tools to split our schist: a brick (or scutch) hammer and a bolster. There was a Flintstone vibe about what we were doing, working with the bedrock of Central. But this wasn’t light entertainment. After a full day of work, I began to appreciate all of the 34 muscles that move our fingers and thumbs, as well as the 17 hidden in our palms.
There was a lot of legwork involved too, as we didn’t want to do in our backs by bending over to move the stones. We’d squat to fit the rocks into place, carefully following the instruction to set them so they crossed about a third of the stone below to avoid any “vertical joins”. Every so often, we’d stand up and step back and make sure the horizontal line we were working on was actually level.
Chatting with Michael during tea breaks, I learned how in demand this skill currently is, even internationally. He told me that very few places in the world offer full-time training, and Otago Polytechnic runs the only programme in New Zealand for a Certificate in Stonemasonry. The short course didn’t involve learning how to fix walls with mortar, but I filed away the thought that, if I were ever tempted, it would be only a 25-minute drive each way for a couple of years to qualify as a fully-trained schist mason.
At the end of the second day, dusty from our caps to our boots, we posed proudly in front of our wall. We wanted to claim our short-lived victory, knowing the next round of drystone wall newbies would soon be told to destroy it.
Back home, at my still-under-construction house, I chatted with the stonemason building the schist chimney. I wanted to see his artistry in action. He even let me pick out a few stones and choose where to place them. I couldn’t tell you which ones they are now, but I feel connected in some small way to the story of this place I now call home. I can see the riverbed where the miners worked and settled. I think of their patience and persistence— those who survived, believed, and built futures. Like the ancient stone they used to make their homes and towns, they were tested by nature and incredible pressures. I wonder: did they see only shelter in schist, or did they, too, notice its lustre?
All photos: Ross Mackay
PALLAS HUPÉ COTTER
PALLAS IS AN EMMY AWARD-WINNING FORMER TV NEWS REPORTER/ANCHOR IN THE USA. NOW SHE IS SPEAKER, WRITER AND FOUNDER OF A PERSONAL LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT AND STRATEGIC MESSAGING CONSULTANCY, POP.