A ghost town, a town of ghosts

A ghost town, a town of ghosts

“Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground”

-Dante Alighieri

I said ‘mama I come to the valley of the rich
Myself to sell’
She said ‘son this is the road to hell’

-Chris Rea

Somewhere back in the 1860’s they found gold in Central Otago, in a little place called Gabriel’s Gully. Of course the word got out and in no time, towns had sprung up all through the area, staffed by the hopeful, the industrious, the greedy, and the foolish. A steady stream of prospectors poured across the hills from Dunedin, all come to make their fortune.

Such are the ways of men.

Some settled in St. Bathans, in the armpit between the Cambrian and Dunstan Mountains. They began with a hill 130m high and sluiced it away, digging ever deeper in search of gold. By 1934  the pit had got too deep, the walls too close to the township and mining ceased. The natural drainage was allowed to fill the pit and soon the scars were gone and the waters closed over.

But the kehua, the ghosts remained, the disaffected, the anguished, the duty-afflicted, and the perennially-attached.

The hotel is haunted. Just ask the publican. Just ask people who have stayed there, especially in Bedroom 1. But they have got used to each other, and now Rosie, the wandering prostitute, has mostly come to accept that visitors will wander across her patch. She doesn’t take credit cards.

Time and again I have returned there, drawn by something, perhaps by someone. I am never sure why it is, what or who it is that calls me. There just seems to be something that makes me want to stay, to make images, to lose myself in the timelessness that is there. The Blue Lake pulls me each time I visit, and I find myself once again beside it, using a long lens, compelled to approach the Eternal that seems to be present in the waters, to  respond to whatever talks to me…

This time was no different. I stared into the waters, made images, lost myself in the reflections and the timeless beauty of the place. My compositions grew ever more abstract, moved further and further away from any sense of the objective, although I clung to it where I could. Then we took a break and climbed up to the pub for a coffee. As we were waiting for our coffees to be made, I wandered along the bar, to look at the old photographs of the township and the mine. There. In the middle of a noticeboard, among the visual records of hotels, people and horses was an image that shocked me. There, raw, scarred and bleeding, was a photograph of the Pit, with the sluices, the ladders and the gloomy orthochromatic skies so typical of nineteenth-century photography.  It was if I had descended to the first level of Dante’s inferno, as if I was on a down-bound train…There they stood, the miners, in their collarless shirt sleeves, pinned by their hubris, by their sense of purpose, of destiny. The ladders clung to the land, looming over them with knowing leers. Signposts, memorials to the temporal.

I said ‘mama I come to the valley of the rich
Myself to sell’
She said ‘son this is the road to hell’

I shuddered in horror and moved away.

Then we went back down to the Lake. This time I saw it differently. This time I sidled around it cautiously. That one fading photograph, stuck to the signboard with a slightly-bent pushpin, had allowed me to see past its Cheshire-cat smile, to see into its heart. And it wasn’t something I really wanted to see.

Down there, beneath its smiling surface, something lurked. History lay in its depths, the shadows of the past, the fossilised and frozen grimace of human endeavour. Down there lurked the broken remains of dreams, the decaying and blackened teeth of pit props, the snapped ends of ladders, the oozing remains of sluicing equipment. There was no romance in the Pit, only failure and frustration and half-achieved dreams.

Little wonder the ghosts would not leave, little wonder they clutched this place to their bony chests.

And I began to see it in a new light. I noticed the scarring on the cliff faces; I saw the clay mounds differently. The outcrops above me took on a different expression. Their death-grin drew me. The sullen organic shapes demanded my attention, compelled me. I moved closer and responded to the hieroglyphs on the wall.

I photographed on. My cards filled and overflowed; my histograms drew themselves to the right in a danse macabre. Time stretched obligingly out. Then the rubber band snapped, and I was catapulted back into the Present. It was time to go. We packed up and drove back up out of the pit, away from the lake and its mesmeric beauty. I did not look back. But I knew I was being watched.

There is a saying; while you are looking into Hell, Hell is looking into you.

Later that week we returned to the town, to the ghosts. The others headed happily down the hill to the lakeside, to photograph. I stayed in the pub, to have a beer, to chat and sit by the fire, to be with the living.

For it was nearly night time. Soon the light would go, the shadows would fall, the stars would rise and the shades would gather just beyond the light spilling from the hotel windows.

Time enough to see the dark moving in the dark.

6 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    Wow! Now you’re moving onto the dark side. I love where you are going with these – image gave me goosebumps before I read your story. Fantastic feel to this one, the darkness is there, brooding, watching. Sad to say the Brute is on it’s way to Murupara again – pretending to do work….. Give us a yell if you’re over this way 🙂 Cheers

  2. Tony Bridge says:

    hi Jenny:
    many thanks for the comments. No, don’t think i am going there.i have always sided with Yoda…
    Damn…The monster wil have to stay out of reach for a little longer…

  3. Sandy says:

    A moment before checking your blog I was checking the images I made at St Bathans…. every time I look at them I see more and more faces looking back at me…. there were a few I saw while I was there but it is astounding how many more there are!! I will send some to you sometime to have a chat about.
    Brilliant writing Tony, thankyou.

  4. Elizabeth Mather says:

    Seeing your image at ST Bathans gave me helpful insight in expressing what you feel and know about a place. When I was there I hadn’t seen that old photo and felt the dark nature of what it showed. It reminds me of what prisioners had to do in war time prison camps. When I was there, my response was really of the moment. An interesting exercise to do with your students would be to not give them any of the history of the place. Get them to take photos, go and show them that old photo complete with ghost story and send them back to the lake with this new awareness.

  5. Tony Bridge says:

    Many thanks for that idea. How wonderful!
    Expect to see it used at a workshop somewhere near Wedderburn!

  6. Russell says:

    Hi there, I too have been intrigue and captivated by the color ful persona of the history surrounding st bathans, and On my mission to prove or disprove the existence of “the rose”, Ive found nothing at all to date which would suggest she exists. Recently whilst delving into the mulitudes of historical records etc, and images of entities said to reside in the town ship I spoke to a man by the name of Graham Bachop whom brought it to my attention that the ghost of st bathans was nothing more than a desperate ploy concocted between himself and one of the publicans at the time, and since then the stories have taken off. Ive looked high and low and am still looking, but all I managed to find seemed to support this mans claims, which of course leaves me scratching my head because if its not the “ghost of the rose” what have the multitude of witnesses been experiencing. Are you aware of anything that may suggest that there was indeed such a grisly murder that took place in the hotel? Id love to hear any information you could offer, thankyou

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