On the West Coast, I went time travelling at a slow clip, rumbling comfortably along Barrytown Beach in an open wagon drawn by a solid Clydesdale called Murphy.
In the gold rush days of the mid-19th century, horse-drawn wagons were the only people movers along the gold-bearing strip of the West Coast.
The bush was too dense to bush bash and there were few roads. Often, moving from one area to another was only possible along the beaches at low tide.
Yet there was plenty of transporting to be done, for at the height of the rush, supplies were needed for 29,000 prospectors, miners, dancing girls, traders, shopkeepers, grog sellers, and hotel proprietors.
Murphy rhythmically hauled us down an old dirt road towards the beach.
Our guide, Sophie, holds the reins of Golden Sands Wagon Tours, an innovative attraction that mimics wheeled transport on those early goldfields.
Nineteen years ago, she rode her horse from Canterbury across Arthur’s Pass to settle near Barrytown with her partner, Dave.
She loved the area, its wild openness, its changing weather, and its history, and now she has rolled all these features into an old-time experience for visitors like us.
We reached the beach and, without hesitation, Murphy pulled us over a large stone bank and down onto the beige expanse of shining sand.
His hoof marks—the size of dinner plates—the indents made by the wagon wheels, and the sandy scatterings thrown up by Sophie’s canine mate, Pearl, were the only signs of our intrusion.
Before us was the open sky. The wheels hissing against the sand and the violent pounding of the ocean were the only sounds.
I breathed in the wonder of the landscape but I doubt those early wagon riders had the same sentiment. To them, the perils of the journey may well have been alarming.
Sophie has a deep understanding of the area and her stories evoked the past just as much as did the environment.
In the late 1870s, the area would not have been as outlying as they now appear. Barrytown was a centre for gold dredging and for most of that decade, about 2000 miners crowded in for the booty. Nowadays, the population of the town is around 200.
At the turnaround point, Sophie reined in the stoic Murphy and tethered him to a post while she collected driftwood for a small fire.
A Thermette soon had water boiling for tea and we each held a stick—the end of which was wrapped with damper dough—over the flames.
The results of this old, outback baking method were various but the exercise was fun. As we chewed our culinary creations, Murphy munched on a pile of hay.
In real time, this outing with Murphy, Sophie, and Pearl took only two-and-half hours. In virtual reality, it took us 150 years into the past.