GOLD AND GHOSTS IN BENDIGO

BENDIGO, New Zealand — This is an easy-score stopover for wayward census-takers or pollsters. If anybody can find the place, here are the questions and answers:

Predominant profession? Mining.

Favorite song? “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.”

Favorite movie? “Ghost Busters.”

Favorite TV show? “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.”

Favorite book? “The Dan Quayle Story,” or anything else by a ghost writer.

Favorite actor? Casper.

Population? Zero, since 1914. Unless you count the ghosts.

As ghost towns go, Bendigo is a beauty. Hilltop location with a great view of a valley spreading off to the northeast. Lots of room for developers, and some neat left-overs, small stone houses that could be remodeled. Plenty of parking, and no meters. Easy commute to Queenstown (40 miles) on roads so free of traffic that numerous one-lane bridges – the usual on New Zealand’s South Island – are no hazard. And maybe some gold left over from the 1862 strike. Maybe.

“Shall we start digging?” wonders Terry Aufranc, a prospector from Boston.

“Did you bring the pick and shovel?” says her roomie, Tucker Aufranc.

“I thought you did. Don’t tell me you left them on the plane . . . .”

“Come to think of it, the security people confiscated them in Boston. Said they could be lethal weapons for agrarian terrorists.”

Ron Sampson, a lawyer, offers, “You may need my help in staking claims to avoid domestic disharmony. Remember that old Forty-Niner’s lament? ‘My wife got the gold mine, and I got the shaft.’ Plaintive, huh?”

My friend, Aurelio, advises Terry, “You’re not the gold digger type anyway. Can you imagine anything less romantic than gold pan hands?”

Bendigo’s original prospecting Sixty-Two-ers were a couple of lucky sheep shearers, Tom Arthur and Harry Redfurn, who pried glinting stuff from the earth near the creek. The rush was on, and a rocky, remote neighborhood inhabited by a dozen folks trying to make a living out of sheep was soon overrun by several thousand.

Bendigo was born, squalling with gold lust. Stores, four hotels with barrooms, a pool parlor, and numerous one-room houses appeared, constructed from ecru-toned stone that was quarried nearby. Tent camps sprang up along with camp followers whose cry was go-go Bendigo. It was all go-go for a while, six good years, until 28,000 ounces of gold worth 500,000 pounds sterling – many Midas-sized fortunes in that time – had been hauled away.

But now it is mined- and peopled-out. Unlike tidy, pleasant Arrowtown, a few miles away, whose own gold frenzy, though also a brief flash in miners’ pans, didn’t end in abandonment. The miners’ more spacious amber stone cottages are lived in, some of them bed-and-breakfast outposts, along the leafy-awninged Avenue of Trees.

Or Okarito, where gold came easily at first in the 1860s, dug from the black sand beach on the Tasman Sea, and 25 saloons, three theaters, and a newspaper (the Times) once thrived. Residents, not many, are to be found yet, even a small museum beside a lonesome lagoon where snowy herons prance.

“Everybody who doesn’t dig sells grog to those who do,” reports a Times clipping in the museum. At 10 times value. On the wall is a miner’s poem: “Ten years since I landed here/In a trackless land wet and cold,/Some of our times were pretty severe/But who counts hardship looking for gold?”

However, hardship and severity apparently got to Bendigo. A tall pine marks the start of the uphill track into town off a dirt side road spurring from Route 6. So steep is the grade, passing a couple of deteriorating wagons and a few dying poplars, that first gear is required for almost a mile.

We have the place to ourselves, although the ghosts of Tom Arthur and Harry Redfurn, and many others undoubtedly haunt the roofless buildings that are patched with chartreuse lichen. Stacks of plum-tinted rocks rise above the scrub, and above all in the distance, streaked with clouds and snow, are the Dunstan Mountains.

Silence rules, impinged upon by a rasping wind, twanging flies and a bass chorus of frogs in a pond clogged by enough lilies to keep Monet happy and busy. “Wuk-ha-ha wooh! Wuk-huh-huh!” sing the amphibian whiffenpoofs. A shady glee club, they remind Sampson, an opera buff, of “the ‘Ova Pensiero’ from Verdi’s ‘Nabucco.’ “

They remind Aurelio of “Kermit with terminal laryngitis. Or possibly congenital catarrh.”

“Qatar is for camels,” responds Sampson. “It’s the sandy desert air.”

“You can certainly get terminal catarrh from inhaling Camels,” she replies.

Terry says, “Maybe that’s what made this a ghost town.”

Several mine entryways are blocked by DANGER signs and thick stands of bushes, probably purposefully planted where a vein was tapped out. The mines are symbols of unhealthy respiratory conditions in an otherwise peaceful locale. Tranquil Bendigo, haunted by hard-working, inoffensive ghosts, could be ideal for a CIA convention. Spooks undermining whatever?

“Great place for a ghost writer to start an underground newspaper,” says Tucker, looking at me.

That makes me think of my bygone Boston pal, Bob Dunbar, late, acerbic sports columnist of the late Herald, for whom ghost writers sat in when he sat too long at the late Bamboo Bar on Avery Street. Wouldn’t Bob have loved Bendigo? No deadlines in a dead town.

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