If you're itching for an out-of-the-way bucolic escape this summer, with a hefty serving of history, you'd be hard-pressed to beat the Waitaki Valley's Campbell Park Estate, for its sheer dramatic backstory, spanning pioneering spirit and a dark side, and a setting of smashing distinction. It’s a back-of-beyond bolt-hole, in which so many cachet destinations are virtually on your doorstep, including Oamaru, Wanaka, Dansey’s Pass and Omarama, not to mention the gems of the Waitaki Valley.
It’s only been in the past year or so that Campbell Park Estate has been reopened for accommodation, at exceptionally good-value rates. Lodgings are provided in the village-like assortment of 32 character homes and cottages, boasting three and four bedrooms, which have been tastefully renovated and modernised by the current owners. The polished rimu floors and swathes of wood panelling are spectacular. Some homes are built in Oamaru stone. You may be aware that property passed into Chinese hands a couple of years ago, with the former Mainzeal director, Richard Yan, becoming the sole owner of the 32-hectare estate.
With a baronial-style castle and stables built in 1876, an old jailhouse, fruit orchards and field garden adjoining a working farm and vineyard, a 200-seat restaurant, indoor gym, tennis courts, swimming pool, a grade-seven aircraft runway, a subterranean cave and its own village - Campbell Park Estate looms like a mini-township in the rolling North Otago countryside. Needless to say, it has limitless development possibilities. For the unwitting motorist, who inadvertently strays down Special School Road, from Duntroon, it’s quite the revelation to stumble upon this property, laid out in the style of an old English estate, shuffle into view.
But first, how did it all begin? William Dansey, the pioneering Otago runholder, purchased and lived on the Otekaieke sheep and cattle station, that would later be named Campbell Park Estate in 1857. Dansey is chiefly credited for establishing an alpine trail through from North Otago to Central Otago, his name being immortalised in Dansey’s Pass, which scales the Kakanui Mountains to connect the Waitaki Valley with the mighty Maniototo. The intrepid runholder built the first house on the estate in 1861, “Dansey’s Hut” which is one of North Otago’s first recorded buildings and is still on the property today. As I admired his rustic Oamaru stone shack, pangs of melancholy surged through me, as I reflected on the sudden deaths of his two young children. They died after eating poisonous tutu and they are buried on the hill above his cottage.
Shortly afterwards, Dansey sold the station, shifting to Oamaru where he apparently became the first man in the town to receive a pension. The property was bought by Robert Campbell, fresh from Eton and from wealthy Scottish stock, who snapped up a vast tracts of surrounding farmland. Otekaieke Station stretched virtually from Kurow to the Maerewhenua River at Duntroon, running back over to Dansey’s Pass. Campbell imported the finest merino ewes from Victoria, Australia, and rambouillet (Spanish merino) rams, along with quality cattle, to stock his land. You can still see where the Campbell’s quarried limestone from the hills on the estate for many of their estate buildings. Here’s a fascinating nugget of history: Limestone from his quarry at Otekaieke was used as ballast in ships making the return journey from New Zealand to Australia, and much of Circular Quay in Sydney was built out of these limestone blocks. The two-storey homestead, which is still on the property, was subsequently deemed insufficient by Campbell and his wife Emma, so a monumental construction project was commissioned. In 1868, he shipped over a massive workforce of Scottish craftsmen along with materials from Scotland and Italy, to build New Zealand’s first “Castle.”
This 35-room baronial mansion, awash in decorative touches, was hewn out of the valley’s locally-sourced limestone. Currently undergoing an extensive restoration, it’s a majestic spectacle, implausibly rising up from the Waitaki Valley landscape. Back in the day, it was apparently THE place to be wined, dined and entertained, with the Campbell parties being the stuff of legend in North Otago. By 1890, Robert and Emma had both died, with no children for the property to pass to. Robert’s nephew acquired the estate, but with no interest in farming, it was eventually sold to the government, with a special school for problem boys established on-site in 1908. The station was subdivided into smaller lots and sold, while 120 hectares was retained for the school. Operating for eight decades, and saddled with reports of institutional abuse and sexual abuse, the residential boy’s school finally closed in 1987, passing into private ownership. All of the school facilities are still there, including the dormitories, which exude an unmistakeably cold and haunted atmos. The 34 houses, admin buildings, 200-seating restaurant, pool, gym and tennis courts were all developed for the school. Needless to say, Campbell Park Estate today offers incredible facilities for conventions or private retreats. In recent years, it’s knock-out setting has captured the imagination of Hollywood, with the estate used for on-location shooting. Willow, Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe plus The Lord of the Rings have all been filmed here. My family took our bikes with us to the estate, which is tailor-made for exploring on two wheels. Wrapped by the low-slung hills hugging the sides of the valley, with a castle as its centre-piece lording over the expansive green lawns, there is a sense of the fairytale to the solitude. Beauty, historic drama and rural tranquillity…Campbell Park Estate is an escape unto its own.
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.
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