Right now the South Island is in a state of panic with news of the approaching snow storm. The Red Cross is on standby, warnings are bombarding the masses from every conceivable angle and supermarkets are running low on bread, milk and romcom DVD box sets as people prepare for the impending ‘disaster’.
I know that it is a good idea to be prepared but it is almost laughable how a little bit of precipitation can send a supposedly technologically advanced society like ours into such a panic. We really should thank our lucky stars that we have decent housing, electric heating and puffer jackets to keep us warm. The diggers of the Otago gold rush had none of these things and 150 years ago they had to fend for themselves during one of New Zealand’s harshest and deadliest winters – which I’ve decided to call Snowpocalypse 1863.
History may be my main area of interest but I’m also a bit of a weather geek, and of course the two often intertwine. One of my first television projects involved spending months searching through TVNZ’s archive looking for the coolest weather related footage. A highlight was the montage we put together of cars sliding and crashing on icy roads in Dunedin’s hilly suburbs. The news crews are a cunning lot, they know which intersections are the worst and they make a beeline to the same streets every winter to catch the inevitable carnage on camera!
While working on that series I was privileged to speak with a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to meteorology and they helped give me a crash course on New Zealand’s most extreme weather. When it came to snow there were two standout events. The most often cited is the snow of 1939. It is well documented in photographs, film and print; and there is every chance that someone in your family might be able to remember it (hint – ask them). Otago was hit pretty badly with parts of Dunedin buried in over a metre of snow. It was a pretty impressive snowpocalypse but it wasn’t our worst – that dubious honour goes to a winter in the previous century. The great snow of 1863.
One hundred and fifty years ago New Zealand was in the midst of a rather dramatic year. It was a dark time in the north – the Orpheus sank in February and ominous clouds were gathering over the Waikato as the Queen’s men prepared to invade the King Country in what would become the biggest campaign of the New Zealand Wars.
Things seemed more upbeat in the south. The Central Otago gold rush was in full swing, the whiskey was flowing, the dancing-girls were dancing and the gold-filled purses were jingling (much to the delight of the bushrangers). It was a prosperous and exciting time to be in the south, but bad weather was on the way for the miners in the frontier settlements. They were in isolated valleys, often next to rivers and with little more than canvas for shelter. It was the absolute worst timing for a harsh winter but that is exactly what happened. Continue reading