Fellow horse trekkers sought

In 1952, the Ohai Nightcaps Pony Club trekked from Invercargill to Arrowtown by way of the Devil's Staircase. Photo: Supplied

ON December 26, 1952, when Ohai Nightcaps Pony Club members set out on a three-day trek from Ohai to Arrowtown, Lyall Dempster and John Millar were among the youngest in the group.

Mr Millar, being just 7, was too young to ride on his own.

‘‘I did actually have a pony, Blaze, but I wasn’t fit for that sort of thing,’’ he said.

The group totalled 53 riders, consisting of 43 children aged between 8 and 16, and 10 adults, along with 17 parents and helpers.

Seventy years later, Mr Millar and Mr Dempster, along with fellow trekker Relda McKay, are hard at work tracking down the remaining members of the club for the first reunion next month.

Members are encouraged to bring along their photos of the trek to share on a display board that will be setup for the reunion.

‘‘The reunion was brought into it because of the fact that, of the 43 riders, probably more than half of them are gone now, so we thought to have a reunion before everyone’s gone was the idea,’’ Mr Millar said.

The trek from Ohai to Arrowtown was 130 miles (about 209km), mostly on ungroomed gravel roads which kicked up sky high clouds of dust.

The group covered between 40-50 miles (64-80km) each day, sleeping in woolsheds, shearers’ quarters and, upon reaching Arrowtown, the old Wakatipu Flour Mill which is where Millbrook is now.

‘‘You go back to ’52, you had narrow, dusty gravel roads where these horses went and going around the lake, especially the Devil’s Staircase, was almost scary.

‘‘The cliff you see there today, the road was only one vehicle wide around it,’’ Mr Millar said.

On arrival at its destination, the group was greeted by the Arrowtown Mayor, Mr W J Shaw, and on New Year’s Day took part in the local gymkhana, which saw a crowd of 2000 people gather to watch the festivities.

‘‘I think you’d be hard pressed to even get that many people there for the cricket these days,’’ Mr Millar said.

‘‘In the newspaper, it said we were very dusty when we arrived,’’ Mrs McKay said.

‘‘But you realise that lots of cars didn’t rush past either. We had the ute ahead, and it had the AA [Automobile Association] sign on it for everybody to go slow, and they did.

‘‘And cars weren’t travelling very fast anyway in those days,’’ Mr Millar said.

Food and bedding for the group was transported on an Ohai freight truck, provided by Helen and Sam McRae, which also occasionally transported a horse or pony that needed a rest.

‘‘We took a lot of food with us, because there weren’t a lot of places open at all. The first day we went from Ohai to Five Rivers, that was 38 miles, and I can remember when we got there, there was no such thing as chilly bags or portable fridges, and the butter was just
liquid,’’ she said.

‘‘It was very hot. As a 5-year-old I can remember the first night sleeping on the grating in Bill Heenan’s woolshed,’’ Mr Millar said.

The pair agreed the highlight of the trek was the gymkana, in which several members of their group took part.

‘‘It was really, really well run,’’ he said.

‘‘Then we went for a parade through Queenstown, and ended up having a little display at the Queenstown grounds,’’ Mrs McKay said.

Fond memories aside, there is still much work to be done for the group in tracking down the remaining members of the trek.

While they had managed to track down most of the remaining members through address books and word of mouth, there remained a small number who were yet to be found.

The reunion is set to take place at the Waikiwi Tavern, starting at 11.30am on Friday, April 8.

Anyone who wished to attend the reunion and who had not yet been contacted, could phone John Millar on 03 230 4677, Relda McKay on 03 236 8343, or Lyall Dempster on 03 236 7874.