Thursday, 22 March 2012

NZ travelogue: Larnach and his haunted castle

The day after our arrival in Dunedin, we decided to go on a drive around the Otago peninsula. We had already set our sights on the Larnach Castle after hearing about it from the hostess of the Albatross Inn. "It's the only castle in New Zealand," she had told us, "and the garden is huge and pretty." But do note, she advised, going into the castle itself will require extra payment of entry fees.

Oh, great, maybe this castle could be haunted too. I would like that. The thought of any extra payment would be the last thing discouraging us from visiting the place. Good marketing pitch, yes?

After breakfast, we checked out from the guesthouse and were on our way. Despite the GPS, I missed a turn somewhere but it wasn't a big deal. We soon found our way on the Highcliff Road which actually wound its way along the ridge of the Otago peninsula. And soon enough, we reached the fork in the road which led us to the entrance of the Larnach Castle grounds.

As can be seen from this picture above, the grounds was immensely large. The basic entry fee would allow you to wander around much of the grounds. At various places, it was possible to look down at the natural Otago Harbour which stretches from Dunedin to Harrington Point. Port Chalmers somewhere on the northern shores of the harbour is a deep water port. From the Larnach Castle grounds, the panoramic view was rather breathtaking. If you were to stretch your neck further, like I did, it's possible to look at the Dunedin city centre itself. If you squint your eyes, you could even make out the steeple of one old church somewhere in the city.

Pretty soon, we turned our sights on the castle gardens itself. Very well maintained although the cost of maintenance must certainly be tremendous. Here are a few pictures from around the place.


And this here was the flight of steps that led visitors to the main door of the castle. Two stone lions stood guard on either side of the steps. On another level were two stone falcons. As we walked up, the doors suddenly opened slowly before us. No creaks but noiselessly. Although we continued climbing without skipping a heart beat, was there a slight chill running down our spines? Has the haunting begun in bright daylight already? Erm, no, just two workers anticipating our entry and opening the door for us.

The castle was reportedly built sometime between 1873 and 1887 as the residence of William Larnach, a prominent entrepreneur and politician in colonial New Zealand, who later committed suicide when he discovered his third wife having an affair with his son. Tsk, tsk. Theirs was a tragic family because the whole of the Larnach clan suffered one calamity or scandal after another and they scattered to other parts of New Zealand. The finished house, which contained more than 40 rooms, including a ballroom which has now been turned into a restaurant, and needed 46 servants for various chores, soon fell silent and into a state of disrepair.

Seen any apparition lately?

We went through most of the stately rooms including one that had been turned into a museum. Sorry, despite its eerieness, we did not encounter any chills or super-dark damp corners or heard any rattling bones. But we did climb up the narrow steps and emerged into bright sunlight onto the roof of the castle's tower. This must be the highest point for miles around.

After many years of abandonment, the whole place was bought by Barry and Margaret Barker in 1967 and carefully restored. From the main castle building, we moved to the adjoining ballroom for lunch. Out of curiosity, I ordered their kumara and ginger soup and it turned out to be nothing but a thick soup of blended potato and ginger. Saw See had something more familiar: an omelette.

I should also mention that someone once wrote in The New Zealand Herald newspaper about the eerie episodes at the Larnach Castle.

In 1994, the new owners tried to cash in on its spookiness by arranging a play about the Larnach family tragedies. "Larnach - Castle of Lies" was performed by Dunedin's Fortune Theatre before 100 invited guests in the castle ballroom. It turned out to be a night for the guests, performers and castle staff to remember.

Said Margaret Baker: "As the guests arrived a terrible storm blew up from nowhere. The smoke from the fires blew back down the chimneys so that you couldn't see - and your eyes hurt. Hail crashed on the iron roof so that you couldn't hear. Doors mysteriously opened by themselves and it got very cold. In the play - just as Larnach shot himself there was a blinding white light. Afterwards at supper people were talking about the lightning strike as Larnach held the gun to his head. I said 'Oh no that was stage effects.' We asked the stage manager. He said 'It was none of our doing, it was lightning.' I think that Larnach was present that night. He didn't like the play."

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