At Night at the Vulcan Hotel

I thought I’d share this here. It’s a chapter from my Haunted New Zealand Roadtrip book on an intriguing old histoical Pub / Hotel down in the stunning Central Otago region.

We slowly crawled along the gravel road that passes through this “sprawling metropolis” – about five small historical houses, a post office and a far -from -overcrowded population of just four. Yes, four! Predictably, it’s a sleepy place. It truly was like we had just driven our car back in time. The former gold and coal mining town of Saint Bathans, lies deep in the heart of the Maniototo District in New Zealand’s Central Otago Region. The town was named for the Scottish Borders village of Abbey Saint Bathans by early surveyor John Turnbull Thomson; the Scottish village was the birthplace of Thomson’s maternal grandfather. The area had previously been known as Dunstan Creek. The town itself once boasted over 2000 miners and no less than 13 pubs. Today the only remaining Hotel – the Vulcan Hotel dating back to 1882 – is the primary tourist attraction for the area. It still provides accommodation and meals for passers-by.

Close to the Vulcan Hotel is the Blue Lake, a legacy of heroic gold miners. Beginning in 1864, miners chipped and sluiced their way through the quartz rock of the 120 metre high Kildare Hill. From the 1880s the miners used hydraulic lift technology – like a giant vacuum cleaner – to suck water and gravel out of the pit to where it could be worked for gold. They kept working until, in 1934, the hill had become a huge 68 metre chasm. Later, the chasm filled with water. Mining has long since ceased, and it is now a sleepy and tranquil holiday escape. The Vulcan Hotel is a restored, and reputedly haunted, public house, located on the main street of St. Bathans. Originally called the Ballarat Hotel, it was built in 1882 of mud brick. The shamrock, which can still be seen on the front facade, is a relic from the times of the rivalry between the Irish settlers from St Bathans and the Welsh settlers from Cambrian just down the road. This rivalry was known locally as “The War of the Roses” and at one time the acrimony between the two villages were quite bitter. Some years ago a television film crew claimed to have encountered the ghost. They were sufficiently frightened that they left St Bathans without finishing their filming – and never returned.

Rose

Room One of the hotel is reputedly home to the spirit of a young woman, thought by some to be a prostitute known as Rose, who was strangled to death in the hotel in the 1880s, and allegedly still appears from time to time. The thing is – she only haunts men. One night, back in the town’s gold mining days, an itinerant prostitute called ‘The Rose’ rented the front room of the hotel. In the morning she was found raped, robbed, and strangled to death. Over the years, Rose has been seen and felt by staff members and guests alike at the hotel. There have been many reports of lights going on and off, doors creaking, drops in temperature, phantom footsteps, ghostly apparitions, and mysterious shadows seen at the foot of the bed. Groaning is heard in hallways, kettles boil without being turned on, and doors lock themselves. The spirit is often seen reclining on a chaise longue in the dining room. Male guests staying in Room One, the room in which The Rose met her untimely death, have reported feelings of being held down and throttled. The Hotel is a friendly place, where tourists will pop in for a pint of beer when passing through the town. Some stay for dinner, some, the night. We arrived around 4pm and were greeted by the town dog, Jack, a sleepy-eyed black Labrador which seemed to have the prestigious job of Village Welcoming Host: ambling happily around, greeting all those who pulled in, and showing them to the front door, giving the biggest of jowly smiles that most Labs so beautifully do.

Pushing through the pub’s front door to find out about our lodgings, the bar was already crowded – well, ten people with elbows touching. We met with Royce, the pub’s long-time co-partner, and Juliet, (daughter of proprietors Mike and Jude Kavanagh who unfortunately couldn’t be there due to a family emergency), who was helping out behind the bar, pulling large pints of the popular tipple in that region, Speight’s beer. The air was filled with the sound of laughter, tall stories, and happy drunken ramblings. We thought we would sit and get more familiar after the patrons had dispersed, when “rush hour” was over. We were shown to our room. The legendary Room One. It was a basic, “no frills” affair. Just a double bed, two small side tables splayed with an assortment of old New Idea and Women’s Day magazines, a dresser with mirror, and a small wash basin in the corner. Nothing flash. Simple and down to earth, but clean and cosy. In fact, as we were to find later, it was more comfortable than many other hotels we were to spent time in. I set up a compact wireless four -camera DVR system I had brought along. I also positioned two night-shot video cameras in the room; if there was any movement that night it would be captured. A small motion -sensing DVR camera was positioned in the bar to cover that area for a few hours. A temperature and electromagnetic-detecting and data-logging Mel Meter was positioned on the dresser, right opposite the bed. If it went off, I would be able to see it and read it from my pillow. To cover more bases, an audio recorder was positioned beside me on the side table, along with my camera: in case I experienced any activity that night – I could just grab and click. I data-logged the back rooms and our room, to get some atmospheric and energy readings to document that moment – ambient and surface temperatures, and humidity. Shockingly, but interestingly, I found the electromagnetic levels in Room One and the hallway directly outside our room, were at an alarming high. Fluctuating all over the place, but hanging between 55 and as high as 85 milligauss! The source was a power meter box, positioned high on the wall in the hallway, directly outside of Room One. On the other side of the wall (our room) the levels were just as high. Anything over 2 milligauss is considered unhealthy to be around for too long as it can cause nausea, nightmares, and feelings of unease, hallucinations and paranoia. It can really mess you up, as I experienced first-hand once at an investigation of the Bluestone Room, a restaurant in Auckland a couple of years back. The extreme levels were noted and recorded.

After setting up, I decided to head out, while there was still daylight, to photograph the area. It’s a small area to cover, so in a good two hours I had explored and photographed the whole town. Jack showed me around the place; from the stunning mining landscape of carved away cliffs and dug out lake, to the stone cottages tucked away amongst the rural rustic beauty of this stunning country town.

The sun was descending, so I headed back to the room to get sorted for making an appearance at the scheduled serving time of 6pm in the main bar for dinner, drinks, and hopefully a local ghost story or three with the staff. I am told that unless people ask specifically about the ghost in Room One, they don’t bother telling them. We were proudly shown a framed photograph of the alleged Vulcan Ghost, taken by Peter Spring during a brewery publicity shoot one February evening in 1995. An apparent cloaked shadow was mysteriously recorded on the film, predictably outside Room One. I don’t know. Maybe I’ve just seen too many proposed ghost photos like this in my time, but, to be honest, the picture, while beautifully composed and presented, didn’t really impress me at all. Yes there was a shadow; a hazy black blob of something in the corner. But there were also many other shadows and darkened areas in the photograph. It was taken from outside the hotel, late at night, with the only illumination being from the hotel windows and a street light. To my eyes, and possibly over-rationalising mind, it didn’t really speak to me in any paranormal manner. Underwhelming, in fact.

We ordered drinks and meals and sat for a bit, chatting and wandering around the pub looking at the classic newspaper clippings and photographs on the walls. Sarah had the salmon, I had the venison. Quite pricey we thought initially, but when the large weighty plates of food were placed in front of us, we understood why. All the rave reviews I’d been reading about the meals through the years… now I got it! Every vegetable obtainable from the region, roasted and piled up in place beside the meat of choice, and drizzled with rich home- made gravy. Dang, this was great! Perfectly cooked and overly generous home roasted food. Perfection!

After dinner, belt buckle tight around the waist, Sarah retired back to the room; I grabbed some equipment and headed out into the now darkness to spend time in some of the buildings which had been left open. I spent a good hour at each place, sitting in various locations. From the old St Bathans’ school ruins, to the old stone store. All untouched and left as they were back in the day. Natural, rustic, and untouched by modern hands. The way it should stay, in my opinion. An hour was spent in the stone house alone. Sitting on the dirt floor. Video cameras on tripods covering the building’s outer and inner, whilst I sat and asked for anyone to come say “Hello.” While I didn’t really feel anything, and my questions seemed to be going unanswered, I will admit that I didn’t feel totally alone in that building. Just a feeling, mind, but for what it’s worth, I never really have these sensations. I never feel presences. It’s a rare thing for me for sure. But here it seemed strong. To the point I where I kept looking behind myself quite a bit, and scanning the room semi-nervously. Normally, I’m totally fine with strange dark places. Years of sitting around in them have rendered me immune to any nyctophobic nerves.

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At around 9pm I packed up and headed back to the hotel, grabbed some more gear and met up with Royce, Juliet, and an old friend and long-time patron of theirs who’d stopped by for a pint and a casual, laid-back (and perhaps a little slurred) video interview. The social drinking was well underway and I knew the interview would be loud, disjointed and possibly unusable, but we went ahead. I figured I’d been waiting all my life to visit this place and now I was finally here, may as well make the most of it and have some fun. We started with a rundown on the history of the place, dispersing quickly into multiple directions of sport, innuendo and rude pub jokes. Royce told me that the owner, Mike (at that moment in Dunedin Hospital with severe arthritis), is a “good bugger” and “one of the funniest and wittiest guys I’ve ever met in my life.” Royce and Juliet are wonderful, welcoming, friendly people. Royce lives in Christchurch but spends much of his time returning to St Bathans, and has done for the past 35 years. Juliet has been coming to St Bathans since her parents took it over 15 years ago. She’s not full -time bar staff, but comes in often to help out with general business running. I’m told that the town hasn’t changed a bit since the Kavanaghs took over the reins. Royce shows me a big scar across his thigh and proceeds to unravel a tale on how the pub was used for a good mate’s funeral after function. He was sleeping in the notorious front room (Room One) as he had worked the bar through till 4am in the morning. He woke suddenly to find himself “…hanging out of the window, with glass in my guts. Blood everywhere. So, that ghost… the one that lives in the room you are staying tonight… she pushed me out that window.” On further questioning into the accuracy of this story, he seems a bit vague. I’m thinking that night had become a bit of a blur, but he assured us he wasn’t that drunk as he had been working, so his judgement wasn’t too impaired. However, in the end, we have a very cool, if somewhat gruesome, story with a mighty scar to mark the occasion.

There was another story of a female staff member working there one night, who screamed as she saw someone walking through the bar area. They say she was terrified. Royce was working that night and witnessed the look of sheer terror on her face at the time: an image that has remained with him since. More recently – that week in fact – Royce awoke at 2am to a loud clicking sound. It was the kettle jug in the corridor for patrons to make tea and coffee, switching on. Thinking it was a mate of his also staying there, he went back to sleep. The next morning, he questioned it. His mate hadn’t gotten up. Checking the jug, it was still warm. For some reason the jug had turned itself on and boiled. This happened numerous times soon after. The men could find no logical reason for this happening other than one playing a prank on the other and denying it (Royce’s initial assumption towards his mate), which they both swear wasn’t the case. I’m told of a few male patrons reportedly being woken, and held down with hands around their throats, and an overwhelming sense of fear. These are the more common reports. A theory being that The Rose might be getting back at men for causing her death.

The night before I arrived, Royce tells me he had gone around the bar, locking up after a long day – something he does every night. He locked the front door first, then went around shutting windows, drawing the curtains closed and turning off the lights. Before heading to bed he checked the front door one last time, as he always does. The next morning the bar door was found open. The door can only be unlocked and opened from the inside. The lock itself, being of the solid slide-bolt make with a second locking button, is firm and secure and only released from the inside. No one, including myself, could find any reason or answer to this mystery. So, what do we have? Many years of anecdotes from both patrons and staff. Many experiencing the exact same event. Many describing the same details. Could it be just the power of suggestion at play? Are these people are being unknowingly influenced by tales of Rose and the stretched ‘Chinese Whispers’ that have travelled a large part of the hotel’s history? I synchronise and start audio and video recording from 10pm sharp.

Final equipment count: two audio recorders, two night-shot video cameras, a 4-camera infrared DVR system, plus my camera and torch at arm’s reach on the small table beside the bed. The light from the portable DVR screen set up in the room gives off a low level blue glow to the room, which subtly lights up the far end of the room by the window, door and dresser.

10.10pm. I have a shower and prepare for the long night ahead. If the stories are true, it should be a sleepless one at that!

10.30pm. I sat out in the hallway for about 15 minutes, before moving to one of the open rooms and sitting on a bed for about twenty minutes. I wanted to lie alone, tuning in to the building for a bit. Listening to the sounds the hotel makes. The typical clicking and creaking of the timber cooling. The random scream of a far off bird. High-pitched barking or the soothing chirp of a resting gecko or insect. A myriad of background noises, native to that region, filtering in from every direction.

11pm. I decided I would get some sleep. It had been a long day and we had hit the road early that morning.

Even though the bed was plush and super comfy, I have to say I had the most disturbed and interrupted sleep I’ve had in years. Cut up, distorted dreams that just didn’t make any sense. I felt disorientated and confused. I would wake every hour or so from a dream, then slip straight back into that same dream so the scenario would carry on. I awoke feeling quite exhausted and very unrested. I was certainly looking forward to my routine, early morning gulp of “V” energy drink and a strong coffee!

Sarah stated that she too had woken a few times during the night, unable to sleep. She says at one point, she lay there on her back staring at the ceiling for a bit, when she noticed a small shadow over in the far corner of the room by the dresser and door, move. She described it as a small person-sized shadow, but she wasn’t sure whether it was just the lack of light (at that point it was only moonlight and the low blueish -white tinge from the small DVR screen) causing her eyes to create an illusion of movement. However, we had both experienced a night of confusion and restlessness. On getting up, I switched on the EMF meter to note readings. Sitting on the bed, the levels leaped to an extreme 20 milligauss. As I stood up to the height of the power box, with the meter held out towards what would be the back of the box, (through the wall) the meter was hitting 85. Could this explain the many stories of hauntings through the years? The stories of broken sleep, sensations of paralysis, shadows in the room, a sense of being watched in the room – they might just be the mind and body’s reaction to the electromagnetic field levels in that room. It made sense, considering that Room One is the only room that has had reports of any activity. Activity of which Sarah and I have now experienced, first hand.

At this point I make no assumptions or claims of debunking the Vulcan Hotel myth. I love this place. It’s been on my list of allegedly haunted locations to spend time in for many years, so it’s a thrill to have finally gotten my wish and to have spent time there: to have met the staff and have the place to ourselves, with no other patrons staying there to make noise or contaminate my research. Also, to have spent time sitting alone in the school ruins, cemetery, and some of the other buildings scattered around sleepy St Bathans, has been something that will stay with me. At the Vulcan Hotel, the service was top-notch, friendly, down to earth, and no frills, Southern country style. In fact, it was like this throughout our entire road-trip down that region. The bigger cities around New Zealand could certainly learn a thing or two from these tiny rural stop -offs.

This rustic old town is certainly something special. I’ll be back to spend time with the Kavanaghs – Royce (if he’s in at the time), and good old Jack, the black Labrador – next time I’m road-tripping down that way for sure!

 

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