Ophir Post Office building made of unworked schist slabs with a touch of square pointing on the formal façade, concrete pillars and arched arcade

An introduction to Ophir Post Office

Cute as a button – it’s a recurrent phrase in descriptions of the Ophir Post Office, one of Central Otago’s most photographed heritage buildings. And sure, it’s charmingly small and appealingly symmetrical. But there’s something about its formal façade, with those pillars and classical arched arcade, that’s actually more stately than sweet. Here, says the architecture, is the embodiment of Her Majesty’s Postal Service, as sound as a pound and built for the ages. And so it has proved: constructed in 1886 and now cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, the schist building still operates as Aotearoa New Zealand’s longest running post office.

Long-serving postmistress Val Butcher arrived from Queensland, Australia, during a record-breaking winter 25-odd years ago, when the temperature reached as low as minus 21.6 degrees. During those colder months, the post office tends to do a slower trade, with locals braving the chill only every few days to check their mail. But visit any other time of the year and you’ll find the Ophir Post Office is the heart of the village, its original 19th Century set of pigeonholes still the go-to place to leave messages and items, even surplus fruit and vege, hollyhocks and eggs.

In 1886, there was more competition for the role of community hub. At that stage, the 1860s gold rush town was thriving, with a 1000-strong population, various banks, hotels, stores, churches, a school, hospital and police station. It all went south when the Central Otago railway line bypassed Ophir in favour of Omakau on the other side of the Manuherikia River. The silver lining of the town’s 20th Century decline, however, was that there was no incentive to replace the original town fabric, with the result that Ophir still has a raft of terrific 19th Century buildings and cottages. And the bijou Post Office is very much the jewel in the crown.

There are no formal tours. Just bowl up and if you time it right, Val will show you the treasures. They include: the original letter boxes; the old cash box, all four kg of it; an ornate safe from 1903; vintage government department oak chairs; oldtime parcel scales and stamp pads; and those kauri pigeonholes. The showpiece is the original VR franking stamp, bearing an image of a miner’s pan and shovel. Buy a postcard and handfrank it – from Ophir N.Z., with love.

When you’ve had a good look around, head up the back of the garden to see the tiny 19th Century jailhouse, then wander along the main drag, Swindon St, which is dotted with heritage buildings. Highlights include Pitches’ Store (circa 1880), the former Courthouse (1884), Jenkins’ Cottage and outbuildings (circa 1880), and the former St Andrews Presbytarian Church (1897), but there are plenty of other charmers scattered around. At the western end of town, the Category I Daniel O’Connell Bridge (1879) is a gorgeous piece of 19th Century bridge engineering slung across the Manuherikia.