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Touring New Zealand 2002
Looking down on the mighty Clutha and over to the mountains and thinking about the lakes all round us it seemed to be time to face up to the emailed request from Liz for descriptions of New Zealand scenery. I am not sure how to do justice to the scenery I am about to describe - no words can do it justice. There are some pictures already on the web site but even they can not do it justice - it is on too grand a scale. Perhaps there are words, perhaps I will find some as I continue but it will be a challenge - I can give facts, I can try descriptions but I do not know how to convey the majesty of the mountains and the ever changing colours of the lakes or the barely suppressed power of the rivers. I will do my best by describing a journey from the lakes to the sea through the Haast Pass.
We are camped close to two of the most beautiful and largest lakes in New Zealand. They have been gouged out of solid rock by the actions of glaciers and lie parallel, almost connected by a narrow isthmus part way down. To give a scale Lake Wanaka is 45 kms long and Lake Hawea 35 kms. Lake Wanaka is a thousand feet deep and Hawea even deeper and glaciers have smoothed the sides down to the water from their maximum height of 3000 feet above lake level. The bottoms of the lakes are below the present sea level.
The lakes are fed by Glacier melt water and have the most incredible colours, usually a light blue, sometimes almost white, from all the fine rock, ground to a powder by the Glaciers. The colours and the surface are ever changing - we have seen them so still that it is almost impossible to tell the reflection from the mountains behind when you turn a picture upside down and we have seen the with wave crashing on to the beaches. They can be so still and clear we have looked down and watched cormorants hunting underwater over a bottom perhaps 50' below. There are a few boats, mostly tinnies or glass fibre boats trailed in for fishing so they are virtually still on the surface, dots in the vastness of the lakes.
The mountains tower above the lakes - the mountains beside the lakes rise to over 7000 feet, some with a powdering of snow or ice at the top but mostly sheer rock faces angled upwards - we are sitting along the joins between the Australian and Pacific plates which are still tearing the fabric of this land and throwing it up at crazy angles to be smoothed by glaciers in successive ice ages.
A huge tract of this land of lakes, mountains, rivers and fjords ranging from alpine dessert to thick rainforest has become a World Heritage Area called Te Wahipounamu from the original Maori for the area, The Place of the Greenstone. This World Heritage Area covers the whole South West region of South Island and alone covers 10% on the surface of New Zealand and integrates and fills in between the National Parks of Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, Westland and Mount Cook, all vast in their own rights. Te Wahipounamu is one of the great temperate wildernesses of the world, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, tussock grasslands, lakes, rivers, fjords, wetlands and 1000 km of wild coastline.
The journey we are about to make will cross this tortured land from the central lakes to the sea - it is only 100 miles over the Haast pass but it took over 30 years to carve out the road and another 30 before it was metalled in 1995. It stretches past the wind-whipped lakes of Wanaka and Hawea through golden tussock-covered hills. It winds amongst steep mountains cloaked in a lush rainforest blanket across tumbling rivers. It skirts undulating forests afloat in tea-stained swamps before it touches the wind and foaming Tasman surf.
It started as a Maori Greenstone trail and there is still dispute who was the first Pakeha to cross. Charles Cameron probably discovered it 2 days before Haast, but Haast made the first crossing. It took him and his party over four weeks, after being shown the start of the trail by Maori. He gained all the publicity whilst Cameron, travelling alone, continued his explorations but left a dated marker in the form of a hip flask in a cairn in the pass to be found 20 years latter - it is on display in an information centre at Makarora .
By 1876 a pack trail existed for gold prospectors, stock movement and latter even some intrepid tourists. The Haast Pass road proper was not started until 1930, much of it created by hand labour with picks shovels and horse drawn carts as it was inaccessible to serious machinery. The pass is, at 563 meters, the lowest of the only three passes which link Westland to the east coast and now it is sealed a virtually all-weather road.
Even now the 100 miles from Wanaka to Haast is a fascinating journey passing through fantastic and changing scenery. The first part passes from Lake Wanaka through arid grasslands after crossing the Clutha at Albert Town, where we were camped, up the side of Lake Hawea and then crosses the narrow col to continue back up lake Wanaka. If you turn right down a gravel track instead of leaving Rake Hawea you get to the Kidds Bush DOC camp site - we spent a day there before returning for a second night at Albert Town. Kidds bush is a marvellous camp site with a beach covered in flat pieces of schist perfect for skimming across placid pale blue waters. When we returned that night to Albert Town it was not so placid and we eventually had to move our tent back from our pitch looking straight down on the Clutha, but not before two of the plastic fittings had been damaged.
Anyway, back to the journey. The first third is alongside the lakes on roads cut and blasted into hillsides winding along the shores. The lakes are different in subtle ways - Lake Hawea has been raised a few tens of metres by a hydroelectric scheme dam. Purists say this has made major changes for the worse - I think the changes in scenery are minimal and may be even for the best with many sharply defined shores - in any case a few metres is nothing compared to 1500 metres of ice which shaped the valleys.
As one reaches the end of Lake Wanaka one enters a wide valley with the flat floor filled with silt and gravel spread by the river since the last ice age through which the Makarora river wends it way, split into channels which divide and rejoin, cross and re-cross creating strange patterns - these are called Braided Rivers and one can see why when one looks down from the road sitting on some corner blasted into a towering bluff.
As we progress further the gravel ceases to fill the valley floor and there are wide grass filled flats edges by native bush as they meet the hillside smoothed by giant glaciers in past ages. These are known as Flats and there used to be a number of good DOC camping grounds on the flats which by some senseless act of vandalism DOC have closed and in their place opened a tiny site on a windswept and totally exposed sloping piece of land. They have a visitor centre at Makarora which proclaims this to be a major achievement of the year on the grounds that tourists do not like long drop toilets - now walkers and cyclists have huge stretches with no place to stop and those with cars will pass through. Easy for a Suit to present as a success until the real users get there. I have been a great fan of DOC, and held them up as examples in the past, but this sort of madness makes one question ones earlier judgement.
One is now starting the steady climb to the pass and the bush becomes more lush and turns to forest and the river narrows into a steep gorge, twisting and crashing over rocks and into sparkling blue-white pools of foam below us. The pass is quite low at 563 metres and is marked by a stone with plaques commemorating the building of the road. The vegetation is now even more lush forest as we pass to the western slopes - the rainfall has now increased fourfold and is now up to 4.5 metres a year and will further increase to 8.3 metres a year as we descend onto the lower slopes. Trees with strange names like Kamahi dominate here whilst as we descend we pass into swamp forests of Rimu, Kahikatea and silver pine which thrive on the boggy lower slopes. As we descend we pass over a bridge and through The Gates of Haast - Haast is the name for the whole area as well as a town and river. This is a place to stop and look - the river tumbles over huge blocks of stone cast in the river like a giants abandoned toy blocks. Trees swept down by floods look like matchsticks and one can only marvel at the power of water.
All along the road are various side walks which one can take, some only a few minutes long and some taking several hours. Often they lead to or past waterfalls and we have stopped at many of them this year or in the past. Fantails Falls has a beautiful fan shaped waterfall spreading and twisting like a minute vertical braided river. Thunder Falls has a nice short bush walk through Kamahi and silver beach to look at the spectacular falls crashing into the river from a side valley tens of metres above.
Finally the steep descents end and the smell of burnt brake linings is whipped away in the breeze as we reach the flats. We look at Pleasant Flat, one of the few remaining camp sites which nestles a bit close beside the road and the new facilities DOC have built - one can imagine waking to find 50 tourist leaving their bus and gathering round to look at the rare sight of a tent with descriptions of how camping used to take place in the area by a tour guide as they rush in and out of the spotless toilets. We continue on towards the coast and stop to admire the patterns in the gravel where the Haast is joined by the Landsborough rivers.
It was getting late in the day - we had made too many stops - so we decided to overnight in Haast township and found a basic room in a motel. It was more like a backpackers in some ways with a basic room, double bed plus nothing, plus excellent common facilities and all indoors rather than an isolated cabin. We moved in then went to look at the South Westland World Heritage Visitor centre, a hideous shaped corrugated iron clad building which must have cost more than a dozen camp sites and their maintenance for the architect fees - only an architect could ever have got approval for such a building in a conservation area. It does however have a series of interesting displays on natural and human history. The staff were helpful and advised us where to find the "floating forests" of Kahikatea where matted roots keep the trees floating above deep swamps. The are known as the Dinosaur tree, living up to 80 years some of the trees in these swamp forests can bare up to 800 kgs of fruit.
Following their advice we went up the coast 20 kms to Ship Creek where there was a Kahikatea Swamp forest walk. The Kahikatea is New Zealand's tallest tree and we saw examples 60 metres tall with clean straight trunks with huge heads - as impressive as Kauri in some ways. We also did part of dune walk but got seduced by watching the Hectors Dolphins cruising just outside the surf line - they are New Zealand's smallest and rarest dolphins easily recognised by the rounded dorsal fin. It was then time for the trip back over the pass to Wanaka as we wanted to stay on the east side this year. The alternative would have been to work North up Westland past the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers, with a stop to see the white herons and cross over on of the other two passes. Even now there are only three passes across the central range plus a route round the top end. Fiordland is almost isolated with just the famous out and return - The Road to Milford [Sound] cutting across to the Fiordland coast.
We stopped at the Airfield at Wanaka to visit the Fighter Pilots Museum which has in it's Alpine Fighter Collection one of the largest collections of flying WW 2 fighter aircraft and trainers in the world. It includes a. Spitfire XVI, Hurricane, Polikarpov I-16 and I-53 and a two seat Mustang 51D, Tiger Moths, Fox Moth, Harvard and Vampire.There is an Airshow "Warbirds over Wanaka" at Easter every other year which attracts 80,000 spectators and many visiting fighters. Why so much interest in New Zealand in WW II Fighters one might ask? In fact New Zealand contributed, per-capita, more fighter pilots than Any other country in WWII, over 5000.
The museum not only has aircraft on display close enough that you have to take can not to touch them but also a large number of boards detailing the NZ activities and details of actions by the pilots. It was not our first visit and will not be our last - the collection keeps changing, last visit they also had a Corsair, Yak and Zero. We would like to stay one year for "Warbirds over Wanaka" and had originally thought about do so this year as it will be an early Easter.
I had difficulty describing the beauty of the NZ countryside but I found this poem, which some of you already know, in the museum which describes some of the joy I have had from gliding and flying better than I can ever put into words.
"High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies and laughter silvered-wings;
Sunward I've climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have never dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I've chased the shouting wing along and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew,
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God
After reluctantly leaving the museum and buying a video of the last air show, we then drove on to Cromwell and, as it was late and wind, got a cabin at the Top Ten Campsite, did some rapid shopping and set up the Red Devil. Last year we got an adapter for large gas cylinders for the RD but still needed a converter for the quick release on the cylinder in the van. We found in a petrol station after looking in lots of camping shops - the modification works well and will make it much cheaper to use as the disposable cylinders cost $15 and gave two or three barbecues only. We can now use either so can still carry it to a beach or use it economically near the van.
Cromwell turned out a far more interesting town than we had realised - many do in New Zealand. We first went to look at Old Cromwell and started to understand a bit more about Cromwell. The old town consists of a number of buildings which made up the old main street which was flooded when the level of the river and lake Dunstall was raised for a hydroelectric scheme. This has changed the whole character of the town as a quiet ex goldmining and then fruit growing centre was transformed by new people and money because of the hydroelectric scheme. The town was rebuilt, perhaps recreated, as compensation for large amounts of it, and the surrounding farms, being submerged. It is vaguely reminiscent of Milton Keynes with a regular structure, big open spaces, new precincts and lots of sports facilities.
Old Cromwell, an area of old buildings, now rebuilt mud brick by mudbrick and corrugated iron sheet by sheet is already quite interesting and occupied us for an hour or two. It led us too the Museum which had a lot of Cromwell history from its start and initial signification as a centre for the gold fields on too fruit farming. It gave interesting insights into the farming in Otago. Typical "runs" for sheep farms stations were 200,000 acres which would support 30,000 to 40,000 sheep ie each sheep needed 5 to 6 acres of the barren, dry tussock grass covered land. Rabbits rapidly became a problem and a typical station employed 50 hunters to keep the rabbits down and they would kill 500,000 rabbits a year on a station in order for enough grass to remain for the sheep. There were no significant predators in NZ before man came and he brought many animals which have run riot. First Maori then Pakeha has devastated the environment by destroying the indigenous and introducing the exotic much of which is running out of control compounding the problems.
Returning to the museum, a major part covered the changes on the area when the hydroelectric scheme started. There are fascinating before, during and after pictures complementing those at Old Cromwell. The scheme, one of the last the New Zealand "Think Big" series conceived in the 1970s, built a dam and power station at Clyde on the Clutha for which Cromwell was the major administrative and engineering base. The scheme raised the levels of the junction of the Kawarau and Clutha rivers and Lake Dunstall, which has now become a major recreational facility. The output is 450 Megawatts with the ability to add extra turbines to raise it to 650, which would then make it the largest in New Zealand - the environment has been changed but it does produce a lot of clean almost everlasting power.
After leaving the Museum we went back and completed the 2.5 hour walk round the Bannockburn site with its huge legacy of tailings.We had not fully grasped the enormous area which had been changed - we had seen the 80' high faces but had not appreciated that tens, possibly hundreds of acres had been stripped to similar depths. One was seeing little "islands" standing to the original surface level. We saw the water races and dams bringing in the vast supplies needed to wash away millions of cubic feet of gravel and the complex channels cut to get the tailings away to the rivers.
As an interesting aside the land which was under the parts of Cromwell due to be submerged had not been mined and the opportunity was taken as soon as the buildings had been removed. It is alleged that over 4000 oz of gold were recovered from under that area - enough to go a long way to it's preservation and rebuilding on the new site.
We found Cromwell and the area sufficiently interesting that we decided to stay a bit longer and see a few more of the local gold towns and gold fields. We went first to a small village, Ophir which has twenty or so houses left in their original state. Gold was discovered in 1863 and almost overnight the population reached 1000. In its heyday Ophir was the commercial and social centre of the district with a number of stores, a school, police station, courthouse, post office, hospital, two hotels and two churches. Many of these buildings remain and are being steadily restored and the few extra buildings are very much in character. Features such as the wide street with massive kerb stones and stone lined gutters remain. Apart from the odd car you could have been transported back 130 years. We approached over the last remaining suspension bridge in Otago down a gravel road, the best way if you follow in our footsteps (wheeltracks??).
Most of the buildings are in private hands however the Post Office is owned by the Historic Places Trust, to which we belong, and we spent some time speaking to the new curator and postmistress, and her predecessor who had been in post for 27 years and had gathered a vast and fascination number of local photographs and information of all sorts. She found detains of some of the mining survey reports for the area dating back to 1890 and other early reports on dredging from the turn of the century. In return we have promised to send details of LeClenche cells, the early batteries used for telephones, from some of my grandfathers technical books.
Having soaked in the atmosphere down the main street and taken lots of pictures we continued and happened to pass by another Historic Places site we had read about - the Hayes Engineering works. An engineer who had done work on the site just happened to be there and after showing us round the outside called the curator (it normally opens only at weekends) and got it unlocked and gave us a full guided tour along with some of his relations he had brought from Dunedin. It is just as it was when it closed in 1952 and is still operational, if drive from a tractor power take off - the original power from a dam driven Pelton wheel does not work as the water supply is no more.
Hayes was an inventor as well as Engineer and initially designed and built his own windmill to power the plant. It was on a tower 12 metres tall with sails of 7 metres diameter, the largest in the country at the time, but was latter replaced by the Pelton Wheel to give more reliable power for the works. A major part of his business was production of windmills of various novel and patented designs.
His most famous inventions were to do with the seemingly mundane but actually very important job of tensioning the wire for fences. His designs started in 1905 and were soon in use all over New Zealand. They were developed further and the final version produced in 1924 is still in use now and finally won an engineering innovation award in 1982 - that must be a record! You will still find the Hayes brand name on most of the tightening devices at the end of barbed wire fences - we have been checking! The works is well worth a detour for a look when open and we would love to be there on one of the days when it is powered up with dozens of belts of novel forms driving the tools.
We carried on and again by chance passed a sign to the Golden Progress Quartz mine. A short walk took us to the mine workings with the Poppet Head, a 14 metre high structure supporting wheels over which ran ropes to cages used to hoist the gold bearing ore to the surface. The remains of the Stamper Battery mountings remain and there are several boilers left which powered the steam engines for the hoists and Stampers.
We then went on to St Bathans, one of our original targets. The town is interesting and, like Ophir, time has stood still, although it is perhaps a bit more commercialised. What interested us was the mining remains. St Bathans was the site of perhaps the greatest of the Hydraulic Elevator and Sluicing operations. Starting in 1864 Kildare hill, originally 120 metres high was reduced by Hydraulic Sluicing to nothing and then in 1880 Hydraulic elevators were used and eventually it was reduced to a pit 68 metres deep. This was the deepest hydraulic mining lift in the world. The enormous hole was flooded in 1935 when mining was abandoned. They only stopped because of fears that the main street of St Bathans was about to collapse into the workings - one can see the cracks in the builds today. It is difficult to convey the size of the Lake and surrounding workings full of tailings and faces. We guess that it could be close to a kilometre long and 200-300 metres wide which ties in with statements in one of the books that over 100,000 oz of gold had been removed from a 200 acre area by 1893. An awe inspiring sight and a must to visit. The town hall is open and has lots of early pictures showing it in operation which needs to be looked at. There is also a short walk which we have left for next time.
It was now definitely time to leave Cromwell and head for Dunedin and Albatrosses. There have been Headlines in a recent Morning paper that the first chicks are hatched with a big picture - where else in the world would that be front page news!
The first brief stop was to view the Clyde Dam which had transformed Cromwell. It looks insignificant against the hills until you read the penstocks for the turbines are 8 metres diameter and the 4 turbines generate well over a hundred megawatts each - there is space for another two to be mounted if power requirements ever rise and that would then make it the biggest in New Zealand.
We had also decided that we would stop at Alexandra and see if we could find the site where there had been a lot of dredging for gold and an impressive set of tailings had been left behind. It took some finding on a back road from Clyde, itself a nice unspoilt town. We found a sign to a viewpoint which seemed a good start as it was only 1 km - after a while we found another sign saying 2 kms pointing up a steep gravel track, the only thing in its favour being it was an AA sign. The climb was interesting to say the least with the wheels scrabbling for grip much of the way - let passengers out first for a break, they will need it by the top! The view was however worth it, one of the best we have ever had out over Clyde showing the dam and the town laid out like patchwork quilt with all the orchards the area is famous for surrounded by trees. The area is famous for apricots and other stone fruit. In the far distance was a what looked like a giants ploughed field which we assumed was the dredgings.
We followed on down the Earnscleugh Road which seemed reasonable as it was the Earnscleugh dredgings we were looking for and eventually ended up in Alexandra, however there was a sign pointing back the other way to the dredgings! We looked for the Information Office and Museum which had moved to a new site and we then found it closed early on a Saturday. After a search through Pauline's stacking box of reference material we found an excellent Historic Sites viewing and walking guide for Alexandra which had details and a sort of map - the scales varied by 10:1 across it. For anyone looking for the Dredgings Reserve cross the bridge out of Alexandra, after a hundred yards turn right into Earnscleugh Road (back road to Clyde) and go 3 kms at which you will find Marshall Road on the right and a sign to the 150th Centenary walkway. At the end the carpark is under the tailings and you can walk up to a viewpoint or do longer walks.
I did not cover dredging earlier in my previous coverage of mining in Otago but we read about it and looked at old pictures in the Cromwell Museum. It was a technique used extensively on the Clutha and other areas near Cromwell and, in particular round Alexandra. As the river banks were exhausted of readily accessible gold miners sought ways to reach the gold on the river bed itself with potentially huge pickings. It started with simple spoon dredges - a leather bag attached to an iron ring on a long pole taken out on a boat. Developments which followed included pneumatic dredges, diving bells and suction dredges. The greatest success came with the development of steam driven bucket dredges which quickly came to dominate dredging. They were expensive to build but changed the face of mining -and the countryside - as they worked rivers, swamp land and flats.
Dredging was a late technique not reaching its peak till after 1900 when over a hundred companies were in operation, after which it steadily declined to one or two, with a brief resurgence whenever gold prices rose such as in the depressions of the 30s. The museum in Cromwell has models and pictures of some of the more famous dredgers and some of the huge buckets on display. The main separation was done on board the steam dredges so the problems of obtaining water and in particular the disposal of tailings, which plagued any working of alluvial gold on land, disappeared.
Dredging was probably at its most spectacular on the Clutha near Alexandra. The ground was worked over several times as the dredges became more powerful they would cut there way into the solid ground of the river terraces working their way over huge areas leaving behind what can only describe as furrows. The Earnsleugh Flat Dredge Tailings and The Golden Beach Tailings lie either side of the Fraser River entry to the Clutha and a large area has been turned into the Historic Reserve we had eventually found. The Earnscleugh dredgings were formed by the activities of 5 dredges between 1896 - 1924 and 1951 - 1962. Hundreds of acres have been dredges with the resulting tailings laid out like a giants ploughed field with furrows 40-50 feet deep and hundreds of feet across where they had been ejected from the back of the dredge. Paddock dredging seemed to involve cutting deeply into the dry land of the terraces and the tailings were scattered from centrifugal drums and elevators. It was an awe inspiring sight and well worth all the time spent looking for it - it is difficult to see why it took so long to find as the area is huge.
We also took time to stop at Gabriel's Gully, the birthplace of the Otago gold rushes - within 7 months of the first discovery 10,000 miners had flocked to Gabriel's Gully and other parts of the Goldfield. We had been there a few years ago but it was nice to see it again and place it in our new perspective. You can see a vast smooth slope where the sluicing took place and a pool at the bottom where there were hydraulic elevators raising the gravel to overhead sluices and riffle boxes. The valley floor has been steadily raised by the tailings and is now over 50 metres above the original level. Other interesting statistics for the area are that there were 450 kms of water races created in the first 4 years for ground sluicing, the longest of which was 40 km going right to the Waipori River.