I remember how, years ago, when he was the presenter for the television series South, Marcus Lush described the gold mining history along the Clutha River as ‘touch able’.
Years later, on a tour with Clutha River Cruises, that comment came to my mind. The evidence of lives once lived along the river’s banks is both touchable in the history it evokes and untouched by any sort of tourist-luring embellishment.
Transported as I was in the comfort of a modern launch, it was hard to comprehend how the promise of gold had lured early miners into an environment so desolate and dangerous.
The Maori name for the Clutha is Mata Au, meaning ‘surface current’, referring no doubt to the depth, and whirling speed of the river’s water, which made it almost impossible to navigate.
“But on this section,” says Lawrence Van der Eb, owner of Clutha River Cruises, “the water flow is much less ferocious because the river’s dammed to form Lake Roxburgh.”
This was good news. Being wrecked or marooned in this forbidding terrain was not something I wanted to experience. But we were carried gently into Central Otago’s rocky heart and able to observe in safety its terrifying beauty. Stacks of buckled cliffs rear steeply from the riverbanks, which are crusted with rocks, some no larger than rats, others bigger than elephants.
The only vegetation they support is matagouri scrub, heather, and hairy tussock. Willow trees provide splodges of green along the river edge and trail their tresses in the water.
To reach their pitiful homes, pushing their supplies in wheelbarrows, the miners had to footslog along gruelling tracks that traced the river’s course. Lawrence pointed out the routes that are still faintly discernible: “It was a major effort to get anywhere,” he said.
Spotting mining history
Hidden among the dark folds of the landscape, we could make out old rock-cave dwellings. The doorways were hobbit-sized, “D’you see how the entrances are blocked with stone walls?” asked our skipper.
“They were gibbed with clay to conserve heat. Most mining took place in the freezing winters when the river levels were lowest. There are many dwellings but most of them are underwater.”
Some were hard to make out but we spotted the stand-alone building of the Leaky Lodge Pub (1863) and stonewalls of Mary’s, the old general store. Lawrence is a mine (pun intended) of information about those extraordinary years in the 1860s when these barren slopes swarmed with men and women, enduring terrible hardship in expectation of great riches. He pointed out the high sluicing water races. Built of rock, one of them is 17 kilometres long.
On the coldest side of the river are the remnants of rocky shelters made by Chinese miners.
“They were invited in from the Victoria mines by the government because they were very good miners,” said the skipper. “They were stoic, systematic, and patient and pooled their resources to rework the tailings. Despite this, they were often despised and treated with little respect.”
The two-and-a-half hour tour left from the waterfront at Alexandra and included a stopover at Doctor’s Point. Here we wandered through some larger buildings, which were deserted in 1940. Although still rudimentary, with inset windows and doors, they displayed a tad more finesse. And where people once lived among such deprivation, we perched ourselves on the rocks in the warming sun to drink tea and eat muffins before boarding the boat again to cruise back in royal comfort back down the river. I felt very rich indeed.
Clutha River Cruises is located at 51 Sunderland St, Clyde. For more information, call 022 068 3302 or visit clutharivercruises.co.nz. Bookings are essential.
Win passes to Clutha River Heritage Cruise
Keen to experience your own Clutha River Heritage Cruise? We have a double pass to give away. We’ll ask our lucky winner to provide a short review of their experience, which will be published in a later issue of Motorhomes, Caravans and Destinations magazine.
Competition ends 8 March 2018.