Otago: Breathless in Skippers Canyon

By Paul Rush

A journey along this 'Lord of the Rings' road can leave you on edge, writes Paul Rush.

The Skippers Canyon Suspension Bridge is a tight squeeze for the Land Rover. Photo / Paul Rush
The Skippers Canyon Suspension Bridge is a tight squeeze for the Land Rover. Photo / Paul Rush

I find it almost impossible to visit Otago without thinking about the glint of bright fine gold.

It's a passion - or more likely a fever - that has affected tens of thousands of visitors who have flocked to the picture-perfect region ever since those exciting days when wide-eyed shearers pulled nuggets out of the Shotover. After all, this wild river proved to be the second richest in the world after the Yukon's Klondyke.

The men who first discovered gold in the South Island were a bunch of crafty codgers, as sharp-set and sharp-witted as a butcher's steak knife.

Dunstan pioneers, Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly made a monumental gold strike in 1862 and quietly beavered away for two weeks until they had amassed 40 kilograms of the precious metal (worth NZ$2 million in today's money). On their return to Dunedin they even bargained with the authorities to secure a more generous award for their find.

Two Queenstown sheep shearers, Harry Redfern and Thomas Arthur struck gold on the Shotover River a year later at Arthur's Point and took 5kg from the banks of the Shotover and Arrow rivers in a week.

After two months they had gold valued at £8000. At that point and after much soul-searching they deigned to spread the good news abroad.

The gold may be long gone but Skippers Canyon still has the golden touch when it comes to a rich, fun-filled 4WD tour experience.

I hop on board a Land Rover called Frodo with an experienced off-road driver, Graeme Glass, who also runs the ever-popular 'Lord of the Rings' tours and has 1200 Skippers runs under his belt.

With this sort of pedigree I have no excuse for feeling fearful as we rumble over the pass below Coronet Peak skifield and descend the precipitous one-way gravel road into the deep canyon. But I do feel myself gasping and gulping a little at the steep drop-offs, particularly when I see the collapsed and eroded sections of the once neatly-stacked protective rock wall.

"Gold's pretty high in value now," Graeme tells us.

"One of our drivers owns a gold dredge, generator and pump and can talk about prospecting until the cows come home."

I ask if the miner reveals his favourite posies on the Shotover and Graeme says he does but adds "it might be like fishing and he's putting us off the scent".

Mount Aurum, the mythical mother lode of this region, looms into view as we continue on the twisting, turning 22-kilometre-long road that took eight years to build with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows.

Tonnes of dynamite were needed to blast overhanging schist rock in many places and carve out a narrow passageway on the edge of the sheer escarpment 100 metres above the Shotover River Gorge. The funds for construction came from a levy on the gold brought out from the Skippers area.

As we negotiate Hell's and Heaven's gates, Graeme explains that the road builders didn't use dynamite on this section for fear that the entire hillside would collapse. They drilled holes in the rock, filled them with water and allowed the frost to do the work of expanding and cracking the rock.

Stepping out onto a promontory that is thick with golden-brown snow tussock, I carefully avoid scattered patches of spear grass, affectionately known as wild Spaniard. There are remnants of the wild briar rose planted by the early miners as a vital source of vitamin C and also hawthorn, whose berries are good for circulation.

All around us are weirdly-shaped rock formations such as Lightning Rock and the curiously upside-down Elephant Rock with four padded feet stretching upwards in a rigid form of rigor mortis. Castle Rock is silhouetted on the skyline and diving into the base of the gorge is a magnificent stand of wilding pines, which are so uniform I can't believe they are not a man-made plantation.

Two stark chimney stacks are all that remain of the Welcome Home Inn in Long Gully. Baldersons' Cottage nestles alongside the narrow foot track that was the sole means of access into Skippers before the road was built. From here the road climbs precariously over an icy stretch that gets no sun for three months of the year.

At Deep Creek we drive down to the main river and try our hand at gold panning, eagerly scanning the fine gravels in our pans for a mere hint of precious metal sparkling in the sunlight. But today there's no colour, no tell-tale glint, not even a fly-speck or grain of auriferous material. It's a far cry from those heady days of 1862 when the two shearers struck it rich.

Although we are panning in the depths of the gorge there's no lack of human activity.

A helicopter whooshes overhead and a group of whitewater kayakers who ride shotgun with commercial river rafters, are testing their skills in the rapids. Just when peace reigns again on the river, a jetboat rounds the bend with a hiss and a roar, sending up a shower of spray.

Untamed wilderness is becoming a rare commodity these days.

Soaring 90 metres above the Shotover is the historic Skippers Canyon Suspension Bridge, which we choose to cross on foot as Graeme inches the Land Rover across with just centimetres of clearance each side.

Opened in 1901 it's the most spectacular bridge of its kind in the country. On a broad terrace above it are the remains of Skippers Point township. Once the main gold settlement on the river, it is now a virtual ghost town.

Tea and scones are served by our guide on the verandah of the old Mount Aurum Homestead as we survey the camping ground and the beautifully restored schoolhouse.

A group of families is enjoying the sunshine, having driven into the camp in 2WD saloon cars, which must have called for steady nerves. The Skippers Road is off-limits to rental cars.

There's a veritable gold mine of photo opportunities here, with stunning scenery on the walks to Londonderry Terrace, Bullendale, Dynamo Flat and the Crystal Mine battery.

I have taken a breathtaking ride in Frodo to the utterly wild and desolate Ford of Bruinen. No Black Riders were encountered on my journey but I did discover an historic world that was forged in hard-won gold and dreams of riches beyond belief.

IF YOU GO

Nomad Safaris runs scenic 4WD tours and camping adventures around the Wakatipu Basin, Skippers Canyon, Macetown, Glenorchy and Arrowtown. Full and half day tours are also operated on the Trails of Middle Earth, visiting scenes portrayed in the Lord of the Rings movies.

Paul Rush travelled into Skippers Canyon courtesy of Nomad Safaris.

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