The Clutha River is at the heart of the story of Otago. Its gold shaped the history of the region. Its very existance shaped the pattern of settlement and even the hardy qualities of the people who grew up familiar with its rugged beauty, and its forceful nature.
The river corridor embraces New Zealand’s largest river. Since the earliest Maori explorations inland along the river Maori named Mata-Au (swift surface current), the river has been the heartblood of Otago, along which people, gold, and hope, has flowed. Sites of special historical, ecological and cultural interest are plentiful. More than half of the sites of special interest in Otago, detailed in the 1998 Otago Conservation Strategy, are within the Clutha Mata-Au corridor.
The Maori Pathfinders
Maori explorers, of Ngai Tahu and Kai Tahu ki Otago, followed the Mata-Au inland, through a wild and untouched land, hundreds of years before Abel Tasman sighted New Zealand. Their seasonal explorations yielded prized argillite stone, fibres from flax, from the fronds of the cabbage tree and from the leaves of the Celmisia mountain daisy. They also came for foods such as Moa, eel, duck and pigeon. In time, river campsites and seasonal inland settlements became established. The Clutha Mata-Au corridor, itself, is an historic Maori trail, that over the years has given up many artefacts relating to Maori activity, such as argillite and Moa bone artefacts.
The First Europeans
Nathaniel Chalmers, a young twenty-three old in search of good sheep country, was the first European to ascend the river into the Upper Clutha in 1853. He was guided by two old Maoris, Chief Reko and Kaikoura, paying them in advance with a three-legged iron pot. The old men were veterans of the river route, such that when Nathaniel fell ill, they simply constructed a mokihi (raft), and guided him down the river, fearlessly running New Zealand's largest rapids in the Cromwell and Roxburgh Gorges. Explorer-surveyor John Turnbull Thompson was the first European to chart the course of the river and record the mountains around its Lake Wanaka source, painting a panoramic scene of the mountains, lakes and the upper river from the summit of Mt Grandview in 1857.
The Golden Lure
The gold-rush, beginning June of 1861, brought sudden and dramatic changes to the river corridor. In the years that followed, countless thousands explored the inland reaches of the Clutha Mata-Au waterway, which became the second-richest gold-bearing river system in the world. This rich history is built into the identity of Otago, with the Clutha at the centre, an essential and constantly admired natural legacy.
The Methodical Chinese
The Chinese gold-miners were mostly from Han, and although they had chanced their future to get here, they were not inclined to chase the easiest pickings, preferring instead to apply a rigorous methodical approach to gold extraction, often in areas by-passed or already worked over by Europeans. The Lower and Upper Clutha corridor bears literally dozens of herring-bone tailings sites, worked meticulously by hand, mostly for minimal reward. Well-preserved herring-bone sites at the Devil's Nook and Reko's Point Conservation Area, on the upper river, would be lost if the river was dammed.
The Clutha River is one of the world’s most physically diverse waterways. From its alpine source, the largest volume river in New Zealand flows directly into the driest region. Throughout its dramatic course, the riverscapes change repeatedly, passing among magnificent geographic features, some of which have already been inundated behind dams. The upper river runs between unique glacial terrace flights, and at Luggate the river meets one of the most rare river features in the world – the incredible Devil’s Elbow switchback, thought to be the most extreme switchback on a high volume river anywhere.
At Cromwell, the truly extraordinary ‘Junction’ lies beneath the inundated gorge. Paintings and photographs form an invaluable record of this ‘meeting of the waters', and of the impressive Cromwell ‘Gap’ Rapid that once thrilled sightseers from atop the spectacular Junction bridge.
Few people now remember the remarkable Roxburgh Gorge. The Golden Falls and the Molynuex Falls were the largest rapids in New Zealand, and the incredible Island Basin was a towering natural wonder. Unfortunately, these roaring, shadowy rapids and extensive gold-workings and dwellings, were inundated behind the Roxburgh Dam in 1956.
Ferries, Bridges and Steamboats
Maori river travellers knew where and how to cross the river, but for the first Europeans a river crossing was a perilous exercise, claiming more than a few lives. The powerful currents of the Clutha have reputedly claimed more lives than any other river in New Zealand. The majority of these victims were gold-miners during the years from 1861 to around 1910 when gold-dredging declined.
Ferries were initially crude improvisations, such as wagon decks, but soon a series of punts were put on the river by enterprising individuals keen to monopolise the shortest route to the latest gold-strike. Eventually, some 25 punts operated on the river. The last surviving punt remains in operation at Tuapeka Mouth.
Bridge building was a monumental task. The great flood of 1878 wrecked most of the punts and bridges on the entire Clutha River. A bridge in the Maori Gorge was swept away the night before it was due to open. The flying-fox that replaced it is still there. Debris from the Roxburgh and Miller’s Flat bridges took out the Beaumont bridge, all of which later took out the Balclutha bridge. The surviving Beaumont, Luggate and Horseshoe Bend bridges all have high heritage values, and all are threatened by dams.
From 1863 to 1939 steamboats plied the Clutha River between Balclutha and Beaumont, which was at the head of navigation for trading vessels. The wreck of the steamboat Matau, which operated between 1882 and 1901, is still in the river near the Clydevale Station below the Tuapeka Punt.
Monuments and Legends
The history of the Clutha is marked by monuments commemorating past events, and by lengends telling the human story of the river. The pioneer graveyard beside the river at Alberttown’s Graveyard Bend, provides a sobering record of the drownings of children and adults nearby. The Hartley and Reilly monument in the Cromwell Gorge records the site of the richest gold-strike on the river, and in the Beaumont Gorge, the Lonely Graves site has inspired the long running legend of Somebody’s Darling.
In a peaceful location, 8 kms downriver from Miller's Flat in the Beaumont Gorge, the Lonely Graves are a poignant reminder of the harsh reality of the gold-rush. During the winter of 1865, according to folklore, William Rigney, a gold-miner, found the body of a handsome young man washed up beside the river at the Horseshoe Bend Diggings with a shivering dog beside the body. He buried the man nearby and on a wooden headboard he burned "Somebody's Darling Lies Buried Here". A marble headstone was erected in 1903 by the residents of the district with the assistance of a public subscription. The original headboard was encased in glass against the headstone.
Rigney died in 1912 and was buried there with a similar headstone that reads 'Here Lies the Body of William Rigney, The Man Who Buried "Somebody's Darling".' Historians now believe that Rigney's association with "Somebody's Darling" began some time after the young man was buried, when Rigney constructed a manuka fence to protect the grave, and made the headboard. He subsequently cared for the grave faithfully until he himself died. Some researchers believe that "Somebody's Darling" was Charles Alms, a Nevis Valley butcher or farm-hand, but no proof exists. Legend records that Rigney also cared for the dog, until it died years later, when he buried it beside its former master.
The Gifts of Homage
Over the years, more than gold has lured the people of the region to the banks of the Clutha. The spectacular beauty and majesty of the river itself has inspired artists and writers since the arrival of the first explorers. Artwork, books and poems tell an enduring story of homage, revealing a heartfelt love and respect for a river that has featured so personally in the lives of so many. Janet Frame, perhaps New Zealand’s most acclaimed novelist, in her autobiography, wrote “… linked to heaven and light by the slender rainbow that shimmered above its waters.” She chose to call herself Janet Clutha in the last years of her life as a way of preserving her anonymity yet proclaiming an identity.
Some of the earliest artwork and writings focusing on the Clutha provide an invaluable historical record. Vincent Pike’s novel “Wild Will Enderby” (1873), for example, yields a colourful account of the times. Born of the gold-rush landscape, it has been considered the first truly New Zealand novel.
‘The cultural heritage of the river has permeated special occasions and the everyday through prose, poetry, song, art and treasures of the past. They reflect its role in our lives collectively and in our individual lives. They are evidence of the continuities and changes that have given us and this place its unique character. They tell of the intimate relationship between the river and the people. So many writers, painters, photographers and musicians have represented the river or the landscape of the river’s catchment that in another way it flows across the country in many commonplace artistic adornments of households and public buildings across the country – and in particular in this province.’ ~ Bill Dacker, Historian.
First-hand experience produced enchanting gifts such as “And Then The River Rose”, by A.W., in 1897. This is the second verse:
Lets see, in sixty three –
An’ long Tom Brown, of whom you’ve heard,
Was mates along wi’ me.
For weeks an’ weeks it froze an’ froze,
An’ down the river went;
That we should strike it rich just there
I’d a presentiment.
We sunk a paddock by the stream,
We touched the golden stuff;
The gold was in the dirt we got,
Like raisins in a duff.
What did it go to every dish?
A pound weight I suppose.
We’d a’ been as rich as we could wish,
But then the river rose.
These many gifts, past and present, serve to remind us how fortunate we are to live in the company of this magnificent river. But the greatest treasure of the Clutha Mata-Au is, of course, the river itself.
Our heritage is not for sale to Contact Energy.