The Peacock Mosaic

Queenstown’s Gold, Then and Now


 

Queenstown 2007

In the heart of New Zealand’s Southern lakes region lies Queenstown…like a magnet, it attracts people from all over the world who fall in love with its mountainous scenery amidst a wonderland of lush green garden environment and captivating lifestyle.  Queenstown earned its name as it was “fit for Queen Victoria.”

 Nestled in an alpine valley alongside Lake Wakatipu, it’s good enough for all tourists’ clichés to ring true. Mountains pierce the sky with their snow-capped needles, and plunge downwards into these pure mountain waters forming a deep canyon of almost 400 metres deep.

 This lake bears a rare gentle tide which Maori legend states is the breath of the Giant Matau who was burnt to death in his sleep after he abducted a chief’s daughter. The fire burnt a huge hole in the ground, and melted the snow and ice of the surrounding mountains, creating the lake which is in the shape of an S.  The giant lies sleeping on his side and his beating heart is a little island called Hidden Island.  This 12cm tide occurs every 5 minutes.  Science says this is due to fluctuating atmospheric pressure, but legend states that the Giant’s heart is impossible to destroy.

 Romance created Queenstown 15,000 years ago during the ice age, and the area has hosted countless international weddings and honeymoons since the township was settled during the 1860’s gold rush at in the Shotover River nearby.

 For Barbara, in particular, her love affair with Queenstown began when she was born.

 This attractive town of 11,000 population hosts one million tourists each year.  It is known as the adventure capital of New Zealand.  Tourist attractions such as skiing  (five ski-fields within 90 minutes drive), jet boating, white-water rafting and A J Hackett’s bungy-jumping make the area a recreational playground.  It is a place for getting outdoors amidst the elements.  Earth, water and air all offer thrills for the adventure seeker including the world’s first commercial bungy site over the Kawarau River.

 Although Barbara visits family and friends each year in Queenstown, a fear of heights has prevented her from most outdoor sports.  Staying on the ground skiing at Coronet Peak or the Remarkables mountains is “safe.”  Seated in speedboats riding ice waters of the Shotover and Dart rivers is also “safe” for Barbara.

Reaching 50 years of age, she decided to conquer her heights’ fear by tackling one of Queenstown’s exhilarating activities with her eyes open.

 The Skippers Canyon road sign on the left of the Coronet Peak ski fields road attracted her.  Tales of fascinating 4WD driving experiences sounded interesting during her life knowing her great grandfather, helped build the notorious 22 kilometre road which was constructed as a route to the gold-rich river of the Shotover, the goldmining village of Skippers and the quartz mining settlement of Bullendale.

 Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern found more gold at Arthur’s Point than they had ever dreamed of.  They took 4,000 pounds worth of gold, a fortune in 1862, out of the river in two months.  Within six months, 4,000 miners were working in the river.  The Shotover was difficult to access in such isolated country.  There were no tracks and miners were lowered to the river by rope. 

The Shotover became one of the richest rivers in the world and Skippers Gorge was a major goldfield in this Otago region of the South Island of New Zealand.

 When alluvial gold became low in supplies, the miners had to turn to sluicing, dredging and quartz mining.  To do this, a major road was required and construction began.  The route was surveyed in 1883 and a gigantic feat of engineering over the next five years was accomplished as the road was hewn out of rock by manual labour.  Chinese labourers were brought in and they were paid in gold sovereigns or raw gold.  The dangerous work incurred many deaths as the labourers were lowered by rope to prepare the rock for placing explosives.

 There are few Chinese graves as their bodies were exhumed and sent home.  Only two graves remain – the unmarked one belonged to a miner who starved to death.  Twelve miners buried nearby were killed in a slip one night in 1863.  It was in the same year which claimed hundreds of local people with high snowfalls.  They died from drowning or exposure.

 The Long Gully sections depict the dramatic development by expressive titles such as Devil’s Elbow, The Staircase, Hells’ Gate, and Heaven’s Gate. 

 Twisting and turning through mountain country with sheer drops to the Shotover River below, this narrow and unsealed road is closed to rental cars.  The preferred choice to travel into Skippers Canyon is with local 4WD operators such as, Nomad Safaris.  They provide specialist “Lord of the Rings Tours” with the added advantage that a number of their drivers took part in the filming.

 Skippers Canyon Jet Company offer tourists a variety of gold claim tours, river jet rides, and organised bungy jumping and flying fox adventures.

 Bungy-jumping from the original Skippers Bridge (12 kilometres into the drive) was not an option for Barbara.  Bungy-jumping is on the back burner for the moment but the flying fox running beside the bridge 90 metres above the roaring, thunderous Shotover River took her interest.

 This Pipeline suspensions bridge was a “new’ bridge when it opened in 1901.  It is 96 metres in length.  Fourteen wire cables weighing seven tonnes each support it,

 This suspension bridge was used to portray The Ford of Briunen in flood, one of the most dramatic scenes from the movie The Fellowship of the Rings.

 After a homely cup of billy tea and hot damper bread served by a childhood playmate, Winky Hohneck, outside her goldminers’ museum, Barbara prepared for her flight across the river. 

 She weighed in for eligibility for the flying fox.  At 55 kilograms in weight, she was acceptable.  At 130 kilograms, her husband was way over the limit.

 Heroine of the Day stepped into a NASA designed parachute harness and pulled it on amidst jokes cracked by other tourists regarding the fatal space shuttle crash, which occurred only yesterday.

 One steel rod was the only connection from a clamp on Barbara’s back to the flying fox wire.  Instructions in relaxation and safety were given.  A gentle push from one of the operators sent her slowly flying across the ravine.

 “What will I do with my arms?” she called out to her husband who had his feet firmly standing on the bridge while filming her .

 “Spread them out like Superwoman!” he yelled back.  She obeyed, not realising she had also spread out her legs!!!!

 Her awareness of brilliant colours nature had created in the water below and the terraces of land on the other side of the deep narrow gorge heightened to a level of pure exhilaration.  She knew this chance of flying alone would not happen again too soon.  Blues and whites and greens and gold flashed around her.  She could hear a hum of metal rolling above her from the “fox.”  Looking ahead, the opposite cliff came rushing forward as her speed increased towards the finish of the run.  A steel pylon faced her a few yards ahead and she realised she had not received instructions about stopping.

 “My face is going to be plastered across that pylon,” she thought. Fortunately, a sudden yank from behind brought Barbara to her feet.  An attendant materialised and assisted her from the apparatus.  The adrenalin rush gave Superwoman boundless courage, which was cooled off pretty quickly walking back across the bridge, carrying her equipment.  She was still dressed in the parachute harness and ready for interviewing regarding her now-famous solo flight!

 Emotions were still high driving back to Queenstown and the comfort of a hot spa.  Barbara saw the terrace of her family’s gold claims.  They are detailed in a goldminers map in Winky’s museum.  This is not an area of country to be taken lightly.  Skippers Road has seen little change since it was built 150 years ago.  The beauty of the landscape was probably never appreciated by these hard-working men, as they knew how dangerous and lonely their work and living conditions were. 

 Barbara’s grandfather was a miner here. Her grandparents were engaged for 18 years before they could marry and live in the city of Invercargill.  Skippers Canyon was no place for a woman and family to live.

 Great-grandfather and his son survived the avenging force of the canyon and the river. 

Barbara had survived both within 10 minutes as a thrill-seeking tourist and had conquered her fear of heights as a bonus.

Pipeline Bridge Skippers

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