Thursday, January 19, 2012

Cruising the Clutha: NZ Day 13

Today was a non-cycling day based in the Central Otago town of Clyde, but by no means a traditional "rest" day - we had big plans to try and find out what Clyde was all about.  I set an alarm and woke up early, a rarity for a day when I didn't have to be on the road, to get some photos of Clyde in the morning sunlight.  Stepping outside, we discovered that it had been raining very heavily overnight, and low cloud and fog was going to hamper our efforts to get any sort of decent photographs.  Regardless, we spent an hour strolling around the historic streets before returning to our accommodation for breakfast.

A gloomy morning in Clyde, but still very pleasant

More photographic "hilarity" - this is apparently Jer's favourite photo of the tour

The dam is clearly visible from the main street of Clyde.  I was surprised by just how close it is to town

Our brisk stroll in the damp, chilly air didn't yield a whole lot of photos, but we did discover a few new nooks and crannies around Clyde that we hadn't seen the previous day.  We returned to The Workshops, and ate a quick breakfast before setting off on our main adventure for the day - a boat tour of historic sites on the mighty Clutha River, with Clutha River Cruises.  The boats were moored downstream at the medium sized town of Alexandra, about 10km away.  Fortunately, our hosts Steve and Sam also run Clutha River Cruises, so getting a lift to town wasn't a problem.

Here's a great mariner's breakfast idea from Jer - a carrot and a cup of tea

Nautical but nice
Jer and I are both fairly hardcore boating enthusiasts, and were very excited at the prospect of spending a morning out on the water.  We arrived at the Alexandra boat mooring a little early, so we ventured off for an hour or so of exploring the town, as well as seeking out the obligatory morning coffee.

I was delighted to see numerous early series Land Rovers and Land Cruisers still plying the streets of Central Otago.  Here's one crossing the Alexandra bridge.  Yes, I am a Land Rover nerd...

Yep, that's a clock on the side of a mountain.  Apparently it's lit up at night and everything

We returned to the mooring to find both vessels ready to go.  The larger vessel, the Mata-Au is particularly impressive, and originally began life as a harbour pilot boat.  It has since been fitted out to be more of a luxury power cruiser, with a wide beam and huge engines from its days as a commercial vessel.  Jer and I crawled all over it doing what we always do when we are in a nautical situation - trying to squeeze in as many boat-specific terms as possible in a vain attempt to bamboozle each other.  The time soon came to get moving, and we transferred onto the other vessel, a large pontoon craft called the Nevache II. It was only Sam, Jer and myself on the pontoon vessel, and we were lucky to be on our own private excursion into the mining heritage of the Clutha River.

The Clutha River Cruises vessels ready to take on passengers

As we rounded the first bend of the river and lost sight of town, we were transported into another world.  We plunged into an immensely steep and tall gorge, with the cold wind and light drizzle biting our faces as we cruised up the river.  The river itself was a peculiar shade of greenish blue, and was a powerfully fast flowing body of water.  The temperature was around 10 degrees celcius and the sky an ominous grey, with the gloomy conditions enhancing the stories of hardship from the mining days.  The gorge was bathed in an odd grey light and lacked contrast, making the whole place seem even more bleak and desolate - and from all accounts the Central Otago minefields weren't a very happy place for those trying to eke a living from the rugged landscape.  Sam was telling us all about the thousands of miners who lived and worked along this stretch of river in the 1800s, when she suddenly pointed to the side of the gorge and said "do you see the miner's hut over there...?"

Do you see the miner's hut?  In the dull light, and unaccustomed to a new landscape, I couldn't see a thing...

...then I spotted it!  Miner's had built thousands of these huts into the cliff faces.  It was amazing to see dozens of them as we cruised along, still left standing as intact as the day they were abandoned

Another hut built under a rocky outcrop on the hillside.  Once we had our eye trained for identifying them on the rocky banks, we were spotting them everywhere

Stepping into history
I have absolutely no idea how long we were riding along in the boat - I was so engrossed in hearing about the history and trying to spot things in the gorge that I completely lost track of time.  We eventually landed at a place known as Doctor's Point, which was one of the larger permanent settlements along the river.  The remains of a few buildings were huddled around the only flattish piece of ground for miles around, surrounded by innumerable huts and mine workings spread as far as the eye could see to the top of the gorge far above.  Sam pointed out an odd looking group of rocks jutting out from the hillside above us, and told us that was the site of a more modern mine from the mid-1900s, complete with a dam and old abandoned machinery.  We eagerly asked if it was possible to get up there for a look - when we were told the answer was yes, we were off across the mining wasteland like a shot, eagerly scrambling upwards across the loose rocks.

The original door frame of a hut at Doctor's Point.  This must have been a fairly prestigious part of the settlement, with several structures resembling free standing houses

The remains of an old building overlooking Doctor's Point

More of the old settlement at Doctor's Point

The landscape still bears the scars of complete deforestation and decimation by the miners in their search for gold.  We scrabbled over huge piles of spoils, where literally no stone had been left unturned

Finding and climbing the old miners trails up the gorge was difficult and treacherous work, particularly in our inappropriate footwear

After a challenging climb we reached the more modern mid-1900s mine site, where they attempted to dig into the hillside using modern technology.  From all accounts, this mine was a failure that yielded very little

An upturned ore cart amongst the rocks by the Clutha River

The scene faced by the old miners wasn't this serene - back in the days before the dam the river was a raging torrent, unsuitable for boats.  All supplies had to be carried in and out by foot and wheelbarrow

An old block still swings on rusted cables, high above the river.  The constant creaking and tapping of metal added to the eerie mood

The hillside was carved with an immense network of water races, precisely engineered and hand built with just the right incline over dozens of kilometres to supply water to the gold workings.  The water race is just visible in this photo, it looks a bit like a walking track.

Abandoned machinery at the industrial mine site, high above the Clutha River.  The river was a long way below us, and the weather was changing fast

The weather was starting to change, and as per usual we were completely ill-dressed for the occasion, sporting jeans and canvas street shoes.  As the rain got heavier and the wind howled, the old mine site took on a far more ominous vibe, and we agreed it was time to go.  We gingerly made our way down towards the river, which was torturously slow going on the now wet rocks.  In addition to the cold and the damp and the wind and the rock, there was a completely unexpected olfactory element to proceedings - the deliciously fragrant and intense smell of thyme.  During the mining days the hillsides were stripped bare of all vegetation, but since the miners left, huge tracts of wild thyme with its purple flowers had re-colonised the rocky landscape.  We were told the thyme was originally introduced to the area by immigrants from China, and was grown all over the goldfields.  I've heard it said that sense of smell is one of the most powerful triggers for memory, and the pervading fragrance of thyme clung to my clothes for weeks afterwards.  In fact, upon returning to Australia, I planted a little stand of thyme in the garden, and every time I walk by I crush some leaves between my fingers and am instantly transported straight back to the Clutha River on that gloomy November day.

Jer stops in an old hut to enjoy a world famous carbonated caffeinated cola beverage.  It was fast becoming our drink of choice for this tour - I can see why pro peloton riders enjoy it so much

I inspect an entrance to a miners hut in a cliff face...

...once inside a vast and spacious network of rooms and chambers tunneled deep into the hillside.

Jer stands at the entrance of another underground tunnel network, under a jumbled pile of schist rock

It was mind boggling that all this history was just sitting out there - largely unchanged since the gold ran dry and the miners walked off all those years ago.  I'd seen a bit of mining history in Australia before, generally town type things like old pubs and banks.  It occurred to me that these old time mining booms only really favoured those providing services to the miners, and things like old shops and banks only showed how the fortunate ones lived.  On the minefields, it must have been a very different story, as men desperately tried to carve a living from the barren and increasingly crowded hills, most never making any money at all.  As I stood out here on the banks of the Clutha River, standing in the freezing cold drizzle amongst the ruins of a ramshackle hut, the brutal reality of life for a pioneering Central Otago miner really hit home.

After our long descent, we were glad to be back at Doctor's Point

Upon returning to the boat, the water level had risen by at least 50cm, up onto the bank.  Apparently the water level constantly changes, as the flow is altered depending on electricity demands at the dam

I was surprised  to learn that the dam was completed and filled only in 1991.  The river as we were seeing it was still very much a new landscape, and these major changes to the towns and farms in the area had only happened about twenty years ago - for some reason I had just assumed it must have been built in the 50s or 60s.  Once I was aware that the completion of the dam was only recent, I did see and hear a few things throughout the rest of my travels that led me to believe that the damming of the Clutha River is still a very contentious topic for many people in Central Otago.

After returning to shore at Alexandra, we went with Steve and Sam back to The Workshops, where we all enjoyed a long lunch in the outdoor BBQ area.  Jer and I were like a pair of eager school kids, and spend a couple of hours asking questions about Central Otago and New Zealand in general - we were privileged to have such knowledgeable and interesting people as our hosts.  After lunch was finished we walked back to the main street of Clyde, for a coffee in what was originally the old bank building.  As we sat there looking out on the street, I realised that I was seeing a lot of cyclists on touring bikes riding by throughout the afternoon.  It wasn't a huge number of riders, but to see ten or so other cycle tourers on the same day is a bit of a rare thing, and more evidence that there must be something very special drawing cyclists to the trail - I was buzzing to think that tomorrow morning I'd be finding out just what that special something was.  Soon the threatening clouds finally opened, so we scurried back to the The Workshops, stoked up the fire, and drank cups of tea while we prepared our gear for the following day.
We'd been in pretty serious learning mode all day, so we decided to unwind with a game of pool in the games room at The Workshops.  The games room was a fantastic space, with atmospheric lighting and a phenomenal collection of old instruments, music posters and more vintage artifacts.   Despite the fact Jer and I have been mates for years, we had never actually played a game of billiards together, so we filmed the momentous occasion.  It turns out we've never played a game of pool together for good reason - we are both diabolically useless at it.

Inside the games room at The Workshops.  Billiards, darts, and ancient cigarette machine on display - what more could anyone ask for on a rainy Clyde afternoon
At around 6:45pm the rain suddenly cleared and the sun started shining , so we stepped outside for another walk around the picturesque town, and ended up back at the Post Office Cafe for dinner and a beer.  Upon returning to The Workshops, Jer found an interesting book on dinosaurs and we spent ages chatting about it - and by chatting I mean I was in full science lecture mode, as my professional background is in natural history and zoology.  I was standing there flailing my arms around in the middle of an animated monologue about selection pressures as they relate to biological niche adaptation, when our host Steve stopped by for a chat and asked what we were up to.  I think he probably thought we were pretty weird when I told him we were having a biology discussion and drinking tea - I get the impression most people prefer to drink wine and eat cheese after a day touring around Central Otago!

Reflections on the river
Spending a day exploring Cylde, and a morning out on the water with Clutha River Cruises, had proven to be the perfect introduction to our rail trail experience.  We had not only learned about the history of the area, we had gotten to experience it - to walk amongst the ruins, touch the weathered stones, trudge along the old mining trails, smell the thyme and feel the elements.  Our enthusiastic hosts had painted us a vivid picture of the mining heritage that forged the area with all it's triumphs, brutality and tragedy, equipping us with a greater awareness and empathy for our upcoming destinations.  I felt like I now had a good foundation of knowledge to help me understand the things I'd see along the trail, and I'd tuned my eye to the subtleties of the Central Otago landscape.  

My Central Otago experience was already more rich and fulfilling than I had ever expected,  and I had yet to even see the start of the Otago Central Rail Trail.  Tomorrow we'd put our wheels to the trail for the first time - and I was keen to apply my new found knowledge, and experience the living history of Central Otago for myself.

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