THE 'Mighty Clutha' forms the heart of one of the world’s most unique waterways. It traverses the dramatic semi-desert landscape of Central Otago, in the South Island of New Zealand, but the most spectacular river gorges, and much more, have been destroyed ... by dams. This is the unofficial story of the Clutha Mata-Au River and its stolen treasures. It is a story steeped in bitterness, shame, destruction, and sadness.

Wonders of the Roxburgh Gorge

Before the Roxburgh dam was commissioned in 1956, the 30 km Roxburgh Gorge was up to 400 metres deep, and so narrow that in places its towering walls rose vertically above the boiling waters of the Clutha Mata-Au. The river was so constricted that it flowed as swiftly as 40 kilometres an hour through narrow chutes hundreds of metres long. In other sections the current slowed - but not much, flowing over landslide obstructions that had at one time dammed the gorge, before being overtopped by massive rapids. Today's sedate current bears no resemblance to the powerful torrent that once echoed through the gorge, drowning out the voices of men.

The first feature of the gorge, 675 metres below the Manuherikia confluence, was a constriction formed by schist bluffs on both sides that reduced the width to just 39 metres. This is now known as the "Italian Bend," but the early gold-miners called this the "Gates of the Gorge." Foot-tracks were etched precariously along the steep and boulder-tumbled walls of the gorge on both sides, as the miners hunted up gold and dug cave-like shelters under large slabs of fallen schist.

Gates of the Gorge "Gates of the Gorge" below Manuherikia Confluence

Just over five kilometres down the gorge from the "Gates," and nearly two kilometres beyond Butcher's Point, the true left wall of the gorge had long ago collapsed, blocking the river. The resulting over-topping waters had cut through the obstruction with unimaginable force, forming a torrential rapid that had over time, at its foot, scoured out a large, amphitheatre-like basin within high walls of unstable rock. This rapid, descending through a narrow chasm, was known as the "Golden Falls." It filled the "Narrows" with a crashing din so loud that shouting men could not hear each other. In the centre of this basin below the rapid, the deeply driving waters had pushed up a shingle island. Hence, the name "Island Basin." The Golden Falls and Island Basin were astonishing features in a remarkably dramatic location.

Golden Falls entering Island Basin The Golden Falls entering Island Basin

View of Island Basin View of Island Basin and Landslide Face

Beyond Island Basin at Doctor’s Point, two powerful rapids known as Doctor’s Falls No 1 & 2 dropped through a boulder strewn constriction below a maze of gold workings, stone cottages and cave shelters etched into the true-left side of the gorge.

Nearly two kilometres below Doctor's Point, the river again met a sudden obstruction. A huge schist slab had slid down from the true left into the river, against which river-borne shingle and boulders had jammed up, creating a rapid so tumultuous that the gold-miners called it the Molyneux Falls. Here was a ferocious whitewater descent, tumbling violently some four-metres down a twenty-metre section of boulders, at breathtaking speed. At normal or low flow, these falls were deadly. In high flow they were somewhat washed out, but still incredibly swift.

Molyneux Falls

Molyneux Falls

The gold-miners, dreaming of lowering the river above the falls to expose gold, tried several times to blast the huge thirty by twelve metre schist slab that lay at the head of the Molyneux Falls. But time and again the slab didn't move. Drilling and blasting merely succeeded in cracking the slab, so that it settled into place even more.

Further down the gorge, other rapids also raced through narrow chutes, until finally, at the southern end of the gorge, after boiling through massive eddies near McKenzie's Beach, the current eased slightly as it passed another bluff at Coal Creek - a site selected for the construction of the Roxburgh dam in 1947.

It is worth remembering that the wonderful features of the old Roxburgh Gorge were never physically destroyed prior to the filling of the Roxburgh reservoir. They were flooded, and now lie mothballed in silt. Given the limited lifespan of the ageing Roxburgh dam, and the silting, flooding and instability issues of the gorge, there is an ever-growing case for dam decommissioning and gorge restoration.

Inevitably, some time in the future, the largest high volume rapids in New Zealand - the once thunderous Golden and Molyneux Falls, will be re-born. Gradually, decades of trapped sediment will be stripped away, and the long-hidden wonders of the Roxburgh Gorge will be revealed.

McKenzies Beach, Lower Gorge McKenzie's Beach left foreground, Coal Creek bluff dam site distant right


About This Site

Cromwell before the Clyde dam was set to become a tourism icon. Blessed with a dramatic location, numerous historic buildings and a spectacular bridge overlooking the famous Cromwell Gap, its potential was obvious, until ... "think big."

The Roxburgh Gorge, too, with its many amazing rapids ~ the largest whitewater in New Zealand, had vast tourism potential, offering Alexandra and Roxburgh a booming industry focused on high volume whitewater kayaking, rafting and dory adventures unlike anything else in New Zealand.

The Clutha Mata-Au, before the Roxburgh and Clyde dams, possessed many natural treasures in the form of extraordinary river features and rapids.

This website tells the story of those stolen treasures, and records the bitter fight of ordinary New Zealanders pitted against arrogant government technocrats and politicians who considered the Clutha River ripe for exploitation at any cost.

Finally, the rising waters behind the Clyde dam submerged the historic main street of old Cromwell, the Cromwell Gorge including the famous Cromwell Junction, the Lower Kawarau Gorge including Sargood's Rapid (rated the best whitewater rapid in the world), the Cromwell Gap Rapid, the Lowburn area, and numerous orchards and homes. A total of 2300 hectares of productive land disappeared.

This website is a tribute to the Mighty Clutha, and to the many dedicated people who have fought, over decades, to protect its natural treasures.

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