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.

A Brief History

Long before the Clutha Mata-Au had a name, before the Moa-hunters, and before the gold-rush, a mighty earthquake ripped through the Cromwell and Kawarau Gorges, providing new outfalls for Lakes Wanaka and Wakatipu. The Upper Clutha Mata-Au and the Kawarau Rivers were born, and the confluence of these powerful rivers cut the famous 'Cromwell Junction.'

Maori explorers, 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, they established campsites and seasonal inland settlements.

Nathaniel Chalmers, a young twenty-three old in search of good sheep country, was the first European to ascend the river 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 Maoris were veterans of the river route, such that when Nathaniel Chalmers fell ill, they simply constructed a mokihi, or koradi (flax flower-stalk) raft, and guided him down the river, fearlessly running major rapids in the Cromwell and Roxburgh Gorges.

Perched above 'the meeting of the waters' grew the 1860's gold-rush town of Cromwell, overlooking the spectacular Cromwell Gap Rapid. When the gold workings declined, farming and fruit-growing became the town's mainstay. Little changed until the 1980's, when the then National government's 'Think Big' agenda brought massive upheaval as plans for New Zealand's largest concrete gravity dam moved ahead, despite widespread protest.

The exploitation of the Clutha for maximum power at any cost, was driven by departmental and political ambitions that would prove too insidious to be checked, even by the courts. The inexorable weight of the NZED (New Zealand Electricity Department) and the MOW (Ministry of Works), coupled with a secret deal made by naive government ministers providing COMALCO (Rio Tinto) with cheap electricity, set the agenda and fuelled the official lust for power.

Threatened landowners went to the High Court, winning their case against the Government. But the democratic provisions of the New Zealand legal system were over-ruled by the Government, lead by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, and the dam went ahead, in what can only be described as one of the most shameful chapters in the history of New Zealand.

During construction of the dam, the bed-rock was found to be microfractured because of a major earthquake faultline. Vast amounts of slurry concrete were pumped into the rock to stop water leaks. Subsequent landslide stabilization problems halted the project while experts debated safety issues. Eventually, the Government decided to proceed, and 18kms of drainage tunnels, with 24-hour pumping and monitoring stations, were embedded in the 'slide zones' of the gorge. A massive cost blow-out brought the total cost to nearly $2 billion, amidst continuing controversy over the dam's safety, viability and necessity.

In 1992, the rushing waters of the Cromwell Gorge were silenced as the reservoir behind the Clyde Dam began rising. Filled in three stages between 1992-93, the reservoir gradually flooded the spectacular Cromwell Gorge, the historic heart of Cromwell, many orchards and homes, the settlement of Lowburn and the surrounding fertile farmland - a total of 2300 hectares of the best orchard and farmland in Central Otago.

The lifespan of the dam is estimated to be 80 years, but opponents doubt that it will survive that long, given the ongoing instability of the Cromwell Gorge, the risks posed by earthquakes and landslides, and the speed of reservoir sedimentation.


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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