Ferry, 'cross the Clutha

Last updated 00:00 12/06/2007
READY FOR PASSENGERS: Peter Dickson at the Clutha River ferry.

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A reminder of a slower-paced age, the ferry at Tuapeka Mouth is still a good way to cross the mighty Clutha River.

Peter Dickson is a river man. He takes people across New Zealand's greatest river, the Clutha.

But not by bridge. Dickson operates a ferry, 30km upriver from Balclutha.

As he casts off, he loves to tell of steamboats that once plied the Clutha, taking supplies to inland farms and bringing out their produce. The steamboats have gone, consigned to history by roads and trucks. But the ferry, established in 1896, still tackles the swift-flowing river.

The scene is quiet as I drive down to the ferry on the Clutha's northern bank, just below the confluence of the Tuapeka River. With a bridge 10km downstream, at Clydevale, not many people use the ferry these days.

From his hut on the bank, Dickson sees my arrival in a rear-vision mirror fixed to the window frame. He limps out, skipper's cap on his greying head and faithful dog at his heel.

He is proud to claim the ferry as the only one of its kind still operating in the Southern Hemisphere.

The punt is a bridge-like platform fixed across parallel steel pontoons. A ramp runs down to it. Dickson prefers it when the ramp runs up to it, for that means higher river levels. When the hydro dams at Roxburgh and Clyde hold back water for power generation, the river level drops and the punt grates against gravel on the south side.

River current powers the ferry, which is attached by wire ropes to two overhead cables. The trip across the river, about 130 metres wide at this point, takes four minutes and is free, courtesy of the Clutha District Council.

It is a convenient crossing for traffic between the Gore and Lawrence areas. It operates from 8am to 10am and 4pm to 6pm each day.

Dickson has lived all his life at Tuapeka Mouth, an almost deserted village among aged trees on the terrace above the ferry. He remembers when it was a thriving settlement, serving surrounding farms and the few gold claims still being worked on the Tuapeka up to World War 2.

He attended the school that still stands, though bleached with age. He recalls when seven men worked at the garage, now boarded up and tumbling down. A store stocked people's material needs; two churches attended to spiritual needs. Houses were dotted among tall trees. Trees still stand, but few houses remain.

There has been talk over the years of closing the ferry. Dickson would rather chat about floods he has seen on the mighty Clutha. He points to a mark he carved halfway up the door frame on the ferrymaster's hut. That is how high the waters rose in the 1999 deluge, when the river washed above the overhead cables.

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Only a thick flax plant on the upstream side saved the hut from being washed away, he says.

He tells of the elderly driver who, hitting the accelerator instead of the brake, propelled his new automatic car off the end of the punt and into the depths. The car floated sedately for a few seconds before perching on a submerged rock, from where driver and passengers were successfully rescued.

Dickson is not old enough to remember the steamboats, but he enjoyed listening to oldtimers talking about them. Up to the 1930s, a succession of paddle steamers punched up from Balclutha against the powerful current, pulling in at sidings on the river bank to transfer freight for farmers. The boats worked upstream to 1km past the ferry.

This is a small fraction of the river's 340km length, but here the Clutha narrows, the current strengthens and the banks steepen into the rugged foothills of the Blue Mountains.

This area, stretching inland to Beaumont, on the main Central Otago highway, was being eyed by electricity companies in the 1990s for a dam, until the arguments of environmentalists drove them off.

The stretch of river from Balclutha to Beaumont is the least known part of the Clutha, probably because no tourist highway runs beside it. Travellers are familiar with the Clutha's passage from Lake Wanaka to Lake Dunstan and through the Cromwell Gorge to Clyde. They have seen its silvery snaking through the scattered schist outcrops between Alexandra and Roxburgh, then watched it rolling through Ettrick and Millers Flat. Many have seen it surge under the multi-arched concrete bridge at Balclutha, then split at Inch Clutha before entering the sea.

To see the steamboat and ferry section, take the sealed road up the north bank from Balclutha. About 20km upriver is the tiny settlement of Clutha Valley, with Clydevale on the hillside opposite. Tuapeka Mouth is a few minutes further upstream.

Let Peter Dickson ferry you across the river. Then you can drive to Waipahi, near Gore, or take the road along the south bank to Beaumont and Central Otago.

Mike Crean has been travelling the South Island for decades, and is the journalist behind the long running Crean's Country series published in The Press.

- The Press

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