What price a river?
Drawing on a vast catchment in the mountains west of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea (the latter visible in the distance in this photograph), the Clutha River—New Zealand’s largest by volume flows through the parched country of Central Otago before pouring into the Pacific Ocean. It delivers precious irrigation water to the region’s burgeoning horticultural enterprises and turns the turbines of two of the nation’s largest power stations. But problems with sedimentation in the hydro lakes and a boom in property development along the Clutha’s banks are beginning to threaten the river’s integrity.
Lewis Verduyn had a dream: a hankering to step back in time. He had in mind a voyage by log raft in the wake of the pioneer timber rafters of the Clutha River. His inspiration lay in the 1860s, when a small group of timbermen with a penchant for mixing business and adventure established a profitable but highly dangerous delivery route from the forests of today’s Mt Aspiring National Park to the treeless and timber-hungry settlements of Central Otago. The link between the two areas was the Clutha, the largest river by volume in the country.
Because the Clutha is only sporadically buckled by rapids and hairpin bends, the men saw it as a reliable, high-speed conveyor belt. They would buy logs from sawmills on the Matukituki and Makarora Rivers, lash them together into rafts, then pole their unwieldy craft into Lake Wanaka. There they would combine the rafts into large floating islands of timber, rig them up with square sails and, helped by the prevailing north-westerly winds, row their way across the lake to the source of the Clutha River.
It was here, at the point where the lake funnels into a single powerful waterway, that the conveyor belt began. The men would split their timber islands back into smaller log rafts, outfit these with rowlocks and eight-metre sweeps and push off into the current.
From its outset, the Clutha flows so fast that the men could make their 80 km journey in a single day. They had to be wary of major rapids such as at Devils Nook, a notorious dog-leg bend, and the Boiling Pot, where the current warps on entering Maori Gorge. The river could smash a raft like a matchstick toy at these places, and the men often preferred to walk the banks and ease the rafts on hemp ropes down the most difficult stretches.
Landing near Cromwell, they would dismantle their craft and pile up the timber for sale. After an overnight stay at the local hotel, they would head back to Wanaka on foot, carrying their ropes with them. That same afternoon they would construct another set of rafts from the logs that awaited them at the outlet, to be ready to push off the following dawn. Three Clutha trips a week could be made, and although several men lost their lives to the river, the financial returns were considered worth the risks.
“It was strenuous work,” wrote one of those good keen men, named George Hassing, “but we were young . . . and delighted in it.”
Lewis Verduyn was young, too, and an experienced rafting operator to boot. His plan was simple: build a log raft, retrace the timber route and then extend the voyage all the way to the sea. He wanted to taste the hardships and relive the perils of the pioneers. The river would not disappoint him.
His first five-tonne Oregon-pine raft, named Destiny, was swept away by a flash flood only two days into the trip and was never seen again. Lewis was undeterred. He built a second raft—seven logs and four braces tied together with 200 metres of natural-fibre rope—which he poled and sailed from Makarora to Wanaka. Then, after some dry-dock repairs and strengthening, he navigated Destiny II out of the lake and into the Clutha.
Over the following days he and his crew poled, pulled, pushed and steered the lumbering eight-by-three-metre craft around innumerable obstacles on their journey to the sea. Sometimes they simply hung on for dear life as the river gave the four-and-a-half-tonne plaything a bucking-bronco ride.
The raft was repeatedly stranded on shoals and snagged by sunken trees, called “strainers” in white-water parlance. It capsized more than once, to be righted by skilful manoeuvring into the rocks and current, or with the help of local farmers, using horses or tractor. It was lifted by crane over the Roxburgh dam (the Clyde dam had not yet been built), and turned into a submarine after hitting a giant “stopper” wave in the Cromwell Gap, when the river closed over Lewis, spread-eagled on the deck, for what seemed like a breathless eternity.
Finally, 440 km and 15 river days after leaving Makarora, Lewis nursed his battered raft into the Pacific Ocean for a beach landing. He had fulfilled his dream, and in the process come to know the river intimately. An unusual bond had formed between man and waterway, as if the Clutha’s muscular flow now coursed through Lewis’s own bloodstream. Although the voyage took place 20 years ago, in the summer of 1981–2, Lewis has lived to the rhythms of the river ever since.
In my own way, I have developed an affinity for the Clutha, too. I live within minutes of its source, and hardly a day passes when I’m not near the river, walking, cycling, fishing or just being with it, watching its current swirl and flex, listening to its babbling talk.
I once lived in the Swiss Alps, where I came across the concept of hausberg, or “home mountain.” Local tradition has it that each person needs a mountain with which he or she has a particularly deep and personal rapport. It needn’t be anything dramatic, such as a Matterhorn or Eiger. A simple hill will do. What matters is the strength of connection. A hausberg is a hideaway where you play as a child, and where later you seek solitude during life’s tempests. It is a place to share with your loved ones and only the closest of friends. It is the landmark which springs to mind when you think of home, the epicentre of your personal heartland. Although mountains abound near Wanaka, I have adapted the concept of hausberg to refer to water. The Clutha has become my home river.
My sense of the passing year is based largely on the river’s seasons—its ebbs and flows, which echo the snowmelt, the rains and the long dry spells. Spring is heralded by the miraculous budding of the willows, while the rest of nature sleeps on in hibernation. Early summer swarms with manuka beetles, metallic green with antler-like antennae. High summer invites swimming au naturel, with privacy guarded by downed mountain bikes, a pile of clothes and a purloined hotel “Do Not Disturb” sign. The golden poplar leaves of autumn spiral in the river’s eddies, before the sudden starkness of the trees, when the first cold wind rattles off the last of their fiery foliage, signals winter once more.
It’s no surprise, then, that when I first met Lewis in his riverside cottage—fittingly, the former residence of a ferryman—we talked river for hours, two enthusiasts applauding the nuances of an endless performance. Like the pioneers he emulated, Lewis has combined adventure and business in a river-based lifestyle: an eco-rafting venture focusing not just on white-water thrills but appreciation of the riverine environment as well. It was late April when we met, and he had just completed his 21st rafting season. This called for a celebration, he thought: one last trip of personal thanksgiving to the river for a season of plenty. He invited me to join him.
The Clutha’s quiet but formidable power comes from its large catchment area. Figuratively speaking, the river is like the trunk of a giant tree, with a deep and complex root system. Three large lakes—Wanaka, Hawea and Wakatipu—anchor the system in the foothills of the Southern Alps, but the tributaries which feed them penetrate beyond the Southern Lakes district into Fiordland and as far north as Haast. The Greenstone, Caples, Rees, Dart and Route Burn; the Wilkin, Young, Makarora, Matukituki and Hunter—all these rivers form the headwaters of the Clutha, whose total catchment extends over some 20,582 square kilometres. At 322 km from source to ocean, the Clutha is not a particularly long river, but it more than makes up for shortness with volume, speed and power.
These attributes are apparent as soon as we launch Lewis’s inflatable raft at Albert Town, near the first bridge that spans the river. It picks up speed instantly, moving at 15–18 km/h, Lewis estimates, without a single oar-stroke. The water is as clear as kirsch: I can see the rocks of the riverbed three or four metres below us rushing past like a landscape through the window of a train.
Water clarity is one of the Clutha’s outstanding features, Lewis tells me. It is the result of the decanting effect of Lake Wanaka. “The lake acts as a sediment pond for the glacial silt, and then the top layer of spring-pure water is drained off by the river,” he says. “You can safely drink it . . .” He hesitates. “Well, at least as far as the Wanaka sewage outlet.”
On this April day the autumn colours are in full blaze, and the Clutha is a plait of greenstone set in gold, the riverside poplars burning bright like rows of candle flames. The raft’s paddles, I note, are stowed away, and Lewis, seated on an elevated centre frame, is using a pair of oars instead. The frame, made of bull-bar-like aluminium tubing, is rounded so as not to catch on rocks or branches. Beneath it, the raft’s hull is pliable, able to pour like water over the surface of obstacles.
Oar rafts are rare in New Zealand, Lewis says, but they are standard on big overseas rivers such as the Zambezi and Colorado. “You could never get away with a paddle raft on a river like the Clutha unless you had a coordinated and responsive crew, and you can’t expect novices and tourists to become experts within minutes of putting in,” he tells me. “I encourage them to paddle so that they can feel the strength of the current, but I retain full control over the raft. On the Clutha, you can’t afford mistakes.”
Most of his passengers assume that because the Clutha has no big rapids there is no danger, Lewis says. “They don’t realise that it is the flow of the river and not its white water that is the greatest threat. So they enjoy the cruise and the scenery, unaware that if I were to misjudge a turn we could all be swimming within seconds, perhaps dead within minutes.”
Tanned and toned, wearing his usual shorts and rafting sandals despite the morning’s frost, Lewis works the oars with measured crank-handle spins, pirouetting the raft casually, aligning it with the flow, making the most of the current’s intricacies. He cranes his neck to scout the route ahead, but his actions are relaxed and understated, testimony to more than two decades on the river.
Only when he allows me a turn at the oars on the Pioneer Rapid—the biggest stretch of white water on this part of the river—do I gain a proper insight into his skills. We plunge into a set of standing waves that come at us like an express train. I fend them off, straining to keep the raft on course. The river yanks and wrings the oars, then jabs them into my ribs, almost knocking me off the seat. It’s as if we’re in a scene from Deliverance, but Lewis is sitting back, a relaxed passenger. He knows he is not taking any chances. The rapid may be boisterous and look threatening, but it’s also wide and devoid of obstacles. We could probably get through it without any oar work at all.
Lewis takes over just before Devils Nook—certainly not a place for a rookie oarsman. Here the river narrows, speeds up, then hits a cliff head-on, folding back on itself and creating a whirlpool 50 metres across—a giant no-escape eddy. Imagine a satellite image of a tornado and translate it to the aquatic realm: a twister of such power it makes the water look as thick as ready-to-pour concrete. It is enough to curdle the blood, too, but Lewis maintains his dance-with-the-river equanimity.
He plays the whirlpool so that the raft spirals in its grip, now rushing at the menacing cliff, now coursing back upstream. There are baby twisters calving off this mother of all whirlpools, and Lewis is craning his neck again, looking for an opportunity. Suddenly, he digs in the oars, locking into a breakaway vortex just as a surfer would catch a wave, and we are pulled out of the trap, spiralling into the mainstream.
Below us, the Clutha again flows as smooth as silk.
We are rushing headlong with the current, savouring the solitude of the canyon which the river has carved deep into the glacial terraces, when Lewis, hitherto a picture of placid contentment, suddenly ruffles up like a rooster before a fight. High above the river, overlooking its most picturesque section, called the Snake, stands the dream home of Lloyd Ferguson, a dairy-farming mogul and property developer. The sounds of power tools and hammering drift down from this nearly finished castle—sounds that have recently come to dominate the Upper Clutha.
I have driven the road that runs beside the river countless times, for this is the way in and out of Wanaka, and I know its every bend and vista. But over the past two years, as if in a series of explosions, the views have been changing. Where sheep once grazed, nibbling sun-parched hare’s-foot clover, you won’t see a farmer on a quad bike but a real-estate agent nailing up a “For Sale” sign. Between the road and the river, and beyond, the land is raked clean—stones in piles, tree stumps smouldering in windrows—all spruced up for buyers.
New residential estates, dollops of suburbia among budding vineyards, entice with the promise of a private jetty on Lake Dunstan. Hillsides have been carved into staircase terraces, laid out in grids, ready for row upon palisade row of vine trellises, while nearby hummocks have already lent their names to new wine labels. Roadside billboards offer million-dollar trophy sections. Make your dreams come true. Here are wine, trout and sunshine—New Provence in the making.
It took a local farmer to spell out to me the extent and inevitability of what is happening. “What do you expect?” He shrugged. “First the bottom falls out of the stock market, then comes Lord of the Rings, the biggest tourism ad ever made. Throw in New Zealand’s reputation as a safe haven in an increasingly unsettled world and you have a recipe for the Third Migration. First Maori, then Pakeha, and now the country is being colonised by the rest of the world, lured in by visions of Eden.”
Ferguson, a businessman with an eye for opportunities and the means to convert them into deals, has been one of the trendsetters for the selling of Middle Earth, while Lewis, I sense, sees himself as the Lone Ranger trying to protect it from being spoiled. They know each other well, from environmental battles and the newspaper headlines which often echo their arguments, so from the moment Lewis moors the raft they launch into another round of verbal head-butting, civil but without pleasantries.
Lately, it appears, Ferguson has been making concessions to the environmentalists, and he is proud to show them off. “Lewis, you know, I also own all the land across the river,” he says with a Genghis Khan sweep of his hand. “I could get a resource consent to put 450 houses there if I wished. At 100 grand a section that’s $45 million. But you know what? I’ve decided to protect it, so I’ve covenanted it instead. Hell, I don’t want all those houses there. They’d ruin my view.”
Great, Lewis agrees, happy to hear that. But what of that eyesore development just upstream from here? No, that’s going ahead as scheduled, Ferguson replies. Lovely sections those, going like hot bread.
I sit on a rock by the raft and listen as the two battle it out. They are the archetypal opponents—a conservationist and a developer—one man whose ecotour features talking to fantails, the other who rolls the dice in real-life Monopoly. Their views are irreconcilable, yet the river that divides them so deeply is also the very reason they are both here.
There is a precedent of wealth along the Clutha, a tradition of abundance, which, like the current land-sale bonanza, was brought about by the river itself. Downstream from Ferguson’s spread, Lewis steers inshore again to show me the river’s mineral riches. Soon, we are on our knees on a graphite-grey beach, scooping sand into wok-like pans and letting the river wash through it, until in the corrugations in the bottom of each pan flecks of gold begin to glitter. The grains are as fine as cornmeal, and feel buttery when rubbed between the fingers. The river in flood becomes a giant stone mill, Lewis explains, pulverising nuggets into gold dust, precipitating it in the eddies where the current slows down.
Indeed, once I tune my eyes to this phenomenon, I see flecks everywhere, glistening, twinkling, enticing. We pan for half an hour but in the end don’t collect enough even to buy an après-raft coffee. No matter. It’s nice to know the banks of my home river are brocaded with the precious metal. I still have specks of it on my fingers when we drag the raft out of the water near Luggate. “I always tell my passengers,” Lewis says in farewell, “that the Clutha is 99 per cent pure and one per cent gold.”
My journey with Lewis creates a momentum that, a few weeks later, propels me further down the Clutha with the onset of a mild gold fever and the realisation of how little I really know about my home river beyond its familiar beginning. It sends me snooping through the Otago highlands and its gold-rush ghost towns—places with names like Koh-i-noor, Heart of Midlothian and Nil Desperandum—with a metal detector borrowed from Alexandra goldsmith Rob Heydelaar.
The pickings are slim—two droplet-sized nuggets among innumerable nails and shotgun pellets—but, nil desperatum, the scenery is grand, the kind of landscapes you see in Grahame Sydney’s paintings: the curves of tanned, bare earth as sensuous as an abstract nude, a dome of clear sky and, crushed underfoot, sun-dried wild thyme, drilling the nostrils like a whiff of wasabi.
Ever since August 1862, when two explorers on horseback rode into the Cromwell Gorge and struck sudden fortune and fame, Central Otago has throbbed with recurrent gold fervour, which, at its peak, turned Dunedin into the commercial hub of the entire country. That memorable August, the Clutha was at its winter low, and from its banks, Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly gathered some 32 kg of gold in two months. “Our object was to work only the richest spots as we did not know how soon we might be discovered and ‘rushed’,” they later recalled. “We did not wash anything unless we thought it would pay about [a] pound weight a day—that is six ounces each . . .”
Others would be satisfied with much less, and as the news leaked out, diggers flocked to Otago in their thousands from around the world. By June 1867, some two million ounces of gold had been prised from the rocky ground, and mining shafts potholed the land like oversized rabbit warrens.
When the easy gold had been taken, the fever subsided, but the burrowing continued ever deeper with the use of heavy quartz-crushing machinery. Later still came the era of dredges the size of ships, sieving the river bottom. But before mining turned into an industrialised pursuit, the quest for gold was an all-consuming adventure, and today we can barely glimpse the magnitude of its hardships and perils.
On a winter’s day I drive up the serpentine dirt road that leads to the 1695 m summit of the Old Man Range, above Alexandra, with mountain guide Jethro Robinson. We stop when the first snowdrift bars the way and put on our skis, outfitted with skins—strips of artificial fur which adhere to the skis’ gliding surfaces and enable uphill travel—and continue on foot across the vast and undulating summit plateau towards a prominent rock called the Obelisk. In spring, this place will be confettied with wildflowers, white and as delicate as snowflakes, but now it is an Antarctic landscape, criss-crossed with husky-sled and snowmobile trails and studded with tors weathered rock outcrops that bring to mind the Easter Island moai. Across this winter desert, a faint route—the Snow Pole Track—meanders. It is a soul-stirring ballad about this place, called The Tents of Chamounix, that has inspired our trek.
In 1863, rich gold deposits were found near Campbell Creek, across the Old Man Range from Alexandra, and the news sparked a rush. It was an over-the-mountain race as scores of diggers set out from a canvas-town called Chamonix, near the Clutha, to stake their claims.
In his poem, Todd Symons rhapsodises:
There were hundreds of men, I can see them again,
All stringing along for miles,
And the weather was fair when we landed there
And started to make our piles.
We toiled for weeks in those gullies and creeks,
A fortune was in our grip,
If the weather would hold, we’d be rolling in gold,
Then we’d make the homeward trip.
But the weather did not hold, and so the men overstayed their welcome and were trapped by winter weather of uncommon severity.
But we weren’t to know, there’d be feet of snow
And a blizzard that raged for a week. And words cannot tell of the frozen hell
That was known as Campbell’s Creek.
Facing starvation, the men made a do-or-die dash for Chamonix. The track became a site of unimaginable suffering, as one after another—stumbling, crawling, collapsing—prospectors gave in to the cold and the waist-deep snow.
After spending a freezing night near the mountain’s summit, the survivors made their way to safety. For us, on skis, the descent takes us only a few exhilarating minutes, but on frost-bitten, exhausted feet it would have been an epic of suffering. Today, a small cairn marks where the tents of Chamonix once stood. Locals say that when the southerly wind blows across the plateau, screeching through the tors, you can still hear the prospectors’ tormented cries along the Snow Pole Track.
There is another remarkable and little-known monument to those hard pioneering days, hidden in the gorge just downstream from Alexandra. It is inaccessible by road, so only a few visitors have ever experienced the eerie silence of the “lost city” at Doctors Point.
That, at least, was the case until Clyde restaurateur Steve Toyer found a dilapidated riverboat under tarpaulins in his neighbour’s back yard. After 18 months of painstaking restoration, Steve got her river-worthy again, sold his Cajun restaurant and began promenading people through the Roxburgh Gorge and telling its auriferous history. He makes an engaging guide because his is a fair-dinkum knowledge of gold-digging, acquired during many years’ prospecting in the Australian outback, mixed with an almost worshipful reverence for those who once worked the Golden Mile of the gorge, and delivered in an unmistakable Aussie drawl.
“Mate, I tell you, these men were the hardest of the hard,” he says as we putter under the Alexandra bridge. “They worked here through the winter, with only four hours of sunshine a day, if that, living on smoked eels and rosehip tea. Their clothes would have been constantly wet, and all the firewood had to be brought in on foot.”
The men’s digging sites—caves chiselled into the steep riverbank—also served as their lodgings. In many places, overhangs of weathered schist were adapted as roofs, supported with stacked-stone walls. There was straw for beds and jute sacks for doors, and interiors were invariably sooted by camp-fires. The dwellings of the some 1500 men who worked here create an impression of a stone city only just deserted, a terraced pueblo above a river which, squeezed between the crumbling walls of the canyon, was once a torrent of white water so loud you could hardly hear yourself speak. Below the gorge there were eddies where the bodies of the careless washed up.
Ironically, while the gold—excellent Otago gold, up to 98 per cent pure—was relatively plentiful, it was the water to wash it with which was the real treasure, Steve tells me as we walk among the workings. Because the men had no means to pump it up, they had to carry their diggings down to the river and wash them there.
Prospectors whose claims were some distance from the river had to rely on other water sources. In fact, the delivery of water became a more lucrative business than mining itself, and companies were formed to build stone aqueducts, with dams and locks, to carry it from streams in the mountains to specific washing points.
“The diggers had to hump all their crushings to such places, set up a sluice box, and then the water keeper would open the locks and let out their allocated volume,” Steve tells me. “If they didn’t get enough, well, tough—they had to pack the box and move over. There were others waiting their turn.” Not surprisingly, such a regime led to constant squabbles over water rights, and sometimes diggers spent more time in court than in the field.
A century-and-a-half later the situation hasn’t really changed. With Alexandra and its environs receiving about as much rainfall as Alice Springs, water is still the biggest deal in Central Otago.
When you travel along the Clutha, there is an inescapable sense of two distinct histories: pre-hydro and post-hydro. The split came about in the 1940s, when the government decided to harness the river’s unbridled power and put it to work churning out megawatts.
Originally, ten yokes of concrete were planned, though only three eventuated: the dams at Roxburgh (1956), Lake Hawea (1960—not a hydro dam but a control structure regulating water flow into the Hawea River) and Clyde (1993). The last of these, at a cost of some $2 billion-plus the grandest in the scheme, elicited widespread protest (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 15), but was pushed through on the grounds that it was a necessary evil for a common good—electricity for the people.
I’m no fan of the dams, for they seem an excessively heavy and largely political bootprint on the land, while not really solving the country’s long-term electricity needs. I’m also grateful to the 1970s protesters, because had it not been for HOWL (Hands Off Wanaka Lake), there would have been another dam at the Clutha’s very source, and I would have been denied my home river. But the issue of the Clutha dams goes far beyond personal viewpoints, because the river is the aorta of desert-dry Central Otago, affecting most who live along it. With silt steadily building up behind the dams, outrage and community dissent are once again on the rise.
My travels along the river coincided with the largest resource-consent hearing in New Zealand’s history: Contact Energy’s application for a 35-year renewal of its water rights to the three dams in the Clutha catchment. It was a hearing in which, as one witness put it, the river of words ran in flood. Over 43 days some 120 submitters gave their evidence and propounded their viewpoints, arguing, pleading, sometimes hurling abuse—a crowd of local Davids jabbing their fingers at a corporate Goliath. There were accusations of irresponsible river management and environmental insensitivity, of conspiracy, cover-ups and misuse of evidence, as well as the emotional pleas of people whose livelihoods are affected by the dams.
Contact’s argument, in a nutshell, was this: it was the state which built the dams and opened the Pandora’s box of environmental ills. The company simply acquired the business, and like, say, a private health insurer, it cannot be held responsible for pre-existing conditions. Contact did not create the problems, and thus feels no obligation to address them. And while neither the continued existence of the dams nor the fact that Contact Energy would be granted its water rights were ever really in doubt, the many voices of dissent called the company’s river management into question, demanding stricter conditions for its governance.
“Essentially, [the company is] using the river as a cash cow,” says Jolyon Manning, an Alexandra resident and a former CEO of the Otago Regional Council, who sat through the entire hearing. The question is, who will clean and maintain the cowsheds? They have been filling up with gunk ever since they were built.
Unlike the stone-bottomed Upper Clutha, which rarely discolours even after the heaviest of rains, its major tributary the Shotover (via the Kawarau River) carries enormous quantities of fine silt, an estimated 1.4 million cubic metres a year, roughly the equivalent of all the concrete poured into the Clyde dam. Before the Clyde dam was built, all this sediment, thickened by a smaller but similarly consistent outpouring from the Manuherikia River, which meets the Clutha at Alexandra, flowed into the Roxburgh hydro lake. There, some 54 million cubic metres accumulated, smothering the bottom of the lake and reducing its storage capacity by half.
With the Clyde dam in place, the Shotover silt is now deposited at Bannockburn, three or four kilometres from Cromwell, where the Kawarau flows into the Clutha. The silt’s tipping face, like a slow-moving tsunami of porridge, is scheduled to reach Cromwell in about 10 years.
Meanwhile, it has already arrived on the doorsteps of many river residents. Nosing around the outskirts of Cromwell, I came across an orderly grove of walnut trees and met its owner, Otto Müller. An engineer by vocation and an orchardist by choice, Swiss-born Müller was working for a South Island irrigation firm in the early 1960s when he found this tract of land. He and his wife, Valda, bought it for a song, he says, because between the rabbits eating the grass and the wind scouring the soil, the ground was as hard and sterile as a field of brick shards.
But the Müllers had no intention of leaving it like that. “The Cromwell district has identical climate and soil conditions to the Rhône Valley, which is like an intensively cultivated garden,” Otto told me. “There you won’t find a square metre of land that’s not being used, and here we had a similar place all to ourselves.”
To build up the soil fertility the Müllers ran 300 free-range pigs on the property, then launched into the walnut business, going about it with typical Swiss exactitude: visiting growers in California and Europe, doing their figures, meticulously planning their horticultural campaign.
“Walnuts are an ideal lifestyle crop,” Otto said. “You can play golf or fish every day because, once established, the trees need next to no maintenance.”
Walnuts are also free of insect pests in Otago, so there is no need for spraying, and harvesting is wholly mechanised. Otto even built and patented a simple machine for shelling and splitting the nuts into perfect halves.
All seemed well in the Müllers’ self-made oasis, until, with 1800 trees in the ground, they struck a snag. Trees, of course, need water, and this the Müllers had been pumping from the Kawarau since 1963, when a gold dredge still worked the river. But lately, and with increasing frequency, their pump has been sucking up sludge.
The Müllers are not alone in their predicament, for once-unwanted hectares around Cromwell and Bannockburn are now prime viticultural land. I was travelling just before harvest time, and the vineyards, verdant as ready-made lawns, stood out in stark contrast against the sunburnt earth. Some were draped in bird-proof netting, which from a distance resembled giant cobwebs whitened with dew. Summer had been sunny and long, promising another good vintage.
“Last season the Bannockburn vineyards produced 30 million dollars’ worth of wine,” said John Olssen, a viticulturalist and a spokesman for the Kawarau Arm Siltation Action Group. “We are talking a world-class industry here.” Indeed, Central Otago wines are poised to rival those of Marlborough, and a million vines have been planted in the area. Already 5000 million litres of water is needed to meet the vineyards’ irrigation needs, and requirements are predicted to more than double within a decade. All this water, Olssen said, will have to come from the Kawarau Arm of Lake Dunstan (the lake created by the Clyde dam) as all other water resources have been allocated. But the sediment problem will make reliable abstraction increasingly difficult.
The Clutha’s water woes only begin with the growers. The Kawarau’s siltation level is such that a good flood could cause the river to burst its banks, taking out Cromwell’s sewerage ponds and washing them downstream. There is another row at Lake Hawea over the flushing programme adopted by Contact Energy to control sediment build-up in the Clutha. Residents say fluctuations in the level of the lake result in widespread erosion of the shores by wind and the creation of dust devils that torment the town.
Alexandra, too, is under a considerable threat of flooding, despite newly built flood banks, which, locals scoff, once breached are “sure to keep the water in town.” Clutha floods, they add, are not something to be thought of as historical aberrations. Memories are still fresh of November 1999, when a third of downtown Queenstown was under water and in Alexandra the river rose as high as 7.5 m above its normal level. In Wanaka, trout were seen swimming in the supermarket car park, and kayaks had to be banned from the main street after one broke through a shop window. While floods in the upper reaches of the river can be considered natural events, the further downstream you go, the more man-made they become.
“Many of these problems, such as siltation and the erratic river flows, could be solved with just a little bit of goodwill,” Otto Müller told me on the bank of the Kawarau. “For example, planting trees in the Shotover’s headwaters could reduce the amount of silt by half. But there is no long-term strategy for the river. The power company shows no desire to compromise; there’s just a winner-takes-all mentality.”
From Alexandra, I travel further downriver, through the Central Otago fruit corridor. Here, between the Clutha’s willow-lined banks and the foothills of the high country, the land is taken up by orderly forests of fruit trees—cherry, apricot, peach and apple. This is a region famed for its exquisite springtime blossom and bountiful autumn harvests. But now, in midwinter, the year’s work is over, the trees relieved of their sweet burden, the landscape monochrome in its smoky greyness. In the fruitlands’ annual cycle of activity, this is a moment of stillness, like a pause between breaths.
At Beaumont, the river gathers itself for one last time, swirling into the confines of the Rongahere Gorge, sliding between the Lammerlaw Range and the Blue Mountains. Beyond this final constriction lies the sheep country of coastal Otago—verdant land crumpled into low hills—and arriving here the river suddenly relaxes, as if assured of reaching its destination, and flows for the rest of its journey at an almost contemplative pace. Still, it does not look old or spent, its mercurial sheen and the cold smoke rising off its surface only a veneer of calm over its unstoppable flux.
In Balclutha I stop to snack on Clutha Gold dried apricots, sitting on a concrete stopbank. Downstream, beyond the last bridge, the waters divide into two meandering branches, Koau and Matau, before entering the ocean. On my lap lies a book on river politics called Who Killed the Clutha?, by Dunedin dentist Paul Powell, which I’ve stopped reading partway through.
I have come to believe that a river like the Clutha cannot be “killed,” nor can it be permanently confined or regulated, because, like Nature itself, it is stronger than we are. Impeded in one place, it will simply change course and flow somewhere else, as it has done several times in its history. At one time it flowed into Lake Wakatipu, exiting near Garston, when the lake extended that far south. The largest recorded flood, in 1878, caused the Clutha mouth to shift north and splay into the present-day delta. That dramatic event left the entire town of Port Molyneux planned as a facsimile of Dunedin, to the point of having its own Octagon—high and dry. Over aeons, the river has worn away rocks and cut canyons and gorges. It was here before us, and it will outlast us, and a few lumps of concrete will not make a difference.
What is at stake, then, is not the existence of the river but the quality of our own life with it, and as we pursue the latter, the increasingly loud calls for environmental accountability must be constructively answered. So far, the Clutha has been an unceasingly giving river. It has yielded gold and electricity, and irrigation and a good life in the desert. It has given fish and recreation, and those more ethereal gifts: beauty, serenity and solitude. Perhaps it is time we gave something back, not for fear of losing the river, or that it might tire of providing and take instead, but out of respect for what we have received.
Lewis Verduyn has learnt first-hand about both the river’s power and its benevolence. Once, out for a summer swim, he was caught in an eddy and sucked beneath the surface. Twice he came up, grabbed a lungful of air and swam for his life, but both times the eddy pulled him back down. Third time around, Lewis blacked out. When he regained consciousness, his knees were scraping the shingle below the bank. Miraculously, the river had let him go.
“I learnt a big lesson that day,” Lewis told me. “The moment before I blacked out I turned towards the middle of the river and let the current take me. That probably saved my life. The lesson was: don’t fight the river—it is always stronger. But with skill, understanding and a good dose of respect you can use the river’s power.”
These days Lewis Verduyn has another dream—no less challenging than his log-rafting trip but far grander in scope. It is a dream of giving back to the river, of reciprocating its many blessings. Inspired by a scheme developed for the Mississippi, Lewis has proposed the Clutha River Parkway, a protected area encompassing the river and its banks from source to sea.
The parkway would incorporate existing reserves and seek the support of landowners and community and interest groups to regulate further development adjacent to the river. It could ultimately lead to the creation of a riverside trail, to be travelled on foot, mountain bike or horseback.
It is an appealing and unifying vision—and timely, in view of the wrangling over water rights. I can think of no better honour for my home river.