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Heritage Trails: Skippers Road

Arguably the scariest if not the most dangerous roading in the country, Skippers Road, is as much an engineering as a scenic gem, as Hugh de Lacy discovers.

It may not be the most dangerous road in the world – you’ve got to go to Bolivia for that – but Otago’s Skippers Canyon road has enough of a fear factor to whiten the knuckles of all but the most intrepid motorists.

Carved out of sheer rock faces initially as a track for goldminers’ pack animals 125 years ago, the 22 kilometres of Skippers Road is a specified no-go area for the country’s rental cars, and no less of an anathema to private motor vehicle insurers.

For much of its length it’s a skinny ledge blasted out of the vertical rockface hundreds of metres above the river, and so narrow that, if two cars meet from opposite directions, one of them has to back up for kilometres before they can squeeze past each other.

It’s a road that would probably never have been built, and certainly not as early as the 1880s, had it not been that it rimmed what was believed to be the world’s richest bullion river, the Shotover, which acted as a giant sluice-box for the vast gold deposits created by the ongoing collision of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates around Mount Aurum.

Thomas Arthur and Harry Redfern triggered the rush to the Shotover when they found four ounces of gold in just three hours at Arthur’s Point, a little north of Queenstown and south of the canyon, in November 1862.

It was to become one of the biggest of the Otago rushes, albeit short-lived, sending miners by the hundred up the river beyond Arthur’s Point and the canyon into the headwaters beyond.

But Arthur’s and Redfern’s quick strike was peanuts compared to the lode two Maori miners, Hakaria Maeroa and Dan Ellison (aka Raniera Erihana), found soon after.

Sighting a promising-looking beach on the western side of the river, the pair swam across, almost losing a dog which followed them into the vigorous current.

Once on the other side the two of them gathered a phenomenal 11 kilograms – yes, kilograms – or 300 ounces by nightfall, a payday that would have netted them around NZ$450,000 at today’s slightly straitened global price.

It was that find that gave the Shotover its reputation as the world’s richest gold catchment, though because records of the total take from the river were informal and sketchy, it’s a claim that can’t be substantiated.

Within months of Arthur’s and Redfern’s discovery, packhorse tracks had given rudimentary access successively to Deep Creek, Maori Point and Skippers, the latter being the location above the canyon where a northern Irish seaman, Malcolm Duncan, had found gold a year or so earlier.

Duncan had spent years on American whaling ships and went by the nickname Skipper, which duly attached itself to the canyon no less than to the creek he mined.

The deluge of miners created demand for a permanent road into Skippers for heavy mining machinery as soon as the easily accessible gold had run out.

The route through the canyon was accordingly surveyed in 1883, 21 years after the original strike, and completed in stages by four different contractors, using mostly Chinese labour, over the following seven years.

It was an enormously difficult road to build with the soft rock having to be blown from the cliff by black powder and heaved over the side of the gorge by shovel and barrow, and the road surface greasy with mud in the winter and blown into billowing clouds of dust in the summer.

The expense led to the public view that the road cost more to build than it returned in gold, but that claim can’t be substantiated either.

The now-famous suspension bridge at Skippers Point, from which the AJ Hacker organisation runs its signature bungy jump operation, is the third of three across the Shotover on the same site.

The first was a suspension bridge built six metres above the river in 1866, but wiped out a few years later by flooding.

It was replaced in 1871, but even then the approaches to it were so precipitous that plans were put in place for a high bridge to be built later.

However, work on this bridge, the surviving one 100 metres above the river, didn’t start until 1898, took two years, and its formal opening in 1901 was just in time for most of the miners to quit the canyon in a vastly safer fashion than they had arrived in it.

As long as the rush lasted, the principal settlement in the canyon was Charlestown, near Maori Point where Maeroa and Ellison had their golden afternoon.

Charlestown’s day in the sun was brief: After reaching a population of over 1000 while the pickings were still easy, its population had stabilised to barely 400 by 1864 as the goldpanners departed to make way for the quartz miners.

The settlement at Skippers Point likewise flourished briefly, its population also reaching 1000, but thinning just as quickly to 200 by the time the third bridge was built.

Clear warning about driving Skippers Canyon road

Even with a permanent road in place, pretty much as it is today, Skippers presented a daunting challenge to motor vehicles, which were banned from it for some years after the road and bridge were completed.

For decades afterwards motor vehicle insurers specifically excluded the Skippers Road from their coverage, though the Insurance Council of New Zealand told Contractor that ban has since been modified to an omnibus list of driving hazards to avoid, such as farm tracks and beaches.

However, Skippers is still one of just four roads in the country that most car rental firms forbid their vehicles to be used on, the others being SH89 between Queenstown and Wanaka – the Crown Range road, the Tasman Valley road near Mount Cook, and the Coromandel to Kuaotunu stretch of SH25 on the Coromandel Peninsula.

Some companies also stipulate that their cars not be driven on Ninety Mile Beach, part of which is gazetted road, the SH70 Inland Kaikoura Road between that town and Waiau, and the SH38 Urerewa Road between Wairoa and Tuai.

In terms of its real, rather than imagined, dangers to motorists, Skippers Canyon rates up there among the world’s most frightening.

A survey by British motoring firm Driving Experience, using World Health Organisation data, rated Skippers as the 22nd most dangerous road in the world, with an “overall road fear factor” of seven out of 10, despite its traffic these days being confined mainly to tourists travelling by minivan and coach.

Deaths on Skippers are few compared to the annual toll of between 200 and 300 on the road rated (at 10 out of 10) that is the world’s worst – the 69 kilometre North Yungas Road from La Paz to Coroico in Bolivia’s Yungas region, featuring a carriageway no more than three metres wide, edging sheer drops of 1000 metres or more.

Nearly as dangerous is the 64 kilometres South Yungas Road from La Paz to Chulumani which also takes a huge annual toll on motorists’ lives.

Skippers Road might appear benign by comparison, but the authors of the Driving Experience survey were still enough in awe of it to describe it as being “as unbelievably scary as it is beautiful”.

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