DRIVING THROUGH HELLS GATE

“It’s unbelievably scary but beautiful.” Driving Experience U.K.

The work in forming Skippers Canyon Road is considered an engineering miracle.

Skippers Canyon Road near the Southern Hemisphere’s top alpine resort of Queenstown, is classed as a  ‘dangerous road ‘. This spectacular road is a major tourist attraction and in December 2006, it came under the protection of  the New Zealand Historic Places Trust meaning no alterations can be made that would affect its original look and design.

skippers4Skippers Road

DANGER WARNINGS

Have a read of these road signs:

Winding Road.

Narrow Road.

Gravel Road.

Recommended speed 15km/h next 20km.

Danger of Slips.

Rock Fall.

Steep Drops.

Animals on Road.

No Safety Barriers.

These signs are placed along Skippers Canyon Road, generally known as  Skippers Road, a narrow, winding, and exasperatingly treacherous ribbon of dusty track that snakes its way for 22km (16 ½ miles) through the dramatic landscape of Skippers Canyon. It is one of only two roads in New Zealand where insurance companies won’t cover their cars if driven on this torturous route.

A report from British company, Driving Experience gives Skippers Canyon a fear factor of 7 out of 10, saying: “While fatality numbers are relatively low, this mountain road with its huge drop into the ravine below is so dangerous it requires a huge amount of concentration and patience to tackle it. The extremely narrow path, cut in the middle of a sheer cliff face, makes it hugely difficult to manoeuvre any vehicle.”

skippers2Warning Sign at the Entrance to Skippers Road

MONUMENTAL ACHIEVEMENT

Built between 1883 and 1890 by a gang of Chinese labourers, this famous New Zealand road attracts thousands of thrill seekers from around the world. The brave Chinese workers daily risked their lives as they swung from ropes to ram gun powder into share rock faces then quickly find a place to hide as the explosions threw rock fragments all around them. It’s not surprising that during this highly dangerous process, a number of the men were killed. The dislodged rock eventually formed a rough surface for a road half way down the precipitous cliffs with a cold, fast flowing river below. The road has changed very little since it was created. It is still not surfaced and very narrow.

skippers554Skippers Road 1890s

skippersroadSkippers Road Today

Have a ride along the start of Skippers Road in this 2 minute video.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQeyyMUI77g

The amazing effort to build the road was undertaken in 1862 to reach Skippers when gold was discovered in this extremely isolated place by an Irishman called Malcolm Duncan. He was the skipper of a ship and was nicknamed ‘Skipper’, hence the name for the district where he found gold. The Skippers River was known as the richest river in the world with 4000 miners swarming over it to dig out the precious metal. After all the easy gold was retrieved, the miners were forced to turn to sluicing and quartz mining. These processes required heavy equipment so a road became necessary.

Before the road was created, provisions for the miners had to be carted by pack horse along a frightfully dangerous track. The road was really just a widening of the track. A Frenchman called Julien Bourdeau, being in charge of the pack horse transport, has forever been associated with Skippers Road. Described as looking like Santa Claus with his long white beard and rosy cheeks, he continued guiding his horses along the road until he died at the age of 80. He lay down for a rest at one of his favoured spots along the road and quietly died. They say his spirit whispers to those who care to listen.

skippers773Skippers Road from Lighthouse Rock

ROAD LANDMARKS

With points on the road called  ‘Devil’s Elbow’, ‘Hells Gate’ ‘the Staircase’, it is easy to understand that in the early 1900s, motor vehicles were banned from driving on Skippers Road. There are a number of completely blind corners in some sections of the road and if two vehicles meet on many parts of the road, one of them must back up to a point where there is room for passing. This can involve reversing for up to 3 kilometres. I have experienced this happening to me when I met a car head on. Because there was a second car behind that vehicle, I was the one forced to do the reversing. It was hair-raising having to reverse along the narrow road for a kilometre, while negotiating a number of sharp bends. To add to this drama, there are still rock falls on the road which cause closure until equipment can be brought in to clear the blockage and repair the damaged road.

Generated by IJG JPEG Library

The lowest and flattest part of the road’s route used to be the site of Charlestown. In the early 1860s, it was home to a 1000 miners with a hotel, bank, butcher and baker but when the gold ran out, it was quickly deserted. Today, just the chimney of the hotel remains. It is a popular spot to take a break from the driving and to breath in the sweet Central Otago air.

Another point of historic interest regarding Charlestown is the fact it was here that two Maoris looked for gold. Maoris had known about the gold in Central Otago for a long time but as it held no significance in their culture, they didn’t go after it. They were into greenstone which they used for weapons and ceremonial implements. Pure greenstone can be found in the area and is just as valuable as gold but that’s another story. Because of these two native miners, this low lying, flat area is known as Maori Point.

TOURIST TRAFFIC

The road to Skippers branches off the road to Coronet Peak Ski Field. This is one of the world’s top ski fields close to Queenstown, the southern hemisphere’s top alpine resort, just a 20 minute drive away. Because of this location, Skippers Road carries a high volume of tourist traffic. Apart from day trippers just wanting to experience the road itself, tour operators also use the road to carry stacks of large rafts for the famous Shotover raft rides. It’s scary to think this amount of traffic uses such a nail biting road, but they seem to manage okay. In the past few years, a number of small passing bays have been built into sections of the road making any reversing a little shorter.

skippers774Transporting rafts on Skippers Road

SHOTOVER BRIDGE

One of the most famous places on this road is the Skippers Bridge. At 96 m long and 90 m high and supported on 14 wire cables, this amazing engineering feat is the highest suspension bridges in New Zealand and one of the most spectacular bridges in Australasia. The current bridge opened in 1901 after the first one was built too low to the river and was often flooded.

skippers665Skippers Suspension Bridge

The bridge provided access to the miner’s settlement at Skippers Point. In its heyday, over 1000 people lived in this remote settlement until the gold ran out. The little town was then abandoned to nature. In recent years, some buildings have been reconstructed giving travellers along Skippers Road a destination. Oh, by the way, Skippers Bridge was one of the world’s first platforms for bungy jumping.

ROAD TO MACETOWN

Have a quick sample of this road!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TW8IFjkHC60

skippers88sRoad to Macetown

Not far from Skippers Canyon is another hair raising road. In my opinion, it is more of a dramatic experience than Skippers Road. The road to Macetown, another ghost town in the region, crosses the Arrow River a staggering 23 times! In recent years, it has become a popular walk for the fit tourist wanting to experience the magic of New Zealand’s back country. The walk from Arrowtown to Macetown takes around 4 hours so it’s not for the unfit to attempt. It is also increasingly popular with mountain bikers. Only 4WD vehicles are allowed on this bone shaking road.

MACETOWN

In my opinion, the ghost town of Macetown is one of the most melancholic places I have ever visited. On the calm autumn day I was there, the golden leaves from the trees the miner families planted for protection from the hot summer sun, fell silently all around me. I thought I heard the ghostly laughter of the children who lived here at the early days of the 20th century.

skippers88eMacetown 1900

skippers7uuSkippers Area Today

Like Skippers township, a number of buildings have been re-constructed at Macetown to give visitors a sense of how a mining settlement appeared during the first few years of the 20th century. It was the most isolated village ever to have been established in New Zealand. The freezing winters forced the inhabitants to retreat to Arrowtown to return when the snow thawed enough to allow mining to re-commence. The wives of the miners who lived there had a tough existence and had to make their own amusements but being the tough people they were, they somehow survived although very few made much money. Only miner’s ghosts inhabit the place now. It is a truly memorable experience to visit Macetown.

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Comments

  1. Geoff Moulder says:

    Cedric- Really well researched and informative work. Lots of things most Kiwis dont know !

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