Being a country made up of three islands with numerous rivers and ravines, it comes as no surprise that New Zealand has 4200 bridges to allow the roading network to operate efficiently. These bridges come on all categories from suspension, to swing and viaduct. Some are made of steel, others of concrete or wood. Most carry road transport while others carry trains. Some are only used for recreation, mainly bungy jumping. In this blog, I will highlight 5 iconic bridges all found in the southern province of Otago.


On 13 December 1990 the Balclutha Road Bridge was classified as a Category I Historic Place by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Construction of this much-loved road bridge began in 1933. Two years later, the earthquake and flood resistant structure opened to traffic as part of State Highway 1 that runs the length of New Zealand. The bridge connects Dunedin to Invercargill at the South Otago town of Balclutha as it spans the Clutha River which is the country’s second longest river. It is also the fastest flowing and is popular with fishermen who search out their catch along its 338km (210 miles) length. The bridge is built from reinforced concrete, with six very distinctive parabolic curved spans, each 36.6 metres (120 ft) in length. The total length of the bridge is 244.1 metres (800 ft) and has a two-way carriageway.

Balclutha Bridge (

The eye-catching bridge is the third road bridge to be built here. The first, constructed in 1868, was destroyed by a huge flood in 1878 when a bridge situated 61km (37 miles) upstream at the settlement of Beaumont was swept downriver and collided with it. A second bridge was constructed in 1881, but was not sturdy enough for motorised transport and was eventually replaced by the current structure.


When gold was discovered in the 1860s a town sprung up at the promontory overlooking the meeting of two mighty New Zealand rivers, the Clutha and Kawarau. Originally referred to as ‘The Point’ by the first runholders, the gold town became known as ‘The Junction.’ On the 16th of October, 1866, it officially became the borough of Cromwell.

The first bridge across the Clutha River was a suspension footbridge sturdy enough to support packhorses. It was erected at Deadman’s Point, 4 kilometres upriver from the Cromwell Junction and opened in May, 1863. However, a few months later the bridge was destroyed by a disastrous flood that ripped away riverbanks, mining-camps, and buildings along the length of the river, with the loss of over 100 lives.

In the following year, the Government financed the construction of a single-lane truss bridge closer to Cromwell at a cost of £28,000. Completed in 1866, this impressive bridge, supported by three stone piers, connected Cromwell’s main street with the road from Clyde on the opposite side of the Cromwell Gorge.
This new Cromwell Bridge, with a lattice-like appearance, was referred to as the “Lattice Bridge.” In 1891 when the timbers began to age, the bridge was rebuilt as a steel-truss structure.

The dramatic location of the bridge, high above the junction of two great rivers of different colours, made it an iconic New Zealand bridge which carried traffic  for a 100 years, until a new highway directed traffic over the new, dramatically uninspiring Deadman’s Point Bridge in the early 1990s.

When Lake Dunstan began to form as a result of the Clyde Dam, the decking of the historic bridge was removed and it was inundated by the rising waters of the lake in 1993 and alas, the beautiful old bridge is no longer visible on land. However, today, the bridge is a unique attraction for divers who swim around its skeleton resting where it has always been but now 11m under the surface of the lake. It has to be one of the few bridges in the world that still attracts visitors while completely submerged in water.


For 83 years, the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge was the main access to Queenstown. In 1880 engineer Harry Higginson was called on to build a bridge over the Kawarau Gorge to provide easier access to the goldfields that were being discovered in the area at the time. It was a dangerous location in a sheer rocky gorge that was a tunnel for strong winds. Higginson knew that in other countries several bridges had been destroyed by high winds. To meet the challenge he faced, he came up with an untried design which combined a range of innovative strengthening solutions, including inward sloping cables, to come up with a suspension bridge that was 42m (137ft) high with a 120m (393ft) long span. In 1882, his work won a Telford Premium, one of the world’s top engineering awards. 

In 1963, the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge was replaced by a new bridge a little further up the river. Fortunately, the beautiful bridge in its dramatic location still remains in its original form and is now classified by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust as a Category I historic place. Since 1988 it has again become a local icon as that was the year AJ Hackett and Henry van Asch undertook the world’s first commercial bungy jump operation. Today, it is still considered to be one of the best bungy jumps in the world and thrill seekers from around the world travel to the bridge to experience the original jump which drops the equivalent of a 10 storied building to hover just inches from the rapidly flowing waters of the Kawarau River.


The Skippers Canyon Suspension Bridge is the highest suspension bridge in New Zealand. It is a dramatic structure with the highest and longest span ever undertaken in late 19th/early 20th century New Zealand. The bridge was part of a project undertaken by the New Zealand Government and Lake County Council to open up the Shotover River area to gold mining.

The first bridge built for gold miners to reach Skippers Point was just 19 feet (6 metres) above the river so it was in constant danger of being washed away by flooding which happened in 1881 when it was replaced by another bridge in the same place. At this stage, the settlement of Skippers Point had a population of about 1,000 people with 6 hotels as well as some services.

The access to this crossing of the Shotover River was difficult as the approaches to it were very steep on both sides. On top of that, the road to Skippers Point, largely completed by 1890, was an amazing feat of engineering in itself. It is mostly one-way, narrow and steep with sheer drops of several hundred metres. Even today, it is regarded as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It is also the only road in New Zealand that rental car insurance is not available. ( I have written a previous blog about this road.)

With the likelihood of the second bridge being washed away by another flood, and greater strength required to carry heavy quartz gold mining equipment, work began in 1898 on a new bridge in a much higher position. In March 1901, a spectacular new suspension bridge with reinforced concrete towers and spanning a gorge 92 metres (301ft) above the river with sheer rock faces on both sides, finally replaced the low one. The stone approaches of the old bridge still stand and are visible from Skippers Road. At this stage the population of Skippers Point had dropped to around only 200. It’s hard to imagine why such an expensive bridge was built to access the village at all.

Even though the settlement at Skippers was abandoned by the 1940s, the bridge remained in use by local farmers, and following the creation of the Mount Aurum Recreation Reserve in 1985, it now provides access to the remains of the former settlement. The beautiful, old Otago bridge is a visually impressive structure and at the time it was built, was one of the greatest feats of bridge engineering in the world. It is also an iconic feature of the Shotover River and continues to play an important role in local tourism.

The Queenstown Skippers Canyon Bridge Bungy is kept operational by the AJ. Hackett Company specifically for special events and corporate conferences.

One popular event is a ‘Full Moon Bungy’ available for group bookings, where up to 40 people can enter into the canyon for a midnight jump!!!

Ceidrik Heward

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