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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 3 (June 1, 1939)

Over the Top at Otira

Over the Top at Otira.

Picking the right day for high country, a run over the Otira Gorge by the Department's service between Hokitika and Arthur Pass provided the most vivid of all the motoring experiences of the West Coast. The route through Kumara is historic, and the evidences of the great days of alluvial gold mining are piled up right and left, as the road for some miles goes over the tailings. Human effort has laboriously lifted these thousands of tons of stones during the search for gold, but the modern method of the Coast is to dredge far deeper than the old gold miner could venture, twenty men on a dredge, electrically-powered, doing in a week more than muscular effort could achieve in years. Gold mining by the modern process has become quite a prosaic business, with the returns fairly
Mountain and forest. A seene near Hokitika.

Mountain and forest. A seene near Hokitika.

well assessed ahead, through trial borings. The dredge buckets lift the alluvial gravel, it runs over tables for trapping the gold, and the spoil goes out at the back into a dump which in future will not be a rocky waste, for soil is placed over the top, and tree planting has proved to be a success under these conditions.

After the service car has passed the railway at Otira, we notice the line running up grade into the long tunnel. The road, however, winds up the left side of the gorge. Mountains seem to converge on this tiny man-made ribbon, and the newcomer only has the assurance of a through ticket that he can get much further. The road often hangs above the rushing river by a cutting taken out of the solid rock, and it is comforting to realise how solid are its foundations when its height above the gorge bottom runs into hundreds of feet. “Windy Point,” “Starvation Point” and “Cape Horn,” some prominent features, are the highly appropriate names on the map. The forest runs up to the snowfields, and in due course, the motor is also up to that elevation. Mountaineering is thus made easy, though not altogether free from thrills, because the road gaily tackles a precipice by way of the famous zig-zag, an extra low gear on the specially designed chassis making this experience quite easy, if a little slow. None of the passengers wished to hurry. We were all quite appreciative of the careful driving, and on occasion glad of the reassuring chattiness of the man at the wheel, who, like his contemporaries on other routes, had his special local jokes.

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“Poison Point” explained our driver, briefly, as we rounded a real thriller of a precipice—“one drop is enough.”

Over the same route now runs an electric power line, taking energy from the Coleridge station to the West Coast, mainly to meet the greatly increased load demanded through the encouraging development of alluvial dredging. The erection of this line, with its steel towers of eighty feet, perched on rocky elevations, has been a magnificent job of which little has been heard by the general public, because the construction gangs have had few spectators. Often the mountaineer of the party had to put in some clever rock climbing to reach the proposed site of a tower. Then, dragging up tools by a light line, he has made a working platform to which has been secured a block and tackle. Then the rest was comparatively easy, a caterpillar tractor running on the nearest section of the road pulling the steel sections up to the sky-line, where they could be bolted together. The power line itself, eight wires separated about ten feet by steel crossarms, springs from tower to tower at delirious heights, and the traveller looking up, is impressed with the engineering courage which planned this invasion of so magnificent a gorge. But earlier planners had built a road which enabled the wondering traveller in due course to look down on these towers, so high does the route run before it tops the pass at over three thousand feet, to drop down fairly easily into the railway town of Arthur Pass.

From this point the journey into Christchurch is made by rail, through miles of impressive scenery as a reminder that one does not necessarily have to desert the rail to enjoy a good panorama. Which reminds us that in the near future the most spectacular parts of the Buller Gorge will be viewed from a railway carriage, for the new line is making good progress. Its track through the Gorge is the one bare streak in the verdant vegetation, but West Coast rains and a great “growing” climate will soon dispose of any eyesore, and the railway, like the power line over Otira Gorge, will fit comfortably into the scene, providing a contrast between the puny efforts of man and nature on the ground scale.