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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 2 (May 1, 1940.)

The … — Skippers Road — On “The Richest River — In The World”

page 41

The …
Skippers Road
On “The Richest River
In The World”

Pincher's Bluff, on the road to Skippers.

Pincher's Bluff, on the road to Skippers.

“Have you been to Skippers yet?” is the inevitable question when visitor meets visitor in the Southern Lakes District. The narrow, winding road cut into the rocky cliffs above the Shotover River, the close - pressing tussock - covered mountains, and the interest which centres round a deserted village are part of the attraction Skippers has for tourists; but more alluring still are the tales of the days when the Shotover was known as the richest river in the world.

Service-car drivers and miners alike are well primed with the stories of happenings in the gold-rush days. Swinging round a precipitous corner which might be called “Poison Bluff” —for, one drop and you are dead!—the driver might point to a spot on the river far below and say, “Two men obtained 300 ounces of gold in one day down there,” or “A man was killed in that tunnel across the river.” And all along the miles between the top of the Skippers Saddle and the township itself there are stories to be told.

The discovery of gold in the Upper Shotover district followed very quickly on that made at Arthur's Point and Arrow, in 1862. Because of the height and steepness of the cliffs, the greatest difficulty was experienced in approaching the river-bed in the Shotover Valley. Nothing daunted the old-time prospectors, however, when gold was the bait to lure them on, and they accomplished wonderful feats in winning their way up the river.

Men flocked from all parts of the Dominion to secure a share of the spoils; men of different nationalities were bound together by the common interest in gold. Soon there was urgent need for a properly formed bridle-track from Queenstown and also for police protection. In 1863 (27th May) a meeting was held at Skippers to consider these needs. It was reported that, with the exception of Colt revolvers, sticks and stones, they had, on the Shotover, no protection. In these circumstances might was right and the
Lighthouse Rock, near Long Gully, Skippers Road.

Lighthouse Rock, near Long Gully, Skippers Road.

weakest had to give way to the strongest. There were on the Skippers areas alone, from 1,400 to 1,500 men. If something was not done, the miners would take the law into their own hands and there might be a repetition of the Ballarat riots. A good bridle track (about 19 miles) would not cost more than £450 or £500. If they could not get what they wanted, the meeting would request the Southland Government to establish an escort on the Shotover.

Later in the year the contract for the formation of a bridle track, four feet wide, from Arthur's Point to Skippers, was taken by a Mr. Armstrong, who announced his intention of commencing operations immediately on “this most necessary and important work.” With the contract let, the Skippers residents began to hope that before long they would see a good dray road from Queenstown to Arthur's Point—five miles—the track then being literally a bog, and impassable.

A party of miners provided a little touch of excitement to the gold-seekers page 42
Where the Skippers Road runs through the Gorge.

Where the Skippers Road runs through the Gorge.

along the beaches of the river. Three daring adventurers who had been resident for some time at Skippers built a boat of wood and bullock-hide and equipped it with a long pole in place of a rudder. They took their tents, blankets, provisions, etc., and cast off into the stream, which, from its source to the junction with the Kawarau, is exceedingly swift and dangerous. The current took them down, to use their own expression, like a shot off a shovel, greatly to the astonishment of the miners working on the different beaches, as they passed along. The police at Maori Point, thinking they were going against their will, rushed out to lend assistance, but onward the boat and laughing crew sped, amid the cries and shouts of the astonished miners. Gliding past a populous beach, rushing between two rock-bound gorges, dancing buoyantly over the river rapids, and at length shooting over the fall at the end of Arthur's Point, they landed without injury either to themselves or the frail craft that carried them.

Writing many years afterwards, Mr. John Edgar, senior, who went to Skippers via the Ben Lomond Saddle on New Year's Day, 1863, said that the goldfield rushes to Otago must have cleared the stores of Melbourne and Sydney of every rusty flitch of bacon in stock, yet indigestion was unheard of. The miners had great difficulty in obtaining mutton, and beef was out of the question. He stated that some of the happiest years of his life were spent at Skippers, for most of the population was young and full of vitality. Pleasures and pastimes were indulged in with the zest peculiar to isolated communities.

The following Christmas was celebrated at Sandhills, several miles up the river from Skippers, by a sports meeting whose events were of an unusually varied nature. The prize for a game of draughts was £10; the long race attracted seven entrants, the first prize being £1. There were four entries for the hop-step-and-jump event and the prize was £5. Other events were a swimming match, (three entries), £5; quoit match (six entries), £5; putting the stone (two entries), £8; throwing the stone over the head, and a sack race with eight entries, £4. The sack race created the most intense enjoyment for the bystanders, just as it would at a sports meeting to-day.

The terraces, on the bank between the river and the township, proved the richest spot of land in the world, gold to the value of millions of pounds being taken from it. Not far away is the claim famous as Grace's Folly, where by means of tunnelling under a neighbour's claim, a miner named Grace worked for a year or so without detection, winning enormous amounts of gold. Long-drawn-out legal proceedings ensued, lasting over a year and costing thousands of pounds. Eventually Grace had to pay £4,000 for his underground work, but that did not worry him a great deal, for his own claim yielded £30,000 in three years. The case aroused great interest at the time and even to-day it is spoken of when old miners foregather.

The years have passed on since those wild times. Skippers is now as quiet as it used to be busy. The hotel is deserted, the public hall is never used. Only a few hopeful miners are still engaged in the work that has them enthralled. Tourists from every part of the world visit Skippers and are told something of its history, but some think more of their drivers' skill in negotiating those terrible hairpin bends than of the pioneer miners who made the tracks in the first place. Men's tracks, bridle tracks, dray roads, coaching roads, and finally a motor road have followed one another on the way to Skippers—a thrilling drive. Awe-inspiring and dangerous as the road still is, what must it have been in the sight of the miners' wives in the days when Skippers was a thriving community?