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In this section the Clutha River is examined as an entity, to give a descriptive over view and set its regional context. This allows the broad significance of the river as a whole at national regional and district level to be ascertained.


The Clutha River is one of New Zealand's major rivers and will occupy a prominent position in the minds of many New Zealanders. "It is impossible to conceive Otago without it" (young and Foster 1986). At 322km it is the second longest river in the country and its 20.5 million ha catchment is considerably larger than any other in New Zealand. It is the largest river by volume with the largest average flow, although a number of other rivers have larger flood flows.

Its catchment (see Figs. 3.1 and 3.2) reaches almost from coast to coast and stretches from Mts Maitland, Pearson and Strachan at the head of the Hunter Valley in the north at latitude 43 degrees 50' (the same latitude as the lower end of Lake Pukaki) to latitude 46 degree 20' south at its mouth in Molyneux Bay not far north of the Catlins. It drops 277m in altitude from its main stem source at Lake Wanaka to its mouth.



Derek Grzelewski in his article on the Clutha Mata Au in the New Zealand Geographic describes the headwater catchment of the Clutha eloquently:

"Figuratively speaking, the river is like the trunk of a giant tree, with a deep and complex root system. Three large lakes - Wanaka, Hawea and Wakatipu - anchor the system in the foothill [ranges] of the Southern Alps, but the tributaries which feed them penetrate beyond the southern lakes district into Fiordland and as far north as Haast. The Greenstone, Caples, Rees, Dart and Routebum; the Wilkin, Young Makarora, Matukituki and Hunter - all these rivers form the headwaters of the Clutha .... "

He writes "The Clutha's quiet but formidable power comes from its large catchment area .

The Clutha is not a particularly long river but it more than makes up for shortness with volume speed and power."

75% of the average flow at Balclutha comes from the Wakatipu/Shotover, Wanaka and Hawea subcatchments, areas of high alpine Main Divide ranges with much permanent ice and snow and high rainfall of orographic origin, measured in metres (ORWB 1980). This results in high late spring and summer flows due to snow melt. Lake Wan aka is the main source catchment and Origin of the Clutha River, at the Outlet. Other sub-catchments adding to the Clutha below the lakes are the Arrow, Nevis and Kawarau; the Cardrona and Lindis; the Fraser and the Manuherikia; and the Teviotand Pomahaka rivers (refer Fig. 3.1). Generally the catchment flows northwest to southeast although it is perceived to be more west to east, from the Alps to the sea.


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From the headwaters in the Southern Alps to the sea, the Clutha River passes through three main topographical and bioclimatic environments:

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Western Alpine Range Headwaters

In the west its main stem headwaters lie in the precipitous, glaCiated alpine ranges with permanent snow and ice and the deep glacial finger lake of Wanaka. The area has very high rainfa.ll and supports dense beech and podocarplbroadleaf rainforest; and bracken is typical cover on the fire-burnt lower slopes. Much of this land is conservation land as Mt Aspiring National Park, the lower more easterly ranges around the lake are mainly extensive pastoral



runs. The source of the Clutha, Lake Wanaka, is nestled in these ranges. At the southeast end of the moraine-impounded lake, the river has cut an outlet and thus begun its 322km journey to the sea. Within about 5km the Hawea RiVer joins the Clutha on its left, and the Cardrona River joins on its right. The Hawea catchment also extends back into the Main Divide, to the head of the Hunter Valley but the outflow from the lake is controlled by a dam.


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Lake Wanaka, the Outlet (source of the CMha River) and western ranges


Inland Dry Range and Basins

From Wanaka the river flows in a southeasterly direction through the middle of the WanakaHawea Basin. At Sandy Point it takes a more southerly direction where it has cut a large valley through a structural weakness between the Pisa Range and the Grandview Mountains of the Lindis district

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The Clutha River, Wanaka-Hawea Basin (Pisa Range right, Grandview Mountains left)

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The Cromwell Basin, Lake Dunstan and the Kawarau River coming from left (looking upstream)

At Maori Point the Clutha turns to the southwest to flow down the tectonic rift of the Cromwell vaUey between the Pisa and Dunstan Mountains, collecting the Lindis River waters on the left as it passes. At Cromwell the Clutha meets the milky Kawarau - a major tributary joining from the right bringing all the waters from the Wakatipu, Shotover, Arrow, and Nevis catchments - and the rivers seem to agree there at The Junction to tum to the southeast again, cutting a way through the Dunstan and Caimmuir Mountains forming the Cromwell or Dunstan Gorge.

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The Cromwell Dunstan Gorge


It then presses on through the lower Manuherikia vaHey, another north-south trending tectonic rectilinear basin - to the Knobby RClnge at Alexandra, gathering the waters of the small Fraser RIver catchment coming from the right. At Alexandra the Clutha is joined by the Manuherikia River draining the high fault block ranges of North Otago. Where the river meets the steep rocky hills behind Alexandra, it takes an abrupt tum to the south, following structural weakness through the faulted and folded schist rock of these elevated plateau areas, forming the deep and narrow Roxburgh Gorge. In both gorges and the lower and middle parts of the Cromwell valley, the river has been converted to long narrow lakes by the Clyde and Roxburgh Dams.

The river emerges at the downstream end of this semi-arid country through the Roxburgh Dam into another pair of gravel-filled

tectonic basins, this time trending

northwest to southeast. To the

southwest the spectacular eastern scarp of the Old Man Range towers over the basins, but to the north the country is more open, rolling, gently nsmq, deeply dissected plateau country of the ancient peneplain of the Knobby Range and the Tevlot hills merging with the Lammerlaws. The pattern of intensively developed basin floors notably orcharding (more 50 here with the more benevolent climate) and extensively grazed hill and range country is repeated.

The lower Manuherikia Basin

At Alexandra the river turns sharply to the south into the Roxburgh Gorge

The Teviot Valley

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The Clutha River is intimately associated with this most ancient and fascinating of New Zealand's landscapes; one of the country's most distinctlve regions - the semi-arid, nonglaciated schist range and basin lands of Central Otago, an area stretching from approximately Wanaka to Ettrick, the core being the Cromwell and Manuherikia basins bounded by the Pisa, Dunstan, Cairnmuir, Old Man and Knobby Ranges.

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In these stretches the river could be described as cutting across the grain of the land, flowing across north-south trending ranges to get to the sea. The river course pre-dates the mountains, as it has maintained its broad course etched on the ancient tropical peneplain landscape as it was faulted, buckled and folded about the river, forming the striking deep, narrow, rockbound antecedent gorges within the fault block ranges.



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The other striking features of this landscape with which the Clutha is intimately associated are the peri-glacial features on broad rolling range and spur summits and prolific rock tors; and the semi-arid conditions expressed through the often sparse grassland and scrub cover including extensive thyme and special dry land and saline plant and insect communities. It is a place of extreme climate phenomena, the driest, the coldest, and the hottest.

The river is an "aorta of desert-dry Central Otago" (Grzelewski 2003). Gilbert van Reenen, a well-known Otago photographer, describes the Clutha as the "ultimate irony - a massive river eddying, swirling, sliding and tumbling through the nation's driest area". In just 100km or so the annual average rainfall drops from over 5000mm in parts of the Main Divide to under 300mm in the Cromwell to Roxburgh area.

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Because of the dryness and the steep rocky nature of much of the range land, the Central Otago area retains a more natural character on lower gentler terrain including outwash plain comparable only to the Mackenzie Basin. Much of the land on the hills and ranges about the river, and some parts of the basin floors which are filled with vast quantities of fluvio-glacial outwash and piedmont fan gravels in undulating terraces, is used for extensive sheep grazing. The basin floors about the river however are largely highly modified; having been developed for intensive land uses including vineyards, orchards, and irrigated pasture. The only sizeable areas of undeveloped dry terrace lands are in the Upper Clutha Basin between Lake Dunstan and LakeWanaka. They are a distinctive feature of this section of the river landscape,

Dry Terrace Lands about the Clutha River, Queensberry-Luggate area

Eastern Moister Ranges, Downlands and Coastal Plain

Beyond Millers Flat the river enters the third ---------~~-~--------,

broad physical environment. Here it cuts a winding course through steep rocky but torless hill country, emerging at Beaumont into an enclosed open valley before facing one more passage between the Tuapeka and Blue Mountains. This area has a more moderate climate, with the highest rainfall away from the Main Divide. This supports a woody cover. Kanuka woodland and scrub is widespread and there are remnants of beech forest in the Rongahere Gorge, as well as extensive commercial conifer plantations. Tussock grassland has been largely eradicated at lower altitudes, converted to rich green exotic pasture.

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The Beaumont Gorge

The Rongahere Gorge (looking upstream)

From Tuapeka Mouth, the river seemingly takes a more leisurely pace through the open, rolling, rocky pastoral down lands - a verdant landscape of crumpled hills (Grzelewski 2003) - as if savouring the last stages of its journey .. The underlying basement rock is now greywacke and argillite, hard sandstone. The climate is now oceanmoderated. Podocarp forest would have naturally covered this landscape and relict totara is present in isolated patches by the river. At Balclutha the river splits into two channels - the Matauand Koau branches - for its final reaches to the sea. The river is escorted by high stop banks through this area, protecting the fertile intensively farmed "polder country" of Inch Clutha.

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The Clutha flowing through the greywacke down lands


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The River Channel

The Clutha is a deeply incised single thread channel of uniform width for almost its full length, a "full throated river from its outset' (Peat 1999). It is quite unlike the braided channels of the Canterbury rivers in their wide gravel beds, being frequently rock bound and always deep, swift and narrow, a "difficult torrent to ford" (Grzelewski 2003). The Clutha has "a depth and dignity that is unrivalled" (Young and Foster 1986).

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The river flows either in deeply incised narrow channels in vast glacial outwash deposits arranged in flights of terraces about the river; or in narrow, rock-bound, antecedent gorges. Occasional rock bound sections and rocky bank sections are present with the gravel-filled basin areas where basement rock is close to or at the surface. There are few areas of active floodplain and recent alluvium - the most notable at the Lindis River confluence and the wide floodplain of Inch Clutha. The river and its ancestral channels are responsible for the vast amounts of outwash filling the basins and for the sculpting of it into striking layered terrace treads separated by steep scarps, many impressive for their size and visually simple broad curving forms.

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River bank and beach material changes from quartzy boulders, cobbles and pebbles in the upper reaches to finer gravels, silts and sands in the lower reaches .. Occasional rock outcrop in the channel is present throughout.

The river tends to flow in straight to sinuous reaches between large kinks in its course with occasional stretches of strongly developed meander loops, eg., The Snake upstream of the Luggate Bridge; from Sandy Point to Maori Point in places; at Rigney; and both channels follow a classic deltaic meander pattern across Inch Clutha as if seeking to de.lay their separate arrivals at the Pacific Ocean.

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The Mata Au at Kaitangata

Whilst flooding is minimized along much of the river despite the volume of water passing through, due to the holding effect of the lakes and the entrenched natural of the channel, the flat coastal floodplain of Inch Clutha has experienced regular and severe flooding exacerbated by the Roxburgh Dam, "frequently dramatic and always costly" (Lonie 1986). This area is polder country where extensive stop-banking and pumping of ground water is employed to claim the rich flat ground for intensive farming production.

The flow of the river is distinctive. It tends to slide and glide past with a mercurial sheen to its waters. Boils, eddies and standing waves disrupt the surface rather than the chatter, rush and tumble of shallows and rapids although there are rapids, mostly small to moderate. The outstanding quality of the river however is its incredibly clear water and rich blue-green colour, due to the decanting effect of Lake Wanaka; and Young writes "though decorative bush along its banks may be lacking, the richness of the light patterns that fall upon this great green ribbon of power uncoiling through this beautifully harsh landscape more than atones for it".

The almost continuous stringer of willows from source to sea is another distinctive visual feature as are the strong meander loops and the flights of terraces and sculpted gully notched risers (eg, between Albert Town and the luggate Bridge; Sugarloaf).

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Cultural Heritage

The Clutha River plays a major part in the rich cultural heritage of Otago. The name Clutha Mata Au embodies the two main settler populations about the river. The Maori name Mata au is interpreted as "a current or eddy in an expanse of water" (Young and Foster 1986). Clutha is the ancient gaelic name for the river Clyde in Scotland, selected by the stern Calvinist promoters of Otago's settlement in preference to Captain Cook's name Molyneux for the river.

Whilst the river was a major means of transport and important source of resources for Maori, the exploitation of the river really began when Europeans arrived in New Zealand.






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The river was first exploited for alluvial gold in the 1860-1930's period mainly. Its bed and banks throughout its length were sifted, sorted and sluiced away.

A legacy of small schist stone buildings (stores, stables, cottages) literally grew up from the rocky ground, and water races laced the hillsides for kilometres - contour lines physically etched on the

landscape. The miners

introduced thyme, now

widespread over sunny rocky semi-arid slopes from the Kawarau Gorge to Roxburgh.

Stone cottage relict Lake Dunstan

Life was very hard and the river was both a source of hope and opportunity and certain death:

"the names of the departed scratched on boulders, cairns and graves tell of the river's treachery" (Young and Foster 1986)

Corpses, horses and mining gear was often seen floating down the river. The young man interred at the infamous Lonely Grave at Rigney was victim to the unforgiving deep waters of the river.

Manual mining methods were initially employed and had a substantial effect on the river landscape but then large scale dredging began in the late 19th century, greatly increasing the impact on the landscape. By 1900 there were over 300 dredge companies registered although not all had machinery operating on the river. In 1950 the dredge at Lowbum was reputedly the largest in the southern hemisphere (Lonie 1986). The last dredge in operation was at Eamscleugh in 1963.

The Lowbum Dredge 1951 (Young and Foster 1986)

The various settlements along the river - Cromwell, Clyde, Roxburgh, Millers Flat -began their life as mining towns, housing and servicing the hundreds of miners who toiled along the river. There were up to 1500 miners in the Roxburgh Gorge in the 1860's (Grzelewski 2003). There is still gold amongst the river's gravels but it is so fine" ... the banks are brocaded with the precious metal" (Grzelewski 2003).

The river is now crossed by 14 bridges (15 if one counts the Roxburgh Dam) and used to be serviced by a number of punts (there is now only one left at Tuapeka Mouth). But before roads and bridges were built the river was used frequently for transport - a "high speed

conveyor belf' used to raft logs from the Outlet to Cromwell to satisfy the building needs of the town (Grzelewski 2003).

The river was an obvious candidate for hydro-electric power generation with its rock-bound sections .. Demand for power has been high since the 1940's post-war period and two great concrete dams (Roxburgh 1956 and Clyde 1993) have been built across its path impounding long narrow extending up stream for many kilometers drowning the natural river and its marginal landforms. The 1960-70s period witnessed an extensive examination of the river for its hydroelectric potential, a very controversial period mirrored by the hydro development in the Waitaki-Mackenzie Basin] culminating in the completion in 1'993 of the nationally significant but widely contentious high dam at Clyde, the largest concrete dam in New Zealand.

The Clyde Dam

The construction of this dam greatly increased knowledge of the physical environment of the river corridor and brought to attention the huge ancient lands.lides of the Cromwell Gorge. Extensive and expensive stabilisation works were required before Lake Dunstan could be filled. There were proposals for a sequence of dams and storage lakes all the way down the Clutha, for 10 "concrete yokes" at rocky narrows, eg., Tuapeka Mouth, Beaumont, Dumbarton Rock (Grzelewski 2003) which would leave virtually none of the river untouched and in fact much of it would disappear beneath reservoir waters. These proposals are still "live" and the Tuapeka Mouth scenario was recently given (negative) publicity in the Otago Daily Times (April 1-2 2006). This would create another long narrow lake stretching up stream beyond Ettrick.

Proposals for damming Lake Wanaka however were too much to stomach and pressure groups were successful in getting the Lake Wanaka Preservation Act passed in 1973 which prohibits any alteration of the natural form of lake Wanaka and th'e river channel to the Cardrona confluence. This is now the only stretch of river in its natural state. Apart from the lakes, the downstream channels retain their natural integrity in form but flow is modified by the dams. Delivery of water for irrigation of vast acreages of dry outwash plain was also anticipated as an outcome of the hydro lakes, for example 840ot~a around Queensberry and Luggate. This would radically change the character of the landscape about the river, as it has on parts of the flats around Tarras and towards Cromwell. Irrigation from the river waters is currently too difficult because it is too deeply entrenched.

Radical landscape change along the river landscape corridor is part of its distinctive history. First there was a change from a predominantly woody cover (beech and podocarp forest, and mixed hardwood and kanuka woodland) to tussocklands and scrub through widespread and intensive burning in Maori times. Then gold mining re-modelled the topography in many areas along the Clutha in the 19th and early zo" century, accompanied by extensive degradation of the grasslands through repeated burning combined with heavy grazing by sheep and rabbits on enormous sheep runs on the hill and range country starting in 1857. Towards the end of the 19th century and into the first part of the 1900's, flatter more fertile land was subdivided off the large runs for smaller farms and particularly orchards. Cultivation, fencing] tree planting and irrigation in places changed the river landscape dramatically, taming it. Settlements, roads and rail were network.ed through the landscape, and were then re-built in part as hydro-power development flooded the valleys. Stone fruit and apple orchards are a quintessential feature of the Central Otago river landscape corridor

and adjacent lands, expressing the favourable intensely cold winters which minimise disease, the frost free springs and the fertile free draining alluvial soils ..


Pastoral land use remains the predominant

~ ........... , ... process shaping' the river corridor

landscape today. Contemporary change in the landscape of the river corridor however is characterised by expansion of vineyards and cherry orchards; large scale pivot and boom irrigation on the outwash plains (requiring the removal of trees); and the spread of small holdings for residential purposes and intensive production, "dollops of suburbia amongst budding vineyards" (Grzelewski 2003).

Cromwell Basin - pale patches are mesh-covered vines and cheny trees


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Subdivision for lifestyle and residential development is a major trend in landscape change in the Upper Clutha

The overall trend is one of continuous modification in type, intensity and extent, fuelled in places by the tenure review of high country pastoral leases which has resulted in the free holding of Crown land opening it up to development opportunities. The type of land use is changing from extensive and semi-intensive pastoral to more horticultural and non-farming uses, the intensity of land use is increasing and the extent of modified areas is increasing.

Less modified and natural areas are becoming fewer and smaller in extent. There used to be hundreds of salt pans in the Manuherikia basin, now there are only a handful of isolated sites scattered through the farm and orchard lands. Mining and gravel quarrying is still possibility in certain areas - lignite coal deposits are present around Roxburgh, between the Pomahaka and Clutha rivers and at Deadmans Point. A new large gravel pit is proposed on river-side land at The Nook at Luggate. Open cast coal mining and gravel extraction would potentially have substantial impacts on the landscape of the river corridor. The proposals for further hydro-development of the river are still live and would have major implications for the river landscape.

There are some rare trends in the opposite direction. Flat Top Hill; Bendigo and Queensberry kanuka areas; and Mahaka Katia are relatively new conservation areas bordering the river. With exclusion of grazing, degradation is being halted and native species are regaining a foothold. These areas will be proetcted in perpetuity from landcsape change due to farming, vineyards, orcharding and residential development.


It is clear the Clutha River is one of New Zealand's most significant rivers, for many reasons and despite its modified state. It is inextricably bound with some of New Zealand's most distinctive and cherished landscapes, repeatedly sought to be captured in painting, photography, writing and verse. It is valued as a scenic and recreational asset especially for angling. The river landscape has a rich cultural history and its presence and the events that happened along it are inured in the local and regional community. It is viewed as a national asset for power generation but any further proposals for development are likely to be strongly opposed. It is a largely untapped source of water for irrigation.


Grzelewski D What Price a River? in NZ Geographic No 65 Sept-Oct 2003

Lonie I M 1984 A History of Water Resource Management in the Clutha River Otago Catchment Board and Regional Water Board

McSaveney M J and Stirling M W Central Otago: Basin and Range Country in Landforms of New Zealand 2nd Edition eds Soons J M and Selby M J 1992

Otago Regional Water Board 1980 Clutha Catchment Water Allocation Plan - A Land and Water Resource Inventory of the Clutha Catchment, Volumes 1 and 2

Peat N and Patrick B 1999 Wild Central University of otago Press

van Reenen G 2004 Central Otago NZ

Young D and Foster B 1986 Faces of the River TVNZ Publishing