The incredible drive along historic Skippers Canyon Road

Protected by the NZ Heritage Places Trust, the road into Skippers Canyon built in the late 1880's, is an engineering marvel.

The Gold Rush

Once gold was discovered at Arthurs Point one sunny Sunday afternoon in 1862, Miners flocked to the area and undertook crazy and incredible journey’s to reach the gold in Skippers Canyon. 

The extremely difficult access to the upper Shotover River created an urgent demand for formed tracks, and in 1863 a man by the name of Armstrong constructed a pack trail from Arthurs Point, up through Coronet Saddle and down Long Gully to Maori Point.  This old pack trail is recognised as one of the most scenic MTB rides in New Zealand – and probably one of the most interesting!  

Armstrong’s Pack Trail was used for over twenty years until the Skippers Road was opened in 1888.  The road is an amazing engineering feat, and today remains substantially unchanged from the earliest days.  Taking only five years to build, four different contractors were used on different sections of the road.  From a technological perspective, the road is of outstanding significance.  It is first and foremost, a remarkable structural feat.   It’s also celebrated for its magnificent setting and the role it plays in the environment.  Impact on the landscape has been minimal, but the road’s impact was massive in terms of cultural & economic significance and is carved into NZ lore for its role in mining, farming and tourism heritage.   The New Zealand Historic Places Trust recognises that “Skippers Road is an iconic New Zealand road of outstanding heritage significance”.

Road Construction

Some of the sections are truly extraordinary, particularly those that required constructing the road through sheer rock, including the 3km Pinchers Bluff & Devils Elbow section. This involved the removal of an entire portion of rock wall known as the Zig-Zag which overhung  the river to create a rock platform wide enough for vehicles.   Aptly called by the constructors’ nickname, the road was “at a tight pinch” for heavy wagons drawn by 6 horses.  The magnitude of the achievement of Pincher and his men with picks, shovels and hand drills is almost unbelievable.   The workforce included a number of Cantonese workers, supplementing their income from mining in the area.  It was often these Chinese workers who were lowered on ropes from the cliff-top, to hand drill the holes for the explosives or chisel rock away.   Some portions required substantial dry stone revetting to support the road from beneath, which in one case may have been to prop up the road platform where workers accidentally blew up the foundations!  Accidents were common and lives were lost.

Working Octogenarians

Naturally there are many wonderfully colourful characters, and fascinating stories of their lives in the “Golden Canyon” to be told.   One of the best known and most spectacular of the folks associated with the road was Julien Bourdeau, a French Canadian who had his stores depot at Junction Corner (better known today as Coronet Peak turnoff).  Goods from Queenstown would be delivered to the store where they were broken down into smaller lots suitable for pack horses to carry.    Bourdeau was a man of legendary strength who apparently suffered little inconvenience from the weather,  always being seen with his shirt open, hairy chest and face bare to the elements.  He carried goods, mail and later on early “tourists”, into the Canyon twice a week for twenty years before the road was constructed.  After the road was finished Bourdeau’s service continued; he could often get his pack horses, equipped with iron spiked shoes through mud, slips and snow where wheeled vehicles would become immovably bogged in the torturous and dangerous winters.  Literate and voluble in French though not in English - the pack horses understood apparently and luckily the ladies of the area, did not. He plied his trade for 54 years, dying in 1916 aged 86 after going for a rest after completing another run into his Skippers Store near Burkes Terrace.  Remarkably, the Mayor of Queenstown received a letter from Bordeau’s parents in 1917 asking why their son’s letters had stopped?  

Bordeau was not the only working Octogenarian.  Believe it or not, there were many well known inhabitants of the Canyon who lived and worked well into their eighties!  It was commonly held that if a person survived the first twenty years, they’d be good for at least another sixty!

Early Tourism

The first hotel, McArthur’s, was built in Long Gully in 1863 adjoining the old track on the eastern side.  It was closed in 1888 when Sarah & Harry “Charlie” Lewis opened the Welcome Home Inn, on the new road.  Pioneer tourists came by wagonette from Queenstown to have cups of tea, local introductions, and "Mrs Lewis’ extremely fine dinners".  Some stayed overnight.  Day trips to Mt Aurum Station by wagon drawn by 4 or 5 horses were also popular.  It took an average of 5 hours to get into the Station where the horses were changed for the return journey.  There was an average of around 8 tourism coaches on the road each day.

The Lake Wakatipu Mail wrote:

SKIPPERS. Is a wild and romantic mining district, about twenty miles from Queenstown, from which place the trip to Skippers is considered the premier excursion for tourists, daily trips being made, leaving at 8am and returning at 6pm, the mode of conveyance being by coach, each comfortably accommodating ten passengers, all box seats, thus ensuring an uninterrupted view. The return fare, including morning tea and luncheon, is 19 shillings.

The first car drove over the road illegally in 1912.  Bikes were prohibited until 1896, and motor traffic until 1907.  From 1918 a concession was made to allow motor vehicles between 7pm and 8am and this remained right through until 1926.  

Today

A modern claim to fame for the Canyon is as a Tolkien Gateway.  Skippers has appeared in Lord of the Rings movies as the River Bruinen (Loudwater) where Frodo makes his stand defing the Witch-King Gangmar, on the way to Rivendell.  Gandolf the Grey releases a great flood which takes the form of horses made out of water which defeats the Black Riders at the Ford of Bruinen.

Rental cars are NOT insured to drive on this road.  It’s a much better idea to leave the driving to a professional and sit back and enjoy the sights and hear the stories from a knowledgeable guide. 

Family Adventures offers a great sightseeing and soft adventure trip by bus/van and raft which is suitable for everyone from 3 years old.  See the spectacular road for yourself, and then take to the river at Ford of Bruinen for a gentle float trip on the upper Shotover River.  This section of the river is very quiet and is rated as only grade 1 & 2.  The raft provides incredible access to mining relics and wonderful spots that are inaccessible other than from the River.  There is of course water fun for those who want it, but the raft trip itself is gentle and is not an adrenaline activity!  

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