& we drop in to Clyde
There was a time not so very long ago, when it was possible to pick up a little cottage in Clyde for peanuts and a few people did. Some were bought by eccentrics looking for a place to be eccentric, some were bought as holiday homes and some were bought by people who knew that Clyde offered great summers and a tight little community in which to button up for winter. Those days are gone. Today Clyde is a thriving holiday destination with a great deal of restoration going on and a number of new constructions, complete or underway, catering to the tourist, and particularly the rail trail market. Today Clyde is the last word in boutique fashion and it's looking good.
Of course it is a far cry from the days when Clyde was not just the centre of the region but could lay serious claim to being the most populous centre in the country.
Like all settlements in Central Otago it all started with the discovery of gold, on this occasion in 1861 by two wandering miners, one an American by the name of Horatio Hartley and the other an Irishman called Christopher O'Reilly.
After claiming their £2000 reward for the discovery in Dunedin, the two prospectors returned to the site along with an armed escort and a train of eager prospectors.
When they arrived at the spot however, the Clutha River, then known as the Molyneux, had risen and it was only the escort that saved the two from being lynched by an angry mob that now believed the pair had duped them.
However after Hartley marched into the river up to his neck with a shovel and came out with colour showing on the blade, all was forgiven and within a year, 40,000 miners were living under canvas and in crude shelters built under overhanging rocks, the most numerous gathering of humanity in the country.
By the end of the first year, the field had yielded close to 2,000 kilograms (70,000 ounces) of gold and it was still highly productive when a few years later gold was discovered on the West Coast and many of the miners rushed off yet again believing as always that the next big thing was always the best thing going.
To keep gold flowing from the Central Otago fields, local businessmen with the support of the Otago Provincial Council, invited Chinese in from the Australia gold fields that were by then running down. Their numbers peaked at just over 5,000 in 1881 when they constituted about 40 per cent of Otago's miners.
By then, some Chinese had moved onto the goldfields of the West Coast while others had abandoned mining to take up occupations in areas like retailing and market gardening.
By about 1870, traditional mining methods at the Dunstan field came to an end and gold was extracted by sluicing and dredging companies (at one stage about 30 dredges operated on the Clutha River between Clyde and Alexandra).
By then the Government passed a number of restrictive laws affecting the Chinese, including a £10 entry poll tax that jumped to £100 in 1896.
However this did not stop a number of Chinese from becoming highly successful in business.
Choie Sew Hoy, a Dunedin-based merchant, developed a new type of bucket dredge to work his Big Beach claim on the Shotover River. It was the prototype for what became known as the ‘New Zealand gold dredge' which was recognised internationally and many dredges of the same design ended up operating on the river around Clyde.
Sew Hoy and his son Choie Kum Poy then went on to develop large-scale hydraulic elevating and sluicing on their claim at Nokomai, south of Queenstown.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO TAKE A BOAT tour from Clyde down the Clutha to view the remnants of the gold rush. The commentary from Laurence, the skipper and guide, confirmed he was obviously passionate about the history of the area.
Laurence is English and he bought the business last year after working seasonally for the company for six years. He was brought up on Ibiza where he still keeps a second home and a business that he manages during the New Zealand winter, a sensible arrangement if you can swing it.
His commentary during the tour provided fascinating insights into the way the two completely segregated communities lived. Sadly there were many examples of Chinese being treated very badly at the hands of their white neighbours, particularly as gold became harder to win.
Although looking at the tiny, cold shelters that both made do with, and this in a region almost entirely lacking trees for firewood, it is difficult to believe that either community could have had much more on their minds than the dream of gold and the immediate need to survive.
Not that life on the gold field was without at least some relief from the endless backbreaking monotony of shovelling ton after ton of gravel and dirt. It is a matter of record that there were any number of grog shops selling liquor to the miners as well as numerous Chinese opium dealers selling their product to their compatriots.
It must have been a wild place, Laurence told us, with half the population drunk and the other half stoned. (In 2002 the Prime Minister Helen Clark formally apologised to the Chinese community in New Zealand for the poll tax and gave five million dollars to the newly formed Chinese Heritage Poll Tax Trust.)
Although Clyde began life as a “canvas” town, permanent structures started to appear within a few years when the occupants of tent sites were given the opportunity to buy the title to their land. Many built cottages and Laurence now lives in one of them.
It is difficult to believe that communities could have had much more on their minds than the dream of gold and the immediate need to survive.
After returning from the cruise, we relaxed in an interior that had obviously been converted to a more open plan arrangement by a previous owner. Laurence was grateful for the changes as he said he could never have persuaded himself to interfere with the layout of the old building which would have consigned him to live in various tiny rooms.
Among his eclectic collection of historic bits and pieces, there was a pair of ancient oars fastened to a wall which he told me were from one of the many lighters that supplied coal to the steam dredges that came along after 1870.
Manning the lighters in the fast flowing waters, the fastest in fact of any river in the Southern hemisphere, was he told me one of the most dangerous occupations on the gold field.
A lighter still existed at the local museum and the following day I made a point of visiting it.
In fact the two local museums provided a wonderfully comprehensive portrait of the development of the town.
The one with the lighter is located in an old herb factory that dried and packaged the wild thyme that still grows wild over the hills and along the river banks. When dried and cleaned, it was found to be as good a product as any in the world and from the early 1930s it found a ready market in Auckland.
The green thyme was cut and brought to the factory by residents of the district. Families would often make a day of it, enjoying a picnic in the hills while cutting bundles of the herb. Wild briars also grow throughout the region and briar hips were collected for processing in Dunedin into rose hip syrup.
Forty thousand pounds of green thyme was handled annually as well as quantities of sage, mint and other herbs. Exports were contemplated but the work was dusty and unpleasant and it became increasingly hard to find staff.
Eventually the business folded and after being empty for many years, the buildings became the present museum. Among the collections housed there is the original herb processing machinery alongside a variety of exhibits illustrating early life in the district.
The second museum, the Vincent County and Dunstan Goldfields Historical Museum is located in the old Magistrates and Wardens Court House and I was fortunate to have the curator John Hanning show me through.
The collection included the old dock from the original courthouse where in 1870 a shoe maker by the name of George Rennie was found guilty of the only significant gold theft to occur in the area.
By the time of the great gold robbery, Clyde was a thriving town. The various names, including Upper Town and Dunstan, had been replaced in 1865 by the name Clyde, when the Post Office adopted the name.
Working in concert with the local policeman, who had access to the gaol where cash gold and cash were kept, overnight on their way to Dunedin under armed guard he removed £13,000 in gold and banknotes and lit out on his horse, promptly losing his way.
The weight of gold tired his horse and he stopped to bury some of it for later retrieval, also burning his false beard and other items. Nearby miners investigated the blaze and he was soon in custody.
After being shown a poster promising £1,500 reward and ‘a free pardon in the event of the person giving such information being an accomplice in the robbery' he confessed, naming the policeman as the mastermind. Sadly for him the jur y decided he had breached the rules of ‘mate ship' by informing on his friend and he received a six-year gaol term while the policeman went free.
By the time of the great gold robbery, Clyde was a thriving town. The various names, including Upper Town (with Alexandra being Lower Town) and Dunstan, had been replaced in 1865 by the name Clyde, when the Post Office adopted the name.
Lord Clyde, the Commander of the British forces during the Indian Mutiny was then much admired. A year later it became a municipality after a petition was signed by sixty-one residents requesting local government representation.
CLYDE REMAINED the administrative centre for the district until 1889 when it was relocated to nearby rival Alexandra who managed to wrest the seat of power away by building a bridge across the river and making their town a viable place from which to administer the region.
Clyde became something of a forgotten back water which at least preserved many of its historic buildings from the threat of development.
However it never completely faded away partly due to the micro-climate it enjoys offering hot, dry summers, with mild springs and autumns rich with colour.
The building of the massive Clyde Dam above the town revived it to a degree and although the completion of the dam signalled the closure of the Otago Central Branch Railway, it made possible the development of the scenic Taieri Gorge Line from Dunedin to Middlemarch and the cycle trail that now runs along the old line from that point to Clyde.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is now a 150-kilometre walking, cycling and horse riding track enjoyed by at least 10,000-12,000 people every year with numbers increasing by about seven per cent annually.
It is also acknowledged to be, by a considerable margin, the most significant economic contributor to the Maniototo-Alexandra area after farming.
Because Clyde is located at the western end of the trail, it has benefited a great deal from the influx of visitors and today the town offers a unique opportunity to enjoy a sophisticated cafe lifestyle in a rich historic setting.
Like nearby Cromwell, the area produces wonderful fruit and wine and in fact one of the very first wine makers in New Zealand, a Frenchman named Jean Desire Feraud, lived here, making wine and marketing it successfully throughout the country in lovely blue bottles from the mid-1860s.
THERE ARE VARIOUS accommodation options, several of them right in the middle of the old town. Dunstan House offers a boutique hotel experience in a graceful stone building dating from the turn of the last century.
The building went through a period of neglect until 1968 when it was purchased by Fleur Sullivan, the wellknown chef and hospitality entrepreneur, who partly restored it to operate as a back packers and antique store.
It enjoyed further renovations under subsequent owners and today it offers comfortable heritage accommodation with central heating and all the modern comforts.
John and Maree Davidson purchased the building in 2005 and they love nothing better than sharing the history of the place with their guests. Born and bred locally, they have a passion for the building that is obvious from the moment you walk in.
The hotel had its origins back in 1863 when the original wooden Dunstan Hotel was erected on the site with a theatre for Saturday night entertainment that featured a brass band and dancing girls who made a dramatic entrance by emerging from the extensive cellar.
John and Maree revived the high jinks when they had the cancan dance troupe, The Buckingham Belles from Arrowtown perform, emerging from the cellar which still exists.
The Hotel was also the booking office for Cobb & Co's horse drawn coaches and provided accommodation for both passengers and horses.
The present building was built in 1899 using local schist stone and features a magnificent central wooden staircase. Hanging beside it is a photograph of a dapper gentleman called Albert Otago Fountain, the man who built it.
The imposing Georgian style two story building was the first of its kind in Central Otago and it thrived for decades, finally closing in 1937.
A legend that several horses were ridden up the stairs on the final night was verified when John and Maree found hoof marks in the wooden treads.
Today the large colonial veranda overlooking the main street is a popular sunny place for guests to relax and enjoy the various entertainments that Clyde provides.
Directly across the road is a sprawling complex of old, mostly stone buildings called Olivers and it also offers a range of accommodation.
Established in 1869 by a local merchant Benjamin Naylor, the complex is regarded as one of Otago's most significant heritage buildings and it enjoys a New Zealand Historic Places Trust category one classification.
The property has passed through many hands over the years but it was again Fleur Sullivan who made it famous when she opened a highly successful restaurant in 1977 in the old store, naming it Olivers.
She also created Olivers Lodge accommodation in the existing outbuildings and homestead, kick starting boutique tourism in the area.
The general store is the largest of the buildings in the complex of eight stone buildings and structures which are Rail largely trail built cyclists in the at Olivers, vernacular Main. style St. and occupy over half a hectare of land on the corner of Sunderland and Naylor Streets.
Called The Victoria Store, it originally sold provisions to the miners and now houses a large bicycle hire business.
However the current owners Andrea and David Ritchie have restored and renovated it to re-open as a restaurant, boutique brewery and bakery by the end of the year. The couple have worked closely with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust to faithfully restore all the traditional schist buildings including the homestead, built by Naylor for his family of seven children, and the stables, coach and smoke houses, all of which now offer boutique guest accommodation.
Their vision to once again achieve the national and international profile enjoyed by Olivers during the Sullivan years has been largely realised and even surpassed. Olivers now offers luxurious accommodation in funky, once humbly utilitarian structures that have history engrained in their very fabric.
Whether you elect to stay in one of the town's historic buildings or stay at a B&B or pitch a tent in the camping ground, there always seems to be something going on to enhance every visit.
In late September when all the fruit trees throughout the region bust into bloom, Clyde and Alexandra cohost a Blossom Festival to celebrate the beginning of spring. Throughout the week, the festival presents a series of parades and concerts and divers other entertainments, although the best display is undoubtedly the explosion of colour in the orchards themselves.
Another event that has achieved national prominence is the annual Clyde Wine and Food Harvest Festival which is held on Easter Sunday each year in the main street of Clyde in Central Otago. The festival celebrates wines from the world's most southerly vineyards and it has become Otago's biggest wine event and one of the most popular throughout the country. There are also regular farmers markets and a new boutique cinema running the most recent and the most critically acclaimed films.
The cinema and associated bistro are run as a family affair with David and Karen Smythe managing the bistro, while their son Sam operates the cinema.
David was a successful furniture designer in Dunedin with the celebrated Otago Furniture Company (which was established in 1868) for forty years before he and Karen got into the hospitality industry by reopening the celebrated Dunedin restaurant 95 Filleul Street.
They next opened the Shaky Bridge Café in Alexandra and then bought the iconic Central Otago property Lauderdale Estate which they further developed as a wedding and events venue.
When the opportunity came up to buy a vineyard near Clyde, they sold the estate and relocated to the town, taking over the bistro soon after.
David explains that he was largely motivated by a desire to stay in the area and of course the bistro also offers an excellent opportunity to sell and promote their label, Barrington Wine. The fare on offer includes wood fired pizza, in a large airy space featuring signature railway themes and an extensive outdoor dining area when weather permits.
The next step was to complete the semi attached boutique cinema which opened in March 2013 with luxury red leather armchairs for its audience of forty. Equipped with its own charming candy bar, it has four daily showings of a range of recently released movies selected by Sam. As he selects only the kind of films that real film buffs will enjoy, he has succeeded in attracting a loyal local clientele and they and the large number of rail trail riders visiting the town, have ensured the cinema is well patronised.
I have been to Clyde many times, but in spite of the tiny area it occupies, I always find something new to enjoy and to marvel at. It is an obvious cliché to describe any destination as a jewel but Clyde deserves the epithet. It is a beautiful window into another age and a wonderful opportunity to observe people living happily with the past rather than preciously living in it.
Istarted my most recent sojourn to Lake Dunstan with a visit to the Victoria Arms Hotel. Built in 1887, the historic hotel sits on the Lake Dunstan shore in Cromwell at the place where the Clutha and Kawarau rivers used to meet. Built of schist rock, it became the last remaining hotel of its era after the others were ‘drowned' by the rising waters behind the Clyde dam.
It has since enjoyed major restoration and renovation work at the hands of the owner Mark ‘Paddy' Sugrue and it is a comfortable place to spin a few yarns and enjoy the view of the lake.
Paddy tells me that the town of Cromwell got its name after an Ulsterman was appointed as the surveyor for the district. His staunchly pro-British views were unpopular with the Irish miners who also drank at the hotel that occupied the site prior to a fire which necessitated the erection of the present building.
One night they threw the surveyor out through a closed window and as an act of revenge he renamed the town, which had previously been known as ‘The Junction' in honour of Oliver Cromwell.
It was a savage choice. After overthrowing the King in England, Cromwell's conquering army had put down a rebellion in Ireland, murdering and starving to death by burning crops, about 600,000 people out of a total Irish population of less than one and a half million.
Defenestration, I learn, seemed to then become something of a tradition in Cromwell with the first mayor sometimes throwing political opponents out through the Council Chamber's windows.
The settlement had its beginnings in 1862 after two prospectors arrived in Dunedin with eighty-seven pounds of gold that they had recovered from a spot about a mile down the river from the hotel. The resultant rush into what was then a wild and inhospitable area of freezing cold winters and baking summers, saw thousands of miners take the rugged track through the Cromwell Gorge.
They were rewarded with a rich field and soon a canvas town sprang up on the barren ground on both sides of the confluence of the two rivers with up to three thousand men living under canvas and in primitive huts made of stacked stone.
Large scale dredging had largely replaced individual effort as the turn of the century approached and by 1899, one hundred and thirty nine dredging companies had been registered with some dredges recovering up to one thousand ounces a week.
When the gold finally began to give out, Cromwell became the service centre for a farming and stone fruit growing area with many of the extensive water races that had previously served the miners, being adapted for the needs of horticulture.
Its strategic location between the Lindis and the Haast passes, and its proximity to Wanaka, Queenstown and Alexandra, combined to also make it a logical transport hub for the region. HOWEVER BY THE 1950S, engineers were looking at the huge volume of water flowing down the Clutha with a view to power generation. In fact the river is the largest by volume in the country, second in length only to the Waikato, and it is also one of the fastest flowing in the world.
The idea was adopted as one of a raft of ‘Think Big' projects by the third Robert Muldoon National government. It vigorously promoted the various schemes as a way to revive an economy hit hard by the 1973 energy crisis and the subsequent chain of oil price shocks, along with the loss of the country's biggest export market following Britain's entry into the common market.
However, the electorate was bitterly divided about the plan with the Clyde Dam being perhaps the most contentious of the massive undertakings that would collectively consume more billions of dollars than was ever accurately accounted. (Included in those costs were various loans amounting to about seven billion dollars.)
Today there seems to be a general consensus that Think Big sank New Zealand into a pit of enormous debt without a return of any significance.
The Clyde dam alone would end up costing in 2005 dollar values somewhere between 1.4 billion and 2 billion, which was about a billion more than the initial budgeted cost.
The reason for the blowout was the belated discovery that the ‘River Channel Fault', part of the great Alpine Fault, ran directly beneath the dam.
Further investigations then revealed the disturbing fact that the Cromwell Gorge, which would be flooded by the dam, suffered major geo-technical hazards throughout its length.
Harold W. Wellman, the pre-eminent New Zealand geologist of the 20th century, was greatly concerned by the planned dam, pointing out that the Alpine Fault was one of the biggest and most active transcurrent faults in the world. An international review team of geologists then released a report that was highly critical of the lack of proper pre-dam construction investigation work.
A number of experts expressed the view that there was no way the dam design could be made safe or the landslide zones stabilised to reduce the risks to an acceptable level posed by a major earthquake that they calculated was statistically likely to hit before the year 2030.
They were largely ignored however and $936 million was then spent stabilising fourteen major landslide zones in the gorge, even though it was recognised that most of it was potentially unstable.
Over 18 km of tunnels were drilled throughout the gorge to drain off subterranean water that might destabilise the rock.
In spite of such efforts, at least one landslide occurred at Cairnmuir, a series of bluffs towering over the gorge above the dam, while the dam was under construction.
A danger remains that a massive landslide into the lake could still result in a wave that would flow over the top of the dam and travel down the lower valley at tremendous speeds while other catastrophic waves could race back to Cromwell. In that event the destruction would not end there.
There is a second, older dam down river at Roxburgh. It had been opened in 1963 with no earthquake mitigation incorporated into its design and with no landslide stabilisation work above it, although large landslide zones were known to exist in the Roxburgh Gorge.
The dam had a leakage problem almost from the moment it held water and it has since sustained a number of seismic cracks. An active fault runs close to the dam at Coal Creek. Scientists feared that if the Clyde dam was compromised, the Roxburgh dam would also be at extreme risk.
When the alarming potential for an earthquake was recognised, it was proposed that the Clyde dam incorporate a slip joint in each side capable of withstanding vertical movement up to one meter and a lateral shift of twice that.
However Gerald Lensen, a leading scientist on active fault research whose work with the New Zealand Geographical Survey, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) had won him international acclaim, calculated that an earthquake of magnitude eight would result in an earth shift of eight meters horizontally and four meters vertically.
He also believed that the fault movement would most likely be tensional and pointed out that in that event, a slip joint would not work as a tensional movement would simply pull the joint away from the sides of the dam.
When his concerns were dismissed, he resigned in protest and the slip joint was duly incorporated at further massive cost. NOT ALL PROTEST against the dam was triggered by fear of a catastrophic failure following a landslide or a severe earthquake or a worst case nightmare scenario combination of the two.
Cromwell was tipped to become a major tourism attraction with a main street of historic buildings and a spectacular bridge overlooking the famous Cromwell Gap.
Downriver the Roxburgh Gorge boasted spectacular rapids offering Alexandra and Roxburgh unrivalled potential for high volume white-water kayaking and rafting.
When the local community learned that the historic main street of old Cromwell, the Cromwell Gorge including the famous Cromwell Junction, the Lower Kawarau Gorge (including Sargood's Rapid which was then rated the best white-water rapid in the world), the Cromwell Gap Rapid, the Lowburn area, and numerous orchards and homes would be submerged, along with 2300 hectares of productive land and the Otago Central Railway line beyond Clyde, there was widespread protest.
Environmentalists, scientists, lawyers, recreational river users, families that had lived here for generations, and others that had recently moved to the area, protested along with a powerful collection of prominent artists. Among their number, Ralph Hotere, Andrew Drummond, Chris Cree-Brown and Chris Booth produced work in protest and mounted a number of highly acclaimed exhibitions.
The need for a high dam at Clyde was disputed by many experts who pointed out that the modest storage capacity of the dam would mean that in any event, the turbines would be powered by the normal flow of the river and there was a low dam option that would have also operated on the ‘run of the river' and incurred a loss of only 2% of the high dam's output.
Had this been chosen, old Cromwell and Lowburn would have remained high and dry while a low dam would have minimised the dangers posed by landslides and earthquakes. 16kms of the original 21 km highway through the Cromwell Gorge would have remained and the long-term reservoir sedimentation issues and costs – including eventual decommissioning of the dam – would have been significantly reduced.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the ultimate decision to go with a high dam was the fact that it was built to last just eighty years. It is therefore now one quarter of the way through its planned lifecycle and a future generation will face the daunting task of removing the dam and restoring the river, a task that will take many years at a cost that could be up to one and a half times the cost of building the dam in the first place.
The Kirk Labour government was sufficiently concerned by such considerations that it decided a low dam was the right option but the following National government overturned the decision in favour of building a high dam.
They only just made it. An initial grant of water rights for the dam was overturned by the High Court following an appeal by landowners. National were only able to overturn this decision with the support of Social Credit who had previously opposed a high dam and finally in 1979, the gigantic task began.
A peak of one thousand workers on site poured a total of one million cubic metres of concrete to create the dam and another 200,000 cubic metres to construct the power station. Massive buttresses of compacted rock and gravel were built to stabilise the hillsides and 6,500 measuring and monitoring instruments were installed around the lakeshore.
By 1993 construction was finally completed with the new lake being filled by the end of that same year with pristine water from Lake Wakatipu and Lake Wanaka. These lakes provided uncontrolled flows into Lake Dunstan while a new earth dam on Lake Hawea was completed to provide water storage managed by control gates.
Four massive turbines pumping out 432 Megawatts of power hummed into life, fed by a twenty six square kilometre lake reaching from Clyde through the Cromwell Gorge to Cromwell where it broadened to a body of water extending back to the Kawarau River at Bannockburn and up to the delta where the Clutha empties into it.
Cromwell is located at the junction of the roads to Wanaka, Queenstown and Mt Cook and the new lake was immediately popular with families who have ever since enjoyed holidays camping, swimming, fishing, boating, cycling and tramping around it.
Work forming beaches around Cromwell had begun in the 1982 and today the place buzzes with activity in the warm summer season, as do places like the Bannockburn Inlet. It is easy to imagine that the lake has always been here as the landscaping around its shores looks so settled and natural.
Cromwell Township had by then been rebuilt on higher ground while the residential area soon doubled in size. The town centre had been relocated to become the current mall and many services were upgraded. A number of new educational and sports facilities were established and a new bridge was built. The old bridge was now under water of course and divers were later amused to find a car parked on it.
In early 1985, a group of concerned citizens had formed ‘Save Old Cromwell' and chosen eight buildings from the old commercial area for relocation to higher ground along the new lake foreshore.
Operating through a Board, the group eventually reconstructed an historic commercial, residential and rural zone that today looks as if it has always been there.
Numerous businesses have occupied the old buildings including cafés and art galleries and it draws a steady crowd of locals and tourists.
ONE SUCH BUSINESS is the goldsmith's shop occupied by Les Riddell, the only building in the precinct still used for its original purpose.
Les grew up on Baffin Island, a harsh and isolated mountain range that rears out of the sea near Greenland that is bigger than New Zealand and boasts a total population of just eleven thousand souls. Naturally, Les finds the climate of central Otago pleasantly mild and enjoys the fact that there are no Polar Bears looking to eat him when he goes hunting.
Les was delighted to learn that the space that is now his shop and studio was originally occupied by a former major who was a watch maker and the local dentist. Today he spends his days patiently crafting jewellery and talking to his many visitors.
The new lake provided irrigation for nearby stone fruit orchards and vineyards, the latter being established at around this time when the first Pinot Noir in Central Otago was planted in the Kawarau Gorge.
Although the vineyards were significantly further south than all other wine regions in New Zealand, the benefits of being surrounded by mountain ranges which increased temperature variations both between seasons and between night and day, were quickly appreciated.
The Kawarau valley has thin top soil over a bed rock of schist and early vineyards blasted holes into the bare rock of north facing slopes with miners' blasting caps in which they planted their vines.
Irrigation was essential and fortunately the lake was ready for just that purpose. The low cropping techniques and the thermal effect of the rock combined to produce grapes of great intensity.
These grapes made wines that displayed the distinctive acidity and abundant fruit of better New Zealand offerings but also possessed uncharacteristic complexity, with aromas and flavours normally associated with Burgundian wine.
Today wine lovers visiting the region can sample a wide range of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Rose at numerous cellar doors, many of which offer dining experiences to complement their wines.
Those wishing to see how wine is made, can visit cellar doors like Rockburn
Wines which offers a tasting room set within the fully-operational winery. Here visitors have the opportunity to taste their full product range which is handily situated in Cromwell's industrial estate.
Cellar door manager Nic Taylor loves introducing people to the range with free tastings of their award winning products and the winery is now the second most popular attraction in Cromwell on Trip Advisor.
Many of the vineyards are located on the water, one such being Terra Sancta whose land in Bannockburn lies on the bank of the Kawarau River at the point where it runs into the headwaters of the lake.
Mark Weldon and Sarah Eliott swapped high powered city jobs to take on the small vineyard, located on the famous Felton Road in Bannockburn.
They renamed it Terra Sancta, meaning ‘sacred earth' or more colloquially ‘special dirt'. It was certainly special for the miners who sluiced huge quantities of gold from the soft schist hills that overlook the vineyard and it is special today.
The vineyard contains the first vines planted in Bannockburn, and indeed in the entire Wanaka-Cromwell-Bendigo region and with the sweet perfume of wild thyme in the air and with bees and butterflies flitting among the six thousand trees growing throughout the vineyard, it is indeed a very special place.
On the day I visited, the couple were hosting a luncheon for a group of outstanding New Zealanders selected for leadership awards by the Sir Peter Blake Trust. Mark and Sarah were predictably busy but it was also obvious that they thoroughly enjoyed having guests.
Mark was an Olympic swimmer and the CEO of the New Zealand Stock Exchange while Sarah was a lawyer who had also worked as a rugby tour manager (British Lions 2005), a strategy and communications specialist, and brand manager.
She recalls the moment she first appreciated that wine was a great deal more than something you drank to be social was when she shared a bottle of French Riesling from Alsace with Mark in Oriental Bay in Wellington. At that moment, she says, she suddenly appreciated that wine could be something magical and mysterious.
Today wine is obviously big business throughout the region and the proliferation of vineyards around the lake has established an atmosphere that has attracted many new settlers to the area.
It has also helped to attract a number of new businesses with the most dramatic being the new motorsport complex at Highlands Motorsports Park.
The 4.5 km international-standard circuit is located just outside Cromwell and is operated primarily as an exclusive members-only facility. There are three complete different tracks that can be used at the same time in addition to a 650 metre go kart track.
Visitors can also take a high speed excursion in a Porsche GT3 Cup Car or spend time in the National Motorsport Museum that boasts a Café and Gift Shop. Those wishing for more substantial fare will find it at The Nose, a restaurant, café and wine tasting facility located next to the entrance.
New communities are growing beside the lake like the one at Pisa Moorings and more are planned. The dream for many, however, is to find that special block of land and start something of their own.
Murray and Shirley George found their spot across the river from the moonscape of the Bannockburn Sluicings and although Murray was still fully occupied as an electrical contractor in Dunedin, the pair spent as much time on their block as they could manage.
They first built a garage and workshop for Murray's collection of classic Fords and then built their dream retirement home. They also bought a job-lot of walnut and hazelnut trees, the latter being ‘infected' with truffle spore and planted out the block. They have yet to cut their ties with Dunedin but look forward to the day when they move in for good.
It is not hard to understand the attraction. After you have enjoyed a long, hot central Otago summer beside the lake or simply relaxed with an outstanding local wine on a crisp winter afternoon watching the fading light playing beautiful tricks on the lake surface and on the folded, golden hills, the area around Lake Dunstan really needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
It may have been born in controversy and it may live on in a certain atmosphere of uncertainty but Lake Dunstan is undeniably beautiful.
View of Lake Dunstan from Victoria Arms Hotel, Old Cromwell Town.
Clyde Dam from Clyde Bridge.
Laurence, owner Clutha River Cruises.
Coal lighter, Clyde Museum.
Miners ruin on Clutha Rriver.
Coal lighter at work in 1870s.
Old Clyde Post Office now restaurant.
John Hanning, curator, Clyde Museum.
Old house, Clyde.
View from Clyde Bridge to Clyde Dam.
Guests on Dunstan House balcony.
David and Andrea Ritchie, Olivers owners.
Maree Davidson, owner Dunstan House.
Clyde Cinema and Bistro.
Under Clyde Bridge.
Paddy Sugrue, owner of Victoria Arms Hotel, Cromwell.
Old Cromwell Town.
Original goldsmith building, Old Cromwell Town.
Nicola Taylor, cellar door manager and Malcolm Francis, winemaker, Rockburn Wines, Cromwell.
Les Riddell, goldsmith, Old Cromwell Town.
Mark Weldon and Sarah Elliott, owners Terra Sancta wines, Bannockburn.
Murray and Shirley George on their property, Bannockburn.