Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Old Woman and the Water Race

In the hills of Otago there is lots of history. Much of it relates to gold mining, which first brought large amounts of people, including Chinese, to the region. And to mine gold you needed water, something often in short supply. So they built water races, many of which still survive to this day.

I drove up the Nevis Rd to the summit and parked the car. Then it was off along the rutted 4WD track to Duffers Saddle. The Carrick Range Water Race crosses the saddle and continues downhill, to feed the waterwheel at Young Australian Mine before heading down to Carricktown and Bannockburn, where it now irrigates vineyards. I was heading uphill, to its source.

Race at Duffers Saddle heading down towards Bannockburn

Duffers Saddle, water race crossing road in middle of picture

I began by heading up to the top of Old Woman Range, a wind swept barren tableland of tussock, speargrass and emerging spring wildflowers, with imposing rocky tors.

I stopped in at Old Woman Hut for lunch. It's a tidy little hut sheltered in a gully, and quite popular with hunters and 4WD enthusiasts according to the hut book. It's only an hour and a half walk from the road so also an easy day trip.

From Old Woman Hut I continued south along the range, climbing even higher. There were views down to Cromwell and Lake Dunstan to the north, Clyde to the east, the Remarkables Range to the west, and the Garvies to the south west. The sense of space up there was enormous.

Cromwell and Lake Dunstan looking straight up the Clutha Valley

Remarkables Range, not much snow left

The Water Race is regularly maintained so there are a number of 4WD tracks that wind down from the tops to various spots along the race. I chose the track which followed a ridgeline down to one of the Racemen's Huts, where I planned to spend the night. 

It's a cosy little hut with views out across the Nevis Valley. There's a couple of beds with mattresses, an old stove, pots and pans and a few cans of food. There's a little bit of mouse poo around, and I see the culprit the next morning, though all my food bags are hung safely out of reach from a hook on the ceiling.

The water race was hand dug in the 1870s, including 3 tunnels through rock. In the morning I headed upstream from the hut to explore these tunnels, which required wading through the shin to knee deep water with a headlamp. One of the tunnels is 150m long, but I only walked through 2 tunnels, baulking at walking across some trestle bridges to the third tunnel with a precipitous drop below. There was a blustery norwest wind blowing and I didn't feel that comfortable making my way across in those conditions.

Back at the hut I shouldered my backpack and headed downstream along the water race. Usually there was room to walk on the outside wall, but sometimes it was easier to walk in the water race itself, particularly as the wind got stronger, with some gusts threatening to blow me over.

I'm not a fan of tramping in windy weather, though the views were spectacular as the race wound its way around the contours in a very gentle descent.

Can you see the hut?

I stopped for lunch at a second Raceman's Hut. Originally, racemen would have lived in these huts most of the year and walked the race keeping it clear from obstructions and shoring up any leaks. The second hut is now derelict, but the race bears evidence that someone is still walking it and maintaining the various channels and outlets along its length. All the small streams that cross it have been channelled into the race, but there are also regular spots where excess flow can be diverted down into gullies below.

It's a long walk along the contours back to Duffers Saddle, particularly when perched on a narrow strip of land between the race and a steep drop below. The gusty winds didn't help and after a few hours I was finding the walk quite tedious. I'm sure if the winds had been less annoying it would have been a more enjoyable experience.

Almost back at Duffers Saddle

But it sure was beautiful.

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