Part way along the Kawarau River between Cromwell and Queenstown (Central Otago, New Zealand) is a feature known to Maori as ‘Whatatorere’ (Kaumatua Huata Holmes of Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki pers. comm. to Lloyd Carpenter, lecturer in Maori Studies at Lincoln University) and to Pakeha (non-indigenous New Zealanders) as the “Natural Bridge” or “Chalmers’ Leap”.
Before bridges were built, it was the only spot along the Kawarau River where travellers could cross the wild river without a boat, or risking their lives trying to swim. The river narrows right down, so that one can either walk, or jump, from one side to the other. The Maori knew all about it. That the bridge was found is testament to how well the Polynesians explored New Zealand. It was a geological miracle that it existed at all, let alone be in virtually the ideal place at the end of the natural trail down the Cardrona Valley, Roaring Meg Stream, and then up the ridge of Mt Difficulty for a relatively easy walk on into Southland. It is highly likely that the crossing was used for more than 600 years.
The first Polynesians would have approached the ‘bridge’ through beech (Nothofagus) forest. The dozen or so beech trees a few kilometres up the Roaring Meg are the last remains of the forest that grew over the southern Pisa Range, and no-doubt extended up Mt Difficulty as well. But this was quickly burnt-off, and the area became a rocky tussock and shrub-land. Generations of Maori would have made their way down through the scrub along what probably became a well-worn trail. Perhaps they rested by the river a while, and then continued on their way.
It would have been used by Te Puoho’s war party as it moved from Wanaka to Southland in 1836. The first European explorer in the area, Nathanael Chalmers was lead over the crossing by the Maori guide Reko in 1853. Reko said it would be a ‘bridge of stone’. There was evidently some element of risk in the crossing at the time – as the European name became “Chalmers Leap”.
After Chalmers a flood of Europeans came, and, perhaps predictably, some fool blew it up looking for gold (I recall reading this somewhere, but haven’t relocated the reference). As a relative local, I had been brought up to understand that the “Natural Bridge” had gone, but a few years ago I was thrilled to find that this isn’t quite the case. You can, in fact, walk across a rock from the Nevis side (no ‘leap’ involved) – and stand on a rock with the whole Kawarau raging below you. I opted not to try and get up the other side – it’s now a sheer rock wall. However, I’ve since found out that it is possible to work your way up a ‘gut’ in the rock face, but also that the crossing is only possible when the river is markedly low.
That this incredibly ancient and historical focal-point is barely-known, let alone no-longer used (or practically usable), is a tragedy. New Zealand is making leaps and bounds in creating and advertising long-distance walk/cycle-ways. For example, the track from the Cadrona and down the Roaring Meg is a public right of way, but when it reaches the Kawarau – all you have to look forward to is risking your life with the traffic along the periodically narrow road to Cromwell or Queenstown.
What could be done? At Chalmer’s Leap some sort of ladder/bridge arrangement would be needed to rebirth the ancient crossing (argh- safety, liability!!!). Or perhaps the nearby cableway could be modified, or a trail could connect with the bridge at the goldmining/Wild Earth winery. But once on the south side of the Kawarau – there is no longer any right of way over the mountains and down to Southland. “Stuff’ is certainly happening in the area. There is currently a huge operation to clear the ‘wilding pines’ (in this case, Douglas Fir). Hopefully some effort will be made to replace them with some native trees. There has been some native planting along the roadside near the Roaring Meg car park, mostly kowhai and ‘mingimingi’, and towards Cromwell, what looks like an older one, including flax, toi toi, mingimingi and even a couple of Pittosporum.
References For the story of Nathanael Chalmers and Reko, see: Temple, P. 1985. New Zealand Explorers. Great journeys of Discovery. Whitcoulls, Christchurch.