WATER IS A TOPIC THAT STARTS AND ENDS DAILY CONVERSATIONS.
Central Otago water. Shades of turquoise magnificence and swirling energy tumbles, rolls and surges in blunt contrast to the semi-arid, gasping landscape.
This is a world of difference – of intensely defined aspects, shapes and sounds – of water and land in harmony and contrast, broad shouldered and defiantly proud, with twin temperaments that equally nurture and challenge. Water and land - they sculpt each other.
Yet water must truly be the most prized of natural forms, the most revered and most delighted in, and the most vital resource.
In prehistoric times the colossus Lake Manuherikia - nine times the size of Lake Taupo – spread its girth across the Central Otago landscape. More recently, palaeontologists have carefully unearthed fossil remains at St Bathans that reveal the lake’s story.
REVERED FOR ITS POTENCY AND BEAUTY
The centrepiece of Central Otago’s water story is the godlike Clutha Mata-au River, dwelling sovereign and omnipresent over the region’s geographical, historical, socio-economic and artistic landscape. New Zealand’s highest volume river, swiftest and second longest, the Clutha Mata-au River is a dominant silhouette, an ever-present backdrop to regional life.
Known as one of the world’s most swiftly flowing rivers, its intense character takes many forms – plunging rapids through cavernous gorges; graceful, gentler flows; churning, jostling currents in magical blues and greens. All the while its waters shove forward determinedly, a momentous energy propelling it to a seaward horizon.
THE PURITY AND POWER OF THE CLUTHA RIVER
For pre-European Maori, the Clutha Mata-au (translated as current or eddy in an expanse of water) had both practical and spiritual significance. Maori settlement existed in places along its banks and it was a vital and sustaining waterway.
Without water, Central Otago would be a place condemned
In an ironic counterpoint to the giant Lake Manuherikia – Central Otago’s modern, manufactured lakes (Dunstan and Roxburgh) and the region’s nine, similarly created dams, were constructed with a resolute, singular purpose in mind – to realise a livelihood from the barren land.
Central Otago is unique in New Zealand – as a place where both crude existence and aspirational progress have always had a critical dependence on water. Water’s intrinsic value is deep-rooted in the locals’ psyche and never disregarded. Without water, Central Otago would be a place condemned. Here in this thirsty climate, water is a topic that starts and ends daily conversations.
OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH PRECIOUS LAKES, RIVERS AND STREAMS IS AMBIGUOUS: EVER-CHANGING, CONTRADICTORY YET CONSTANT.
Water tested the resilience of the hardy and tenacious 19th century settlers in the threadbare, bronzed landscape. Doggedly determined, these pilgrims to a parched place of soft desolation, channelled water’s immense power and life-giving qualities to buoy and sustain their own futures.
From the 1860s, ribbons of stone – the goldminers’ water races - stretched across the land laying down the foundation for intergenerational prosperity. Goldmining necessitated gallons and gallons of water for sluicing and sifting. Over forty years, thousands of kilometres of water races were hewn.
The miners’ hard labour to harness the twists and turns of the mighty Clutha Mata-au River and its tributaries to sluice for gold, flowed into history as the emphasis shifted to food production and water to nurture crops.
GUSHING, RUSHING WATER TURNING TOIL INTO WEALTH.
At the turn of the century, farmers, horticulturists and viticulturists, glimpsed the potential. The miners’ races became a footprint for irrigation channels which allowed primary production and prosperity to burgeon from the raw, burnished landscape. Humped and hollowed paddocks with border-dykes marked out flood irrigated land.
Water - The most valuable treasure
Sufficient water and sweltering hard graft in the baking Central Otago sun, produced intensely flavoured stone fruit, fine quality wool, succulent meat and acclaimed wines that became success stories supporting people’s livelihoods.
And down through time efforts and dreams to harness Central Otago water for production, have been like the ebb and flow of water itself. Stretched out like giant centipedes, the more refined mobile irrigators now spray water onto parched brown land replacing the reliance on water races. Bores are drilled to siphon water from the earth.
Central Otago – place of extremes and enigmas - with its meagre, thirsty, dry-as-a-bone climate and lowest annual rainfall - is also where water is confined and controlled for bigger things. Completed in 1993, the monolithic Clyde dam - NZ’s largest concrete gravity dam resting silent and stark at the base of Lake Dunstan, generates enough power for two large cities. Earlier in 1962, the smaller Roxburgh hydro-electricity dam became operational and gave birth to another manufactured lake, Lake Roxburgh, on the Clutha Mata-au River.
Our relationship with precious lakes, rivers and streams is ambiguous: ever-changing, contradictory yet constant. We have modified and forever altered water’s pathways, diverted rivers and streams, built dams and created lakes. Sometimes we’ve wrung out every drop. Now more than ever, we better understand environmental impacts and strive to protect and preserve what we have.
Water. The most valuable treasure that must be respected and cherished, for all it has given in this strong, resilient, beautiful place that is Central Otago.