Driving New Zealand’s Most Dangerous Road at Skipper’s Canyon, Queenstown

In 1862, two pioneers exploring the Western Otago region struck gold in the Shotover River. This was the start of the Shotover Canyon Gold Rush.

Similar to the nearby Arrow River, the Shotover River was so rich in gold that miners came from all over New Zealand to claim their share of the riches, and they would take great risks to get it.

Located near Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand, the Shotover Canyon is a rugged, almost impenetrable area, with often sheer 100m high cliffs that drop down to the rushing river below. Just gaining access to the river made the miners work hard for their gold.

This dangerous, rugged terrain didn’t deter the miners, and it didn’t take long for a booming gold rush to take shape. Small settlements popped up, and despite the struggles that people had to access them, the towns of Charleston and Skipper’s Point quickly rose to populations of more than 1000 people.

Eventually, despite the height of the gold rush being over, it was decided that a proper road should be built to give easier and safer access to Skipper’s Canyon, and with much difficulty over a period of 7 years, Skipper’s Road was completed in 1890.

By the time that the road and accompanying Skipper’s Bridge was completed, the gold rush was basically over. And as the miners left, the settlements dwindled and became ghost towns and ruins, but the road remained.

Today, Skipper’s Road remains basically as it was in 1890, and is now a popular tourist attraction. It remains as New Zealand’s most dangerous road, and rental car companies will not honour your insurance if you drive on the road. Instead, it is a great idea to take a tour from Queenstown for a morning or afternoon, and let a professional drive this dangerous road while you enjoy the views and learn about the history of the area.

I booked an afternoon tour, and after jet boating in the Shotover River Canyon the day before, I was excited to be able to explore more of this beautiful area.

Skipper's Road in Queenstown, New Zealand

Skipper’s Road winds it’s way towards Skipper’s Canyon

At first, the drive along Skipper’s Road is quite pleasant, the gravel road winding it’s way through tussock grass covered hills with steep gullies running between them. But as we came to Skipper’s Canyon, the road was often quite rough and hair raising as the narrow road is cut into the sides of mountains, with sheer cliffs that even a minor error could send the vehicle tumbling down to the rushing river below.

View on Skipper's Canyon Road in Queenstown, New Zealand

Stopped to admire a view on the way to Skipper’s Canyon

Skipper's Canyon Road in Queenstown, New Zealand

Looking back along Skipper’s Road in Skipper’s Canyon

Skipper’s Canyon is absolutely beautiful, and I found the views from Skipper’s Bridge to be the best of them all. This long narrow suspension bridge was built in 1901 and spans the canyon 100m above the river, giving access to the former settlement of Skipper’s Point.

At the height of the gold rush, Skipper’s Point was a prosperous town with a population of over 1000 people. Like most gold mining towns however, once the gold started running out, people left and the town’s population dwindled and eventually vanished. All that remains of the town now are the restored buildings of the old Skipper’s Schoolhouse and Mount Aurum Station’s Homestead, as well as the old cemetery which is interesting to explore.

Mount Aurum Station's Homestead in Skipper's Canyon, New Zealand

Mount Aurum Station’s Homestead built in 1867

Skipper's Schoolhouse in Skipper's Point, New Zealand

Skipper’s Schoolhouse built in 1879

After exploring the old town we were taken to a spot along the canyon nearby, where we had great views of Skipper’s Bridge, and for Lord of the Rings fans, it is also the location of one of the scene’s from the first movie – The Fellowship of the Ring. I knew the scene straight away.

Skipper's Bridge in Skipper's Canyon, New Zealand

View of Skipper’s Bridge above the Shotover River

Lord of the Rings scene location on Shotover River, New Zealand

The location of a scene from Lord of the Rings – This is where the “Black Riders” were washed away by the river. I have no idea how they got down there!

This was the perfect spot to enjoy some food and drinks provided by the tour, and just sit and take in the rugged beauty of this spectacular place. I take my hat off to those early miners. This would have been a tough place to live.

I was so happy to have been able to explore and learn about the history of Skipper’s Canyon during my summer holidays, and if you’re heading to Queenstown, New Zealand, I highly recommend the experience.

 

 

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