The following is a copy of the description of Skippers Road History, published by the New Zealand Places Trust.
The discovery of gold in Central Otago, at Gabriel's Gully on 23 May 1861, was the catalyst for New Zealand's first gold rush. Alert to the potential of the region, prospectors arrived by the thousands from within New Zealand and further afield, while many existing settlers turned their hand to prospecting.
By mid-1863, the population in the Shotover was officially estimated at 4116 , and the pressure for formed access was overwhelming. A public meeting was called in May 1863 to push for the construction of a road. The Lake Wakatip Mail's Shotover correspondent reported the following week that the provincial government had erected guide posts to mark the various trails to the gorge for the coming winter. Life for the packers who worked the trails was dangerous, and the maximum working life for a packer's horse on the trail was 3 months. The building of Skippers Road began.
Despite the fact the population declined over the following decade, pressure for a better road increased. One factor influencing this was gold extraction. Methods had changed from modest, low-level operations to large-scale enterprises dominated by big machinery. The pressure for a road was prompted in part by this response to advances in technology, but it was also prompted by the size of the machinery required to undertake this kind of work, e.g. pipes for sluicing or parts for stamper batteries, which were difficult, or in some cases impossible, to move on the pack track. In addition to this, the permanent population was increasingly envisaging a life without a road and did not like the prospect. Dissatisfaction grew, until action was taken in 1882 to move things along.
The road was not finished but it was already a boon. The Lake Wakatip Mail wrote that the 'wonderfully good road which now saves the necessity for a trip over the Zigzag, renders the journey to Skippers one of comparative ease to anyone who can ride - in fact we hear of two or three conveyances being built so that persons will be able to drive up to the reefs shortly.'
In its partially completed state, the road had already been used. The miners, farmers, residents and suppliers had to make do with the pack track where the road was not formed. The completion of the road simply allowed vehicles to travel, all things being equal, without stopping or having to break down goods. The journey still took a long time (perhaps an average of five or six hours), even in a horse and cart, but it quickly became the lifeblood of the Skippers community.
The nature of the road and its traditional users had a big influence on its management by the council. It was not until 1896 that bicycles were allowed on the road. Just 10 years later, motor vehicles were banned, but it should be noted that this by-law also included other local roads, including the Frankton, Dan O'Connell, Arrowtown to Macetown, and Arrowtown to the Crown Terrace roads. The ban was prompted by concerns that vehicles would frighten horses. It was partially lifted in 1918, when vehicles were allowed between 7pm and 8am. In the interim, the first, illegal car journey on the road took place in 1912. All restrictions were removed in 1926, although it remained a courtesy to phone ahead if you were traveling by motor vehicle. This long period of restriction indicated as much as anything the primacy of the pedestrian and the horse (and cart) over other forms of transport for the first few decades of the road's history.
The completion of the road also allowed the curious and adventurous to enjoy the scenery and experience the thrills of the road. Tourism became an opportunity to for some to make money out of the road and is today the most significant user of the road.
Of significance to the road was the type of classification it attracted. In 1928, five years after the Main Highways Board (MHB) was established, it was classed as a 'main highway' in the New Zealand Gazette. In 1930 it was classified a 3rd class highway, which meant that fewer than 100 vehicles per day traveled on the road and that motor lorries had to be under six tons to use it. In 1934 Skippers (along with the road to Branches Station) was reclassified as 'Class 5', which meant that only vehicles under three tons or multi-axeled vehicles of four and a half tons or less could use the road.
Tourism has been a long-standing feature of the road's history, from even before the completion of the Skippers Canyon Bridge in 1901. It is a remarkable measure of the fame the road had acquired even before its completion. Early tourist operators offered day return trips from Queenstown, leaving at 8am and returning at 6pm. This commonly took the form of a ride in a coach drawn by four or five horses. It would take on average five hours to get to Mt Aurum Station, where the horses would be changed for the return journey. There were sometimes up to eight coaches a day on the road. The horse-drawn excursions lasted for some years. Knudson quotes the Official Southland Guide describing Skippers as a tourist attraction in 1925:
SKIPPERS. Lake County. Is a wild and romantic mining district, about twenty miles from Queenstown, from which place the trip to Skippers is considered the premier excursion for tourists, daily trips being made, leaving at 8am and returning at 6pm, the mode of conveyance being by coach, each comfortably accommodating ten passengers, all box seats, thus ensuring an interrupted view. (Motors are prohibited on this road between 8am and 6pn under bylaw of the Lake County Council.) The return fare, including morning tea and luncheon, is 19 shillings. Post Office and Telephone. Population, 21.
Just who these tourist operators were is not known. It is known that Julian Bourdeau also took tourists, along with goods, up to Skippers in a wagon pulled by two horses.
This state of affairs continued until 1926, when restrictions on daytime use of motor vehicles ended. Gradually, horses were replaced by vehicles. The source of the early tourists is not known, although this was at a time when the number of tourists visiting New Zealand was only about 5000 annually, so they were more likely to be holidaying New Zealanders.
As it is today, the road was one of the attractions in an area famed for its beauty and dramatic scenery. However, the exact extent of tourist use of the road is difficult to quantify. Information gathered in September 1937 estimated that 6.4 cars per day used the road, with numbers rising to 15 per day in the holidays, which suggests that visitors were making the road a destination. The Mount Cook and Southern Lakes Tourist Co. was running services between Queenstown and Skippers, although this was also a passenger service.
The tourists continued to come. In 1970 the first foray into adventure tourism signalled the beginning of a new phase in the river's history. The Shotover Jet began operation that year, although initially there was no direct impact on the road as a result. However, the range of activities on offer to tourists to the Queenstown region grew quickly and in the 1980s whitewater rafting and bungy jumping brought far more people on to the road.
Skippers Canyon is the site of two bungy jumping operations. One, A.J. Hackett Bungy, off the Skippers Bridge, opened in 1989, is now confined to special events and corporate conferences. The even higher rebuilt Skippers pipeline (over 100 metres above the river) operates during summer.
More impetus to Skippers tourism came with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, shot in New Zealand and released from 2001-2003. Some of the scenes were shot in the Skippers Canyon area and the consequent interest saw purpose-designed tours established by companies quick to take advantage of the opportunity.
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