The road to Skippers is not for the faint hearted. It is narrow and unsealed. On one side vertical rock faces tower above. On the other, the road drops almost as sharply to the canyon below. In the 1800s, even this road did not exist. The early gold miners had to somehow make their way on foot to the gold fields of the Shotover River. To make it easier to get out the gold, a dray road was built by men with dynamite, pick axes and shovels.
Skippers is deserted now, its buildings little more than piles of roofless stone. It’s popular with tourists though, and the bolder among them can bungy jump from the old Skippers bridge. Van loads of thrill seekers come to raft or jet boat on the white water of the Shotover river.
It’s easiest to go by bus, but if you go by car it pays to check the bus timetables first. If you meet another vehicle, one of you must back up to the nearest passing bay. If the other vehicle is the bus, it will always be you that backs up – no matter if you have to back up a mile, and the bus is only a few yards past a passing bay – the bus will never back. Best to make a day of it, and plan on arriving before the first bus, and leaving when the last bus is gone.
From the 1860s to the 1880s my greatgrandfather Thomas Brydon was a carter in Invercargill. Then came a depression. There was insufficient work to support his family. This is when he came to this rugged country, where he became a shot firer in the Phoenix goldmine at Bullendale. Skippers is remote enough, but the gold mine is even more remote – up the left branch of the Skippers Creek, another eight to ten kilometres into the mountains. Here the men worked underground mining gold from the quartz reefs. Since it was underground, daylight was irrelevant. They worked by day and by night. New Zealand’s first hydroelectric scheme was here, to power the quartz stamper, and I suppose, lights for the men to work by.
Thomas was a shot firer. It was his job to drill holes for the dynamite, place the dynamite and ignite it. Then of course, to retreat to a safe distance and wait for it to go off. Something went wrong. One of the charges failed to go off. The rules said that he should wait two hours before approaching. For some reason, he didn’t. He went back to check, at which point, the delayed explosion occurred, and he was seriously injured.
He was transported to Queenstown by ambulance. A simple enough sentence today, but what did it mean then? First he had to be carried to Skippers by horse over narrow rough tracks in the dark, taking three hours. That was where four hours they met the ambulance which would of course have been a horse-drawn cart. A mechanic at the mine reported at the inquest “ we were about 12 or 14 miles on our journey when the groaning ceased, I stopped the horse and looked at the man, when he groaned once more and apparently died”.
Thomas is buried at the Queenstown cemetery. A few years ago I contacted a local undertaker who was able to check the cemetery plans for me. He told me the general area where Thomas was buried. There is no headstone. Some years ago a fire went through the cemetery and burned the simple wooden crosses and fences, making it difficult to identify the exact plot.
I sometimes imagine visiting the site of the Phoenix mine to see the place where he died. What would I see there today? According to the track guide,
The former Phoenix Mine is marked by an old rock breaker perched high on the riverbank, above the site of the massive 30-head stamper. Nearby, Murdochs Creek is littered with mining relics, and the remains of Bullendale’s cottages are scattered on the tussock flat above.
(There is a photo of one of the old huts at Bullendale if you follow the link. I also found photos of the Skippers Canyon, but not of the Phoenix mine area, on Flickr - some of them quite spectacular - I used the search terms "Skippers" and "Queenstown". I just haven't figured out how to add them to my blog.)
Will I ever make the trip? It is described as a two to three hour journey one way requiring medium fitness. I know that I can walk a couple of hours in the city on the flat. The mountains are another matter. This is a hike, not a walk, requiring good boots and survival equipment. Every summer the newspapers are full of talk of tourists, ill-equipped for the changeable weather in New Zealand’s mountains, who become lost or trapped by sudden weather changes and lose their lives. If I’m to take the idea seriously, I would need to prepare by improving my fitness, acquire some serious tramping gear, and learn survival skills. The easiest way might be to hire a guide. I’m fast approaching sixty – it would need to be in the next few years. It is a pilgrimage that I think of making, but whether I ever will remains to be seen.
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