The 1964 guide to the best rural bridges of the South Island

September 3

Gap fillers galore.

BRIDGES SPEAK TO SOMETHING IN US. THEY ARE A PERVASIVE METAPHOR, POPPING UP IN INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS (BURNED ANY BRIDGES LATELY?), MORTALITY (THE BRIDGE TO THE LAND THE DEAD), FISCAL POLICY (BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR), AND FAKE- QUOTE MEMES. (NO, INTERNET, ISAAC NEWTON DID NOT SAY “WE BUILD TOO MANY WALLS AND NOT ENOUGH BRIDGES,” IT WAS SOME FREEMASON WITH THE SAME LAST NAME. BUT THE SENTIMENT IS NICE.)

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They are also handy, especially around a place like Te Waipounamu, which boasts approximately 40 major river systems. But while it’s mathematics and physics we deploy to overcome the problem of crossing water and bridging gaps, what’s best about bridges is their art. From trestles to aqueducts, it is a fortunate reality that the structural elements required to deal with the forces at work on a bridge – compression, torsion, tension, shear – can also be lovely: the way an arch curls from one abutment to the next, how the connecting triangles of a truss evoke lace, the perfect spacings in a row of suspension cables. These are some of our best.

EDITH CAVELL BRIDGE, QUEENSTOWN

This single-lane beauty at Arthurs Point, near Queenstown, is worthy of mention just for the way its twin parabolic arches lovingly frame the milk-blue waters of the Shotover River. But it’s the name that makes it. Edith Cavell was a British nurse who helped hundreds of Allied soldiers escape German occupied Belgium during World War I. Captured in 1915, she was executed by firing squad. Her death caused global outrage, and Edith’s image served as propaganda on Allied recruitment posters, calling on young men to avenge “le plus grand crime des barbares!” Her story made it all the way to the banks of the Shotover, where gold miner Jack Clark watched the bridge go up from his sod hut nearby. He lobbied for it to be named after Edith, and when his request was refused, he painted “Edith Cavell Bridge” on the side of thing himself. Two years ago, ahead of the 100th anniversary bridge’s opening, the Queenstown Lakes District Council formally adopted the name for good. – LW

KAWARAU FALLS BRIDGE, FRANKTON

Until May 2018, a one lane bridge linked Queenstown to SH6, and therefore to the populations and natural resources of the verdant south. Not even close to fit for purpose, the Kawarau Falls Bridge was prone to traffic jams, including one caused when two drivers, jacked up on a mocktail of testosterone and entitlement, blocked traffic for a whole morning when they both refused to give way. Vehicles now flow smoothly over a two-lane affair with ergonomic curves, but the old bridge has been preserved for walkers and cyclists – good news, because it has a riveting history. The Kawarau Falls Bridge was actually a dam. Opened in 1926, it sits atop 10 huge steel gates, which, when closed, were supposed to stop the flow of the Kawarau and expose its gold-rich riverbed. Or, as the Otago Daily Times put it, “imprison the waters that in their swift passage have from time immemorial kept guard over the possibly untold millions of pounds worth of yellow metal in the riverbed.” Unfortunately, it turned out several other waterways, including the sizeable Shotover, fed into the riverbed. The water only dropped a metre, the gold stayed out of reach, and in 1928 the gates were raised for good. – LW and LDW

ALBERT TOWN BRIDGE, WĀNAKA
It is important to acknowledge that the primary purpose of a bridge is not beauty, but function. And when it comes to function, the Albert Town Bridge across the mighty Mata-Au / Clutha River is best in show, though it admittedly does appear to be held together with number 8 wire, a perpetually fresh coat of asphalt and inappropriate graffiti. The one-lane James Horn Bridge was built in 1930 by engineers who I hope can be posthumously knighted. It was originally built to carry a small mule, a bushel of apples and the golf-cart sized vehicles of the day. Today, with no major structural changes, the engineer’s great-great-grandkids are using the same structure to shuttle fleets of SUVs that would have been considered tanks in the thirties, tandem tractor-trailer rigs and even, recently, a full-sized house. Unofficially, the bridge also makes a great diving board on a hot day. – NW

LAKE TEKAPO FOOTBRIDGE, MACKENZIE COUNTRY
Pre-dam, a suspension bridge spanned the Tekapo River. Opened in 1880, it replaced a ferry that, at 30 feet long, could carry up to three bullock teams at a time. Impressive, but the Tekapo Ferry was often disrupted by flooding and nor’westers. Then came hydroelectric power. The river was dammed, the water rose, the bridge was knocked down, and, until recently, cars, walkers, and bullocks used the top of the dam to cross the river. But the good people of Tekapo missed their bridge. A replacement was on the cards as early as 1953, when the Timaru Herald reported, “a recent meeting of the Tekapo Planning Commission has discussed the desirability of having a footbridge erected on the site of the Tekapo Bridge.” Finally, in 2015, the ribbon was cut on the old bridge’s $2.3 million replacement, 125 metres of grace etched in gleaming steel. When it blows, the balustrade wires sing in the wind. – LW

THE BEAUMONT BRIDGE, CLUTHA DISTRICT
The 134-year-old single-lane Beaumont Bridge crosses the Clutha River near the township of Beaumont, and is an important link in the route from Central Otago to Dunedin. It was one of the first wrought iron truss bridges built in Aotearoa, and it was a bit of a sensation, with the Otago Daily Times deeming it “exceedingly handsome” when it opened. It still is, although its fine lattice girders and horizontal cross braces have been obscured since anyone can remember by a cloak of scaffolding, permanently in place for an ongoing programme of inspections, testing and maintenance. Fair enough. There is some alarming stuff in NZ Transport Agency files about seismic capacity. A new two-lane bridge is on the cards, but not to worry, the OG of Beaumont will remain as part of the Clutha Gold walking and cycling trail. – LW

RIP: THE TARAMAKAU ROAD-RAIL BRIDGE, WEST COAST
If ever you hear someone refer to roading infrastructure as “New Zealand-ish”, the Taramakau Road-Rail Bridge is what you should picture. This was a one-lane bridge with a triple side of mustard: cars shared it with trains. A new vehicle bypass opened in 2018 which is probably for the best – it was serving more than 3500 vehicles a day by then – but man, the terror on the faces of the tourists when they rolled up in their campervans and saw those tracks. – LW


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