Take a punt

May 21

Photo: Bethany Rogers

It’s all river crossings and holy hops at Tuapeka Mouth.

THE TUAPEKA MOUTH FERRY IS A HANGOVER, A LEGACY OF THE DAYS WHEN AOTEAROA’S RIVERS WERE A PAIN IN THE ARSE TO CROSS AND THE IRON NEEDED TO BUILD BRIDGES WAS EXPENSIVE TO IMPORT. THE FERRY IS SAID TO BE THE LAST OF ITS KIND IN THE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE, YET, DESPITE ITS “LAST-OF” STATUS, IT’S VIRTUALLY UN-SIGNPOSTED. OPERATING QUIETLY FROM THE OTAGO VILLAGE OF TUAPEKA MOUTH, WHICH LIES AT THE POINT WHERE THE TUAKPEKA TRIBUTARY JOINS THE CLUTHA RIVER / MATA-AU, THE FERRY IS WELL WORTH TAKING THE TIME TO FIND. THIS IS A HANGOVER YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS.

A poem by Vicki Jones on the door of the ferry captain’s hut warns of the Tuapeka Taniwha, a monster the colour of “greywacke moonbeams and schist” who sleeps in the depths of the river. The taniwha would have enjoyed a peaceful slumber for centuries until the late 1850s, when gold was discovered along the Tuapeka River. In 1961, Tasmanian man Gabriel Reid triggered Otago’s first significant gold rush when he found “gold shining like the stars of Orion” nearby and pocketed a reward equalling about $110,000 in today’s money. A town sprung up at Tuapeka Mouth with hotels, shops and sly-grog shanties.

Photo: Bethany Rogers

There were once 25 ferries on the Clutha River. Miners wanted to spend their money and merchants were eager to help them, so the town needed a method of transport across the Tuapeka River. At the time, ferries were a popular way to move people, goods and heavy machinery across the moody and changeable rivers of the south. Still colloquially called ‘punts’, the ferries were more technically a raft pulled across rivers by cables. In most cases, the pull of the river was enough to drive the ferry back and forth, so no power was needed.

A ferry may have been in operation at Tuapeka Mouth as early as 1862 and there’s talk of a whale boat being used for the job at one point. In the 1880s, though, the community petitioned Tuapeka County Council for a proper public ferry. After a bit of debate and with the help of a government subsidy, a building contract was let to Tyson and Dunlop. The Tuapeka Mouth Ferry cost £333 to build and it officially opened on February 22, 1896. It cost sixpence for people and sixpence for horses – a bit pricey considering others in the area were free to use. Ferrying 20 or fewer sheep was a bargain at just one penny.

It was a hit, and in its first month of operation, 336 passengers and 255 horses used the ferry. The community was bustling (by today’s standards) and in both 1908 and 1915 the ferry had to be lengthened and repairs made. The Otago Witness described the 1915 repairs as a “patch up job” and fortunately, a bigger, better punt became available in the same year. It took three months to dismantle the punt and transport it to Balclutha. From there, it was taken to Tuapeka by steamboat.

Holy hops. Photo: Supplied

The punt is essentially the same today, with the exception of a few upgrades to keep it compliant with Marine Department certificates. In 1960, steel decking was installed, and in the late 1980s a new deck made from Indian jarrah wood was put in.

The latest in a long line of Tuapeka Mouth Ferry operators is Tom Jones (not the singer). Originally from Bolton, Lancashire, UK, he moved to New Zealand in 1992. Speaking of hangovers, Tom’s profession is brewing, not ferrying, but he says that doesn’t really matter much. “Somebody on the ferry recently asked me if I operated ferries in the UK. I didn’t. I said even if I had, it wouldn’t be anything like this one! It’s great, it’s really unique.”

Tom initially worked with Richard Emerson, the founder of Emerson’s brewery, and went on to start Green Man, the country’s first environmentally friendly brewery, before moving on from that in 2010. In 2014, his manuka smoked pale ale won a gold medal at the Brewer’s Guild of New Zealand Awards. It’s this connection to beer that brought him to the tiny village (“Town? Township… village… okay street,”) of Tuapeka.

“About two years ago we bought St Augustine’s Church in Tuapeka Mouth – St Augustine’s the patron saint of brewing. Long story short, we’re growing hops there now.” The twenty-or-so different varieties of hops he’s growing will be harvested in March or early April 2021.

“Everybody thinks you can only grow hops in Nelson, but that’s a fallacy. We’re completely off the grid in Tuapeka. We don’t even have a water supply, so all the water that we use has either fallen straight from the sky or it’s fallen onto the roof off the church and we’ve collected it in tanks so you could say all the hops will be touched with holy water! We grow holy hops!”

In winter 2019, the then-captain of the ferry asked Tom to stand in for her while she visited family in the UK. Tom’s been “full-time-part- time” ever since. He’ll drive to the church early in the morning to check on the hops before wandering around the corner to operate the punt.

Training, he says, was “verbal” – a man who knows the ferry “inside-out” showed Tom how to berth it and stop it, and made sure Tom was up to date on the health and safety side of things.

Operating the ferry can be frustrating. It’s subject to weather conditions and the flow of the water. But Tom doesn’t want that to put people off. He reckons it’s a gem that more people should know about, and he’s helped all kinds of people across the river, including, in early March 2020, vintage cars from the Classic Cars Rally.

“They came from all around the world and travelled New Zealand in their favourite cars. There was a 1935 Bentley, Porsches, Volvos, Escorts… all different cars. A camera crew followed them, and the footage makes it look absolutely magical. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, not a breath of wind, it was mid-to-high 20s, the river was perfect, it was beautiful!”

Time to hop aboard?

BETHANY ROGERS

Originally from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Bethany
G. Rogers travelled the world a little before becoming ‘stuck’ in New Zealand. When she’s not writing she can be found hiking, trail running, paddle boarding or boxing. bgrogers.com


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