Saturday, 31 May 2014

We Took A Punt

A punt that happens to be the last water driven public punt in the Southern Hemisphere. The historic Tuapeka Mouth punt has operated since 1896 carrying stock, carriages, people & cars across the Clutha River in South Otago.

It runs daily from 8 to10am & 4 to 6pm and is now more a tourist attraction than a critical crossing of the river. Although it is part of the national roading system and as such there is no charge to use it, its maintained by Fulton & Hogan who also employ the puntmen. Most traffic uses the Clydevale Bridge which is 10 kilometres downstream.

Flotation pontoons under the punt are manoeuvred by the puntman using the river's current & the water pressure against the rudders which are attached to the rear of the two hulls. Two heavy wire ropes are strung across the river, up-stream and down, which stop the punt from floating away. The puntman later told us that once when the river was in flood the water was higher than the cables which are about 3 metres above the water line. They remove the punt from the river when it’s in flood.

We thought that we’d do a bit of exploring around Lawrence in the early afternoon and then drive the 30kms or so to the punt in time for when it opened at 4pm. We finished exploring early and after taking a longer route over rolling farmland & via a gravel road, we still arrived in Tuapeka with an hour to spare. We had afternoon tea at the picnic table overlooking the punt, it was overcast & cold and we nearly decided to give the ride a miss and head for home. I took a photo of us “driving” off the punt just in case we didn’t return; you can’t see the chain at the back of the ute with the large STOP sign attached to it.

In the end we thought we’d come this far we might as well wait until 4pm and catch the punt across the river. I also wanted to cross so I could add it to our tally of bridges or crossings that we’ve done over the Clutha River. To fill in time we decided we’d drive down to Clydevale, cross the river down there and drive up & catch the punt back from the other side.

And here is a photo of the final bridge to complete my photo collection of Clutha River bridges, Clydevale Bridge (probably the least spectacular of them all as well). With just the punt crossing to do we will have driven, walked or been ferried across all of the Clutha River crossings from Albert Town near Lake Wanaka down to the Balclutha Bridge at Balclutha which we crossed way back at the beginning of our trip around the South Island.

Clydevale was a “blink & you’ll miss it” kind of settlement so we drove up the river and past the punt, on towards some native forest that I spotted on the map. Maybe there was a walk we could do. The road followed the river winding through farmland & passing a number of abandoned houses along the way.

Standing beside this old abandoned farmhouse below, was a very large memorial to the men of the district who fought in WW1. I’ve noticed that there are many memorials around the countryside in the South Island, more so than in the North Island & most are quite elaborate and well looked after. This one is the Rongahere Memorial and was not so well tended, it was obviously positioned here overlooking the Clutha across the road but now looks like its in the front paddock of a farm.

I’m sure this was once a well loved farm homestead, I wonder at the stories it could tell.

A bit further down the road we found a walk, a “historic walk” the hand painted sign said. We’re not sure why its historic though. There was an information board with lots of newspaper clippings & photos but they were mostly faded & hard to read. It looked like it could have been a track across the Blue Mountains that Maori used to use. We walked a little way into the bush but it was dark, cold and uninviting & as it was getting near 4pm we decided to leave that one for another time. It would seem the walk  was looked after by locals as someone had gone to all the trouble of doing the signboard & there were plastic tables & chairs to sit at in a clearing to the side & look at that bridge over a rock slip, that ain’t no DOC bridge for sure.

We arrived back at the punt just after 4pm and saw that the puntman had arrived but was sheltering inside his hut. There wasn’t a sign on this side but we saw one on the other that said to toot your horn to alert him to your presence. We felt a bit awkward about that and waited about 5 minutes for him to spot us. When I had looked through the window of the hut I saw that there was a mirror strategically placed high up on the wall opposite an easy chair which was facing away from the river. Anyone sitting in the chair just had to look up at the mirror to see if there was a vehicle waiting on the other side. This day Mr Puntman was not sitting in his chair. In the end we gave a toot.

And then it was all action stations. A big chocolate lab came roaring out the door barking his head off, ran down to the punt & back up to meet an elderly gentleman who was now coming at a fast pace down the drive. Once on the punt the dog kept a watchful eye on us from beside his master & then moved to the end of the ramp as it got closer. When there was just a small gap between the ramp & us the dog leapt off and disappeared up the road behind sniffing and lifting his leg at every opportunity.

Meet Peter Dickson (79) & his faithful mate Roy, Peter is only number 13 in a short line of Tuapeka puntmen that have been manoeuvring the punt across the river since 1896. He has been crossing this stretch of water for the last 20 years; he comes to the river twice a day, 5 days a week and thoroughly enjoys his job. Another puntman does the weekends. Peter is full of stories and tells me as I’m clicking away that he is more photographed than the Prime Minister. He shouts at Roy to get back on board after David has driven the ute onto the punt. Roy is more interested in something smelly in the long grass.

With a last loud shout at Roy we pull away from the loading deck just as Roy bounds back down and jumps across the widening gap. Roy knows the drill; check the road out first and then you’ll have time to sniff the vehicle on the way across. Along with the passengers. He sticks his nose where the sun don’t shine, he is rather cute & a friendly brute as he pushes past me when Peter tells him off. I make him sit for a photo & he thinks that’s an invitation to be best mates. He’s wet & he stinks to high heaven, a combination of whatever he found up on the road and the wet fur from his duck shooting outing earlier in the day.

Peter tells us that the winter is quiet and he might only get 1-3 vehicles in a day but during summer he can’t keep up. He doesn’t mind as long as the pay cheque keeps arriving, he can’t imagine not doing it. There has been times when the Clydevale Bridge has been shut and the punt has worked solid for weeks on end, then they’ve had to get in others to help out.  After just 4 minutes and about 130 metres we arrive back on the other side, I walk off & up the bank to take some photos while David talks to Peter. Roy thinks it’s time to play & nearly knocks me flying as I scramble up the bank.

This time I take a legitimate photo of the ute coming off the punt and I can add the final crossing of the Clutha to my file. 

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