Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Another Dam, Done and Dusted- Central Otago


From Lowburn we headed through the Cromwell Gorge to one of our regular Central Otago camping spots, a great freedom camping site (3 nights max) which is provided by Contact Energy and is not on many apps. 

The reserve is just above the huge Clutha Power Station overlooking the calm waters of the Clutha River and is perfect for a few days relaxation away from the hustle & bustle of small town provincial life.

We've been here in the autumn & the summer, this was our first time in the middle of winter and and unfortunately the weather was dismal (our first, and as it turned out only grey days for all of our winter in Central). Fog settled around us for much of the three days and when it did lift, heavy grey clouds hung off the surrounding mountains. 

We couldn't see the water at the back of the van for most of one day, the fog was so thick (middle right). I was impressed with the lady from the motorhome parked beside us though, she went off paddling in the fog, up the dam for over an hour (middle left). Each evening local rowers came to practice, gliding swiftly and silently through the still water. 

And when the fog did lift for a short time mid afternoon one day we felt sorry for the people in Clyde, down below the dam, the township stayed blanketed in fog until after nightfall and probably through the night.

If you'd like to read more about the Contact Energy camping site & the damming of the Clutha River, my earlier blog is here.  And in that blog link you'll also read about another dam that we visited back then, the much smaller Conroys Dam which is used for irrigation and is located in the hills behind Alexandra. 

There was one more dam nearby that we wanted to visit the next time we were in town so we decided to shake the cabin-fever off and head into the hills. I would have preferred blue sky & fluffy white clouds for my photos but sometimes you've just got to work with what you've got. And I guess there's nothing better than 50 shades of brown & grey to convey how barren, bleak and uninviting winter in Central can occasionally be.

Dry Weather Track to Fraser Dam
Fraser Dam is one of the many Central Otago irrigation dams that were built during the depression to supply water to the large farm stations, orchards and other properties in the province. The dam is located in the foothills of Old Man Range up behind Earnscleugh and is reached by driving a 13km gravel and clay track. And as per normal, gravel (and dusty) roads usually feel like double the distance.

Panorama overlooking the Manuherikia Valley and Alexandra (centre right, click to enlarge the photo).
The road climbs sharply out of the Clutha River basin and the views behind us open up. Raggedy Range (my favourite range name in all of the South) is the prominent hill in this photo below, behind that is the Ida valley. Poolburn & Upper Manorburn are at the back to the right.

My favourite range, snow capped Hawkdun Range is at the far end of the valley.

This is looking west; at the back on the right you can just see Leaning Rock, a tiny nipple atop a mountain in the Dunstan Range. Right below that is the Clyde Dam & our camp. On the left you can see the Fraser Dam Road winding it's way over the hills. 

Towards the end, the road it branches into two, one climbs up and over Old Man Range and on the horizon at the top we can see a digger working away. While we are stopped a guy in a ute comes towards us, he tells us we can drive up there if we want but beyond the digger it's very boggy. 

The digger is repairing the track for the heavy vehicles that are using the road at the moment. A new power station is being built at the top of the Fraser River Gorge (3km upstream from the dam) and they are using the road for access. We decide to continue on along the lower track to the dam wall. He tells us to look out for deer at the next track junction as he's seen plenty as he drives between the top and the bottom of the power station site regularly. 

We don't see any, but that could be because he's just roared along the road ahead of us! We slip and slide down the last hundred metres of track to the dam wall, hoping it won't be too bad when we climb back out. 

David heads off along the wall with his binoculars; he's now hunting for deer on the slopes over the far side of the dam.

The dam wall is 32m high and 137m in length, the catchment area of the dam is 119km².

I walk out to the gate on the dam wall, take a few photos looking up to the top of the lake...

...and when I look back I see David, ever hopeful, still scanning for deer. We've been in some very remote places in our travels and while we have seen deer on a few occasions (even in some not so remote places), we've always thought that we should have seen more than we have. We always live in hope.

We scramble back up the track, bouncing and sliding through the mud. Water seeps out of the hundreds of burns in the ranges and when it crosses the tracks they can soon turn into deep bogs, especially if they've been helped a little by heavy duty 4WD vehicles.

Back on dry land we take the next turn and head to the top of the dam, a DOC (Department of Conservation) sign tells us it's 2km to the Shek Harn Historic Reserve.

Shek Harn is Cantonese for ‘big stone ditch’, and the historic reserve has remains of early alluvial gold workings and Chinese dwellings. Apparently the most impressive is the Long House, located 2km up the Fraser River from the dam. We decided we'd come back in warmer weather to walk the track. 

We started to drive up the new road/track that has been put in for the construction vehicles to reach the bottom of the power station but after passing one too many signs saying 'No Entry', we chickened out, did a 30 point turn and returned to the reserve for lunch. You can see the early signs of the dam construction in the Google map at the end of the blog, I've put a marker point in.

The view back over the dam on the way down to the reserve.

It was a such bitterly cold day, we were jumping about from one foot to the other trying to keep warm as we had our hot soup and sandwiches.

David then had a quick scout for trout along the river, nothing to be seen though...

...and then we headed back to the main track, stopping on the edge of a steep drop to look over the dam, it's a little distorted here. This is 5 photos stitched together, I think I needed another 2 or 3 to get the right angle although the dam does have a curve in it.

On the way back down I spotted a small pond that I thought would make a good foreground subject in a photo so my ever patient husband stopped once again...

...which was probably just as well because around the next corner & thankfully a wider section of the road came this beast!

We were able to pull over into the grass to let him past but as you can see we wouldn't have had much room had we met him on a narrower section.

Any further down and we may have met him on one of the many blind corners.

I took one last photo overlooking Alexandra and used the opportunity to make sure there were no more trucks coming up the road and then we were back down and heading home. Another dam, done and dusted.  


  1. Otago is so beautiful, there is so much to see. btw we may be moving to the west coast in the near future...

    1. Yes, Central Otago is my favourite province, there's do many photo opportunities no matter what season it is. West Coast! Awesome, another fabulous area, love the rainforest feel over there.


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