Bridging The Kawarau Falls

The new Kawarau Falls bridge.

Kawarau Dreams and Nightmares

If you’re a tourist, or new to Queenstown you probably sweep over the new Kawarau Falls bridge without giving it a second thought.

But I never take it for granted. In fact, I’m still pinching myself to check that it’s real.

Why?

Because trying to cross the old one-way bridge used to be a nightmare.

For years we called it a bridge, but the old girl was actually a dam.  Although, she never quite managed to stop the river water flowing.

Here’s how it happened.

There’s Gold In That River

Back in the day, there was gold galore around Queenstown. Some made fortunes — others lost everything. But, like we do today, people were always on the lookout for the next big thing.

Further down the Kawarau River miners worked hard to pan the alluvial gold. But many were convinced that there was a fortune in gold-bearing rock on the riverbed.

Unfortunately, the river was always too full and fast to get it out.

Someone had a bright idea. “Let’s dam the falls,” they suggested. “The water level will fall. Then we’ll get the gold.”

What could possibly go wrong?

So, in 1924, they began building 10 massive gates between sturdy concrete pillars over the Kawarau Falls. The engineers planned to get the job done in months but that was never a realistic target. In reality, the dam took two years to build.

Actually, I think two years was a pretty good effort. With all today’s modern equipment it seemed to take an eternity to build our newest bridge.

In August, 1926 the great day arrived.  

In front of a huge crowd of spectators engineers lowered the gates and the river level dropped… but not for long.

A ‘Dammed’ Expensive Mistake

Somehow, in the rush for gold the engineers had forgotten a rather important fact. Downstream was the equally gold-rich Shotover River busily emptying all its water into the Kawarau.

So, it didn’t take long for the Shotover to fill up the riverbed once more.

Imagine their dismay when the river only dropped a metre which was nowhere near enough to get the gold.

Reluctantly, the engineers admitted defeat. They raised the gates and the Kawarau River flowed free once more.

As a dam, it was a costly failure, but it had a silver lining. At last, there was an easy link between Frankton and the rich farming country to the south.

The old Kawarau Falls Dam
The old Kawarau Falls dam and bridge, taken from the lakeside trail.

Traffic Flows and Traffic Woes

So now it made sense to build a road around the lake to Kingston. In 1936 that road was finished and the dam took on a new role.

It was never intended to be crossed by cars and trucks. So we’ll have to give a shout out to the dam’s designers, engineers and maintenance crews. Because cars, campervans, trailers and trucks all crossed over that dam bridge every day for 92 more years.

But it was hell to use in rush hour.

Then, the traffic inched along without a break. Bad luck if you were going against the flow. I’ve been stuck there a long time waiting for someone to stop and let me across.

Eventually, the powers-that-be installed some traffic lights.

They were a mixed blessing. Sure it was easier to cross in busy times – but it made your blood boil to be staring at a red light when NOTHING was coming the other way.

Even tales of woe have their funny side.

Most locals have a story to tell about driving over the old bridge. I happened to meet a friend out walking one day, and he told me a funny old tale.

Not so long before he retired, Ivan — an Athol farmer of many years —  drove himself up the snowy road to the High Country Farmers Winter Conference.

But, as he crossed the narrow bridge his old car skidded on the slippery boards.

Luckily he didn’t crash through the rails and into the river.

Unluckily, the car stopped dead: neatly wedged across the middle of the one-way bridge. Oops!

Long lines of traffic banked up as far as the eye could see on both sides of the bridge while shivering rescuers worked to free our unfortunate farmer.

Bad enough to have an accident, but worse was to come.

Next day, newspaper reports told of emergency services rushing to rescue the elderly man whose car had caused the delay.

Ivan was mortified about skidding, and sheepish about all the fuss. But mostly he was furious at the reporter who dared to call him ELDERLY.

Finally They Began The New Bridge

In 2016 McConnell Dowell started the sweeping new bridge. And we discovered a whole new level of traffic-jam-pain.

If your trip was early or late — you’d be fine. But, at peak times you had two options.

1) Leave an hour early… OR

2) Get caught in a traffic jam.  

At least the locals were forewarned. Sitting in the queue I used to wonder how many unwary travellers had missed their flights because they were stuck on the bridge?

We waited and watched through the months as the new bridge slowly took shape.

Trees were felled. Temporary decks came and went. They drilled piles… built piers… rolled out new decking and finally — FINALLY — on May 10th, 2018 they took all the cones and barriers away. At last we could drive, unobstructed, over our brand new bridge.

However, the historic dam was being restored too — and there was still plenty of work to finish. Resurface the deck. Strengthen and paint. Build underpasses and paths to connect everything together. Slowly, it all came together.

It Was Worth The Pain

It felt like forever, but finally everything is finished.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all the people who dedicated long hours to getting this momentous job done and dusted!

One fine April day I wandered over the two bridges — old and new — to see how things have changed.

Cyclists riding on the underpass of the new Kawarau Falls Bridge

This new underpass makes it a breeze for cyclists to cross under the bridge.
Bike Trail beside the Kawarau river.

From the Frankton side the underpass leads onto a narrow above the river. A few minutes ride will take you onto the Queenstown Cycle Trail.
View from under the new Kawarau Falls Bridge

On the south side, the underpass goes right down to river level.
Spectacular view of the old and new bridges.

I discovered a little winding path up the hill towards Kelvin Heights. It leads to a lookout which gives a spectacular view of the two bridges.

It was fun discovering all the old and new additions to this part of the Queenstown Trails. If you’ve got an hour to spare, why not give it a go yourself.

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Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

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Altitude Brewing: The Great Adventure

Many small businesses have a special story to tell. They are built on passion, commitment and a long-held dream. Each has a flavour, history and ethos that is all their own. Some are steeped in history, others are brand-new and excitingly different. Altitude Brewing, who last year took all of our green hops to flavour the delicious “Me and Jimmy McNamee” beer, is one such business with a story to tell.

The other day I popped into their new building on the Frankton Marina, to visit partners Eliott Menzies and Eddie Gapper, and hear the tales behind…

Altitude Brewing.

Altitude Brewing's Motto: Every great adventure ends with a beer!

So what do a Queenstown local lad and an English former-advertising- executive have in common?

Well, they both love beer, of course!

But they also love adventure, the great outdoors, and the thrills and spills of owning their own business. Combine them all and you get a great little brewery called Altitude Brewing.

The Brewer

“I’ve been a beer maker pretty much all my life.”

When Eliott Menzies left Queenstown at the tender age of 17 to seek adventure in far-flung lands, he knew no more about beer than the average “under-the-legal-age-limit” teenage boy.

But after a traditional Kiwi 6-month-stint in London, Eliott — now 18 and legally allowed to sample a brew — decided he’d had enough of cities and travelled north to Scotland. Looking for adventure (and perhaps hearkening back to his Queenstown mountain upbringing) he headed for the Highlands, where he landed a job at a mountain pub.

And that’s where Eliott met BEER.

Not your normal, big brewery, continuous brew type beer, but craft beer — ales, lagers, hops; beer to fall in love with. And that’s just what Eliott did. He fell in love with the whole process of beer from the brewing to the drinking, and everything else in between.

It wasn’t long, in fact, before Eliott decided he wanted to know more than just how to drink beer, and so began the journey which ultimately led to Altitude Brewing.

Fortunately, half an hour down the Scottish road was a small brewery. Eliott simply invited himself in one day and began to help out. Of course, it wasn’t a paid position; he was strictly a volunteer, but it was just what he needed. A free introduction to the brewing world.

Eliott Menzies in the Altitude Brewing Brewery
Eliott Menzies, creating a brew.

Coming Home

Back in New Zealand, Eliott decided to spend 5 years in Wellington, studying architecture at Victoria University.  Although he never did become an architect, it certainly wasn’t wasted time.

Aside from his formal studies, Eliott continued his beer education by becoming a dedicated home brewer. Student flats always have a convenient cupboard — ideal for a homebrew setup —  somewhere in the house.

He didn’t follow other people’s ideas.

In fact, it wasn’t long before Eliott branched out and began experimenting with his own unique flavour combinations. And after a while, those recipes became the basis for the various lagers and ales that Altitude Brewing crafts today.

Introducing Eddie

Eddie Gapper drinking a glass of Altitude Brewing beer.
Eddie Gapper, checking out the perfect brew.

Eddie Gapper came to Altitude Brewing via an entirely different route.

Growing up in England, Eddie already knew what life was like in the Northern Hemisphere. His journey to beer heaven began with a job at an advertising agency. But while that was a lucrative path to follow, it wasn’t exactly living the dream. At least not the dream in Eddie’s head.

So he and his wife followed their love of adventure and the great outdoors and headed off on their own O.E. Travelling in the opposite direction to Eliott’s northern adventures, Eddie escaped south, via Canada and eventually landed in Queenstown.

At first, Eddie’s idea was to start a business in the adventure industry. Queenstown is, after all, the Adventure Capital of New Zealand. But the market is fairly saturated with adventure activities. After a good look around, Eddie decided that it didn’t really need one more.

What Queenstown did need was a business that was interested in the locals. A place tourists could enjoy, but which was ultimately focused on being a good citizen in its own backyard. So Eddie began looking for just such a business.  

It took a while. But one day Eddie had a beer with Eliott, and the Altitude Brewing team was born.

Complementary Strengths

It’s not often that a single person has all the skills and strengths necessary to run a business. And even if you are that rare breed, the time and energy it takes to do everything eventually results in burnout.

Eliott loves brewing and beer — he’s not keen on managing and marketing. Eddie didn’t know much about brewing, but marketing and management — those are right up his alley.

Together they made the perfect team to take Altitude Brewing to the next level.

Contract Brewing And Beyond

Eliot’s first plan for Altitude Brewing was as a contract brewer.

Each beer was made to Eliott’s recipes but he contracted a Christchurch brewery to do the actual brewing. Altitude Brewing then sold the resultant beer in Queenstown pubs and selected other South Island venues. This was the path the company was following when Eddie joined the team.

But Eliott and Eddie’s strength is their flexibility and willingness to investigate new ideas. Not long after Eddie became Managing Director, they realised that the contract brewing model wasn’t really the way to go. It was time they brewed on home turf.

At first, this seemed like an impossible dream. We all know the price of land in Queenstown is horrendous — and availability is just as bad. But somehow, things came together and in 2017 they managed to secure a dream spot at Frankton Marina.

Fast forward less than a year and, finally, Altitude Brewing has come home to Queenstown.

Eddie and friend clinking Altitude Brewing beer bottles.
Eddie brought an Altitude Brew for the Fulton Hogan IT team to sample
on their recent team-building expedition in the South.

Local And Proud

We have tourist bars aplenty around here. Altitude Brewing, however, is one of those rare places that does focus on the locals.

That’s not to say that visitors can’t find a good brew there; of course they can — and they’re very welcome. But first and foremost, Altitude Brewing is there for local people.

I love their flagon initiative. Fun as it is to go out, sometimes you’d rather just have a quiet beer at home. Altitude Brewing makes that possible — and reduces litter and waste at the same time — by encouraging their take-out customers to bring their own flagon.

Yes, you read that right. You can take along a container, fill it up with tap beer and head on home for your cold one. Brilliant.

Then there’s Altitude’s “One per cent for the Wakatipu” scheme which donates to local environmental and outdoor causes: think bike clubs…wildlife…youth trusts…

The Altitude Ethos

If you had to distil Eliott and Eddie’s Altitude Brewing attitude into just three words they’d be Adventure, Environment and Local.

I love their energy and their enthusiasm for new ideas. They’re all about local connections and keeping the story going.

After all…

“Every great adventure ends with a beer.”

The bright red Altitude Brewing brewery at Frankton Marina.
The new Altitude Brewing premises at Frankton Marina.

Connect with Altitude Brewing on Facebook.

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