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November 2014 Issue
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The tunnellers of Campbell Creek

The Ruins of a Miner's hut in Campbell Creek.
Two days return
Drive south from Alexandra on SH8 and turn onto Symes Rd. Continue past Mitchells Cottage on this water-scoured dirt road. Park off the road after two or three gates and start walking
CD13, CD12

Campbell Creek huts, Kopuwai Conservation Area

The search for gold during the early years of European settlement drew thousands of miners to prospect among the golden tussock of central Otago. By 1862, the easy gold in the gullies of the Dunstan Goldfield near Manuherikia (now Alexandra) was almost worked out. Eager miners climbed over the Snowy Range (now Old Man Range) in search of new gold-bearing deposits. What they found were the alpine boggy basins and rocky gorges of Fraser River and Campbell Creek.

Faced by years of toil to win the gold flakes and nuggets from schist gravels and quartz-seamed rocks, brute force and techniques learned at earlier gold rushes in California and Australia were employed. Dams and water races were constructed to guarantee a ready supply of water. Men formed themselves into groups to undertake these large civil works projects.

One such consortium of 18 miners began an ambitious project in 1864 to divert Campbell Creek and mine its stream bed. This required a 200m-long tunnel to be dug through a slip that had partially blocked the gorge. They became known as the ‘Tunnel Party’ and some of the original miners were still working the claim 35 years later. They lived in a small cluster of stone cottages with thatched roofs deep in the gorge, just above the creek that was the scene of their endeavours. Records do not accurately show how much gold was won from here and nearby Potters Goldfield, but a figure of $9 million has been mentioned.

From the top of Symes Rd at 1630m, on the summit ridge of Old Man Range/Kopuwai, the views are expansive. The total openness of this place is at once exhilarating and a source of discomfort. Perfectly calm days are rare; blustery winds are cold and frequent. Walk south along the top of the range on a gravel road skirting the Fraser then Campbell basins and follow the side track to Potters Huts. Camp here then follow a spur leading north-west steeply down to the site of the huts in Campbell Creek. They are perched on a narrow terrace nestled among giant tussocks, gently succumbing to the elements.

– Ewan Paterson