Stark Difference

When the gold miners arrived in Central Otago in the 1860s they didn’t bat an eyelid at radically and massively transforming the environment. The initial influx of individuals and small groups gave way to larger operations that harnessed the power of water to obliterate large parts of the landscape. They extracted relatively small amounts of high-value gold while most of the landscape disappeared down the sludge channels to the river or remained in great heaps of tailings – there’s endless piles of rocks all over the place! What we have now is a spectacular ‘badlands’ landscape that fascinates and horrifies me, both at the same time.

I’ll briefly mention some methods the miners used but please refer to my last photo – I photographed an excellent information panel and if you click twice on the pic you can read all about it.

Bannockburn Sluicings. Central Otago, New Zealand. 31 October.


A simple header photo, our path through the gully and thyme.


There are many tunnels. Tunnelling is one method to access gold.. but also used to determine where it’s most worthwhile to direct water-intensive sluicing.


Slightly earlier we’d stood above the gully looking down at it before descending. From the shape of the edge, this looks like a spot where ground sluicing has occurred. The miners would’ve directed water to the edge so the flow of water scoured out the face, allowing them to process the material below and extract any gold. Over at the face on the other side there’s clear evidence of material having been removed in the same way.


Once they’d established the infrastructure to convey water down into the gully, then they could also use water cannon called monitors to water-blast the face from below in order to remove material for processing. A system of iron pipes would be assembled to get the water down there, the fall creating the pressure. ‘Pinnacles’ are thought to be the location of claim boundary pegs – it was illegal for these to be removed. They therefore remind us of how much ground has been lost through the feverish activity of the miners.


Sourcing water was problematic here so the water management system itself is very interesting, consisting of water races, reservoirs, rock-lined channels and pipes. In Otago some of the old miners’ water races are still used for irrigation on commercial properties. The old water rights didn’t have an expiry date and when authorities stepped in more recently to overhaul their management it’s caused huge ructions. Water remains a precious commodity and disagreements in regard to access and restrictions get pretty fierce. [updated 30 Nov, after being posted]

The information panel is very well done (click twice for full size) …


I’ll have more to share in regard to water storage and transport, and we’ll learn more about the two bachelor miners who lived in Stewart Town.


Text and photos by Liz; Exploring Colour (2022)

8 thoughts on “Stark Difference

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  1. Fascinating, and as you say repulsive at the same time. You may have said in one of these posts and I missed it, but I expect this was quite dangerous work—the sight of those caves gives me the creeps.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have facts to hand but I know you’re right! There were so many hazards to do with the working conditions, the kind of work they were doing, harsh environment, isolation, tiredness, drunkenness, and sometimes ruthless criminals. A really tough life.

      Liked by 1 person

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