Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

Skippers Road, Skippers Canyon, New Zealand.

A Road less travelled

Skippers Road has been described as New Zealand’s most dangerous road. It is a one way gravel road, carved out of the side of a canyon, with extreme hairpin bends and with the canyon wall on one side and a vertical drop down to the Shotover River on the other side. A more accurate description might well be the scariest road you will ever drive on, and if you are scared of heights, its not the road trip for you.

I was very fortunate to be meeting up with some old friends, A and J in Queenstown, who suggested a day trip into Skippers Canyon some 20km north of Queenstown.

I experienced a most exciting and interesting day, which included some of the most exceptional scenery around, a scary road and adventure and history. A is an experienced driver, who had navigated Skippers Road on previous occasions.

The road signs at the entrance to Skippers Road make it quite clear that this road is not for the faint hearted.

Since I am not one of the faint hearted (well not when the driver is an experienced 4WD driver who had navigated this road previously) these signs were of interest only and not off putting.

And so we descended into Skippers Canyon. The road was completed in 1891, and is approximately 22km in length. The road was carved by hand by early gold miners. Gold was discovered in 1862, and prior to completion of the road, access was by horses on pack track trails. Looking down the road to the first hairpin bend, I realised that if we were to encounter an oncoming vehicle, one driver would be required to reverse to the nearest spot where 2 vehicles could pass. Driving this road is not for a beginner.

The Shotover River is popular for white water rafting and jet boating. The rafters are transported into the canyon in small buses, which each tow a trailer full of rafts. Luckily we did not meet one of these. The launch site for the rafts is at Deep Creek, about 45 minutes drive from the start of Skippers Road. While we were watching rafts being launched, a helicopter arrived, carrying passengers for the jet boat.

The Shotover River was known as one of the richest gold bearing rivers in the world, although as there is no official data recording the amount of gold found, it is not possible to substantiate this claim.

Skippers Road may well seem to be a very narrow road, but we came upon an even narrower road near the Aurum Recreation Reserve. It even had a signpost with the name of the “road”, branching off Skippers Road, near a small waterfall.

During the gold rush, the settlement had a population of around 1000. A school opened in 1879, and at the settlement’s peak, there were 27 pupils attending the school. There were four main hotels in Skippers Canyon, and numerous “sly grogs” during the gold rush but by 1901, miners were leaving Skippers for the West Coast goldfields. The school closed in 1927 and by the 1940’s the settlement had been abandoned.

To visit the remains of the settlement, we crossed over Skippers Bridge, a suspension bridge 91 metres above the river. The bridge is only 2.2 metres wide. It was opened in 1901, ironically just as the miners were departing to the west coast.

Skippers Bridge

The remains of the settlement are within the Mt Aurum Recreation reserve. There is little left to see other than the schoolhouse and the Mt Aurum homestead, which have been preserved. We were the only people there, and it was almost impossible to visualize a settlement of 1000 people – and totally impossible to imagine the lives the people there led. They would not have experienced the tranquility and beauty of the place. When we visited, there were two old lilac trees in bloom – lilac is not native to the region, so someone, sometime, perhaps wished to create a little bit of home in the wilderness.

There has been some debate around whether Skippers Road is dangerous, or merely scary. The NZ Herald reported (12 March 2014) that a British driving firm “Driving Experience” labelled Skippers Road “as unbelievably scary as it is beautiful”. Their report gives Skippers Road an overall fear factor of 7 out of 10.

The image accompanying the NZ Herald Report.

I would have to weigh in on the side of scary, not dangerous. The tourist operator’s drivers are very skilled. My friend was very skilled. It could be dangerous, I suspect, if there was an influx of less experienced drivers on the road.

A, the skilful driver, and J, in Skippers Canyon.

I am very lucky to have had the experience of being driven over the road less travelled.