Clutha River

Clutha River


The Clutha River is the second longest river in New Zealand and flows south-southeast for 340 kilometres through Central and South Otago to the Pacific Ocean, 75 kilometres south west of Dunedin.


The ultimate source of the river is at the end of the Makarora River, close to the saddle of the Haast Pass, which flows into the northern end of Lake Wanaka. The southern end of the lake drains into the nascent Clutha close to Albert Town, where it is met by its first main tributary, the Hawea River the outflow of Lake Wanaka's twin, Lake Hawea. It is also met here by the Cardrona River. Shortly thereafter the river widens into Lake Dunstan, an artificial lake created behind the massive hydroelectric dam at Clyde. At this point it is joined by another tributary, the Lindis.

Fifty kilometres south of Lake Wanaka, the Clutha reaches the town of Cromwell, which was substantially altered when the Clyde Dam project was completed in the late 1980s. Here the river is joined by the waters of the Kawarau, which flows from Lake Wakatipu. Prior to the construction of the Clyde Dam, this junction was renowned for the difference in colour between the two rivers’ waters.

The river then flows southeast through the scenic Cromwell Gorge to Clyde and nearby Alexandra, where it is joined by the waters of the Manuherikia River. South of Alexandra the river widens again to form Lake Roxburgh, another artificial lake, behind the Roxburgh Dam, which was constructed in the late 1950s. The town of Roxburgh sits close to the river, 120 kilometres downstream from Lake Wanaka.

From here the river continues southeast past the towns of Ettrick, Millers Flat, and Beaumont, before it is met by the Tuapeka River at Tuapeka Mouth. At this point the river turns southward, before being met by its last major tributary, the Pomahaka River, which joins the Clutha 30 kilometres from the coast. The river passes the town of Balclutha before widening into the Clutha delta which contains the large flat island of Inch Clutha.

The Clutha's average discharge estimated at 570 m³/s, comparable to many much larger rivers. This heavy flow, combined with the relatively small size of the river in global terms, makes the Clutha notoriously fast-flowing, and it is often listed as one of the world's most swiftly flowing rivers, alongside Australia's Macleay and Fitzroy Rivers, the Amazon and Atrato Rivers in South America, and the Teesta River in the Himalayas.

Beyond the river's mouth

Such is the nature of the geology of the New Zealand region that the true river tells only half the story of the Clutha's course. Beyond its mouth, a submarine canyon system extends for over 100 kilometres into the South Pacific Ocean, eventually becoming the Bounty Trough. The canyon system bears a remarkable resemblance to the pattern of river and tributaries visible on land, so much so that many of the rivers which empty into the sea along the Otago coast can virtually be considered tributaries of the Clutha's submarine system. These rivers include the Tokomairiro, Taieri, Waikouaiti, Shag, and even the Waitaki.


The river was known by the Māori as Matau, and in the early days of European exploration there was at least one settlement of some 250-300 Māori close to the river's banks. The river takes its modern name from Cluaidh, the Scots Gaelic name for the River Clyde in Scotland which runs through Glasgow. During New Zealand's early colonial history it was known as the Molyneux, that name given to it by Captain Cook. During early European settlement, a whaling station was established close to the river's mouth, and during this period the sea was the source of almost all of the area's economy.

Gold rush

The river featured greatly in the Central Otago goldrush. The first major gold deposits in Otago were discovered around the Tuapeka River at Gabriel's Gully by Gabriel Read in 1861, and the following year large amounts of the precious metal were discovered close to the site of modern Cromwell.

By Christmas 1861, 14,000 prospectors were on the Tuapeka and Waipori fields. The gold rush was short-lived, with most of the alluvial gold played out by 1863, but prospectors continued to arrive, swelling to a maximum of 18,000 miners in February 1864.


Several major floods have occurred on the Clutha, most notably the “Hundred year floods” of 14-16 October 1878 and 13-15 October 1978. The 1878 flood is regarded as New Zealand's greatest known flood. During this, a bridge at Clydevale was washed downstream, where it collided with the Balclutha Road Bridge, destroying the latter.

The 1978 flood, in which rivers from the Oreti in the south to the Tokomairiro in the north breached their banks, led to the inundation of over 12,000 hectares of land and the loss of over 21,000 livestock. Towns and areas affected stretched from Makarora in the north to Invercargill in the south. The town of Wyndham was completely evacuated, and the towns of Balclutha, Milton and Mataura were seriously affected with many residents moved. The small settlement of Kelso on the banks of the Pomahaka River was completely abandoned and was not rebuilt once the waters subsided. At its peak, at 6.00 a.m. on the 15th, the Clutha's flow was measured at just over 4500 m³/s.

Water usage

There are two hydroelectric power stations, the Clyde Dam and the Roxburgh Dam, located on the river providing electricity to the New Zealand power grid.

The Clutha also provides irrigation for stone fruit orchards around Cromwell, Alexandra, and Roxburgh, which provide apples, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and peaches. Several small vineyards are also found in the upper reaches of the river.

The spectacular scenery of Central Otago makes the upper Clutha a popular holiday destination, especially for adventure tourism. Jetboating, waterskiing, bungy jumping and parapenting facilities are all to be found close to the river, and Lake Dunstan is also an important rowing venue. Several major ski courses are found close to the river. Curling is also played close to the Clutha in the harsh Central Otago winters.

See also

List of rivers of New Zealand


External links


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