Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge
1693 Gibbston Highway (State Highway 6), Gibbston, Queenstown
List Entry Information
List Entry Status
List Entry Type
Historic Place Category 1
Able to Visit
26th November 1981
Date of Effect
26th November 1981
Extent of List Entry
Extent includes part of the land described as Secs 63-64, Blk I Kawarau Survey District (RT OT15C/465, 87392), and part of the land described as Legal River (NZ Gazette 1983 p.2010-11), Otago Land District and the structural elements which form the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge. The Extent excludes any structures associated with the bungy jumping operation. Refer to the extent map tabled at the Heritage List/ Rārangi Kōrero Committee meeting on 29 April 2021.
Secs 63-64, Blk I Kawarau Survey District (RT OT15C/465, 87392) and Legal River (NZ Gazette 1983 p.2010-11), Otago Land District
Opened in 1880 and said at the time to have the longest single span in the colony, the Kawarau Suspension Bridge is the premier surviving example in Otago of the lengths taken to provide the interior of the region with reliable connections to the wider world; in terms of engineering challenges it was considered a project conceived by a “genius of a daring order”. Within a very short time following its completion it was recognised as an appealing attraction to travellers to the area. As such it has commendable technical, historical and aesthetic values.
Ngāi Tahu whānui had developed a complex series of trails throughout Te Waipounamu over generations of occupation, connecting kāinga with one another and to mahinga kai and other significant tribal resources. The Kawarau River was a traditional ara that provided access from coastal areas (via the Mata-au / Clutha River) to Whakatipu Waimāori / Lake Wakatipu and beyond. It was also considered a kāinga mahinga kai (food-gathering place) where weka, kākāpō, kea, and tuna (eel) were gathered. Early European settlers, often guided by Māori, used similar routes to penetrate the interior of Te Waipounamu and once settlement grew, roads and river crossings were essential to maintain communication with the outside world. Most early river crossings were punts; the crossing of the Kawarau being at the Morven Ferry Punt, situated at a point 3.7km upstream from the current crossing; this served as a means to cross the river from the 1860s into the 1870s. However, easily constructed crossings, such as punts and bridges constructed on low-lying river flats, came with issues, most notably floods, which frequently destroyed this type of infrastructure, cutting communities off from the outside world. Early proposals for a Kawarau bridge construction focused on easily constructed bridges in these low-lying areas, but none eventuated. By the late-1870s the Government was persuaded to provide £8,000 for the construction of a bridge. In 1879 the final decision was made regarding the bridge’s position and tenders were called for its construction; H. P. Higginson of Dunedin was the engineer, with the tender eventually awarded to John McCormick in September.
The bridge was built within 15 months and opened in December 1880. At its opening it was described as having ‘one span 300ft. [91.4m] long (the longest span, we believe, in the colonies) and an altitude of 150ft. [45.7m] above the river level’; the cost of the entire contract, which included two additional bridges and several miles of road, was reported at £13,000. The project required a high standard of engineering, the sharp turn of the road at the northern bank necessitating the construction of deep tunnels into the rock cliff face to anchor the cables; the towers on both sides were constructed of ashlar, sourced with ‘considerable difficulty’, and the nearly 5 inch (123.8mm) cables had to be sourced from England. The opening of the bridge was attended by some 500 people, including leading members of the Queenstown and Arrowtown communities; the Queenstown Brass Band provided entertainment. Shortly following its construction, in 1882, the engineering prowess necessary for this project was recognised by the awarding of a “Telford Premium” to H. P. Higginson, the engineer.
The bridge operated from late-1880 through to 1963, when a new bridge was constructed about 230m upstream; later efforts were made to preserve the original bridge, with ‘more than $100,000’ being spent of structural upgrades in the late-1980s. In 1988, the first iteration of A. J. Hackett’s Bungy Jumping operation was opened on the bridge and since then the bridge has moved to the top of many a tourist’s must-see list.
Contractor for the 1887 Roxburgh Suspension Bridge
Harry Pasley Higginson
No biography is currently available for this construction professional
[Road over the bridge closed in favour of a modern alternative]
Public NZAA Number
17th March 2021
Report Written By
Astwood, Karen (2011) ‘Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge - IPENZ Engineering Heritage Register Report’, Engineering New Zealand
Thornton, J. (December 1987) ‘Anchored Above a Gorge’, Historic Places, New Zealand Historic Places Trust, pp 12-14
Timmins, R. (1996) ‘The Kawarau Bridge’, The Queenstown Courier, Queenstown & District Historical Society, pp 7-11
Winter, Andrew (2014) The Queenstown Trail – Archaeological Assessment of Effects Report, Jackie Gillies and Associates
A fully referenced upgrade report is available on request from the Otago/Southland Area Office of Heritage New Zealand.
Title held in fee simple. Land originally gazetted: NZG 1979 p.1605
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.