Balclutha, or Big River Town, is 82kms south of Dunedin and is set next to the mighty Clutha River, the largest river in New Zealand by volume. Below Balclutha, lies Inchclutha, an island formed by the river as it divides in two, forming the Matau and Koau channels.
The Clutha River is an important part of Balclutha’s history as it encouraged settlers to the area, brought prosperity with the discovery of gold, but also tragedy to the region with horrendous floods.
James McNeil became Balclutha’s first resident in 1852 and he started a ferry service to ferry travellers across the mighty Clutha. Once gold was discovered in Otago, this site became a town with the inevitable onslaught of goldminers. Balclutha became a borough in 1870 and John McNeil, the son of James McNeil, became its first mayor. A bridge was built across the Clutha in 1868 but only lasted until 1878 when a devastating flood washed it away. The present bridge is now almost 70 years old being completed on April 6, 1935 and is a great source of pride for the region.
Naming of the Clutha River
The Clutha River has not always been known by this name. It was originally called Molyneux by Captain Cook in 1770, after the skipper of his ship, Robert Moulineax. To the local Maori, the Clutha was known as Mata-au (which means surface current) but was finally named Clutha (which is Gaelic for Clyde) by the Scottish settlers, after a river in their native country, the Clyde.
The Clutha was also a rich source of gold and has become a major source of hydroelectric power with a flow rate of 530 cubic meters per second. The main industry in Balclutha today is farming and is the gateway to the Catlins via Kaka and Nugget Points.
Whether you explore the history of Balclutha and its connections with the Clutha River or take advantage of the river’s many recreational activities, you will not forget the power, beauty and tranquility that the river provides. Try one of the scenic walks in the area, visit the historic South Otago Museum, or go for a picnic by the river and try your luck at a spot of trout or salmon fishing. Take a unique ride across the Clutha with your car on the Tuapeka Punt, the only one like it in the Southern Hemisphere.