Jet Boating and Gold Panning on the Kawarau River

Gold/jet boats… It’s obvious they come hand-in-hand, right? Today, we are going to be checking out one of Central Otago’s gold mining sites, try to find some gold ourselves, and fly down the Kawarau River in a jet boat. Let’s begin!

A short drive from the Bannockburn Domain Camp Ground brings us to the Cromwell-end of the Kawarau Gorge – a rugged steep-sided gorge with a huge volume of milky blue water. As well as large volumes of swirling water, the Kawarau River used to be rich in gold which was brought down into the river after the last ice age. Once this gold was discovered, it sparked the Otago Gold Rush in the 1860s, which is why such settlements like Queenstown, Arrowtown, Cromwell and more even exist!

As we cross the bridge to the Goldfields Mining Centre, we spot two wires suspended across the river with some sort of trolley attached from the top – just a small indication to the hardships and determination of the early pioneers to get themselves’ some gold.

Meeting up in the stables

The Goldfields Mining Centre is a complex of various different things: a restaurant, a guided tour with gold panning, a half-hour self-guided walk, an hour self-guided walk, and a jet boat experience. We head straight for the educational stuff! Give us the gold mining tour!

Bruce, our funny and passionate guide, takes us to the stables – as you do – to tell us the Central Otago story. Why is this all here? It is a story that brought people from all over the world to seek their fortunes in Central Otago. Bruce shows us the different sizes of gold found in the Kawarau River, so we can appreciate its weight – something we’ll need to know for gold panning later…

Bruce gives us the lowdown on the gold mining history Bruce gives us the lowdown on the gold mining history
Here's an example of what we could find... but didn't Here's an example of what we could find... but didn't
What gold miners used to have fun with back in the day What gold miners used to have fun with back in the day
Panning our little hearts out Panning our little hearts out

chinatown

Before we find our own gold, Bruce shows us how the pioneers used to find gold by taking us to see some old gold-mining machinery (that still works, by the way!).

A gravel track lined with blossoming flowers and a strong scent of thyme leads to various examples of how gold-miners used to live. First, we look inside a mock-up of a hut that Chinese miners would live in. Again, hardships of early pioneers spring to mind, as we look inside this stone hut with a piece of fabric tightly tied across two lengths of wood to make a bed.

Gold-mining blasts from the past

Further up the pathway, Bruce demonstrates how a large stamper battery works. He turns the machine on and a rotary mechanism slams heavy metal onto the quartz below to break the rocks and hopefully release the gold inside which will be washed with the water into a trough below. Another method used to crush quartz is shown in a huge rotating stone bowl and a stationary stone ready to crush anything in its path, much like a giant pestle and mortar fancy people use to crush herbs. The bowl is on a lean so that water can wash all the lighter stones away to leave the gold – the same technique used in gold panning.

Desperately trying to find our fortunes in the dirt and water

The world’s most epic water gun

The final example of pioneer machinery we are being shown is the world’s most epic water gun, also known as the sluice gun. The gun squirts water out so powerfully that it can shift rocks in the small stream before it, releasing other and possibly heavier rocks that wash into a terraced trough that can catch any gold released. Easy!

Panning for gold

Now that we are gold-mining experts, we are going to find some gold for ourselves using the more tourist-friendly method of panning. After a lesson in gold-panning, we dig ourselves some dusty dirt deposits left from the river over hundreds and thousands of years into our pans, pop some small balls of lead – another heavy metal – on top of our dirt, and head to the water troughs for some swirling, waving and washing. Each small pile of dirt takes about five minutes to wash down so we are left with the heavier deposits. If we have done it right, there will be our balls of lead there, which there is every time! But unfortunately, we are not successful this time… Someone else in our group does end the tour with a dusting to take home in a small vial. We could stay here longer, trying to find gold that is not worth all that much nowadays, or we could forget about our failures with a jet boat ride!

Speeding down the Kawarau River! Speeding down the Kawarau River!
A quick jet boat selfie before the camera gets splashed A quick jet boat selfie before the camera gets splashed
Ending the day with the locals at the Bannockburn Pub Ending the day with the locals at the Bannockburn Pub

A change of pace

We’ll be honest, we have a bit of a misconception about this jet boat tour. Perhaps it’s the theme of old machinery and the fact that we have just had a pretty relaxing gold-mining tour and panning session that throws us off-guard. We have been on, what, seven different jet boat tours on this 365 days doing 365 activities so far? Yet, we are still expecting just a fast-paced ride along the river, not one of the most thrilling rides we have done yet!

The Goldfields Jet

Much-needed spray jackets and hopefully-not-needed life jackets on, we pile onto the Goldfields Jet with rows of tiered seating. For once, we decide to sit at the front of the jet boat not realising how scary and wet these seats will be…

Peter, our driver who used to be a jet boat racer, sets off downstream for a short way, drifts around and passes a photographer, Stacey Downer, to snap up our delightfully touristy photos!

Too close for comfort

Now, we shoot upstream having the most near-misses with the rocky edges of the Kawarau Gorge. Peter turns the boat into the rocky outcrops then clears them right at the last second. We are screaming, (by “we” we mean Laura), and laughing at every unbelievable close call.

The thrill of 360-spins

Every couple of minutes, Peter will put his finger in the air and do the circular motion which is the universal sign for “this jet boat is about to engage in a 360-degree spin so hold the hell onto the bar in-front of you”. We quickly fling around, water rushing onto Robin’s lap – nice! This 360 trick never gets old!

After 30 minutes on the water, we leave the jet boat totally thrilled, proven wrong and wet – sounds like a pretty good jet boat ride to us.

From here, it’s back to Bannockburn for a couple of drinks and fine food at the Bannockburn Pub. Tomorrow, we do some of our own speedy driving with go-karts and possibly the fastest taxi ride of our lives! See you then!

Laura and Robin

Drifting down the Kawarau River Goldfield-style
Drifting down the Kawarau River Goldfield-style Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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