I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy,
as I go walking along the same river.
- Zhuanzi (Chinese philosopher 369-286BC)
The Taieri River rises amid the stone and gold landscape of the Lammerlaw Range, on the southern edge of the Maniototo Plain high in Central Otago. From its small beginnings in tussocky snowfields, the fledgling river gathers the waters of rocky creeks and icy springs as it descends from the hills and flows eastward across the Maniototo.
Cattle graze its willow-lined banks as the river meanders through swampy paddocks, and fishermen cast their lines into deep pools where some of Otago’s best trout live. An eel trap set in any of the rivers sluggish backwaters will always yield a rich harvest of the slithery creatures which early Maori gathered on their expeditions across the great plain. The name they bestowed on the river means “River of Light.”
The sky is big up here. Light falls from the sky like powdered gold and the landscape seems to glow as if lit from within. Every surface, every tree, every stone, every blade of grass seems to absorb the sun’s light, bend it into gentle new spectrums, then radiate it back into the air. Long straight roads lead the eye towards the surrounding ranges from which fortunes in gold were extracted during the region’s gold rush days. These days, though, the real treasure lies in the Taieri’s burnished gleam as it reflects the sun setting on another day in this land of stone and gold.
The Taieri turns slowly around the north end of Rock and Pillar Range, past the hamlets of Waipiata, Kokonga and Hyde. The railway brought wealth to these isolated places, which alternately freeze in winter then bake through the long summers. But the railways are gone and with it the prosperity that wool and beef brought in the early days. Abandoned farm houses stare sightlessly out across the hills and pencil-thin Lombardy poplars claw the sky. But the longevity of family life up here is evident in the names on farm mailboxes which match those of the roads and those on graveyard headstones dating back to the earliest settlers.
At Middlemarch the river enters the Taieri Gorge. This barrier to trade was bridged during the gold rush by the construction of the Taieri Gorge Railway. The chugging steam engines of those days have been replaced by diesel locomotives which pull carriage-loads of tourists through the gorge where the track spans vertiginous creeks on box girder bridges and the yellow smudge of gorse hugs the hillsides.
Freed from the confines of the ranges, the river flows south across the rich dairy country of the Strath-Taieri district to enter the sea on the east coast of Otago, thirty kilometres south of Dunedin. In its two hundred kilometre journey, the river has describes an almost complete circle. The distance, in a direct line from its source to the ocean, is only a little over sixty kilometres. The riverbanks are faced with golden sands ground from the hills and its final wander to the sea is through a wilderness of flax, swamps and Manuka forest.
Where the river falls idly into the ocean, ramshackle holiday bachs line the shore. Seabirds patrol the river’s margins in search of titbits and fishing boats ride the swells offshore. The river which began its journey as a trickle of silver amid the stone and gold heights of the Lammerlaw has run its course. The river’s song is sung and down on the line where fresh and salt combine all its history is released. But nothing is ever truly finished in the endless cycle of wind and water. Soon of the river’s water, evaporated from the ocean and blown inland in the clouds of southerly storms, will fall on the hills of the Maniototo, gather together and begin the journey again.