Kawarau Suspension Bridge near Queenstown is best known as the birthplace of A.J. Hackett’s bungy tourism venture. However the 141-year-old bridge was actually famous long before thrill-seekers began throwing themselves off of it.
Built in 1880, Kawarau Suspension Bridge was an innovative feat of engineering which in its day made international headlines. And for over 140 years it has withstood some of the most heinous canyon winds ever to pummel a bridge of its type.
The need for a reliable bridge across the notoriously impassable Kawarau River became apparent shortly after gold was discovered around Queenstown in the 1860s. The majority of gold lay deep underground and extraction required heavy equipment. As mining companies moved in, demanding better roads and infrastructure for transporting their unwieldy gear, plans to build a bridge got underway.
The challenge for engineer Harry Higginson was that the river’s sheer rocky gorge funnelled destructive side winds. In other countries several near-new bridges had been destroyed by such winds.
Combining a range of innovative strengthening solutions Higginson came up with a suspension bridge that was 42m high with a 120m long span. The design proved economical and enduring, winning Higginson a Telford Premium – the world’s top engineering award.
These days anyone can walk across the historic bridge to watch the bungy jumpers and be mesmerised by the glacial waters far below. And good news too for cycle enthusiasts: the bridge forms part of the popular Arrow River Bridges cycle trail – with plenty of boutique Gibbston Valley wine tasting opportunities along the way!
Kawarau Suspension Bridge is recognised as a Tohu Whenua, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most treasured heritage places. The bridge is proudly cared for by the Department of Conservation Te Papa Atawhai.