The Kawarau Gorge with its towering cliffs and rugged hillsides provides some of the most spectacular scenery in Central Otago. The Kawarau River drains Lake Wakatipu and on its way to join Lake Dunstan tumbles and roars through a series of rapids and swirling eddies.
The gorge once supported a small town with two pubs, a school and a post office but that has long disappeared. On the far side of the river the remains of mining claims can be seen. About 10km from the Cromwell end of the gorge the Goldfields Mining Centre operates a demonstration centre with a working exhibition of gold mining techniques. Visitors are invited to try their hand at panning and with a little bit of luck there will be colour in the pan. There is good parking and an excellent view of the rapids from the bridge. The Mining Centre is open daily, includes a gold gallery and cafe, and caters for large or small goups of visitors.
A little further on is the Roaring Meg Power Station and the site of the natural bridge across the Kawarau. In times of flood the river has raced right through the power house and it is a tribute to its construction that it still remains operational. A few hundred yards west of the powerhouse is a rough track that leads to the natural bridge. The track is now used by tourist operators to gain access for river surfing and canoeing/kayaking operations. Here the river is confined to a narrow rift barely 1.2 m wide. It plunges through the gap with frightening force but it did not deter the early goldminers who used it as a crossing place. A number who jumped never lived to tell the tale. The river has claimed many lives and swimming is not recommended.
In 1924 a company was formed with the object of blocking off Lake Wakatipu and draining the Kawarau so that gold could be picked up from the bottom of the river. Special gold mining claims were taken out and work began on the construction of ten massive gates at the outlet of the lake (Kawarau Falls Dam). There was no lack of investors wanting to put money into the venture but the project was doomed to failure. The gates were completed in 1927 and it soon became obvious that although the level of the river dropped, its bed would never be laid bare. Strenuous efforts were made to improve the situation to no avail and the venture was eventually written off as a failure. The gates and dam now carry State highway 6 across the top and remain as a monument to man's endeavour.