This walk starts at the bottom of Zig Zag Road by the Rakaia Gorge bridges on SH72 and is a 10.4km return walk. Park in the riverside car park on the north side of the bridges.
The track takes you along the north side of the Rakaia Gorge, a 7km long river canyon. It goes through bush and farmland taking 30 minutes to the first lookout. Continue for stunning views of the river from the cliff top path. Side tracks go to old coal mine entrances and the stony Rakaia riverbed. An option is to take the Discovery Jetboat in one direction (booking essential).
The Rakaia Gorge wrought iron bridge built 1880-82.
Rakaia Gorge Bridges The Rakaia Gorge Walkway begins next to the unique wrought-iron Rakaia Gorge Bridge - the only design of its type in the world! The 55 metre single-span bridge has trusses that fan out underneath carrying the load to the gorge edges.
It was built from 1880-82 for a growing inland population and farming industry. It was built strong enough to take rail, but this never eventuated. The bridge is a Heritage NZ Category One Historic Place. The second bridge that completes the gorge crossing is concrete and newer. Crossing the Rakaia before the bridge For Maori, crossing the Rakaia River was a major event. Records tell of Maori crossing in rows holding onto a pole. Maori called the river Ō Rakaia - Ō means “the place of” and “Rakaia” could be a South Island version of “Rangaia”, which means “to arrange in ranks”. So “the place where people range in rank" could refer to their method of crossing. When European people started settling in Canterbury, an Accommodation House was built by the Rakaia Gorge by John Bryan in 1851. It included a smithy, post office, bar and cattle yards. It burnt down in 1878 and was not replaced, but while Bryan was there he ferried travellers, stock and goods across the river in a flat-bottomed punt pulled by a rope from the other side of the river.
The Rakaia Gorge Walkway includes a section of the track that led to the Accommodation House, which was on a terrace on the north side of the river.
Maori legend of how Rakaia Gorge was formed Maori legend tells of a struggle between a Taniwha living in the river and a northwest Demon (the nor’west wind) that came down from the mountains.
The Demon came down the river and flattened the Taniwha's property. In response the Taniwha brought down huge boulders to imprison the Demon, giving birth to the gorge.
The gorge is still renowned for channeling the strong nor-west wind at times, which builds strength as it travels down the Rakaia River to the Canterbury Plains.
Rakaia River – water sources The Rakaia River is fed by high rain and snowfall in the Southern Alps. Furthest away, about 150km inland, are two glaciers – the Lyell and Ramsay. Water also feeds into the Rakaia from other large high country rivers and lakes.
The water’s blue colour is due to reflections from floating glacial sediment.
The average river flow is 160 cubic metres per second. Flows as low as 85 cubic metres per second can occur for long periods in late winter. Several times a year after heavy rain, muddy water churns through the gorge and water can rise up around the iron trusses close to the bridge deck! Very occasionally floods exceeding 5,000 cubic metres per second have been recorded.
River Life The gorge is a popular fishing spot. Salmon and trout live in the river, with numbers boosted by Fish & Game.
A range of birds travel up the river from the coast. Some species breed exclusively on braided rivers like the Rakaia, including the endangered black-billed gull, black-fronted tern, wrybills and banded dotterel.