The Upper punt

The upper punt - crossing the clutha river

The period referred to in this plaque is 1877 to 1930, and the names and spellings mentioned are historically correct. Pembroke was the name of the settlement on Lake Wanaka and the name of the township was changed to Wanaka on 1st September 1940. The macron was added to Wanaka in 2021. At that time, the Mata-au branch was the smaller of the two branches of the Clutha between Balclutha to Kaitangata and on to the coast. The word Mata-au was added to Clutha River as part of the settlement with Ngai Tahu on 21st November 1997.

The puntman was always a well-known local character. Many had their foibles, such as temporary deafness when enjoying a midday spoke or willingness to exchange after-hours service for a dram or two of whiskey.  

Albie Collins told the story of how, when he was living at Maungawera and returning from dances on Saturday nights at Pembroke, it was often impossible to rouse the puntman (who was often under the weather with the grog), so they would take the punt across the river themselves. The puntman would then have to swim over the river in the morning to retrieve it.

The puntman’s hut was placed between the two punts on the bank opposite Templeton’s Workshop where both punts could be seen. James, the first puntman employed by the county, asked for a bicycle to speed up the service of the two punts. It is seen leaning against the hut wall and is possibly the first ‘company’ transport provided by a council in the district.

The punts caused delays for travellers, who had to raise the operator and have the punt transferred to their side of the river. If cars were on the Albert Town side of the river, they could drive to the other punt and pick him up. He often stood on the running board of the car to make the journey. Those on the Hawea side of the river had to ring the bell and wait.

The crossing would occasionally be affected by the height of the river and the puntman had to limit the load that could be carried on wagons. Sometimes the winds or floods prevented the punt from making the crossing, but accidents were rare.

The only ford on the Clutha River was a few 100 metres above the present bridge at the top end of the camping area. It was safe when the river was low in winter and when marks known by locals could be seen.

The lower punt continued to operate until November 1930, when the Camphill Bridge was opened.

The last official crossing of the Upper Punt on 23rd May 1930.
The Vincent County Councillors crossed by punt from the Hawea side, the bridge was opened, and they drove back in cars.


Bruce Hebband

Scroll to Top