13 September 2018
For nearly a quarter of a century, trampers wanting to cross Opihi Gorge in South Canterbury had to go cautiously down the jagged rocks, cross the river and clamber up the other side.
But now, after a three-year community campaign led by the Fairlie Lions Club and with support from local businesses and the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), a 14.6-metre bridge has been installed 12 metres above Opihi River, re-establishing the once-famous 13-kilometre track linking Opihi Gorge Road with Raincliff.
Flight Lieutenant George McInnes, an aircraft captain from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s (RNZAF) No.3 Squadron, said an NH90 helicopter lifted the 1.8-tonne bridge from a nearby paddock to the gorge.
“We are pleased to support the community here in Fairlie and the Mackenzie Country,” Flight Lieutenant McInnes said. “With a new bridge now in place, residents and trampers will again have a safe way of crossing the river.”
The original bridge, which built in the early 1980s, was washed away by a flood in 1994.
Fairlie Lions Club secretary Norman Blakemore there had been no bridge to cross the gorge on for 24 years.
“The Fairlie walking track used to be very popular and we hope that trampers will rediscover it now that a new bridge has been installed,” Mr Blakemore said.
“The value of the NZDF’s support is incredible. We got the entire community supporting us but after we built the bridge our problem was – who could lift it? So many thanks to the Defence Force for getting behind our project.”
Flight Lieutenant McInnes said the task, which involved flying down the narrow gorge, provided the crew an opportunity to practise their skills in airlifting heavy and irregular underslung loads.
“Loads of this type can be challenging to rig and fly safely because of their potential to swing or spin during flight if they are not balanced properly,” he said.
“At almost two tonnes in weight, the bridge is towards the upper limit of what NH90 helicopters can lift so a high degree of skill is required by all those involved in the task.”