Clyde businesswoman's curiosity opens doors to dam

by Kim Bowden - Jun 04, 2024

One woman's curiosity has led to members of the general public having 'behind-the-scenes' access to the Clyde Dam.

While sightseers can pull into the lookout just off State Highway 8 and view the huge structure from above, opportunities to get inside the hydroelectric power station have been few and far between.

Clyde businesswoman Kim Johnstone saw an opportunity almost as soon as she moved to town six-or-so years ago.

Inside the Clyde Dam - the country's largest concrete gravity dam (Image: Supplied).

"There's never really been public access," Ms Johnstone says.

"And, of course, it was the very first thing I wanted to do when I moved here."

Contact Energy is in charge at the dam and now and again it runs community open days or hosts local schools and other special interest groups.

Ms Johnstone owns the Clyde Village Store and Cafe, almost under the shadow of the dam, which spans the Clutha/Mata-Au River and forms Lake Dunstan.

She is now also the owner of Clyde Dam Tours, having negotiated access to the dam with Contact Energy in a lovely, small-town way.

"I didn't have to knock on the door because the head of the dam used to come in here (to the Clyde Village Store and Cafe) for lunch and I built a relationship with him over time."

It wasn't all straightforward - with health and safety considerations taking a fair bit of thought, in particular - but 18 months on business is going well.

The tours are available seven days a week, there's never more than ten people on them, and Ms Johnstone has five tour guides to call on to run them, plus she can step in too when needed.

Two of the guides have 64 years of work history at the dam between them, so they know a thing or two about operations; another, is an academic with a background in both geology and engineering.

Ms Johnstone says the tour content includes "all that kind of technical stuff" - the engineering, how the dam works and how electricity is made - and "then there are the stories".

Along the way, paying customers have also left their mark.

"For instance, we've had one of the original engineering team, and he was the fellow who discovered that it was on a fault line. He came back, he's well into his 80s now."

In response to the earthquake risk, Ms Johnstone says they came up with "an ingenious solution" - more on that and you'll need to sign up for a tour.

The tours have converted a few previously un-interested parties too.

"I can't tell you the number of women or partners, but it does tend to be more women, I have to say, that walk in here dragged along by a partner, and they're sort of dragging their heels, going 'Oh groan' and I say, 'Look, every single woman that has been like you has come back and gone, 'Oh my god, I am so thrilled that I went', and that is without a word of a lie.

"There are so many things that you do not understand abut what it takes as a user what's going on as you flick a switch. You've got no idea, actually, for most people. And their appreciation, as they leave is to be mindful of what they're doing as a user of something that is a precious resource and the implications of that moving forward with climate change etcetera."

Clientele for the tours are a mix of Kiwis and overseas visitors, many of whom are "absolutely floored" at the access provided to such a commercially-sensitive mega-structure.

"They're astounded, you know...that we take them into the control room and they get to speak with the controllers...that they get to go inside a working turbine."

Interest piqued? Check out the Clyde Dam Tours online at

Main images (Right image/Supplied/Jodie James): Clyde Dam tour operator Kim Johnstone, left, and the four turbine generator units of the Clyde Dam, right.

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