With rolling hills, tall peaks, rushing rivers, rich farmland, exquisite vineyards and some excellent country pubs, Central Otago has a lot to offer a visiting mountain biker.
Words: Mike Blewitt Images: Tim Bardsley-Smith
While ‘Central’ has some great singletrack based around Alexandra, the area might be best known for the trails that pull in mountain bikers, cycle tourists, and active travellers from all around the world.
While the Otago Central Rail Trail has become the poster child for rail trails and cycle trails that have a broad appeal the world over, the whole area has a wealth of gold mining history that has left the landscape full of relics, and old routes to link one town to the next. And part of New Zealand’s push to have a range of national cycle trails includes the Clutha Gold Cycle Trail and Roxburgh Gorge Trails.
Riding multi-purpose cycle trails might not be what gets everyone’s pulse thumping, but the trails are fun and relaxed enough that you can look around and take in the scenery of the Central Otago region. What’s more they actually take you places and with outfitters set up to transport your luggage from point-to-point, or drop you at the start or collect you at the finish, it’s really easy to do. The cycle trails of Central Otago are a great way to break up your days between riding technical singletrack on the peaks above Alexandra.
Riding the Clutha Gold Trail
The Clutha Gold Trail follows the mighty Clutha Mata Au river from Lake Roxburgh Dam to Lawrence – although we rode it the other way, getting dropped at Lawrence by Bike It Now. The trail takes a leisurely route from Lawrence through farmlands as it leaves the small town. Like many cycle trails in New Zealand, there’s the obligatory old rail tunnel to ride through, and the Big Hill tunnel lives up to its name. The climb to it from Lawrence is gradual, but if you’re coming from Roxburgh then it will have a sting in the tail. The tunnel is long enough that the mid-point is almost pitch black, and you might lose your sense of direction until you see the little white dot at the other end. If you’re not so great in the dark, take a small light.
Once you reach Beaumont, the trail joins the river. The Clutha Mata Au is fast flowing, and packs a punch. This river actually runs from Laka Wanaka down to the Pacific Ocean, and is the longest river on the South Island. The turquoise waters look inviting the whole way along, but it’s worth noting that this is one of the fastest flowing rivers around, so a quick dip probably isn’t the best idea.
The route winds its way along the river, through stands of birch, along the old rail grading over bridges, to a freshly cut trail overlooking the powerful river below. There are plenty of spots to stop and take it in. You might even see the only dredge still working the river, churning up the base of the Clutha Mata Au 18m below to extract alluvial gold.
As the Clutha Gold Trail is a tourist attraction for walkers and cyclists alike, there are signs along the route explaining the history of the area. It’s worth stopping to read them as it helps you get a real sense of the past along the way.
There are a few good locations along the river to pull over for a picnic you might have packed – but we opted to push on to Millers Flat. The small town straddles the river, and while some might choose to make the town the end of their riding for the day at Millers Flat Holiday Park, we chose a burger and beer at the Millers Flat Tavern before pushing on.
In Australia we think we have great beer, and we do, but New Zealand might actually do it even better. Even in a small tavern such as the one at Millers Flat, you’re likely to have a great option in front of you at the bar. It would be silly to turn down the opportunity to sample a few. Speight’s Gold Medal Ale ended up the flavour of our ride.
We pushed on to Roxburgh, past more mining relics, like Pinders Pond. It’s a pretty lake now, but this was used for sluicing in the 19th century. The run in to Roxburgh takes you along the forested embankments of the river. With fast running water below you and tree cover overhead, the wide trail grading ends up with a single line cut in to the leaf litter as you approach town and the bridge over the river.
Roxburgh has a number of accommodation options, and just a few places to eat. Thanks to the luggage service from Bike It Now, our bags were waiting at reception. There’s nothing quite like riding point-to-point, but not needing to carry all your worldly wares with you the whole time. Sure, bikepacking is the new black, but now and then it’s nice to have the creature comforts you want in a large overnight bag, not crammed into a big seat pack and frame bag.
We stayed at the Roxburgh Motel, which had a small self-catering apartment for us, along with secure bike storage, a washing machine we could throw our sweaty clothes into, and an owner who was happy to chat at length about riding routes in the area.
While we walked up the road for a meal from a Thai restaurant, we’ve been told it was foolhardy to miss a visit to Jimmy’s pies.
Into the depths of Roxburgh Gorge
Day two of our ride would be into the gorge. Of course, we were still riding upstream really, so after a breakfast and weather check in Roxburgh, we left our bags at reception for collection by Bike It Now, and hit the slightly moist road.
Heading back along the river, we made our way to the dam above Commissioners Flat, the true end of the Clutha Gold Trail. The dam creates Lake Roxburgh, and makes for a bit of a sealed road climb to get up and along the dam wall. There’s a little more climbing to get to the trail head, and then the view is immense.
Ahead, a ribbon of manicured cycleway stretches out, twisting into the rolls and folds of the Central Otago landscape. It’s unusually green on our visit, but the opposite side of the lake has the stark, rocky landscape that typifies the area, with thyme growing in the rock outcrops, scenting the air, giving the sense we’re riding into someone’s oversize herb garden.
Compared to the Clutha Gold Trail, the Roxburgh Gorge has a little more interest for most mountain bikers. Part of this is due to the setting. While the Clutha Gold Trail skirts the Clutha Mata Au River – it also cuts through a lot of farmland.
The Roxburgh Gorge Trail instead winds its way above the lake, with the steep rock walls acting as a natural barrier to too many obvious man-made changes beyond the trail and the lake itself. You’re left riding on the trail high above the lake, looking across to the other side of the gorge, at the odd small farm trail, and into the Central Otago back country – a barren looking area where prospectors in the 19th century gold rush had to explore to find water sources for their mining in the river below. There was so much water in the river, but they needed water from above to be fed by gravity for their sluices.
With the climb to the start, the long downhill is well received, especially the stacked switchback corners above the lake. With no tree cover, you have an uninterrupted view across the blue water, right as you hit the apex of each corner. It can be a little unsettling.
The trail then carves along the gorge wall, wrapping along the gorge and the section known as Hidden Valley. It’s an apt name, as you can’t see back to the dam, and you can’t see much of the trail into the distance. Even though the main road is only kilometres away, it does feel like a wilderness experience.
The route continues, now lower and in more scrubby plants and rock outcroppings, with a gradual, then steeper, climb into grassy hills that roll along the ridgeline. Eventually you see the trail ahead of you, a long cutting with a slight downhill, before finally coming around a corner near the water’s edge – that will be Shingle Creek.
This trail is unique as it doesn’t go all the way through – yet. The land on each side of the gorge is privately held, and negotiations are still in progress to continue the trail between Shingle Creek and Doctors Point. So how do you get between the two? Jetboat!
Yes, you are in New Zealand, so part of riding the Roxburgh Gorge Trail involves booking your jetboat shuttle for an appropriate time, and letting them know which location you will be at.
We arrive at the small wharf with our driver ready and waiting. The ride up the river is full of stories, banter, some cruising, some high speeds – and even a 360. No bikes have been lost yet.
But while at first it might seem like a novel inconvenience, this trip filled a lot of gaps for us. We stopped a few times on the way to Doctors Point to have old cabins pointed out, or to hear a story from the gold rush – be it at Pulpit Rock or Mrs Herrons Cottage. There are tales from the 1860s of prospectors finding gold laying just beneath the water and darker legends telling how people got through the harsh Central Otago winters more than 150 years ago.
We arrive at Doctors Point, or opposite anyway, where much of the gold mining took place. You can still see the obvious scars from mining in the area, although it pales in comparison to how mining tears the landscape apart today. The view helps to highlight how the trails built for the gold miners are now being brought back to life by mountain bikers. It’s hard to imagine current mining projects will have the same regeneration.
The next stretch has more sections cut into the rock, and there’s also work on a connecting trail to Flat Top Hill reserve, which has some of the finest purpose-built trails in Central Otago. We see the proposed trail head and push, as the trail winds its way up the river, and into Alexandra.
Alexandra is one of the strong mountain bike hubs in Central, and we highlighted the riding options there in Issue #159 – you can find that story on AMBmag.com.au right now.
After a late lunch at The Court House Café and Larder (it’s on Centennial Avenue – their coffee is great) we make tracks to Almond Court Motel, where our bags are waiting, along with a hot shower and other creature comforts.
As these are point-to-point routes, unless you’re heading out and back in a bikepacking style, you’re best to use one of the outfitters to get your luggage around. We found Bike It Now offered a great service. They can also hire bikes and equipment for you if required.
Where to stay
There are a few recommendations, but Roxburgh Motel and Almond Court Motel were perfect for us. If you need a suggestion, the Central Otago website has a whole host of options listed.
What to take
Take enough equipment for a day on the dirt – including a jacket, sunscreen, spares for your bike, food and water. While you do pass through towns on the Clutha Gold Trail, you don’t in the Roxburgh Gorge. Also, don’t forget your camera!
How to get there
Central Otago is about an hour’s drive from Queenstown airport, and we picked up a car from Rent-a-Dent at the airport to drive out. We didn’t use the car for this trip, but we certainly had enough to do in Central Otago for a week to keep us busy! We would suggest basing yourself in Alexandra for much of your visit.