Central Otago is synonymous with the gold rush, a short but dramatic era during which prospectors flocked to New Zealand’s deep south. From these beginnings sprang more enduring enterprises, such as farming, fruit growing and hydropower generation, and more recently a flourishing tourism industry propelled by splendid cycle and walking trails.
One of these is the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, a 34-kilometre cycling or walking adventure with stories as surprising as the scenery. Along a well-formed track with a few gentle climbs, it follows the Clutha Mata-au River through a crazy, hidden gorge – an otherworldly place rarely seen before the trail opened in 2013.
The adventure starts in Alexandra, a town with numerous historic buildings such as the Courthouse, now a cafe where riders can fuel up before setting off. Built from local stone in 1876, it sets a flinty tone for the trail that begins at the old town bridge (1882), now just lonely pillars stranded in the river’s flow.
The Clutha Mata-au is the South Island’s longest river, tapping three great lakes – Wanaka, Wakatipu and Hawea – and running 338 kilometres from mountains to sea. A few minutes ride downstream from the bridge, the trail heads through the narrow gates of Roxburgh Gorge, flanked by steep bluffs rising almost 350 metres in some places.
The landscape here is not only eye-poppingly odd but also unique in New Zealand. Broken by the constant forces of freeze and thaw, the gorge’s schist bedrock is shaped into jagged tors and massive boulders, splintering into scatterings of scree. Hardy plants such as wilding pine, tussock, briar rose and native kanuka find a foothold in cracks. Wild thyme, introduced by Chinese miners, runs rampant throughout the gorge, a fragrant and riotously purple carpet when in flower.
Starkly blue and lined with bushy willow, the river is a constant companion as the trail sidles through the gorge. At Doctors Point, around 10 kilometres from Alexandra, the trail meets an impasse requiring a pre-arranged 12-kilometre jet boat trip to bridge the missing link. As well as enjoying a speedy ride with thrilling spins, the boat trip reveals some of the gorge’s secrets.
Back in the 1860s, the Roxburgh Gorge teemed with gold miners. The camouflaged remains of their schist huts could easily be missed, as could the water-races tracing the hillsides. Mrs Heron’s stone cottage, however, is unmistakable, and conjures imaginings of a rough, tough life in a very harsh place.
From the tiny jetty at Shingle Creek the trail climbs gently to a big bend in the river, known as the Elbow. The wider, slower waters here are technically known as Lake Roxburgh, the reservoir backing up from the hydro dam downstream. The elevated perspective, change in terrain and sweeping switchbacks of this lower section of trail make it equally as enjoyable as the first.
It reaches its crescendo at the Roxburgh Hydro Dam, built in the 1950s. Back then this was New Zealand’s biggest electricity scheme, able to power 200,000 homes. Although that output is now greatly overshadowed by modern schemes, it stands as an imposing and elegant testament to a young country’s ambitions, all the more impressive for its seven-year build using fairly basic tools.
Visitors can enjoy a refreshing beer at Lake Roxburgh Lodge while awaiting pick-up, arranged in advance with local shuttle operators. Around 4–6 hours should be allowed for the whole trip, including the boat ride. Those wishing to avoid the boat trip can embark on two return-trip options – Alexandra to Doctors Point (20km return) or Roxburgh Dam to Shingle Point (22km) – both easy rides taking around 2–3 hours each.
There are two other New Zealand Cycle Trail Great Rides in the area, both of which link to the Roxburgh Gorge Trail. Below Roxburgh Hydro Dam is the start of the Clutha Gold Trail, a spectacular 2–4 day riverside ride sharing a similarly glittering history. The legendary Central Otago Rail Trail can be joined at Alexandra. This cruisy 150-kilometre journey through ‘big sky’ country is the Great Ride that put New Zealand cycle trails on the world map.
Background: New Zealand Cycle Trail
In May 2013, the New Zealand Cycle Trail was named as one of the best cycle trails in the world at the International Trails Symposium, hosted by American Trails in Arizona.
A network rather than one single route, The New Zealand Cycle Trail is a series of multi-day off-road trails and touring routes throughout New Zealand offering 2,500km of riding through outstanding landscapes.
A complete list of the New Zealand Cycle Trails and associated accommodation and providers is available at: www.nzcycletrail.com