Wide plains, tussock smothered mountains, rocky tors, clear rivers and opalescent turquoise lakes. This is Central Otago, a region of some 11,000 kilometres squared. It’s big sky country where crystal clear light draws mountains closer by day and produces star-studded skies by night. Upon its plains visitors follow in the footsteps of the hardy 1800s pioneers who flocked here by the thousand to chase their dreams of gold. These early settlers carved a living from the land, transforming its scenery and moving mountains of rock in their quest. Most towns and villages owe their origins to the gold rush, and remnants from this era can be seen in the region’s display of cob, mudbrick and stone cottages, and discarded mining equipment scattered throughout the landscape. Today Central Otago’s greatest draw cards are its award winning vineyards, its quaint villages, and historical sites. We spend three days exploring the region and, as well as enjoying local wines, we fish for trout on Lake Dunstan, hike to a deserted mine, stay in a haunted hotel, relax on the shores of St Bathan’s Blue Lake, and learn how to pan for gold!
Like those who have travelled before us, Bob’s eye has a gleam as we leave Queenstown bound for Cromwell. En route we stop to watch brave types defy gravity by plunging 43 metres off the historic Kawerau Suspension Bridge from an architectural masterpiece that blends into the rock walls of the canyon, then continue on to Gibbston Valley Wines. It’s nestled in an idyllic setting beneath rocky mountains and here we take a tour of the vineyard and winery, which concludes with a wine tasting in the ambient-lit cool of a dark schist cave cellar.
“Magic,” says Bob, as he finishes his taster of Pinot Noir, and we walk to the on-site cheesery, where handcrafted cheeses are made in small batches under the guidance of Gibbston Valley’s head chef, Mark Sage. The flavour of the cheese changes subtly with the seasons, and we purchase delicious brie and camembert for the picnic basket before we leave.
On the outskirts of Cromwell we come to a halt outside The Gold Fields Mining Centre where we try our hand at digging and panning for gold. Finders-keepers are the rules and according to our guide Euan Moore most people find a few grains. “Some people have even found whole nuggets,” says Euan, laughing as Bob suddenly begins to pan like his life depends on it. The panning takes a bit of practice and I simply don’t have enough patience, but Bob picks it up fast and accumulates a few flecks of gold.
After several unsuccessful attempts I leave Bob to it and instead spend time enjoying the displays of old mining equipment including gravity fed sluice guns and stamping batteries, before wandering through the replica miner’s cottages and Chinese village.
When I return Bob has a wild gleam in his eye and it’s clear that a few grains aren’t going to be enough to satisfy his gold fever. “Won’t be long,” he calls out cheerfully as he begins another pan.
An hour later my patience is well beyond thin. Reluctantly Bob leaves his pan behind and grumbles “I’ll be back,” to Euan as he passes by.
He stares sullenly at his glass gold vial all the way to Bannockburn, where only the magical outlook from Mt Difficulty Wines breaks him from his reverie. We dine upon the terrace which offers sweeping views of the vineyard and Bannockburn; I enjoy a Bruschetta Platter which teams beautifully with a glass of Long Gully Riesling, while Bob makes short work of a rare beef sandwich with an accompanying glass of pinot noir.
“We’ll stop for more gold panning on our way back to Queenstown,” I promise Bob as his mood slowly improves over lunch.
Then we drive to Cromwell where stone-fruit and apple orchards abound, and juicy nectarines, apricots and peaches are ripe for the picking. Saritas orchard provides us with a bag of each before we continue on to Old Cromwell Town, relocated to the ‘new’ lake shore by a proactive group of locals who saved the town’s historic buildings when it was demolished to make way for the hydro-lake. Entry is free and the ‘old town’ is now home to local craftspeople and a café; we take a look around then relax on the beautiful turquoise shores of Lake Dunstan soaking up the sun before meeting up with local trout fishing guide Dick Marquand.
An ex Fish and Game officer, Dick operates as a catch and release guide on local rivers but he considers the lake fair game. “You can get three fish an hour,” he says as we climb aboard, and true to his word we do! They’re short and fat but Dick says they make good eating because they feed upon a tasty soft footed snail.
We throw them back as we already have dinner plans and drive south east along the Clutha River to Clyde where we come face to face with New Zealand’s third largest hydro generating station – the Clyde Dam. “Wow,” says Bob as we stand at the lookout. This mammoth structure is built from 1.2 million cubic metres of concrete.
Below is the sleepy village of Clyde where, once we’ve checked into Oliver’s Lodge and Restaurant, we set off to explore its wealth of historic buildings including the old courthouse, post office and offices of Dunstan News, then finish up with a stroll along the river.
Back at Oliver’s, housed inside the town’s old 1863 Calico general store, we are served a delicious seared venison dish followed by rich ricotta cake and poached plums for dessert, seated beside a huge schist fireplace surrounded by cobbled floors and heavy beams. Later we retire to the rustic charm of our luxuriously renovated stable room and fall asleep dreaming of days of old.
In the morning after a hearty breakfast served in the dining room of Oliver’s charming homestead, we drive through Alexandra and on to historic Ophir. We reach this small settlement via a majestic suspension bridge built in 1880 prior to the Ophir gold rush of 1863. Back then the town boasted several stores as well as a school, police station, courthouse, post office, cottage hospital and doctor. We stop to admire these buildings, before driving on back roads through the Raggedy Range to Poolburn and onto Oturehua where we call into Hayes Engineering Works, established in 1895 by Ernest Hayes, an English engineer. Hayes invented several farm tools including the parallel wire strainer which is still used on modern farms today. We tour the plant which comprises several buildings and a windmill used to power his works, then head to Oturehua’s old store as Bob has a hankering for some gum.
“Wow, some store,” remarks Bob, as he heaves open a heavy green wooden door to a large warehouse which still has its original kauri counters, shelves and roll-a-door containers.
Gum purchased, we drive along Reefs Rd and walk to the Golden Progress Mine, where poised some 46 metres above the mine shaft is Otago’s only remaining example of a poppet head, a contraption used to hoist gold bearing ore to the surface.
Hunger forces us to leave the mine and continue on to Ranfurly, passing Wedderburn’s famous goods shed en route, retrieved from the Mt Ida Coal Mine by locals who were inspired by Grahame Sydney’s painting “July on the Maniototo” depicting the shed beside the Central Otago Rail Trail.
We admire Ranfurly’s wealth of art deco buildings, built in the 1930s after fire destroyed much of this historic gold mining town, while eating chicken and egg sandwiches at traditional kiwi tearooms on the main street.
The town became the railhead for the district in December 1898, providing a link between Dunedin and Central Otago’s gold field towns. Later the railway was extended to Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell; today the railroad has been transformed into a 150 km long recreational Rail Trail suitable for hiking, horse riding and mountain biking.
The latter is a popular sport in the nearby village of Naseby, where Bob and I are greeted by a sign: “Welcome to Naseby - 2000 feet above worry level”.
“Isn’t that the whole of NZ?” questions Bob as we explore the historic cob and mudbrick buildings of this quaint gold mining town then pass the Naseby Forest where mountain biking enthusiasts congregate ready to tackle its trails.
In the winter an ice skating rink provides entertainment and the friendly lady manning the information centre tells us that curling, an old Scottish game akin to bowls on ice, is held here from June through to August.
It’s mid-afternoon so we backtrack on SH85 to Hills Creek then shortly after turn off for St Bathans, an old gold mining town nestled beside the Blue Lake Recreational Reserve. This tiny town has a permanent population of only five residents even though there’s many attractions including a stunning blue lake (dug by miners!), the famous Vulcan Hotel and several other notable buildings including the Bank of New South Wales Gold Office and Despatches, the old Post Office that now sells Victorian-style gifts. “It’s a real privilege to live here,” says Sharon Hinds when we call in.
We relax beside the beautiful sapphire waters of Blue Lake with its sculpted whitestone cliffs, then with some trepidation check into the Vulcan Hotel. It was built in 1882 from sun dried bricks, and rumour has it there is a resident ghost. Our hosts offer us the renovated Constable Cottage but Bob, eager to see if the ghost story is true, insists we stay in the hotel. As punishment I make him take the haunted room, while I ensconce myself in a ghost-free room next door! “Some say it’s an Australian gold miner, but most say it’s a girl with long brown hair,” says Jude Kavanagh, the publican’s wife. “I haven’t seen her but she’s not scary, just a tad naughty – she likes to hide things from time to time.”
After dinner and several glasses of ‘Dog’s Nose’, an old shearer’s drink, at the bar, Bob’s full of Dutch courage while I’m simply ready for bed. “Good luck!” I whisper at the door before I climb into my comfortable bed and fall immediately asleep.
“Bugger!” exclaims Bob in the morning, mimicking a shearer from the bar. “I fell asleep straight away.”
After a light continental breakfast and an hour spent basking in the sun at the lake, we follow SH85 through numerous tiny settlements to Alexandra where we enjoy an early lunch at the Shaky Bridge Café beside William Hill Vineyard. High above on the rocky schist hillside overlooking the town, the Alexandra Clock beckons and so after lunch we follow a steep track through rocky schist, where the sweet aroma of wild thyme fills the air, to the lookout for views of the clock and town.
Then we drive across the magnificent Alexandra Bridge over the Clutha River, with its banks smothered in willows and poplar trees. A three-hour hike follows the river to Clyde but we take the back road, stopping at Black Ridge Vineyard where we meet Sue Edwards and her partner Verdun Burgess. This intrepid pair pioneered wine in the region when they planted their vines in 1981. “It wasn’t fashionable then,” said Sue, pouring us a tasting of their well-known pinot noir and gewürztraminer. The pinot noir was so successful others invested and today there are many vineyards in this, the world’s southernmost winemaking region. We purchase a couple of bottles to join our burgeoning collection in the boot, then call into nearby Touch Yarns to admire Marnie Kelly’s handiwork: designer garments made from her own dyed wools that reflect the vivid shades of Central Otago’s great outdoors. I buy a gorgeous mohair hat, the exact shade of autumnal poplars, before we drive to the old gold mining tailings beside the river.
“It’s hard to believe that they moved all this rock,” says Bob as we walk over literally mountains of gravel and rock to reach the river, passing mountain bikers crisscrossing on well-formed tracks.
We return to Cromwell where I stop and make a purchase while Bob awaits my return in the car. On the outskirts of town we come to a halt outside The Gold Fields Mining Centre. Bob turns to beam at me. “Fill your boots!” I say waving my newly purchased book, “There’s three hours until they close.”