Queenstown to Clyde Road Trip


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.