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Incomparable Clutha

  • 6 min read

Incomparable Clutha

By Roy Sinclair

Arriving at Alexandra’s AL Park View Motel on a sweltering late summer afternoon, my host Tony Martin is departing for his Wednesday mountain bike ride. He’s typical of people I will meet over the next few days, when pedalling 100km along the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails...
Many locals are bike crazy - no wonder, with so many great trails nearby. Roxburgh Gorge Trail is a continuation of the Otago Central Rail Trail. But Roxburgh Gorge, linking Alexandra with Roxburgh hydro dam, has real hills - offering distance views of the trail, along with the magic of the swirling turquoise Clutha / Mata-Au River and Lake Roxburgh.

The trail is ridden in two stages: Alexandra to Doctor’s Point (10km), Shingle Creek to Roxburgh Dam (12km). Owing to land access issues, a central 12km section is made by jet boat.

Clutha River Cruises is one of two operators providing the 12km transfer of Roxburgh Gorge cyclists from Doctors Point to Shingle Creek. The $95 charge per person was a bone of contention when the trail opened, but those who have used the service are full of praise, citing it as great value. Laurence van der Eb, proprietor of Clutha River Cruises, says land access will change with upcoming re-leasing of Crown Land, “But I reckon most will still take the jet boat.’’

Having covered the brilliant 10km from Alexandra to Doctors Point, experiencing the Clutha / Mata-au from river level provides a different perspective. Most interesting from the jet boat, is getting close to the former homes of Chinese gold miners; basically rock overhangs. A chimney was added, sometimes a window, and many had gardens - it was necessary to be self-sufficient.

Chill Dirt Features Central Otago

On a moderately warm Nor'wester day, I can’t avoid a shiver when thinking about the freezing cold Central Otago winters… Fossicking for gold was ideally done during winter when the river was at its lowest.

Back on my bike and heading into Roxburgh Gorge, I pass ‘Ride at your own risk’ signs. I recall Tony Martin’s wife, Evelyn, chatting about riding the trail on opening day in October 2013: “Tony kept yelling, ‘Ride closer to the bluff - if you fall into the Clutha you will be washed down to Roxburgh Dam in no time!’ ’’

The 338km Clutha / Mata-au River is New Zealand’s second longest river, after the Waikato. Draining Lake Wanaka and flowing into the Pacific at Balclutha, it has the greater water flow: discharging 614 cubic metres every second, placing it amongst the world’s swiftest. However it is visually magnificent rather than menacing. Its Maori name Mata-Au translates to ‘a current or eddy in an expanse of water’, Clutha is the Gaelic form of Clyde.

Chill Dirt Features Central Otago

Near the Narrows, I pass another cautionary sign: ‘Walk Bike 300m’. Here the trail is steep, confined and perilously close to the edge. I didn’t risk riding this part but later hear of three undeterred Swiss guys, who had been recruits in the Swiss Army Bicycle Regiment.

A final challenge is a daunting switchback climbing away from Lake Roxburgh. It eventually levels out and leads to a kiosk at the end/start of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail. Had I continued over the Roxburgh hydro dam, I would have descended a short distance to start the Clutha Gold Trail, which terminates about 80km further on at Lawrence.

I’m met by Rod Peirce, long-time chair of Clutha Gold. “I’ve got something for you,’’ he says cheerily, as his hand vanishes into a paper bag. Dreading a can of warm beer, I’m delighted to see a large red plum emerge. “Juicy bugger,’’ says Rod as he loads my bike into his car. Juicy, cool, wonderfully refreshing… And so I am introduced to the superb fruit-growing region of Roxburgh Valley.

Roxburgh people are upbeat about their Clutha Gold Trail. In the Goldfields Hotel I ask proprietor John Lane for something cold. He suggests ‘water’, pours a Speights, then enthuses about the future of Clutha Gold. “Something was needed to stem the exiting young people.’’

Colin Turner at Roxburgh Motels is also a trail convert. He and his wife Joyce are starting to see the benefits from their cosy accommodation, which they upgraded to include a facility for cycling groups. Colin gives Rod and I a lift to Roxburgh Dam, then we pedal the first 10km of Clutha Gold.

Chill Dirt Features Central Otago

Unlike Roxburgh Gorge, Clutha Gold is mostly flat. Rod says by utilising the Queen’s Chain, the trail has been able to meander amongst the willows. He also tells me how the trail surface pebbles have been mixed with 8% clay, to give an excellent riding surface. I imagine Clutha Gold Trail in late April… It would be truly golden.

I break my ride, overnighting near Miller’s Flat at Quince Cottage. On my final day, two hours beyond Beaumont has me riding into Lawrence. I pass signs about tempting spa treatments, but I’m running late for an appointment at the town’s enticing Wild Walnut Café. I then spend my last night at the Lady of Lawrence B&B.

Chill Dirt Features Central Otago

Quince Cottage

My hosts Cally and Wendy are as delightful as my accommodation, with its cottage atmosphere, bed of many pillows and charming décor.

Their large rural property, a boutique B&B near Millers Flat, is an ideal stop on the Clutha Gold Trail. Cally says two cottages on the property were upgraded when they knew the Clutha Gold Trail was going to be a reality. “We were delighted when we knew it would go past our gate.”

I ask is Quince Cottage benefiting from the trail? “Absolutely,’’ says Cally. “And it’s getting better.’’

Wendy is a DIY guru and Roxburgh school teacher. Cally, also a teacher, has taken four months off to work full time on the property, which has a well-tended vegetable and herb garden. “Mowing the grass takes me up to five hours… It gives me time to think up new schemes. With people arriving daily we have got to keep it tidy.’’

Wendy perches on a railing of their Loggia semi-outdoor dining space, where she can see across to the cycling trail… A laburnum tree is glorious in the evening light, displaying bright yellow blossom and pods. She says they inherited established trees when they arrived. “We’ve just added to them - the property has sort of evolved.”

A Quince Cottage point of difference is the dinner option. Cally is dinner chef - her sumptuous three-course meal would qualify as fine dining; prawns and Thai salad (all greens from the garden, including Vietnamese mint and Bok Choy)… The Main is Lamb back straps accompanied by a wild rocket and parsley sauce, beetroot chutney and chilli and crab-apple jelly. For Dessert, Ricotta and Lemon cake - the indented top filled with lemon honey.

Cally worked as a chef in an English pub and her creative flair is obvious - next morning’s breakfast is also beautifully presented.

I could have chatted to Cally all day, but have to get along the trail. I enquire where Cally and Wendy could go for a holiday that would eclipse their wonderful Otago home. “Oh we have a place in Italy,’’ says Cally.

Lady of Lawrence

At the conclusion of my cycling adventure, I’m rewarded with something special: the Lady of Lawrence boutique B&B. I’m impressed with the attention to detail at the stately Lawrence dwelling - much of it reflecting the proprietor’s equestrian passion. Artwork is well chosen, as is chandelier lighting, and a bottle of Port awaits, for willing guests’ nightcaps.

The Lady of Lawrence herself, Verity Wolf, is the perfect host. She hails from the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne… She loved it there but was drawn to Lawrence when visiting for the first time, and chanced upon ‘The Sycamores’ at 20 Peel Street. “I really fell in love with it. I was soon thinking about renovating it.”

The Sycamores was built in 1912 for Archibald McKinley, who had made a lot of money gold mining at nearby Gabriel’s Gully. Later it became a home for Presbyterian ministers, for a short time, a small scale B&B, then Verity bought it.

She worked through the necessary compliances to establish a B&B, and many hours were spent bringing the garden back into shape, cleaning, and repairing fireplaces. “It was a bigger job than I anticipated. I refurbished the rooms myself, with help from a local handyman, electricians, and my partner Duncan.”

Verity has a degree in Horse Business Management from Melbourne University, and worked in the equestrian industry as a professional dressage rider and in the racing industry. “I worked with people, as well as in administration; time management, customer service… Many of those skills tie in with what I’m doing now.”

She bought a Mountain bike to ride sections of the Clutha Gold Trail. “I came here partly for the lifestyle. But changing to bike-power from horse power presented challenges. A narrow bicycle seat is vastly different from sitting on a horse… I changed the seat for one with much more padding!’’

Lady of Lawrence had only been open for a few weeks when I called by. “I can see the trails as a big bonus for Lawrence,” says Verity. “There’s been a lot of positive feedback. And people are requesting somewhere really special to stay at the end of the trail.’’

With the Lady of Lawrence, I think they have it.

Chill Dirt Features Central Otago

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