Driving along Central Otago highway
Justine and Chris Tyerman continue their ‘age-inappropriate’ road trip in a mini campervan, revisiting places in Central Otago Justine last travelled as a child...
Driving along magnificent stretches of Central Otago highway without a care in the world, the sun streaming down from a clear, blue, autumn sky, we encountered some extraordinarily-friendly gestures from the occupants of other bright green and purple rental vehicles approaching or passing us on the open road — waves, thumbs-ups and beaming smiles. We reciprocated, being careful to arrange our fingers in a non-offensive configuration, of course. We had such enthusiastic responses it inspired us to be even more inventive so I held up a “Kia Ora” sign, assuming most of them were visitors to Aotearoa.
After many such greetings over the next few hours, we decided to call this phenomenon the “JRW”, the JUCY Recognition Wave, brand recognition and brand bonding on a grand scale.
I also detected expressions of surprise and/or amusement on the faces of the invariably young occupants of the other vehicles as they glimpsed a couple of oldies travelling in a mini-camper. Did they think we were cool... or crazy? And did we care? Not two hoots! We were like a couple of teenagers on their first roadie as we meandered our way from Wanaka to the Catlins, revisiting places in Central Otago last travelled as a child.
In those days, the narrow, winding Cromwell Gorge road was just another obstacle to endure on our long car trips from Dunedin to our little crib in Arrowtown. But the old road is long gone now, submerged by Lake Dunstan — and the new road is straighter and much higher up the side of the gorge wall, closer to the craggy, weathered mountain tops that used to tower above us.
Fifteen minutes from Cromwell, the curved rim of the Clyde Dam loomed into view, the 103m-high concrete gravity structure that holds back the 26 sq km hydro-power storage reservoir of Lake Dunstan. Shortly after the completion of the Clyde Dam in 1993, we had a guided tour of the power station including a walk-through of the dimly-lit, vibrating interior corridor of the dam wall. I doubt I would do that now having researched the history of the dam construction in PM Robert Muldoon’s “Think Big” era, the discovery of fault lines above the one million cubic metres of concrete and steel dam and the safety compromises made back then.
Clyde has transformed itself into a seriously-classy village since the days we used to drive through the sleepy settlement stopping for a cuppa beside the river. Now the start and end point of the immensely-popular 152km Otago Central Rail Trail, Clyde has a great range of accommodation and eateries including Olivers, an upmarket craft brewery, bar, bakery-café, and gourmet restaurant with boutique accommodation, located in the old stone, gold rush-era general store.
Six or seven minutes further on is Alexandra whose claim to fame in my teenage years was the October Blossom Festival. I seldom managed to get there because I was always in Dunedin, buried in my books, studying for end-of-year exams.
Alexandra reached its heyday during the late 1800s when huge gold dredges worked the mighty Clutha River/Mata-Au. The most successful dredge was the “Dunedin”, which extracted around 528kg of gold. Today Alexandra is known for its pinot noir vineyards and apricots, peaches, cherries and apples.
In mid-winter, we used to go ice skating on nearby Manorburn Dam, the largest natural ice skating area in the Southern Hemisphere. The dam has been a popular place to skate and play ice hockey and the game of “curling” since the late 1880s. Parts of the dam still freeze over but most people now go to the artificial rink in town.
They sure knew how to build beautiful bridges in the old days. The graceful stone towers of the historic bridge over the Clutha River/Mata-Au, built from 1879 to 1882, still stand strong and proud in New Zealand’s swiftest river. The vivid turquoise of the Clutha against the bright gold of the autumn poplars and willows on the riverbank, with the deeply-weathered rocks on the hillsides above, is stunning. The replacement bridge, built in 1958, looked so utilitarian and ordinary by comparison.
We stopped for morning tea beside the river, soaking up the warm autumn sun. The little kitchen with its gas cooker, fridge and sink tucked into the back of the JUCY Cabana was incredibly convenient when we wanted to take a break in a beautiful spot.
Near the bridge, van-loads of excited cyclists were setting off to do the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, a 34km ride along the Clutha River from Alexandra to Lake Roxburgh Dam with a boat link in the middle. Combining fascinating goldmining era history, stunning scenery and wildlife, this is definitely top of my must-do list. A remote wilderness experience with no road access, the trail passes through what’s described as New Zealand’s “Grand Canyon” with rocky bluffs 350m high on both sides of the river.
I’ve always regarded Roxburgh as the heart of Central Otago, “well-suited to the making of Westerns”, my father used to say whenever we drove over the wild, barren landscape scattered with jagged, grey-brown rocks. Roxburgh’s hot, dry summers and cold winters are ideal for growing apricots, apples, pears, raspberries and strawberries. We used to stop to pick sturmer apples at a friend’s orchard there.
Roxburgh is near the site of the earliest of the large hydroelectric projects in the South Island. Opened in 1956, the concrete gravity structure dams the Clutha River/Mata-Au, 9km to the north of the town of Roxburgh creating a lake 30km long.
The land flattens out towards Raes Junction so we took a detour just before Lawrence, opting for the Tuapeka West Road to Balclutha. What an incredible contrast. Suddenly we were surrounded by rolling green pastures populated with well-fed sheep and cows and barely a rock or weed in sight. A huge dairy factory stood in the middle of nowhere.
At Balclutha, we headed towards Kaka Point and the much-anticipated start of our Catlins adventure, all new territory for us. I stood there gazing at the silvery sea and white sands of Molyneux Bay on New Zealand’s south-east coast. It all seemed far too easy to have left the snow-capped mountains of Wanaka in the morning, traversed the wild and arid heart of Central Otago and the verdant pastures of Tuapeka, and arrived at the seaside by lunchtime. That’s one of a myriad of things I love about our Aotearoa backyard. The contrasts are huge but the distances are not...
Next story: The Catlins
Read the first of Justine’s road trip stories here.
• Pick up a JUCY campervan, 4WD, people-mover or car from JUCY Rentals at Queenstown Airport. We’ve tried them all but this time we had a two-berth JUCY Cabana mini campervan with a double bed and a little kitchen, which gave us the freedom to camp out whenever we felt like it. The Cabana is not self-contained so we stayed at camping grounds and met some awesome people along the way. We liked the ease and manoeuvrability of the basic little campervan and the freedom of not being tied to an itinerary or pre-booked accommodation.
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