There’s a place to pause and get off your bike, about 1.5 kilometres along the Lake Dunstan cycling trail, where you can walk through a desert-like landscape of mounds, hills and other-worldly shapes.
Miners left these as they blasted water at the hills in their search for gold during New Zealand’s first major gold rush in the 1860s. Gullies strewn with slate, mine tunnels, the remains of a blacksmith’s shop and a restored mud cottage are all that’s left of what used to be the Bannockburn Sluicings, a dedicated historic reserve and Tohu Whenua, landmark that tells an important part of the country’s history.
The Lake Dunstan cycle trail, Central Otago’s newest Great Ride, opened in May 2021 and connects the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails. It's a 150-kilometre journey on gently undulating terrain that people of moderate fitness can ride over four days.
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The trails are rideable year-round, although with little shade it can get hot during summer. April is the most popular time to ride, according to various tour providers, but the scenery is just as stunning on a clear winter’s day. Keep in mind you may have to carry all your gear in panniers during winter, as luggage shuttles may not be available then.
Our journey began at the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, where there are reconstructed and re-sited early European settler buildings. We rode alongside picturesque Lake Dunstan and the ever-changing blues of the Clutha River, and along bridges suspended from rock cliffs over water. If it’s open, stop at Coffee Afloat, a cafe on a boat at Cairnmuir Gully. It’s an ideal rest spot before tackling a few sections of zigzagging ascents that follow: grit-the-teeth inclines for me, but easy for my companion on an electric bike.
During the gold rush, miners cut channels known as water races through the hillsides to transport water to where they searched for nuggets. You can see these slicing the land from a dizzying 85-metre suspension bridge.
Beyond Lake Dunstan you’ll arrive in Clyde, where we stayed for the night. Walking down Sunderland Street, with its original stone and wood cottages, stores and hotels, you’ll wonder how many miners and wagons once travelled this road.
Then it’s on to the dramatic Roxburgh Gorge Trail, a gorge of schist (rippled layers of grey rock) interspersed with greyish-purple wild thyme and, during autumn, golden poplar and willows.
A 14-kilometre scenic jetboat ride from Doctors Point to Shingle Creek connects the trail’s two sections. Miners’ schist huts and rock shelters, built into the sides of the gorge, are visible from the water. A circa-1862 stone cottage stands where a gold mining settlement of around 1600 people used to be. The trail ends at the Roxburgh Dam where the Clutha Gold Trail begins.
This part of the ride brings you to Roxburgh’s Commercial Hotel, a shabbily grand old pub with kauri balconies and a winding staircase in the entrance. John Kerr, the owner, says it was built in 1902. Kerr is a fountain of local historical information and holds a key to the town’s Teviot District Museum, which is packed with gold rush history and the relics of European settlers. (If the museum happens to be closed, you can ask Kerr or another museum committee member to open it up for a peek.)
Five kilometres from Roxburgh is Pinders Pond, once a goldmine and now a local swimming spot. We stopped for the night in the small township of Millers Flat and the next day rode the final section, taking in the moss-encrusted Horseshoe Bend suspension bridge, built in 1913, that crosses over the Clutha River.
The 1867-founded Chinese Camp, with its original temple and hotel on the outskirts of Lawrence, is the last historic stop on the tour. It was in Lawrence that the area’s gold story began, with prospector Gabriel Read’s discovery of the precious metal near the banks of the Tuapeka River. There are more remains from the mining era at Gabriel’s Gully Reserve, which makes a fitting place for a final ride to look across the landscape where at least 10,000 sought their fortune.
The writer rode a hire bike courtesy of Trail Journeys, located at Cromwell.