South Island Wanderings – Clutha

It was lashing with rain and blowing a gale as we left Pete’s Place in the Catlins – the remnants of the storm which had battered the West Coast. As is often our wont we chose a less direct route to our next destination. A gravel road up the Waikawa Valley took us through the Catlins Rainforest Reserve and, with dense vegetation on either side and the rain pelting down it did remind us a little of Costa Rica – sadly without the hordes of colourful birds you find in that Central American paradise. Still, it was a great route to take.

We stopped in Gore for a cup of coffee, dashing from the car as the rain poured down once more. Our route now took us along the foot of the Blue Mountains, though, frankly, all we could see was grey cloud so we just assumed that there were mountains out there somewhere and that they were, in some way, blue. We passed through another reminder of Costa Rica, the small town of Tapanti which shares its name with a lovely national park in CR. [Author’s correction: I didn’t have my reading glasses on when I looked at the map. The NZ town we passed through is actually called Tapanui. Why spoil a lovely story though!]

As we reached the Clutha River Valley I said to Jane “Look, there’s blue sky above.” And sure enough, as the road wound it’s way upward between two vast mountain ranges called Old Man Range and Knobby Range, the rain stopped, the sun shone and there was Alexandra (Alex to her friends) laid out before us in all her glory. A short distance out of town and up a road which contains no less than 5 vineyards (we didn’t know this when we booked, honest) was our home for the next 5 days.

Our house was a lovely, modern two bed cottage, immaculately clean, well provisioned and well cared for. Our hosts, who live on site, were a lovely young couple, Michelle and Jason, who personified the spirit of Kiwi friendliness. Michelle told us the grounds were ours to use at will and when she realised that we liked to sit and watch the sunset she fetched a couple of garden chairs and placed them in just the right spot.

We could see the sun rise from our kitchen window and the sunset from the lounge. But at night we were blessed with incredible views of the Milky Way arching overhead.

Basil, the horse, came to say hello every morning, staring somewhat disturbingly through the window. We fed him apple cores. And even Jane, who is not a natural horse lover, talked to Basil and petted him.

If our accommodation was idyllic so too, we were to discover, was Alex and the surrounding area. Alexandra is said to be the hottest, driest and coldest region of New Zealand and it’s a land of extremes. In the summer the daytime temperature can reach 40C but in the winter it can be -15C. The mountain ranges are dry, stony and barren but in the past they yielded up riches in the form of gold. All the towns in the area started out as mining settlements and evidence of waterwheels, sluices, races and old mining buildings abound.

But as arid as the mountains are the valleys are full of greenery and water with the mighty Clutha River carving out the land all the way from Lake Wanaka down to the ocean near Balclutha a few kilometres from where we were previously staying in the Catlins.

The Clutha is New Zealand’s second longest river and certainly its fastest flowing. We saw this for ourselves as we walked along part of the Roxborough Gorge trail out of Alex. You could see the power of the water as it flowed by. Yet it’s an almost eerily quiet, green coloured, wide river with no rapids or falls, just the odd eddy on its surface.

Part of this is down to the fact that the river has been dammed at Clyde, 10 klms above Alex and again at Roxborough 34 klms downstream, both dams providing hydro power. But it’s also down to how the river has carved out its path through the geology of the Alexandra Basin.

Much of the rock here is Schist (from the Greek word meaning schism, or split) formed by layers of mud and minerals being laid down on top of one another in separate layers then compressed together. The waters of the Clutha have been able to carve a deep defile through these relatively soft layers.

The waters brought with them not just the power to turn turbine blades to produce electricity in the 20th century but also power and money in the form of a shiny metal with the atomic number 79. Au – Gold.

In 1862 an American (Hartley) and an Irishman (Reilly) discovered gold on the banks of the Clutha River and so began the Dunstan Gold Rush. It is because of this that the towns of Alexandra, Clyde and Cromwell, all within a few miles of one another, grew up. Gold mining along the Clutha continued until the 1960’s but alluvial gold mining (dredging and sifting the rocks from the river bed and banks) wasn’t the only form of mining here. We took a glorious walk up into the Carrick Range above Bannockburn to the site of Carrick Town, a once thriving gold town, though little remains to be seen today. It must have been a harsh existence up here in the middle of nowhere. A lucky few made it to riches, as can still be seen in the streets of Clyde with its solid shops, banks and houses. But many more led a life of penury in the false hope of riches to come.

The Gold Rush brought in not just miners but also farmers and orchardists. There are extensive fruit and livestock farms in the Central Ortago and to service these a railway was built from Dunedin. Begun in the 1880’s it wasn’t completed until 1921 and only lasted until 1990. The track has been ripped up but now the Central Otago Rail Trail can be cycled or walked from Clyde to Middlemarch, a distance of 152 klms.

We certainly weren’t going to walk 152 klms and Jane and bikes just don’t get on. So we chose what was billed as a scenic section from Lauder to Poolburn viaduct – a mere 15 klms round trip. As everyone knows, unless you are talking about those crazy funicular rail tracks up the sides of mountains, railways generally run either on the flat or at only slight inclines and this one was no different. But it did wind through some glorious scenery, particularly around the Poolburn Gorge. Here we passed through two tunnels and we took the opportunity to sing a couple of Maori songs – Te Aroha and E Te Ariki. The acoustics were incredible and it made walking through the darkness so much more bearable.

We had to share the route with a lot of cyclists but it was a wonderful walk and there was a lovely cafe to end our walk.

Having exhausted our legs we spent the rest of our day visiting the remote Poolburn Reservoir set high in the hills. It was a bit of a hairy journey to get there along a gravelly, rock strewn road but the views were worth it. Poolburn was the location of another of those Lord of the Rings sets which you come across all the time in New Zealand. Peter Jackson created a Rohirrim village there which, in the film, the Wildings burn down causing the people to flee to their stronghold at Helm’s Deep. It was certainly a beautiful location and as fans of the films we readily conjured up the images taken at this spot.

Over time, panning the rivers for gold has given way toharvesting the world’s natural resources. Frenchman Jean Desire Ferauds made his fortune with a very successful claim at Frenchman’s Point. Being French, it is no surprise that in 1864 he turned his attention to wine making and established the Monte Christo vineyard in Clyde. Monte Christo continues to this day but now the whole area is covered in vineyards and you are really spoilt for choice if you are wine aficionados. Central Otago is mostly known for its Pinot Noir, a grape which clearly suits the climate, but other varieties are grown here and you can easily spend a day (or two!) on a wine tasting tour.

We found a small, boutique vineyard just a few minutes stroll from our house. We tasted a very pleasant Rose and several good Pinots but we really enjoyed the St Laurent, a French grape which was much more to our taste. Monsieur Ferauds would have approved, one assumes.

This trip we have decided to try and visit some parts of New Zealand we haven’t been before or have only driven through. And Alexandra turned out to be a wonderful find. The hills and mountains here can often be quite stark, almost desert like. But the landscape is vast and there is always water to be found, in the lakes and reservoirs, in the streams and rivers. A land of contrast. Golden grasslands, vivid green vineyards. We have enjoyed every moment.

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