Lake Wanaka is drained by the Clutha River, New Zealand’s highest volume river, and the second longest – the mouth at Balclutha, south of Dunedin, is 338km from its source. Its flow is interrupted along the way by major dams at Clyde and Roxburgh as the river and SH8 (the fastest route from Queenstown to the coast) squeeze between the Old Man Range to the east, and the Knobby Range to the west.
The Clutha’s middle reaches flow through the Central Otago goldfields, a fascinatingly historic region, southeast of Queenstown and Wanaka, where the barren and beautiful high country is peppered with gold-town ruins from the 1860s.
The boomtowns were mostly moribund by the early twentieth century, but a few struggled on, mostly growing stone fruit and, later, grapes for what has become a burgeoning wine region full of unique flavours. With wine comes food and the region is increasingly establishing itself as a foodie haven. The range of activities seems pale compared to Queenstown or Wanaka, but mountain biking is hitting its straps with great rides all over the place and a few operators keen to rent you a bike or lead superb tours.
The reconstructed nineteenth-century boomtown of Cromwell, 50km east of Queenstown, probably won’t delay you long, but is a good jumping-off point for the former mining settlement of Bendigo and the wineries of Bannockburn. The twin towns of Clyde and Alexandra have fashioned themselves as bases for the popular Otago Central Rail Trail, while Lawrence relishes is position as the gold rush’s home town.
SH8 follows the Clutha River pretty closely and is typically plied by four buses a day running between Dunedin and Queenstown.Read More
The uninspiring service town of CROMWELL, 60km east of Queenstown via the Gibbston wine region, does its best to celebrate its gold-mining roots while hopping on the back of the region’s food and wine renaissance. Sadly, almost all of Cromwell’s historic core is waterlogged below the shimmering surface of the Lake Dunstan reservoir, formed by the Clyde Dam, 20km downstream (see The Wineries). But the immediate surrounds are beginning to find their place on the tourist map, thanks to the cluster of quality wineries, fruit orchards and old gold diggings.
Cromwell may only be 120km from the coast, but this is as far from the sea as you can get in New Zealand, something that gives the area something of a continental climate that’s perfect for fruit growing. A 13m-high, fibreglass fruit sculpture beside the highway highlights the long-time importance of nectarines, peaches, apples and pears, though these days cherries and grapes are probably more important.
Soon after Hartley and Reilly’s 1862 discovery of gold beside the Clutha River, a settlement sprouted at “The Junction” at the fork of the Kawarau and Clutha rivers. Local stories tell that it was later renamed when a government survey party dubbed it Cromwell to spite local Irish immigrant workers. Miners low on provisions planted the first fruit trees in the region, little expecting Cromwell to become the centre of the Otago stone fruit orchard belt.
A large white clockface – visible from as far away as 5km – looms out of the cliff backing ALEXANDRA (affectionately known as Alex), 10km southeast of Clyde. Alexandra sprang up during the 1862 gold rush, and flourished for four years before turning into a quiet prosperous service town for the fruit-growers of Central Otago. Throughout the summer you’ll find fruit stalls selling some delectable apricots, peaches and nectarines, and in December and January some of the world’s finest cherries.
There are remote clusters of cottage foundations and sluicings all over Central Otago, and dedicated ruin hounds can poke around the detritus in places such as the Nevis Valley and Bendigo (ask locally), but the most extensive workings are found at BANNOCKBURN, a scattered hamlet 9km southwest of Cromwell that’s now more famous for its wineries.
Since the early 1990s, the warm, north-facing hillsides around the sluicings have been increasingly planted with grape vines. The wines – primarily Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris – have quickly established themselves as some of New Zealand’s best. Almost a dozen wineries are open for tasting (call in advance if you’re visiting in winter), all listed on the free Central Otago Wine Map.
The bland former gold town of Roxburgh, 40km south of Alexandra, sits hemmed in by vast orchards that yield bountiful crops of peaches, apricots, apples, raspberries and strawberries, all harvested by an annual influx of seasonal pickers. The season’s surplus is sold from a phalanx of roadside stalls from early December through to May.