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.