The most interesting route to the east coast from Alexandra is through the Maniototo, a generic name for the flat high country shared by three shallow valleys – the Manuherikia River, the Ida Burn and the Taieri River – and the low, craggy ranges that separate them. Despite easy road access, the Maniototo feels like a windswept and ambient world apart.
The region’s big draw is cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, but former gold-mining communities such as St Bathans and Naseby are worth sampling for their calm seclusion and subtle reminders of how greed transforms the land. Much of the area’s pleasure is in even smaller places – the post office at Ophir or the old engineering works in the Ida Valley – and in the dozens of small cottages, many abandoned – a testimony to the harsh life in these parts.
Predictably, Europeans first came to the area in search of gold. They found it near Naseby, but returns swiftly declined and farming on the plains became more rewarding. This was especially true when railway developers looking for the easiest route from Dunedin to Alexandra chose a way up the Taieri Gorge and across the Maniototo. In 1898, the line arrived in Ranfurly, which soon took over from Naseby as the area’s main administrative centre. With the closure of the rail line in 1990 an already moribund area withered further until the Otago Central Rail Trail caught on. In recent years, environmentalists have battled to save the landscape from Project Hayes, what would have been New Zealand’s largest wind farm, a battle only won when the power company Meridian Energy backed down in early 2012.