A Golden Find
Clutha Gold Trail
Our Trail Story
If the Clutha Gold trail was a goldfield, It would be a claim as rich as that of Gabriel’s Gully. However the trail is almost undiscovered compared to the rushes of other cycle routes. Like the gold dredges that once ploughed the river, I am about to fossicking the rich heritage along the banks of the Clutha River. This hidden nugget in the former Otago goldfields is experienced by precious few cyclists – but was to be my golden find today!
I arrived at the trailhead in the early morning with a long shadow cast by the massive wall of the Roxburgh Dam keeping me lightly chilled. My plan was to head downstream tackling the trail in one day rather than a relaxed two. Attaching and powering up the three GPS units I rechecked my gear before pushing play. My next adventure was recording at one second intervals. Some may know that I have developed the Great Rides App for all the NZ cycle trails, and this handlebar full of gadgetry is merely the field tools of my trade.
As the sun rose over the river terrace my hands were finally warmed; the rays drew a companion shadow riding beside me. The river terraces glowing golden on my side once held 700 dwellings that housed dam construction workers. Like the old gold dredge abandoned in the river, little remains today of the once thriving village with its workers and buildings all off to the next rush, the next construction boom. Off the terrace and down to the Clutha River edge I ride, its swirling eddies sometimes outpacing me. This is the greatest volume, swiftest and the second longest river in the country.
Shadow companion, Eddy and I all keep pace and together make quick work of the first trail section.
Before long I pass by the bridge over the Clutha River to Roxburgh – the town known for its stone fruit orchards. This is the largest of the four main settlements on the route (just pipping Lawrence) with townships relatively evenly spaced along the trail. I elect to continue pedalling along the flowy path beside the river past a couple of orchards before arriving at Pinders Pond.
The pond could not be a lovelier setting in this early morning light. Sheltered from wind this bowl of water provides a near perfect mirror reflection of shoreline vegetation. The memory of this scenic spot will be with me forever with the wonder of how a former gold mining dredge pit could provide such pretty solitude. I soak up a few more minutes of reflection before way pointing the campsite and re-joining the river trail. I will definitely come back here again with our tiny retro caravan to enjoy both the peace and the pedalling.
One of the greatest surprises as I ride is the amount of vegetation cover over the trail and river banks given the harsh dry climate of the Central Otago district – an oasis of shelter and shade which also hides the alluring meanders of the trail. A few more peaceful riding minutes pass before the reaching a trail fork. Heading uphill I reach the Teviot stone woolshed ruins. At 137 metres long it is NZ’s largest stone ruins and just a remanent of its former glory sitting in a paddock on private land. It’s worth a look.
Returning to the main trail I leave the river and reach the quaint village of Millers Flat. For those overnighting nearly half way along the trail, this is a top spot to unwind and rest tired limbs. There is accommodation available and I make notes to list it in the Great Rides App for those following in future. Me? I head out of town on the trail and chance a meeting with a group of jovial riders who tell me how much they love the ease of riding and the small detours to historic features. They point me in the direction of the Horseshoe Bend Bridge and the Lonely Graves.
The lonely graves turn out to be just as they sound, two headstones are the only feature in the historic reserve overlooking the Clutha River. Legend has it that back in 1865 a local man called William Rigney found the body of a young man washed up on the shore below and he arranged for the unknown body to be buried with a wooden headboard stating ‘Somebody’s Darling Lies Here’.
But digging a little deeper (no, I did not dig up a grave!) it is reported that Rigney wrote a letter where he stated that he neither found nor buried the body, but did provide the funds for the headboard. Ironically when Rigney passed away he was buried beside ‘Somebody’s Darling’ stating he was the man who buried the boy in the neighbouring grave. I love these sorts of trail side tales.
My next living encounter is a colourful and carefree local who is riding with a small fruit crate as a carrier for her belongings. We pass each other several times as I take photos along the river trail. Her upright comfort bike keeps her fit and she is grateful the trail connects her with neighbours in other townships. Like many Great Rides they are also valuable paths for the locals as well as recreational assets for visitors.
Just below me in the potholed rocky shoreline beside river rapids I see several gold panners and others, tenting under the shoreline trees. Like generations before, the river keeps on flowing and giving enjoyment to all sorts of recreational users. The sight of a road bridge over the Clutha River heralds my arrival at Beaumont. More of a hamlet than a settlement; the hotel on the opposite bank is a classic kiwi pub for a good feed with locals. For me it’s a waypoint before wheeling out of town.
From just outside the hamlet, a gentle incline marks the beginning of the trails only significant hill feature. What starts off as a slight resistance to my weary legs becomes a low gear grind for a few metres before reaching the summit of the trail – at only 100 metres higher than either trailhead it’s more molehill than mountain. The summit is in fact the Big Hill Tunnel, a 434 metre former railway portal that cools me as I pass through.
It was completed in 1912 and in use for locomotives two years later. The railway line was one of the longest construction projects in NZ. Taking 50 years to build; by the time it was completed railway passenger transport had waned with road transport already surpassing rails. Stopping to take photos I ponder the recent cycling trends of the past decade – I expect that on this former railway line pedal power will outlast the timeframe steam power that ruled this strip of the country. Then under my own steam with some assistance of my new companion gravity, I descend quickly for the next few kilometres through rolling green meadows swooping into Lawrence.
Riding into town it is obvious that they really embrace their heritage here. Standing proudly along the main street are wooden statues symbolising past citizens and the shop’s facades harp right back to the town’s beginning. Lawrence historically, and more recently, has many claims to fame. The most well-known is NZ’s first gold rush of 1861 at Gabriel’s Gully just up the road from town, while a few years later resident John Woods created the score for our national anthem.
Not so well known is that in 1893, Patrick O’Leary, a local blacksmith built the first NZ made bicycle at the age of 20. He also built bike tools and taught the post mistress how to ride, which might explain his desire to build a bike in the first place. His ingenuity is so fitting for the Clutha Gold trailhead – bike-fame for the cycle trail village.
As the late afternoon sun slowly lost its heat I booked a shuttle to head back to Roxburgh using the town’s free WIFI - another NZ first. While waiting I enjoyed a large ice-cream near a trio of wooden sculptures. The sculptures are a playful depiction of the trio who first discovered gold in the area. Gabriel Read in a black top hat, Helen Munro who found gold at Munro Gully, and Black Peter from Bombay, who selflessly showed others where to find the rich pickings … but missed out on wealth himself.
I reflect on my journey along the Clutha Gold trail as I lick and wait for the bus, I mused how there is little that this trail lacks. The flowy trail mimics the river bends taking you on a journey of both heritage and natural richness. I loved the way the trail flows like the river, provides a living history and connects small communities. The Trail Trust’s dream is to extend the trail east to Waihola which is a massive leap. From there it is only a small stepping stone to Dunedin. One day, NZ’s first city that grew rapidly out of the influx of miners (Dunedin) may be connected via a dedicated cycle trail right back to the Clutha Goldfields that helped build it. Clutha has found it’s new gold!