Gorging on Greatness
Roxburgh Gorge Trail
Our Trail Story
Witch to choose? Staring all day at a computer in order to keep the Great Rides App in shape, or steering my bike through a river gorge to keep myself in shape? Today I choose the latter; so leaving early morning from my home on the shores of moody Lake Wakatipu I head to the cycle trails of Central Otago. When I arrive I find there is a lot of trail choice, in fact, there are four NZ Great Rides all within an hours drive of here.
Trail expansion too is in the pipeline. A $26 million, 120 kilometre building project will soon link the southern great rides into an unparalleled cycle trail network. My mind boggles at the thought of a continuous 500 kilometre plus cycle trail network connecting more than 30 townships. The project building a trail between the towns of Cromwell and Clyde is about to kick off shortly, but today I kick off my ride at the twin bridges below downtown Alexandra.
The day could not be more perfect. For an area that can get some of the hottest and coldest temperatures in the country this morning is clear and mild. Already the sun’s rays give a glow to the poplars in full colour as their leaves drifting to earth while I prepare. I switch on the GPS units beside the gentle current of our country’s largest river. The Clutha River will be my companion today; its flow passes under a historic stone bridge as well the more modern span that I soon cross.
I hit the trail – and it’s immediately great from the views I can see ahead. Beyond my bars is a golden leaf litter that crackles under my tyres, the trail here is wide and firm with gravel hiding under the drifts of autumn’s fall. As I turn a corner the landscape tightens, the herb fields and dry rocky outcrops seem to pop up to meet me as I leave urbanity. I am not alone, as the occasional walker and wheeler join me flowing downstream in the tightening river gorge.
The Roxburgh Gorge Trail is a playful cross-country ride of three acts. The opening act is a 10 kilometre cycle into the gorge, at the midpoint the second act begins in the form of a necessary jetboat connection before the 11 kilometre cycling climax to the Roxburgh Dam
If the opening scenes that I had experienced so far during the ride continue, I was surely in for a cracker of a day.
After riding for a few minutes I squeeze between the schist rock bluffs of the Narrows and cruise along the elevated river terrace that offers vistas of the turquoise waters. Time slips away and I somehow reach the terminus of this section of trail at Doctor’s Point all too soon. Here we cyclists gather with excited anticipation, listening out in the silence for the deep thrum of the jetboat. There are a few pre-arranged boat operators who service the trail; I choose Clutha River Cruises with owner-operator Laurence on an early afternoon pickup.
Loading the bikes on the rear boat rack it takes little time while all on board tighten lifejackets and find comfy seats. Getting onto the boat is easy peasy with a dedicated jetty that extends out into the water. Laurence seems to know all the secret riverside relics. Just as we leave he points out a stone shelter ruin tucked under the Doctors Point viewpoint. Remarkable! Three times I have visited this viewpoint without discovering this hidden hide. A guided boat trip on the river highway of yesteryear is the best way to take in the early gold mining tales. As we head downstream we soon find that our driver is both a master navigator and narrator.
Then in a second, we go from cruising sedately to planing as the jetboat roars to life lifting the hull higher in the water. Soon we are shooting past the precipitous schist walls of the gorge and the breeze awakens our senses. We stop and view the flats at Fourteen Mile Creek, once a thriving tent camp for gold prospectors back in the day, today an abandoned terrace with little sign of the goldfield. We continue downriver or should that be down-lake?
The Roxburgh Dam was completed in the mid-1950s, it was the first large scale dam in the country, doubling our electricity production and saving the south from further power shortages. The waters of the new lake rose at a rate of a metre per hour and drowned many of the gold mining relics to create the 30 kilometre long lake that extends back towards Alexandra. We reach the site of Mrs Heron’s Cottage which was once on banks of what the Maori called ‘Mata-au’ (surface current), then renamed ‘Molyneux’ by early European explorers, and in turn renamed by Scottish settlers as the Clutha River. Today the water below the doorstep of this historic listed mud-mortar cottage is known as Lake Roxburgh.
The story behind this largely intact home is inspiring. Harriet Ann Heron (nee Buttress) was an English settler and arrived in Lyttleton with her husband in 1858. Unfortunately, he died two years later in a surf boat accident and she remarried to Henry Herbert Heron and settled in Dunedin. One day Mr Heron was driving a mob of sheep to the Lindis diggings when the Gabriels Gully gold rush was reported. He was asked to deliver the sheep to Lawrence near this new goldfield which the couple did, before deciding to settle there. The Herons ran a successful butcher shop in Lawrence, which was more of a temporary structure made of calico. One of her regular customers was Gabriel Read.
On the discovery of gold in Dunstan, Mr Heron prospected near Long Valley (later renamed Roxburgh) and was soon joined by his wife who travelled alone without roads or bridged river crossings. They then relocated again to Fourteen Mile Beach to work a claim from what is now our jetboat stop. There they lived in a tent on the goldfield for three years. As the gold diminished they moved downstream to the banks of our current jetboat stop. Here the couple built the cottage we are facing and operated a store and butchery. Mrs Heron is remembered as one of the few women who lived in the gold mining camps during the Otago gold rush. She passed away in 1931 at the age of 93 years, and was fittingly known as the 'Grand old lady of Roxburgh'.
Our next and last stop on the 13 kilometre jetboat trip is Shingle Creek. Here we disembark and Laurance puts our bikes back on solid ground. We bid farewell to Clutha River Cruises’ master storyteller. Before leaving I see there is a bach-like shelter tucked into scrub beside the lake. I investigate. I find a rough outdoor seating setting complete with an outdoor potbelly, inside the rough shack are old sofas that complete the bachelor pad.
It’s a retreat of a kind, a casual hideout for mates to meet up after arriving by water or wheels. I leave this crib of comfort to the rough landscape. There was no comfort as the curtain of the third act soon rises and so too does my bike as I enter a long climb. The rising gradient is made easier as it’s a wide and smooth trail surface and the slope soon eases as it extends into the recess of a dogleg corner aptly named Elbow Creek.
After leaving the leg of the dog the lake reappears and I start my descent. Here the views are just magnificent, and for the first time, I can see the rocky tops of the Knobby Range. Here on this stretch, I can see the elbow of the lake that leads both north and east. Below is the whitewater wash from a speeding boat,
the perfect pattern of the wake is in contrast to the lumpy faces of the random rocky outcrops.
My eye follows the trail as it winds and disappears through elevated terraces and nooks … soon I am drawn into this terrain of the Hidden Valley and its sweeping bends.
Next, I meet two sets of climbing switchbacks. The first is a warm-up of several wide corners followed another set a few hundred metres beyond. While I’m not a fan of trails that appear like zigzag stitching on a hillside’s fabric … I love this second one. Here, with greater effort, I press my feet hard into the pedals as I sing (well… puff anyway) the praises of the trail builders that conquered the giant bluff I’m ascending. Then, after some wiggly downhill, I reach the trailhead that is just above the humming dam that formed the lake some decades before. The viewpoint over the huge dam and river is to the carpark of the Clutha Gold Trail – another NZ Cycle Trail … and equally epic.
As for me, I am done cycling for today. The Roxburgh Gorge Trail has been a brief respite before I return to the computer and continue updating the Great Rides App. The trail is not only a day ride between two Great Rides and the shortest on the NZ Cycle Trail - but is also a standalone track that allows one to gorge on greatness as I have just done. It’s a trail hidden from the highway as it travels along the waterway.
This is no route like the road above with glimpses of the gorge, but one that plunges into the river canyon and onto the waters. I enjoyed cruising the path of the prospectors and hearing the rich tales of days long gone. Cycling the trail is an honest cross-country ride but one gently aided by wide and stable paths. Boy, it was devoid of cyclists today! Just a few of us compared to the much larger numbers on the Otago Central Rail Trail just over a mile away. The Roxburgh Gorge is often overlooked and completely under-rated. One day soon word of this striking trail will get out and a rush of riders will stake a claim for a ride that is as good as gold.