Central Otago cycling doesn't have to be all about rail
trails. Jeff Kavanagh discovers there are other tracks to
I feel a bit underdressed. All around me, middle-aged couples
are finishing their breakfasts of muesli and stewed fruit,
happily kitted out in thigh-cuddling cycle shorts and sleek,
They speak enthusiastically in strong Kiwi and Australian
accents about the day's riding that lies ahead, before taking
final gulps of juices, grabbing sunglasses and cycling gloves
from their tables, and heading out of Dunstan House B&B
Up later than everyone else, I'm still only halfway through
my cup of tea and warm croissant when I find myself alone in
the cosy, heavy-draped dining room of the former Cobb and Co
staging post, my biking attire of jam-stained T-shirt,
shorts, and seven-year-old jogging shoes no longer quite so
By the time I'm ready to go, the 16-strong group, on a tour
with a company from Christchurch, have already set off on
their first leg of the Otago Central Rail Trail. I'm heading
towards Alexandra as well, and am also going to do some
guided riding, but not along the same route.
Instead, I glide the short distance from Dunstan House down
and across the bridge to Earnscleugh and into the dappled
forest light of the river track that accompanies the glassy
green Clutha River southeast.
It's a cool and slightly overcast early-summer morning, and
the track, beyond a couple of people walking their dogs, is
Maree, one half of the superbly hospitable husband and wife
team that own and run Dunstan House, reckons the undulating
12km path takes her just over an hour and a-half if she paces
Having forgotten momentarily the point of cycle-touring is
actually doing this, I begin slaloming my mountain bike
through the trees, bouncing over mounds in the track, and
burning around corners.
Forty minutes later I'm in Alexandra and half an hour too
early to meet Phil, the owner of Altitude Adventures and my
guide for the day, so I grab a flat white from the Courthouse
Cafe in the middle of town, and make a note of its
tasty-looking French rolls stuffed with pork belly and hoisin
sauce for later consumption.
Phil meets me with a wide grin, but with the news that,
despite the otherwise sunny weather, the Old Man Range, which
we'd planned to spend an hour driving up and three hours
cycling down, is covered in cloud and too cold and windy to
ride. A sprightly 49-year-old ex-boatbuilder and chef who has
been running cycling tours in Alexandra for the past 10
years, he tells me that the average annual temperature at the
top - just under 1700m above sea level - is 0degC, and that
today we're better off exploring the lower reaches of the
Once we've loaded up the bikes on the back of his 4WD, we
drive 10 minutes in the direction of Roxburgh, before making
a short detour to Conroy's Dam.
Like much of the surrounding region, Conroy's Gully was
extensively mined for gold in the 1860s and along the
Department of Conservation track that snakes its way through
the craggy, grassy terrain of the Aldinga conservation area
hide the remains of old miners' huts, including one perfectly
preserved dirt-floored abode built under an enormous overhang
of schist rock.
Following a short, vigorous 40-minute uphill ride, we stop
here for a lunch of ham rolls and Belgian biscuits. It's
rough, but beautiful landscape, sprinkled with purple patches
of wild thyme, and Phil tells me about the hardships the
early miners had to endure.
Sitting in the sun, looking out towards Mt St Bathans and the
snowcapped Hawkdun Range in the distance, listening to
stories of exhausted miners sleeping rough on bone-achingly
cold winter nights, I can't help but feel I've got it lucky.
After lunch, we continue to ride the track up the hill until
we need to get off and clamber down into a gully, ford a
creek and push the bikes up a steep grassy bank on the other
From the top, there's a rapid and very enjoyable descent down
a bumpy farm road back to the dam, passing a large,
fenced-off skink sanctuary on the way.
With the stop for lunch, the loop takes us just over an hour
and a-half; and, although there are the options of a ride
down Earnscleugh road to Alexandra, or a short hop across
State Highway 8 to Butcher's Dam, the pretty little body of
water that greets motorists driving up from Roxburgh, and
more riding in the Flat Top Hill conservation area, I'm happy
to be ferried to Alexandra for my cycle back to Clyde.
It hasn't been the toughest day's riding, nor possibly as
long as that of the rail trail group I breakfasted with, but,
nonetheless, by the time I arrive back at Dunstan House, I've
managed to work up enough of a sweat to feel that I've earned
the pleasure of putting my feet up with a cold beer in the
shade of the B&B's lovely old balcony.