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John Fridd compares the track with the Otago Central Rail Trail.
Look out rail trail! There's a new kid on the block, enticing folk down the Clutha River for a long bike ride or walk this summer.
Since the 73km Clutha Gold Trail between the Roxburgh Dam and Lawrence had its gala opening in October 2013, it has earned a reputation as an excellent ride. It was time to see what all the fuss is about, so I threw my bike on the back of my 4WD and headed inland.
I left my vehicle at Lawrence and hitched a lift to Roxburgh with Jude Gamble and Mark Robertson of Lawrence Bike Transfers, one of the new businesses which has popped up along the Gold trail. Their trailer takes 22 bikes and they have two vans to carry riders.
I deposited my bag at the comfortable, handily-placed Roxburgh Motels and headed off mid-afternoon to tackle the first section of the trail, which starts 10km up the valley at the Roxburgh Dam.
After a quick 10km pedal out to Roxburgh Hydro on the new track beside SH8, from the top of the dam I could see the turn-off to another new trail, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, which winds up to Alexandra, linking the Clutha Gold Trail with the Otago Central Rail Trail.
It offers 20km of riding over spectacular gorge territory - with some hillclimbs - plus a 10km, $95 boat ride in the middle to bypass land where access agreement has yet to be reached with landowners.
I hear the gorge trail is a half-day trip for experienced bikers or a bit longer for ''cruisies'' but unfortunately I didn't have time to sample it this time.
After crossing the Roxburgh dam, I zoomed down to the start of the Gold Trail and started my 73km ride. Initially it's easygoing and there's even a section of wide seal, which is historic, as it was part of the haul road built for the Roxburgh Dam project in 1949-56.
The trail follows New Zealand's mightiest river, the Clutha, so the river is a constant presence as the trail ducks and dives up and down from the river terrace to the riverside and back again.
The river also reveals traces of its rich history - on this section I spotted the bones of the gold dredge Kohinoor, which sank in the early 1900s and remains in the middle of the river as a trap for unwary jet-boaters.
From there down to Roxburgh the trail is a delight, winding through thickets of black poplars and including some climbs and the odd switchback.
Stats from my speedo: Roxburgh Dam to Roxburgh bridge, 9.2km, average speed 15.8kmh, top speed 35.8kmh. I stayed the night in Roxburgh and had a wander around the town of 600 to see how businesses were adapting to the opportunities offered by the new trail.
The pharmacy rents bikes, which was a good start, but I wondered where riders would find a meal at night. As far as I could see there was a pub offering meals (the other one may have been, too, but had no signs out) plus a new cafe, with a limited menu, where I enjoyed a gourmet pizza.
The next morning when I strolled down the main street quite early I couldn't see any signs tempting visitors with a hearty breakfast so I opted for coffee and a fresh sugar bun from well-known Jimmy's Pies bakery, which was very much open (but only on weekdays).
Today I was riding about 45km from Roxburgh to Beaumont.
I crossed the big arch bridge across the Clutha and turned right on to the Clutha Gold Trail, bound for Millers Flat. The first few kilometres of this section of trail are brilliant, winding beside the mighty Clutha on a smooth, hard surface.
You might even spot the place which featured in the film In My Father's Den, where the star's mum shot herself and drifted down the river. Turn off to nearby Pinder's Pond if you fancy a dip.
Just over 10km from Roxburgh you can detour to visit the historic Teviot Station woolshed ruins. Built about 1865, the shed was as big as a rugby field and held up to 10,000 sheep. It burned down in 1924 but its stone remains are still impressive. They are on private property so view from Loop Rd.
To get to the ruins follow the ''flood detour/Teviot railway goods shed'' sign from the trail to sealed Teviot Rd, turn right and ride 500m, then turn left on to Loop Rd for 500m and you should see the woolshed ruins. To get back on to the Gold Trail, retrace your steps.
As the trail nears Millers Flat it suddenly takes a right-angle turn and heads out to sealed Teviot Rd, which takes riders to the township.
Speedo stats: Roxburgh to Millers Flat, 20.1km, average speed 16.7kmh, top speed 38.1kmh. The community-owned Millers Flat Four Square shop was selling pies, muffins and fruit, coffee and cold drinks when I was there but staff told me they have plans to offer sandwiches over summer. Call at the township's heated swimming pool if you want to cool off.
I crossed the Clutha bridge to visit the Millers Flat Tavern on the other side and was impressed by the range of dishes on the menu. A BLT with fries hit the spot for me.
Soon it was time to saddle up and head back across the bridge for the ride down to Beaumont. Once again the trail was excellent, with a firm surface and sufficient twists and turns and ups and downs to make it interesting.
In places it also detours on to the Millennium Track, established on the old Roxburgh railway corridor. Be aware this is also a public road so you could encounter vehicles.
About 8km down the trail from Millers Flat watch out for two local features, the Horseshoe Bend swing bridge and the Lonely Graves.
To get to the graves watch for two cattle stops (a sign says 9.3km to Millers Flat and 15.3km to Beaumont). Leave the Gold Trail and climb a winding gravel road about 800m to reach the graves.
To rejoin the trail after the Lonely Graves ride south down the road and meet the trail at Little Minzion Burn (Jessies Creek).
The historic swing bridge is also close by. Watch the Gold Trail markers which count off the kilometres from the Roxburgh Dam. Just past the 38km post you'll see a sign pointing to the Horseshoe Bend bridge; follow the signs from here. It's a 15-minute walk down to the bridge.
Another point of interest on this section of trail is the private Talla Burn power station, built by the enterprising Wilson and Hore families to harness water from the Talla Burn. You'll pass the station after crossing the Talla Burn railway bridge.
From here the Gold trail mainly follows the Millennium Track and the scenery gets more spectacular as the Clutha River squeezes through the Beaumont Gorge. A signboard told me to look for 600-year-old totara trees but I peered in vain.
Suddenly I rounded a corner and spotted the Beaumont bridge, easy to identify with its mantle of permanent scaffolding.
Soon I was at State Highway 8 waiting for the traffic lights to change so I could cross the bridge to the Beaumont Hotel, where coffee and a snack awaited.
Stats: Millers Flat to Beaumont, 24.4km, average speed 16.3kmh, top speed 39.3kmh.
At Beaumont I had a date with excitement - veteran Beaumont jet-boat driver Dave Crawford had promised to show me his patch of the river and away we went on the Adventure Tour, leaping off pressure waves and swooping close to the bank as the boat's big Chev V8 motor pushed the craft upstream.
Dave also told me about the history of the area and I was rapt to see the elusive centuries-old dark green totaras on the west bank.
Being on the Clutha after following it for two days gave me a better appreciation of its immense power and I could see why the locals advise bike trail users not to chance a swim. After the last of our three Hamilton turns (exhilarating 360deg spins) Dave deposited me on the bank and I wandered along to the Beaumont Hotel to meet publicans Alison and Gunni.
The hotel is still owned by Contact Energy, which appears to have given up its plan to build a big dam downstream which would have flooded Beaumont.
The uncertainty left the hotel in limbo so its accommodation wing is quite dated, but no doubt there will be some big improvements coming when the establishment is back in private hands. The hotel also runs the adjacent Beaumont Holiday Park so there are several accommodation options for riders wanting to break their journey here.
That night I had a drink with a few locals after sampling the cooking skills of Icelander Gunni and learned there was great relief Beaumont wasn't going to become a sunken relic. Just as the Otago Central Rail Trail did for several Central Otago townships, Beaumont has been given a new lease on life by the Clutha Gold Trail.
The next morning I fuelled up on a continental breakfast, waved goodbye to the hospitable hosts and pedalled back across SH8's most rickety bridge to resume my trail journey. This was my biggest climb of the trip.
The trail ran close to the state highway in places and while I had wondered when driving beside this section whether it would be a let-down for cyclists, I actually felt OK about it on my bike, as I was able to pity the poor drivers heading off to work or carting 1000 frozen chickens to Queenstown.
Soon the trail kicked up and I girded my ageing legs and clicked down a few gears to climb towards the Big Hill rail tunnel. It seemed a bit of a grunt but I worked out later the 100-vertical-metre, 3km climb was only half of the North Rd ascent I sometimes tackle in Dunedin, from the Normanby Tavern to the intersection with Upper Junction Rd.
I was glad I'd fitted my bike light, as the Big Hill tunnel is dark in the middle - this hole in the hill is over 200m longer than any of the three Otago Central Rail Trail tunnels. Soon I was bursting out the other side and heading off on a great downhill section towards Lawrence.
The final section of the trail is a pleasant pedal. Near Lawrence, the trail dived right on to the old railway, so the last section to my destination was just like riding the rail trail.
And do you know what? It felt a tad boring, which confirmed my thoughts the Clutha Gold Trail is more of a rider's trail. So I struck gold with this trail, although I hasten to add the big skies and magnificent country above and around the Otago Central Rail Trail still make it a great ride, too - just different.
Stats: Beaumont to Lawrence, 19.4km (2-hour ride). Thanks to Rod Peirce, Lawrence Bike Transfers, Roxburgh Motels, Beaumont Hotel, Beaumont Jet, Destination Clutha and Tourism Central Otago.
Make a contribution
The group behind the Clutha Gold and Roxburgh Gorge trails spends a considerable amount annually maintaining the trails.
The money comes from maintenance contribution tags, which all trail users should buy. The tags cost $25 per person or $50 for a family - in both cases one tag covers access to both trails for a year. More details at www.cluthagold.co.nz.
Also pick up a pamphlet, which contains details on both trails.
There are already operators offering bike hire and transport, but I couldn't find any scheduled services transporting bags along the route, handy for riders who want to travel light on the trail.