Otago's Dry Centre

December 21, 2020
Listen to the podcast


BETWEEN Queenstown where I live, andDunedin, there’s an aridly picturesque region called Central Otago.

Central Otago is a rain-shadow region, kept dry by theblocking effect of the high mountains around Queenstown. It looks a lot likeOutback Australia or parts of the Middle East that I’ve been to. Some call it adesert, though there are a few too many trees and shrubs for that to beliterally true.

Though the average year-round temperature isn’t high inOtago as compared to Outback Australia or the Middle East, it gets pretty hotunder a blue summer sky in Central all the same — andin Queenstown too, once it has been summer for a while.

The Bannockburn area

Here are some photos I’ve taken inthe Bannockburn area, which is the part of Central Otago closest to Queenstown.


Look up Bannockburn Areaon DOC’s website for a list of things to do in and around Bannockburn,including the Bannockburn Sluicings Track

History Perfectly Preserved

Central Otago towns are mostly quitehistoric by New Zealand standards, with whole streets of stone buildingserected in the 1860s and 1870s for want of timber; buildings that nobody hasever had the heart to demolish.

From Queenstown, if you are headedeast to Dunedin, you drive past Cromwell and Clyde (which is below a largemodern 1980s dam, the Clyde High Dam) and through Alexandra, before goingeither via a northern route or a southern route to Dunedin. It’s a good ideanot to drive past Clyde and Cromwell but actually to turn into them as thesetowns are really historic and picturesque.

Cromwell: The old P& T office, in the town’s historic precinct


Such towns are open-air museums ofthe early settler’s way of life. There are lots of books about Otago history bythe way, such as this one, of which the cover depicts a historic bridge in Alexandra(the stone piers are still there).

'Historic Otago' by Gavin McLean, published by David Bateman, Auckland, 2010, ISBN 978-186953-777-7.Fair review claimed.

Dawdling to Dunedin on the Pigroot Trail

A long stretch of the northern roadbears the colourful name of ‘the Pigroot’. One theory is that in the 1860s and70s, the stagecoaches and bullock-carts transporting gold and miners to andfrom the diggings nearQueenstown chopped up the then-unsealed road so much that it looked like it hadbeen rooted by pigs!

Here’sa more detailed map of the areas of northern Otago served by the Pigroot Trail.

If you are feeling energetic you can cycle from Middlemarchthrough to Clyde by way of the Central Otago Rail Trail, 152 km of disusedrailway line. This involves cycling along the western half of the Pigroot afteryou reach Kyeburn, till Clyde.

I’ve mentioned the railtrail in some detail already in the Dunedin chapter, but here is its webpageagain:

As elsewhere in Otago, there’s a Scots bias to theplacenames here, with plenty of ‘burns’ (i.e., streams). Rumour has it that anold-time government surveyor charged with mapping the north Otago interior,John Turnbull Thomson, wanted to ink local Māori placenames onto the officialmap wherever they existed, but was over-ruled by prejudiced superiors.

But there are still plenty of Māori placenames, all the same.For instance, the Māori name for much of northern Otago is Maniototo, whichmeans ‘plains of blood’. Not actual blood, but rather the red tussock that’snative to this semi-arid land and which normally gave it a rather Australian appearance.

A sign celebrating the Māori name for the region makes aninteresting contrast with a temporarily greened-up springtime landscape. Youcan see it in colour on my blog. For those reading in black and white, the signdepicts red and yellow tussock grasses below hills the colour of iron ore, andyet the actual landscape surrounding the sign is, for the time being, invarious shades of rich and vivid green. Mind you even in Australia the outback turnsgreen like that too, occasionally.

If you are driving between Queenstown and Dunedin and not ona cycling holiday, the slowest but most scenic way is to take the Pigroot rightthrough to Palmerston and come down the coast through Waikouaiti.

Heading east on the Pigroot, I turned left up a side road toSt Bathans. It was November, but there was still snow on the mountains. A signprominently advertised the Vulcan Hotel, est. 1863.

TheVulcan looked a lot like the more famous CardronaHotel,established in the same year.

Clearlythis was the standard look for miners’ inns at the time.

It was pretty quiet when I was there, but a lot of theseplaces really swell in the summertime, when they cater to rail trail tourists.Who are thirsty, obviously enough.

St Bathans is an old gold-mining town. There are a couple oflakes, Blue Lake and Grey Lake, which didn’t exist prior to the 1860s but werecreated by the activities of the gold miners.

The chief method of mining in this district was toaggressively sluice the easily-eroded hillsides with jets of high-pressurewater.

And that’s basically how the lakes were carved out. You cango boating and swimming on the lakes, and there’s quite a nice campsite.

There are a number of old buildings and halls in thetownship, apart from the Vulcan Hotel.

St Bathans would probably be a ghost town, if it wasn’t forthe fact that the accidentally-created lakes now bring in quite a bit oftourism. All the same, only a literal handful of people live there all yearround.

There is a heap of interesting places around this area,including the Ida Valley (on the rail trail), Drybread where a colonialcemetery is being excavated, and Cambrians, a little settlement where thehandful of people who live there are restoring the native forest.

A little further on down the Pigroot I turned up a side roadto the town of Naseby, where there used to be twenty pubs, of which the AncientBriton and the Royal are the only two survivors now.

The town also has other historic buildings and generallytons of charm.

Like St Bathans, Naseby’s also some way off the Pigroot. Butit seems to have a bit more critical mass.

(By the way, what’s with names like Cromwell and Naseby? Thelatter bears the same name as the site of the greatest victory of OliverCromwell’s New Model Army against the cavaliers of King Charles I. Do nameslike this imply that some of the miners were less than fulsomely loyal to QueenVictoria? Come to think of it, down by Ophir there’s the Daniel O’Connellbridge. I wonder if any royal tour’s ever gone through these parts.)

You can continue up the side road from Naseby to KyeburnDiggings where there are no longer any miners but still a surprisingly largepub and restaurant called the Danseys Pass Coach In (est. 1862), and then on toDanseys Pass, via a road that is, from the Inn onward, simply a bedrock ledgein places. The road’s very scenic, but whoever’s driving is advised not to lookat the scenery. A bit like the Skippers in other words, though not quite asbad. Every now and then you meet some idiot coming the other way with acaravan, which is tricky: “if there’s any hint of bad weather, you should notbe up here” adds the international Dangerous Roads website, helpfully. On theother hand, there are a great many trails that lead off the road into a rockywilderness on both sides, the OteakeConservation Park, a paradise for mountain bikers.And to reiterate, it is scenic.

Look up the Oteake ConservationPark on DOC’s website, for a page and a brochure on this attractive area.

Through Danseys Pass you travel on to Duntroon on theWaitaki River, the subject of the previous tour.

The Dunstan Heritage Trail and the Lake DunstanTrail

The Dunstan Heritage Trail runsthrough the middle of Central Otago from Dunedin to Alexandra, in an almost straightline for 175 kilometres. It was the preferred route of the goldminers fromroughly 1862 onwards, though it is rough and exposed. The remains of old innsexist along the way.

The Dunstan Heritage Trail is more elevated and adventurousthan the Otago Central Rail Trail and leads through a real wilderness oftussock grass and weird rocky outcrops. Because of its elevation and exposure,it’s closed from the first Tuesday in June till the end of September.

Dunstan Heritage Trail Sign, at Moa Creek

Roadhouse at Moa Creek, on the Dunstan Heritage Trail. Some of the other ones, now disused, onless accessible parts of the trail are more picturesque!

The trail leads past the PoolburnReservoir, one of several reservoirs on a barren, rocky plateau southeast ofthe Ida Valley. The Poolburn Reservoir is accessible by a road from Moa Creekand the Ida Valley that is drivable in an ordinary vehicle provided it has goodground clearance, but the road is pretty rough, being another one of the onesthat’s just a bedrock slab in places. Past the Poolburn Reservoir, headingeast, the road takes the form of a four-wheel-drive road and it has gates.

The Poolburn Reservoir, a Lord of the Rings filming site. The road shown is one of the bettersections of the Old Dunstan Road.

The Dunstan Heritage Trail, alsoknown as the Old Dunstan Road for much of its length (today’s road divergesslightly from the original trail in places), doesn’t get much publicity,because the whole route runs through the middle of nowhere in exposed anddangerous locations, and it has got just about zero commercial potential.

It’s strictly for the hardcore adventure cyclist, basically.

The Dunstan Heritage Trail is not to be confused with theLake Dunstan Trail, which runs for 52 kilometres up the side of Lake Dunstanfrom Cromwell. These two trails have almost the same name, yet they arecompletely different!

The Southern Route

Between Alexandra and Dunedin, youhave the choice of the Pigroot route or a southern route, through Roxburgh.Both skir around a vast semi-desert through which the Dunstan Trail passes, butwhich has never been pierced by a road of the kind that’s suitable for allvehicles.

The further south you go in Otago, the less barren thelandscape tends to become, until you are in the fertile plains of Southland,north of Invercargill. All the same, the southern route through central Otago,from Alexandra to Dunedin via Roxburgh, following the Clutha or Mata-Au Rivermost of the way, still goes through some pretty bony terrain itself.

From Alexandra as far as the Roxburgh Dam, the highway isparalleled by trails in the Roxburgh Gorge (flooded by the dam) and on the adjacentFlat Top Hill Conservation Area, where there are all kinds of weird stoneoutcrops. To the west, the Flat Top Hill Area overlooks a locality called Fruitlandsthrough which the main road passes and which which was an area of earlysettlement and gold mining. There are lots of relics in that area including theold stone buildings of Mitchell’s Cottage in the hills further west, and, justto the east of the main road, a number of ruined stone cottages that look likethey belong in Ireland or the Scottish Highlands.

Below the Roxburgh Dam, the valley of the Clutha / Mata-Auis flat and fertile. Along with Fruitlands this is a major fruit-growing area,yet the orchards in the river valley just serve to remind us how much of thearea really is a wilderness. When you zoom out on the map, the river valleyjust looks like a thread. Driving up and down it actually conveys a misleading impressionof fertility.

Past Beaumont, the main road (SH 8) leaves the river valleyand heads toward a town called Lawrence, next to the famous Gabriel’s Gully. Thiswas one of the first places where gold was discovered in New Zealand, in 1861and soon led to an internationally significant gold rush, a worthy successor tothe then-recent strikes in California and Australia and a forerunner to SouthAfrica and the Yukon.

The winnings of Gabriel’s Gully, and others like it, paidfor a lot of fancy architecture in a hitherto wooden and ramshackle colony, andalso helped to locate New Zealand more firmly on people’s mental maps of theworld. Before the gold rush the response to any mention of New Zealand waslikely to be “Where’s that?” Admittedly that is still a fairly common response,but not as common as it used to be.

From Lawrence you reach the town of Milton and then headnorth on State Highway 1 past Lake Waihola and Mosgiel, to Dunedin.

And no, Waihola is not a misprint. It’s another of thoseHawai‘ian-sounding names, a local variant of the more standard Waihora, meaningshallow waters, a name which is also one of the Maori names of the great estuaryLake Ellesmere, further north, in Canterbury.

Lake Waihola



Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!

Thanks for subscribing. You can expect to receive more information about Mary Jane, her top travel tips, free downloads of Mary Jane's award-winning books, and more, straight to your inbox!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again or contact us if you're still having trouble.

Share and subscribe

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to new posts with RSS.

Recent Blog Posts

February 13, 2021

Is Auckland Council making itself Redundant? The paradox of retrenchment in the face of growth

Continue reading
February 7, 2021

A Walk on the Wildside: New Zealand's Banks Track – near Christchurch, yet remote

Continue reading
February 5, 2021

Whenua Hou: Codfish Island and the few Kākāpō Left

Continue reading