Whenever I've driven, or been driven, along SH8 between Cromwell and Clyde could not help but gaze at the bits of farm and access trail on the other side of Lake Dunstan (right of photo below) thinking they'd be good to ride. In 2021, after some remarkable engineering, it became possible, no essential, thanks to a new Great Ride: The Lake Dunstan Trail.
A lovely day in Alexandra!
I rode from Alexandra, taking a river side trail to Clyde before joining the Dunstan trail. Was so glad I had decided not to ride in yesterday's wet weather! The cycling would have been as good, but not the experience.
The Anniversary Track
The Anniversary River Track, or is it the Millennium Track?, runs along the Clutha Mata-au River between Alexandra & Clyde. It's an alternative start to the Otago Rail Trail, NZ's oldest tourist cycle trail and the first 'Great Ride'.
I rode it with Adventure South in 2007 but I didn't take any photos. All I remember was becoming 'one of those clients'. Got to the Alexandra end, went to take a photo, and realised my camera & phone (which were still separate things then!) were still charging in the Clyde Stables I stayed in overnight. Bas kindly went back to get it for me...
No problems forgetting things today, I would be cycling back here tonight!
Lovely still morning on Clutha Mata-au River at Alexandra.
It's a lovely flat, if steadily uphill upstream trail with some interesting gold mining history. You climb ~45 metres over the length of the trail.
From the trail you cross this bridge and climb up the hill to Clyde. The bridge bike path is quite narrow, my bike has wide bars, and I clipped the side with a bar end near the end. No fall or damage, just embarrassing because, of course, it was witnessed by a walker waiting for me to exit the path...
Clyde grew up around the former settlement of Dunstan during the Central Otago goldrush of the 1860s. Today its more about tourism, much of it now about supporting cycling which is what drew me here. Got a coffee and admired this Jag F-Type parked in the main street while I drank it.
From the town you cross back to the other side of the river to continue past Clyde Dam to join the new trail. This controversial project was built in the 80's, creating Lake Dunstan, as part of National Prime Minister Rob Muldoon's 'Think Big' energy projects. They were supposed to make NZ more energy independent, after the 1970s energy crisis, but most failed to live up to the promises.
It flooded land occupied by houses, orchards, and the historic precinct of Cromwell which was relocated as part of the project. Controversy increased when it was found, during construction, seismic faults in the area would require considerable redesign and additional works adding 50% to the initial cost.
Clyde, downstream in the shadow of the dam.
Lake Dunstan Trail
Once past the dam and rowing club the real Lake Dunstan Trail begins. Wide enough for two-way biking and nicely formed it starts with a lakeside run before climbing.
The trail is far from flat and has some quite challenging twists and turns. It is all nicely graded, and beautifully constructed, but has been catching out novice riders expecting a flat 'rail trail' ride. It's perfectly rideable, especially for e-bikes, but needs to be approached with respect.
The walls on the switchbacks, an example of the stunning rock craft seen along the trail.
First of the cantilevers
As if the scenery isn't enough this trail has several sections cantilevered, from shear rock faces, out over the lake which have become its signature. Abseilers installed mounts into the cliffs, and did lots of overhead rock stabilisation, to connect several trail sections impossible to link other ways.
Looking back, you can see why they are needed.
Hugo Bridge, 85.5m long and 28.6m high, spans a gap to link into a 4WD trail for the next section of the ride.
Meeting the Central Otago Gravelleurs
I found Central Otago Gravelleurs (COGs) on Facebook while planning this trip. They regularly ride gravel road and trail all over Central Otago, with a 'never leave anyone behind and always social with the obligatory coffee and cake' ethos.
The Dunstan Trail seems to be their home ride (understandable!) & saw they were riding today but timing didn't work for my Alexandra start. Besides, I would be mucking around taking photos etc. Told them to keep an eye out for an orange & black bike/rider combo as hoped my Aeroe front bag would be distinctive on the busy trail.
That worked and it was great to meet Chris and have a short chat. They were heading back to Clyde by the time we crossed paths. If you are in the area, check out their Facebook page!
Next is a climb to the highest point on the trail.
More switchbacks make this climb less intimidating than it appears.
The trig (Elev. 324m) is a busy rest, regroup, spot but just a bit further down the trail is an even more popular one.
You also get a good look at this remarkable bit of engineering, built for the dam not the cycle trail.
It stabilises the Cairnmuir Slide, after concerns a quake could dump up to a billion cubic metres of debris into the lake, overwhelming the dam even if it remained intact (as happened at the Vajont Dam, Italy 1962)
Down Cairnmuir Gully
This descent was fun but had to go slow due to the number of cyclists climbing and tight turns. The trail was busy, it was Sunday and suspect (like me) many had held off with the wet weather yesterday.
It was apparent lots were novice riders, or not used to e-bike (majority) power on gravel as soon learned some had little idea about keeping left...
I later read it was hoped the trail would attract 7,500 users in its first year, based on Otago Central Rail Trail’s 10,000/year, but had 84,000 riders in the first twelve months.
Lake Dunstan Trail lauded with more than 80k riders in first year | May 23, 2022 | Best in NZ
Cyclists climbing Cairnmuir Gully.
Another must do on this trail is coffee, in the middle of nowhere! Coffee afloat is a brilliant solution to a trail full of cyclists and no facilities to make coffee. Ideally placed before/after the big climb these boats serve great coffee, burgers, bacon sandwiches, ice cream and more. The 'parking lot' shows how popular it is and how busy the trail was.
The photo below left shows two aspects of cantilever care. First, I was so impressed with the quality of work, planks scribed to fit rough rock faces. Second, the blind corners that (I heard) have caught a few out. At one point I saw a group of six riders approaching so stopped before a blind corner to wait for them to pass. In the time that took another faster rider, unsighted, had caught up and came barrelling around the corner too. I had to swerve aside to avoid them. It wasn't dangerous but can imagine it could be.
Not just cyclists enjoying the day, saw jet ski and boats on the lake.
View towards Cornish Point, end of the gorge section but not of the trail.
The Cornish Point deception is real. Here you are both ~300m and ~12km from Cromwell as the trail loops up to Bannockburn.
The Bannockburn diversion
The trail goes up to Bannockburn for the road bridge crossing the Kawarau River.
Either the Kawarau River is shallow, or I saw, standing in the middle, Jesus?
Carrick Winery is a popular stop on the trail, so popular pays to book on weekends.
More impressive trail infrastructure.
Bannockburn Bridge has a nice wide cycle path attached to the side. Something Auckland's Harbour Bridge is yet to match...
Cromwell Heritage Precinct
The trail carries on another 16km past the Cromwell Heritage Precinct, but I turned around here. It was mid-afternoon, nearly three, and I was glad to see the food places still serving. Had been caught out before by early closing due to COVID before.
First time I've visited an office for months! The Office Bar was a wonderful place to refuel: their Pulled Pork Burger, Fries and a crisp cold Cider hit the spot in the shade of a courtyard table umbrella with a lake view.
Heading home: the same, but different
One thing I've learnt on this trip, riding a trail in two directions is like riding two trails. When planning the hub/spoke mode of travel I knew it would mean a lot of two-way riding. What I didn't predict is how much I prefer riding a trail both ways, you see so many different things, time of day, lighting, and on this trail, activity.
The busy trail I rode up on was all but deserted for the return ride. In ~41km I saw two other riders!
A closer look at the cantilevers and how they were built.
Reprising the ride, but new views.
Back to the valley climb, no traffic this time
Evening sun on Lake Dunstan.
Nobody at the trig this time.
An empty Hugo Bridge.
Little did I know this (left) is a close-up of a future problem...
More of the impressive rock work along the trail.
Traffic, on the lake.
My phone died soon after this*, I took the river trail back to Alexandra. A great finish to the perfect day.
* I'd forgotten to put in airplane mode, and it spent half the day trying to connect in no signal areas