Central Otago - a world apart.
Updated: Apr 22
It is cold in April in Otago. Through the window of a bus that takes me from Dunedin to Alexandra, I can see the first snow in the valleys. Holiday Park, where I will be staying, is almost empty on my arrival. The evenings in Alexandra can be long.
Yet, despite the cold night, when I go for a walk along the river early next morning, the crisp air and the first rays of sun bring out the colour in the surrounding landscape. The deciduous trees, very common sight in the central South Island, have been brought to New Zealand by the European settlers (all native trees are evergreen). Now, they cover the banks of the Clutha River, boasting their bright red and gold attire.
It is not the first time I am walking along the Clutha River. I was in Wanaka the month before, where the river has its source, flowing from Lake Wanaka east across the island and meeting the Pacific Ocean, 75 km south of Dunedin. It is the longest river on the South Island (338km, 210 miles long) and the second longest in New Zealand. Mighty Clutha River, renowned for its turquoise waters, snakes through the valleys and on its way is joined by several tributaries, like Lindis, Kawarau or Manuherikia River. It powers the massive hydroelectric dam at Clyde, before it reaches Alexandra.
Alexandra is a small former mining town in Central Otago. It has been built during the gold rush in the middle of the 19th century. Nowadays it is known more for growing fruits, wine and for the outdoor activities that attract people from across the country and from overseas.
Central Otago, protected from the ferocious Tasman Sea by the Southern Alps, does not share the maritime climate of the rest of the island. With the dry, hot summers and cold, snowy winters, it resembles more closely the continental zone. It is a suitable climate to grow several varieties of grapevines. Central Otago is famous for its Pino noir, but also Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling. I go past several wineries when, on the second day of my stay, I cycle from Alexandra to Clyde along the Central Rail Trail.
Cycling is one of the most popular outdoor activities in and around Alexandra, the main, but not the only, reason being that the Otago Central Rail Trail passes through the town. The trail, 150km long, starts in Clyde and goes all the way to Middlemarch. As its name suggests, it follows the original railway line that provided the link between Central Otago and Dunedin, before it was closed in the 1990. It is a pleasant and rather easy ride, so I cycle again the next day, from Alexandra to Omakau, and back. Breath taking views of the snow topped mountains accompany me all the way. The sheep, dotting the green valleys, watch me as a welcome distraction from their daily grazing routine. You can cycle, but also walk along the Otago Central Rail Trail. Not only it is a very satisfying experience, it is a great way to see the country.
The hills surrounding Alexandra are the mountain biker’s paradise. Although not particularly high, they are rocky and steep and offer amazing views of the town and the river below. It is a special landscape where you can walk, run or cycle for hours, where occasional shrubs break the monotony of the brown schist, the rock that gives the area its slightly lunar appearance. The wind here is strong and the mountains define the line of the horizon. Closer to town, you can climb up to the clock on the hill, an enormous device fixed on the stone face, well visible from Alexandra.
Alexandra is a great place if you enjoy outdoor activities, all year round. With its mountains, rivers, lakes and multiple walking trails, it has something to offer to everybody and when you are tired, you can relax with the glass of local wine. Distinct seasons marked by hot summers and white winters attract many, but don’t forget to come here in April, when the town is enveloped in the quiet, autumnal charm.
Despite the enormous clock on the hill, well visible from every street in Alexandra, measuring time is not the local obsession. On the contrary, protected by the high mountains, this little town in Central Otago lives in harmony with the changing seasons, in a relaxed atmosphere.
Central Otago is a perfect place if you seek solitude, but it is also a destination for those who enjoy being active with the family and friends. New experiences and discoveries await, all you need to do is to pick your own adventure!