Otago: Have wheels, will tour the gorge

By Sarah Lawrence

Sarah Lawrence and her teenage son have a wheely good time in Central Otago.

The Roxburgh Gorge Bike Trail follows the Clutha River. Photo / Cameron Photography
The Roxburgh Gorge Bike Trail follows the Clutha River. Photo / Cameron Photography

It's not always easy for parents to impress their teenage offspring, a lesson I've learned quickly as the mum of my 13-year-old, Jack. So when it came to plan a long-awaited holiday together, I decided there was only one place to go - Queenstown, the adventure capital of the world and obvious haven for any thrill-seeking adolescent.

We filled our days with a generous serving of thrills and spills of varying heights and speeds, everything I knew Queenstown had to offer. But the parent in me also wanted Jack to experience the beauty of the Central Otago countryside, so different from the New Zealand he knows.

That's where the friendly folk at Bike It Now come in. Based in Clyde, nearly an hour's drive from Queenstown, their retail store provides a bike hire service for anyone wanting to explore the region on two wheels. Owners Duncan Randall and Kathryn Fletcher (Fletch) are proud of their personalised and fully flexible service offering some of the most picturesque bike trails in New Zealand.

They are right to be proud. They live locally and have a true passion for the region and all it has to offer. Nothing is too much for them - they cater trips to suit each client, their mantra being "our place, your pace".

It's worth accepting their offer of a free shuttle service from Queenstown to Clyde. Fletch collects us from our hotel and throughout the drive, shares snippets of information about Queenstown and its surrounding settlements. She grew up here so knows her history. Jack finds interesting, too.

Once we reach Clyde, Duncan greets us warmly and fits us on to our gleaming Avanti bikes. They have specially fitted gel seats for those whose bottoms haven't seen a saddle in a while, ergonomic handlebar grips and user-friendly gears, so Jack and I are all set and bursting to make tracks.

Today we head off on the newly opened Roxburgh Gorge Trail, carved alongside the Clutha River. Beginning in Alexandra and finishing 34km downstream in Roxburgh, the trail showcases the beauty of this untouched land.

Jack speeds off ahead but I take time to marvel at the contrast between the barren ranges of the gorge, offset by the translucent green river weaving through carpets of rich purple thyme flowers as far as the eye can see. It truly is magical.

The Roxburgh Trail is broken in two by a connecting boat trip of approximately 10km midway through. Today, we decide to cycle the first leg only, stopping at Doctors Point, where we meet Laurence van der Eb from Clutha River Cruises.

Laurence has our picnic spot already prepared and we enjoy our packed lunch with nothing but the sound of the gentle swirling waters of the Clutha to accompany us.

Once lunch has settled, we take a leisurely walk through nearby hills to explore the Chinese and European goldmining houses in all their original glory, built from the classic schist rock Otago is known for.

Laurence shares his love of the goldfields with stories of life in the mines and the lengths some men went to in search of gold.

As the afternoon draws to a close, we pile our bikes on to Laurence's pontoon boat and relax in the comfy leather seats as we retrace our path back to Alexandra, the scent of thyme still wafting in the air.

After sharing some of the local countryside with Jack on two wheels, we decide to spend the final day of our trip with a visit to the Highlands Motorsport Park, where much faster four-wheeled vehicles take centre stage. The park just outside Cromwell, 40 minutes from Queenstown, opened in Easter last year.

The brainchild of three local motor enthusiasts along with the vision of Scottish self-made millionaire Tony Quinn, the park offers a 4.5km world-class racetrack incorporating forest entries, a custom-built lake, electronic marshalling systems and a unique bridge sprawling across one section of track, a first for the Southern Hemisphere.

The park isn't just a place of worship for motorsport enthusiasts, there really is something here for everyone. I had a hard time tearing Jack away from the go-kart track, his objective clearly being to satisfy the need for speed. I tried my best to catch him but I was happy to just cross the finish line while also appreciating the work that has gone into this impressive complex surrounded by Cromwell's snowy mountain ranges.

Boy racers of all ages can enjoy a ride alongside a professional driver (or alone, if desired) as they speed around the track in a Porsche GT3 race car, an experience not readily available throughout the racetracks of the world.

Or, for those like us who just want a quick taste of a racetrack experience, the answer is a "taxi" ride in a Porsche Cayenne at speeds of up to 200km/h. The few times I opened my eyes, I was satisfied to see nothing but sheer delight on Jack's face.

While keeping our feet on more stable ground, we tour the ever-changing racecar museum and hall of fame, documenting the esteemed history of New Zealand motorsport.

After working up an appetite, we visit neighbouring restaurant and winery The Nose and tuck into a feast of local cuisine as we sit among the vines enjoying the afternoon sun.

Tony and his team have covered all bases to provide a unique, world-class destination for locals and tourists. Along with three international race meets a year, it's clear Highlands will bring many more visitors to the area and, if my suitably impressed teenager has his way, we'll be making the pilgrimage back from Auckland as soon as we can.

Sarah Lawrence and Jack Stenson were guests of Bike It Now, Highlands Motorsport Park and Heritage Queenstown.

• Highlands Motorsport Park, Corner SH6 and Sandflat Rd, Cromwell, ph (03) 445 4052, highlands.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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