A chilly start to New Zealand's newest cycle trail takes the breath away then the views take over, writes Wendy Colville
It's 1C in Clyde on a pre-lockdown mid-winter morning - and I begin to doubt my pre-lockdown choice of an excursion on what's generally agreed as the most spectacular one-day bike ride in the country, the Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail.
Central Otago is indeed a winter wonderland - but a very cold one. Huddled around the heater in the picturesque but draughty 114-year-old Clyde rail station, our party of three tender Aucklanders shiver in anticipation of riding the country's newest cycle trail – and not from fear.
We are not alone. Another party of six Whangārei-based professionals are here too.
Co-owner of SheBikesHeBikes, Steve Goodlass says the opening of the trail in June has turbo-charged local business. "Previously we'd closed the Clyde office over winter but now we've opened up with a bike mechanic onsite. We've seen 70 groups come through so far in July. The cafes in Clyde were going to winter hours but now there's so much business, they've carried on."
Meanwhile, Mark, our driver and retired deputy principal of Dunstan High, has cleverly made call time 9am – there's a lot of mucking around when nine cyclists arrive to be kitted out with the right bike and all adjustments. He gives us a kit and spiel on fixing a bike chain link if needed. The Whangārei contingent gather us for a mihi – thanking both Māori and Pākehā settlers who have gone before us. It feels meaningful – and a sweet reminder that we are travelling with fellow Kiwis.
By 10 am we're in the van. We are to leave our car at Clyde, and Mark transports us to Cromwell for the 48km cycle back – which we take at our own pace. The whole trail is 55km, if you start from Smiths Way, but most choose to start at Cromwell.
We could set off immediately but temperatures have doubled now 2C. We decide to shop the delights of old Cromwell, the remnants of the town relocated before the rest sank beneath the creation of Lake Dunstan. Plenty of delightful boutique shops to explore here and more coffee if you haven't fuelled up enough in Clyde.
At 11am, we finally hit the pedals. I was sure, even on an e-bike, the effort would be enough to warm me up but it turns out that while you can get quite warm pedalling this does not extend to hands and feet. Half an hour in, and the cold is causing physical pain. I did say I was from Auckland. So, here's my advice – double-glove and wear extra thick socks plus of course thermal layers for winter here.
Once on the trail, the scenery distracts from any niggles. The early part along the river banks is fringed by red-berried rowan trees and wild willows. We follow the Kawarau river arm, cross the Bannockburn bridge, and swing back around the lake, before starting a gentle climb that delivers spectacular views across the valley. If you start as late in the day as we did you can arrive at Carrick winery in time for a vineyard lunch. But we press on. The sun is out and my hands feel just fine.
The purpose-built trail rises gently towards Cornish Point and then through the Cromwell valley, hugging the river. It's a brilliant trail for biking, wide and smooth. And soon you encounter its marvels. Sheer granite cliffs rise from the lake - the Cairnmuir mountains - and to get around those, steel platforms have been cantilevered off the cliffs. It's jaw-dropping engineering.
Along one of those platforms is Pickaxe Bluff. During construction a remnant of the mining days was discovered – a pickaxe jammed in the rock. It's still there, but despite close attention, I never spot it. Still, it makes you think of the miners who endured gruelling winters in this unforgiving landscape.
The next marvel announces itself pretty quickly – tucked into a small inlet off the lake.
Jolanda and Richard Foale's mirage-like Coffee Afloat is humming. Richard says on a weekend they make upwards of 100 coffees a day. The couple still run a scenic flights helicopter business from Cromwell, which used to fly foreign tourists but, with Covid, "they had to pivot. Early on, they were photographic models for the promotion of the trail. Richard says, "I thought, what I really need up here is a coffee!" Cashing in his UK pension fund they bought a boat. Now, they motor over to the inlet each day and anchor there with espresso machine, a rota of five baristas and all the baking a hungry cyclist can eat.
"I've been blown away by how much it's taken off, particularly in the middle of winter," he says. "We haven't had a day off since it opened in May, except to go looking for a bigger boat." The couple plan to open Burger Afloat in spring.
Lunch over, we head off around the corner and on to the next challenge – the Cairnmuir ladder. This is a switchback trail climbing steadily to the highest point of the trail - 125m of ascent to put it technically. And this is where you are very glad you paid extra for an e-bike though there's a steady stream of fit riders, all ages, tackling it on mountain bikes. On turbo, I power up the hillside, thrilled with my run, but as I swing into a corner I see two young women (sans e-bike) roaring towards me at downhill speed. I decide to get off the bike and walk this corner. They fly past with a quick thanks, and centimetres to spare. This is one slight issue I see with the trail as it is – you can go either direction, and I wonder how that will go in summer when numbers double – and riders approach each other round blind corners.
"I think people will realise they need to slow down and that people could be coming around the next corner, it's not a race," is Richard Foale's view. An accident up here means a helicopter - there's no other access. At the top, the views of the gorge are stunning. The sky is cerulean blue, and the sun now has power enough for me to start stripping off the layers of thermals. Cycling here, you feel you really have discovered the heart of the South Island – the clarity of the light, the starkness of the landscape, and the isolation. It's a unique experience and yes, quite honestly it's spectacular.
It's also along here that we catch up and pass our trail friends who rode in the van with us. They've had a bike chain failure – and that kit and the instructions are being put to the test. We don't see them again – I hope it worked.
Next on the "omg" list is the spectacular 85m suspension bridge known as the Hugo Bridge after the late Hugh Green, the Irish migrant who built one of this country's biggest civil construction companies. His charitable foundation paid for its construction – and it's a fitting tribute to a civil engineer.
A mixture of wooden boardwalks, dirt tracks and gravel trails wind their way back through the landscape, passing Halfway Hut, though by now I'm sure I've travelled far more than 25km. Halfway Hut is especially poignant - the information board tells the story of the Pilkington family, who struggled through the Depression here. They got the dole to go gold-mining, lived in a rebuilt miner's hut and survived with two young children through bleak winters, and regularly crossed the river in a swing chair. They ate a lot of rabbit but made no great gold finds.
The final 25km of the track is remote and has no access to a main road ... so just keep pedalling.
Somewhere around 3pm we reach the Clyde Dam – and note the nice synchronicity that we're on e-bikes powered by the mighty output of the dam.
And then it's a pleasant downhill by the river back into Clyde where we return our bikes, and repair to Clyde's historic precinct for a celebratory beverage. Without doubt, New Zealand's most spectacular one-day ride.
Building the Otago Trail
The Lake Dunstan Trail is part of a $26 million master plan by the Central Otago Queenstown Trail Network Trust to eventually create a 536km continuous network of trails connecting Queenstown and Wānaka, Cromwell, Alexandra and Roxburgh. It's a big ambition but this group has already achieved much … they've fundraised and pulled together government and local government funding to get this latest link in the chain constructed.
The Kawarau Gorge section, between Queenstown and Cromwell, is the next focus - estimated to cost $4 million.
CHECKLIST: LAKE DUNSTAN
A range of companies offer e-bike and mountain bike hire in Clyde and Cromwell. Transport to start of trail with bike is usually included.