Clutha Gold Bike Trail – Central Otago, New Zealand

We had an early start on day four – we left the Lake Roxburgh Lodge at 7.30am – breakfast was some 10km away in Roxburgh township.  We rode up to the dam before getting onto the Clutha Gold Trail proper.  This trail, like the Roxburgh Gorge Trail was officially opened in October 2013 and showcases the area’s history of early Maori moa hunters, Chinese gold miners, European pastoral farming, mining and railways.

The trail continues to follow the mighty Clutha Mata-au River as it weaves through trees and traverses the beautiful Beaumont Gorge. It then branches off into farming valleys and some sections of the historic Roxburgh Branch railway line, including the 440m-long Big Hill Tunnel.  The trail is 73km in length starting at Roxburgh Dam Village and finishing in Lawrence which was Otago’s first gold-rush town after Gabriel Read discovered gold, in what became known as Gabriel’s Gully, in May 1861. At the height of the gold fever, Lawrence’s population reached 11,500, twice that of Dunedin’s. 

 We left the trail to bike across the Roxburgh bridge.  Early European settlers started arriving in this district in the late 1850s. When gold was discovered by Andrew Young and James Woodhouse in 1862, the pair unwittingly triggered the beginnings of what would become the township of Roxburgh, now home to more than 600 residents.

The pioneering spirit that braved the elements to mine, farm and cultivate the land was the same spirit the early engineers faced when challenged with constructing a bridge to cross this powerful Clutha Mata-au River. Despite its sturdy structure, the first bridge lasted only three years before the devastating floods of 1878 swept it away. A fine replacement suspension bridge was built nine years later and remained until the current bridge was built in 1974. Remnants of the Roxburgh Bridge Pier (1875) and the Roxburgh Suspension Bridge Tower (1887) are a reminder of the early engineering feats to cross this powerful and at times intimidating river. 

We had breakfast at The Store which was delicious.  They use Al Brown’s Best Ugly Bagels with various toppings. – so good. The coffee and cabinet food was also delicious – I couldn’t go past the cinnamon pinwheel scone!  Re fuelled, it was back on the bikes and back across the bridge to get back on the trail.  The riding was proving fairly easy as the trail descends gently alongside the river.  The sun was starting to appear and we were in for another nice day. 

 There is a lot of history along this trail with lots of information boards pointing out what was here in the past and what remains to this day.  We came across a sign that pointed out the remains of the Kohinoor dredge that sank in 1912 – you could just see the top of it as the water rushed over it.

Between 1902 and 1906 the Kohinoor dredge won 3,358 ounces of gold from the river. It is a reminder of the many dredges that worked this river and of the dangers they faced. There are the remains of at least three other dredges in the river alongside the trail.  As the more easily accessible gold deposits along the river were exhausted, the miners’ attention had turned to the potentially huge pickings on the river bed itself.

Dredging began as early as 1863 with simple spoon dredges. These were followed by current wheel driven bucket machines which in turn were followed by those driven by steam engines. The first steam dredge the Dunedin, designed and built specifically for this river, started working in this area known as Coal Creek after 1868. This type quickly came to dominate.  

In 1892 there were 10 steam dredges working in the river from Coal Creek to Horseshoe Bend. The constant sound of stone against metal all day and all night could be heard reverberating in the valley.

The technology developed for working this river was so successful it was exported all over the world. The dredges grew in size and power, changing the face of mining and the countryside, eating their way into the river banks and flats.

To make a living, miners increasingly had to go into partnership with other miners or work for wages on a dredge. Some of their early returns were so extraordinary investors were easily attracted to companies formed to build more, and better, bigger, more expensive dredges. But it was a gamble. Fortunes were made and lost.

The river had become known as the ‘golden river, by the late 1880’s because of the success of dredging. Successful dredges in this area had names such as the Golden Bed, the Golden Treasure and the Golden Gate. But as areas were worked out, farmers and horticulturalists increasingly objected to the destruction of valuable fertile land alongside the river and the price of gold eventually weakened. By the 1920’s nearly all the dredges had disappeared, only the largest few surviving. 

 Our next stop was Pinders Pond.  In 1918 what is now Pinders Pond was a large deep hole dug by Otago gold mining identity “Big” John Ewing. Having secured an interest free loan from the Mines Department, ‘Big’ John established the Teviot-Molyneux Gold Mining Company to dig down at the bend in the Clutha Mata-au River to reach the old river bed that he was convinced was rich in alluvial gold.

It is a very picturesque lake – time for a team photo. 

Our morning tea stop was at Millers Flat.  Millers Flat is a small town with a population of about 200 – fruit growing is the main industry in the area.  The Roxburgh Branch railway used to pass through the town; it was opened to Millers Flat in 1925 and was the terminus for approximately two and a half years, until the section to Roxburgh was opened. The line was closed in 1968, though the town’s station platform and some of the railway formation still exist.

After Millers Flat we passed a number of orchards then the landscape changed to a more rugged, bush clad landscape.  There were a few information boards here that detailed what was found along here in days gone by. 


The Moa – there were once 9 species, large and small of these flightless birds. 6 were once found in Otago including the largest bird to have ever existed and the smallest of the species. The forests they lived in covered this landscape. In the skies a huge eagle soared, the largest known bird of prey. It was the only predator of moa until the arrival of man.

These similar looking trees, Manuka and Kanuka once flourished together in this gorge. Nowadays you will mainly see stands of Kanuka after blight destroyed most of the Manuka back in the 1940’s. This was a misguided attempt to clear this perceived invasive ‘scrub’ for pasture. Instead it was quickly replaced by even more invasive weed types – broom and gorse. Kanuka are nursery trees. They are among the first to grow after natural or man made disasters along with Manuka, Kowhai and Ti-kouka – Cabbage Trees.

Within their shelter, slower growing trees like beech or totara seeded by their few survivors, can regenerate. One of our best known native trees the Kowhai, recognised by its bright yellow flowers, grows in abundance in this gorge. That is probably why the Maori called Beaumont District Te Kohai, a southern version of Te Kowhai.

The gorge is also home to NZ’s endangered native falcon, the Karearea – only 3,000 nesting pairs remain. It is one of the world’s fastest birds – it may be small but it strong and fearless. 

Our next stop was Beaumont, some 50km from Roxburgh Dam Villahe where we had started.  Beaumont is a small town which we didn’t go into – apparently there is not a lot there.  We had lunch on the banks of the river – it was quite warm so a few of us jumped in to cool off.  In writing this blog I read something that says you shouldn’t swim in the Clutha Mata-au as the currents are too strong – oops!  There was a local family swimming in there so when in Rome….  It was very refreshing and we didn’t stay in there too long – the locals were wearing wetsuits after all! 

The team had the option of finishing the cycle here or carrying on for a further 20km through to Lawrence – the word on the street was that the last 20km is nowhere near as scenic as the first 50km and there was a big hill.  Well you can guess what the consensus was – all but three of us jumped in the van to drive that last 20km to Lawrence.

Andy, Danny and I cycled the last section and it was very pleasant.  The big hill wasn’t too bad and we got to cycle through the Big Hill tunnel which is 434 metres long.  It was an interesting experience cycling through the tunnel – it is a straight tunnel so you can see the light at the other end – I just set my sights on that light and kept pedalling – I didn’t come into contact with either side of the tunnel so was pretty pleased when I was safely through.  There was a bit of information along the way regarding the railway line. 

Construction of the Milton to Roxburgh branch line began in 1873 and the line reached Lawrence in 1877. Then there were arguments between neighbouring districts over the best route for a railway line into the Teviot District – from Lawrence or from Tapanui. After it was resolved it took another 51 years to reach Roxburgh, its destination from Lawrence, making it an epic public works project and the longest in NZ’s railway history.

Work began on the line in 1906 and it reached Big Hill in 1910. The next major section, the Big Hill Tunnel, was a challenging engineering task involving hard and often dangerous work. Initially 50 men were employed to dig the tunnel. Eventually this number rose to 100 men before the tunnel was finally completed on 30 March 1913. They cut through tons of schist rock veined with quartz.

Through sheer hard work and determination they created a tunnel 434 metres in length. Rumour has it that gold was found in the quartz. Whether this was true or not is still a mystery. By November 1913 the first train reached Craigellachie on the Beaumont side of the tunnel, then work began on the Beaumont railway station that became the terminus in December 1914. World War 1 interrupted progress, and it was not until 1921 that work resumed. The line finally reached Millers Flat in 1924 and Roxburgh in 1928.

Unfortunately the line was completed in time to face stiff competition for its services from steadily improving roads, trucks and buses. Over the next 30 years farmers and orchardists managed to keep a service open that could take fruit and livestock overnight to the Dunedin markets. But losses grew and despite the lobbying of many, the line’s closure became inevitable. It closed in 1968.

The next little settlement that we came to was Evans Flat where they had some interesting information regarding the first settlers in the region.  The first permanent European settlers in this wider region, known as Tuapeka, were George and Helen Munro, who arrived here from Scotland in 1857. George was a shepherd and Helen a capable homemaker. She knew what it was like to make do in their basic mud floor hut. She knew what it meant to be self sufficient making their bread, clothes, bedding and even their soap as well as preserving or salting their seasonal produce. Nothing was wasted. Mrs Munro also knew what it felt like to be isolated with the nearest neighbour 56km away. Apparently it was two years before she spoke to another woman.

Prospecting for gold was typically viewed as men’s work, but Mrs Munro was not fazed by this when she heard of Gabriel Read’s momentous find near Lawrence in 1861. Armed with only a dish and a butcher’s knife, she managed to uncover 18 ounces of gold just nine metres from their hut in Munro’s Gully. Mrs Munro is one of our hardy early settlers and is remembered as the only woman to discover a payable goldfield. 

 Just before you get to Lawrence there is a Chinese Camp heritage site. This Camp was at the gateway to the goldfields, and served as the foremost Chinese goldmining settlement in Otago. The Chinese population was about 100. It was a little township which catered for the Chinese goldminers’ needs (including Chinese Doctors) and its residents included intermarried families.  

The Camp was founded in 1867, but when the last Chinese resident died in 1945, its story was almost forgotten. The heritage site is owned by a Charitable Trust and their aim is to restore its original features. 

 Lawrence has a population of about 500 and it’s main claim to fame is of being the focal point for Otago’s 1860s gold rush, after the discovery of the metal at nearby Gabriel’s Gully by Gabriel Read. In mid-1862, it is estimated that twice as many people lived around the banks of the Tuapeka River as did in Dunedin itself. Additionally, the tune to New Zealand’s national anthem was composed in Lawrence by John J. Woods, a Lawrence school teacher.

The discovery of gold in the valley just outside Lawrence in May 1861 lured thousands. Gripped by gold fever, diggers descended on this gully like a disordered army after slogging for days over trackless terrain to reach this new El Dorado.

Gabriel Read, a Tasmania, set off Otago’s first gold rush. Read had honed his skills in both the California and Victoria goldfields of the 1840s and 50s before arriving in NZ in early 1861 armed with a tin dish, butchers knife and a spade. He arrived just as the young country was confident of a discovery.

Initially, those in power had played down the idea of a gold rush, choosing to ignore earlier gold finds by Maori and prospectors. One previous find was by shepherd Edward Peter, known as Black Peter. A native of Bombay, he had arrived in NZ in 1853 and found ‘colour in the creeks’ near Tokomariro (Milton), at Evan’s Gully and in the gully near Lawrence, but his gold finds were overlooked.

The wealthy landowners or ‘wool lords’, feared an influx of ‘gold maddened diggers’ who posed a threat to their land, wealth and dignity. However, by January 1857 the Provincial Government bowed to public pressure and set aside a bonus of five hundred pounds for the discovery of a payable goldfield within the Province of Otago.

On the momentous day in 1861, Gabriel Read took the loose gold in his shallow pan and stated ‘when I got to my tent and struck a light I judged I had nearly two ounces of gold’.

He fossicked the gully and surrounds the next day to be sure he had struck a rich goldfield then duly reported the discovery. The reaction was almost immediate and ‘in a few short months Otago had been elevated to the position of the foremost province in NZ’.

Otago had previously been one of the poorest provinces in NZ but this discovery of gold flooded Otago with wealth which transformed the social and political life of the province.

On arriving into Lawrence we stopped off at the second hand shop – Andy has a retro fetish!  We then went to another second hand shop that specialised in sports memorabilia which had all sorts of treasures.  When we got to our accomodation the beers were flowing – surprise, surprise! 

Some of us took a drive out to Gabriel’s Gully and then did a bit of a drive around Lawrence.  There were some very impressive old houses I must say.  It is a lovely little town with a large number of churches!   We also came across a fitness course in the domain – we were going to email Vicky and tell her that we had all completed it but we knew there was no way she would have believed us : 0

 That night we had dinner at Gabriel’s Cafe and Bar – the blue cod was a hit with a lot of us.  The waitress was a hit with some of the boys!

The next morning we drove back to Queenstown but not before a little detour to The Store in Roxburgh – another cinnamon pinwheel scone had my name on it!





This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
This entry was posted in Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand. Bookmark the permalink.

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