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Otago Gold

01 February 2002

by Dave Mitchell

Perched on the slopes of the Carrick Range behind Bannockburn in Central Otago is the old gold mining settlement of Carricktown. Its ghosts haunt the remains of their industry from a century ago... old stone huts, water races, abandoned mine shafts, mullick heaps and a labyrinth of tracks. I have a longstanding love affair with this part of the country. The exploits of those hardy prospectors are humbling and the heart stopping hill climbs and sweltering temperatures keep a bloke honest.

Russ, Mike, Dave, Ditte and myself based ourselves at the Bannockburn Domain for a few days - itself a relic of a New Zealand forgotten. Managed by the local publican, for seven bucks a night your tent can take up as much room as it desires, and you can indulge in unlimited showers, spins in the washing machine... and then cook up a storm in their timeless 70's style kitchen.

From the domain it's just a wheel toss to the Carricktown track and then a short grunt past a couple of old mine shafts to the old town. With plenty to explore and a stock-standard hot 'n' sunny Otago day brewing, we were in no hurry to rush up the hill. Finally we cranked towards the top of the Carrick Range spotting the huge water wheel and stamping battery at the Young Australian Mine. Worthy of closer inspection, but not this time around.

The Otago tops can be bitterly cold, even when it's scorching in the valley below. On previous trips we've had to rug up in full battle dress to fend off the big chill. Be prepared with clothing, and heaps of food and water. But this day was warm and cruisy. We ambled along the tops, imbibing the views into the Nevis and the curiously named Horn Range beyond. There are many options from here, the only limit is one's imagination, fitness and desire to be home in time for tea. We checked out the Old Woman Range at Russell's insistence then plummeted down the Nevis Road.

The Pisa Range was next on the menu. We rolled out of Bannockburn early the following day, headed around Lake Dunstan and up the Low Burn. From there the Cardrona-Cromwell pack track climbs steeply, zigging and zagging its way to the tops where monolithic rock forms stand guard like extras from Stonehenge. The track rocks and rolls to the Meg Hut. We lunched in the sun on a soft grassy spot in front of the old corrugated iron musterers' hut. From here options abound. You could drop to Cardrona Pub for a Speights and a long, long road ride back to the car - perhaps a shuttle would be preferable. We climbed the ridge from the hut and then cut south on the Roaring Meg pack track. A challenging beast with a soft surface that is rideable downhill, but impossible in reverse. Baby spaniards with their deadly spikes litter the track - no amount of swerving and hopping could avoid continual punctures that eventually decimated our generous supply of spare tubes and patches. The final section approaching the power station was punctuated with bouts of frantic tyre pumping. We limped into Bannockburn deflated.

Lurking on the terraces above the Kawarau River is Gibbston - now better known for its Chardonnay than its coal mining past. From Gibbston, Coal Pit Road climbs a worthy 700m to the eponymous saddle to the south. We followed the ridge past Mt Edward and Mt Salmond to Ben Cruachan. Serious climbing on relatively rough 4WD tracks but the big vistas are ample reward. Retracing our tracks to Mt Salmond and then following a DOC sign pointing south, we dropped 500m on an awesome singletrack to connect with the old water-race track below. It follows the contours in and out of every nook and cranny; dodging bike-sized spaniards all the way back to Coal Pit Saddle. There was a buzz amongst the team. Options exist to climb Mt Rosa, drop into Doolans Creek or even a multiday trip to the Nevis Crossing and back. We headed for a café, coffee and cake.

Still game for more, we broke camp and made for Arrowtown to ride into Macetown. Boasting more gold mining relics than muddy puddles in Scunthorpe, I never tire of this classic trip. And as a lover of river crossings, the jeep track up the Arrow River rates highly with its countless fords. Red Bands fitted with cleats are the mandatory footwear. We lunched amongst the old stone huts and spreading chestnut trees before continuing up the Rich Burn to check out yet more ancient machinery. A few years back we marched up the sledge track to Advance Peak and dropped into Skippers with a long haul home in the dark. But not this time, we extracted our foolish grins and raced the 4WD's back to Arrowtown.

There are limitless other tracks to explore all over this end of Otago. Grab yourself a copy of Classic New Zealand Mountain Bike Rides, the appropriate topo maps and go crazy.

Nitty Gritty

  • The Arrowtown F41 and Kingston F42 topo maps provide the necessary intelligence for the Carrick Range trip. The Arrowtown map will suffice on the other rides. 
  • Pick up the "Guide to the Macetown Historic Reserve" from the Information Centre in Arrowtown for a brief history of the area. 
  • In Arrowtown, sneak down the alley next to Saffron and drop into Blue Door Bar for a post-ride snort. Upstairs is Dorothy Brown's. An eclectic picture theatre and bar screening the current crop of off-Hollywood flicks - or quench your intellectual thirst in their excellent bookshop. 
  • If you're curious about the local gold mining history then search the library for copies of "Gold Fields of Otago" by June Wood and "New Zealand Industrial Heritage" by Geoffrey Thornton. 
  • Follow the Mountain Bikers' Code. Respect Others; Respect the Track; and Respect the Rules.