Trailblazing . . .
Justine Tyerman marvels at the engineering involved in constructing the Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail . . . and sneaks a ride.
Driving a large motorhome from Cromwell to Clyde the other day was an unusually hazardous exercise. It was exceedingly difficult to concentrate on the road, thereby running the risk of plunging into Lake Dunstan, the massive body of water stored behind Clyde Dam.
My husband Chris and I have driven the road many times before but on this occasion we were distracted by the construction activity on the far side of the lake. Men with diggers, excavators and compactors were hard at work cutting into the side of the steep rock face above the lake.
After a quick Google search, we discovered to our great excitement that we were witnessing the creation of the next stage of the 54km cycleway linking Cromwell and Clyde.
There are a multitude of magnificent trails in Central Otago but what makes this one stand out is the fact that when workmen strike a seemingly-insurmountable obstacle like a vertical cliff or deep gash in the mountain, they bolt bridges and clip-ons into the rock and carry on.
The trail could be clearly seen hugging the shoreline where the terrain allowed, climbing high above the lake to navigate bluffs, crossing suspension bridges spanning waterfalls and streams and edging along precarious-looking structures literally hanging off the side of sheer rock faces. The end result is spectacular.
We were so intrigued by the track, we wanted to explore it there and then. It's not due to open until next year but after chatting to contractors working on the Cromwell end of the project, the foreman gave us the nod to ride the seven-kilometre Bannockburn section that had been completed.
Wasting no time, we jumped on our Wisper Wayfarer ebikes and whizzed along the perfectly-compacted, 2.5-metre wide track which took us from Bannockburn Bridge alongside Lake Dunstan towards Cornish Point.
We passed sheltered inlets where people were picnicking on sandy beaches and kayaking on the still water; skirted vineyards belonging to some of Central Otago's most famous wineries; and climbed high above the sparkling lake against a dramatic backdrop of barren hills, deeply scarred by hydraulic sluicing 150 years ago. In pursuit of their dreams, the goldminers of yesteryear blasted the arid hillsides with pressurised water hoses to release gold, leaving behind a maze of man-made canyons, caves, tunnels and rock tailings.
Splashes of bright pink cherry blossom like candy floss looked incongruous against the arid, brown landscape.
Even on this short section of the track, we marvelled at the workmanship — the sturdy wooden walls built to support the track as it climbed up steep hillsides, the strong guard-rails on corners and drop-offs to keep cyclists safe, and the broad, smooth, obstacle-free surface, a mixture of fine gravel and clay. It was blissfully easy to ride on after the rocky, rutted, gnarly terrain we had biked earlier in the week. In fact, the entire trail is graded 1-2 which will make it accessible to most cyclists.
Our powerful Wispers were in their element, climbing the hills and taking the hairpin bends effortlessly, and clocking 30kph-plus on straight stretches. We felt like true trailblazers.
Had the track not eventually morphed into a construction zone with piles of gravel and machinery blocking our way, we might have carried on indefinitely. Our 700 Wh batteries had a 100-kilometre range so we could have gone all the way to Clyde . . . and back.
On the return trip, we stopped at a pebbly beach and watched as the late afternoon sun cast a mauve haze over Central Otago's golden tussock lands, craggy rocks and snowy peaks. The lake was fringed with willows, their long tendrils tinged with the pale green leaves of early spring.
One of the many advantages of ebikes is the fact you can power-up and go fast when you need to, which is especially useful when the daylight is fading or the weather turns nasty. We were back at our Maui motorhome just as the sun began to slide towards the horizon and the temperatures plummeted.
Thanking the foreman and crew for the privilege of previewing the yet-to-be-opened Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail, we lavished praise on their workmanship, vowing to be among the first to ride the completed track.
The men were busy building a walk and cycleway clip-on onto the side of Bannockburn Bridge so that cyclists and pedestrians will not have to share road space with motor vehicles.
Earlier in the day, we had come across Champagne Gully, a lovely freedom camping spot right beside Lake Dunstan. Savouring the delicious freedom of motorhome travel, we decided to stop there for the night.
Just 15 minutes from Cromwell, the pretty reserve had clean toilets, rubbish and recycling bins, picnic tables, willow trees, a boat ramp . . . and superb views. Stays are limited to one night only but that suited us just fine.
A hot shower and a chilled beverage are only minutes away when you're travelling by motorhome. As the sun set on another outstanding day exploring our own beautiful Aotearoa, we turned on the super-efficient heating, settled into our cosy lounge surrounded by panoramic windows, gazed across the water at the cycleway on the far side of the lake and toasted the clever engineers and workmen who are making the Lake Dunstan Cycle Trail a reality. Champagne Gully seemed like a fitting place for a glass of bubbly.