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Driving NZ’s Golden South

JON UNDERWOOD hits the road in a campervan for an adventure around New Zealand’ s South Island, travelling through Clyde and Cromwell to Oamaru.

AS WE chug down the river in our little boat, I have only one thing on my mind. Gold! The Clutha River in New Zealand’s South Island was once one of the richest gold sources in the world. After the first deposits were found at Gabriel’s Gully in 1861, Central Otago went from being the poorest province in the country to the richest in the space of just a year.


Sadly, the gold rush ended almost as quickly as it began, but there is still plenty of evidence of the prospecting that went on here more than a century ago and of the miners who lived along the river bank among the area’s famous schist formations.


Today I’m exploring the Roxburgh Gorge with Laurence, who runs Clutha River Cruises and is an expert on Central Otago’s mining history. They were tough times back then and the miners had to be extremely hardy to survive the conditions. Looking at their tiny huts, it’s hard to imagine what life would have been like with little sanitation, often brutal weather conditions and the dangerous nature of their work. But when you’re looking for gold, there’s often no reward without risk.


Highlight of the tour is when we get to step ashore and explore a deserted homestead, noting just how desolate an existence it must have been. Most of the ‘houses’ were simply just stones piled together under an overhanging rock and the miners would often huddle together just to keep warm.


Our journey along the Clutha River offered a fascinating snap shot into a time gone by,  one which, thankfully, Laurence is keeping alive with his interesting and informative tours. Even if you’ re not an historian, it’ s also an extremely pleasant way to spend a couple of hours delving deep into the heart of the region.


Clyde is so bonnie In Clyde, life is led at a much more sedate pace than in nearby Queenstown... and that’ s just the way the locals like it. The town has a palpable artistic streak and the main street is still a throwback to bygone days, with historic buildings and stores. 


Before our river cruise we’ d parked our motor home in the main street and popped into Oliver’s Victoria Store, one of several eateries in Clyde, which has a great buzz to it and is really a jack of all stores, with a cafe, deli, bakery and accommodation.  Cycling enthusiasts also make a beeline for Clyde as it’s a great place to tackle a couple of New Zealand’ s excellent trails and the knowledgeable and helpful staff at Bike it Now can fit you out for all your pedaling needs.


CROMWELL I didn’t strike gold on the river, but back on dry land I certainly unearthed a little gem. I knew little of Highlands Motorsport Park before I arrived. Alison Mason, our excellent host from Tourism Central Otago, would only smile and say I had a ‘surprise’ waiting. I thought it was just a motor museum with a few dusty old cars, some faded pictures and a gift shop. Boy did I have the wrong end of the gear lever! From the road Highlands looks fairly unremarkable, but what lies within is truly remarkable. 


Opened in 2013, Highlands is a $32 million racetrack, museum and major tourist attraction. Itis the brainchild of Tony Quinn, who sold his VIP Petfood company for $410 million. So what possessed him to open such a facility in Cromwell, rather than a capital city?


“If you build it... they will come, was my attitude,” Quinn says in the Highlands Guide. “I knew I didn’t need to shout it from the rooftops. I didn’t want to build a second-rate track for some hoons to race around a paddock. I wanted to do things properly. “I owned the land, I had money in the bank and I wanted to build a racetrack, so I went ahead and did it. ”Highlands is now a world-class motor racing facility, hosting professional events every year.


The museum houses one of Michael Schumacher's Formula One cars and a $4.2 million Aston Martin Vulcan supercar, the only one in the southern hemisphere. The Jurassic Forest safari tour is a big hit with the kids and there are also go-karts and an off-road buggy adventure.  But back to that ‘surprise’ I was promised.


A major part of the Highlands attraction is that visitors can get out on the race track and do ‘hot laps’ with experienced drivers. I was taken for a spin in a Porsche Cayenne Turbo – described as a ‘ Highlands Taxi’ – and thought that was my treat. Not even close... The McLaren 650S is powered by a 3.8 litre twin-turbo V8 engine and can reach 100 km/h in less than three seconds. As I strap on my helmet and climb into the passenger seat for my‘ Supercar Fast Dash’, I’ m grateful for two things: dark trousers and an empty stomach. As the McLaren duly explodes from zero to‘ I want my mummy’ in a heartbeat, I can feel my internal organs spontaneously compressing as we accelerate faster than a jet on take-off. It's terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure and definitely the highlight of my trip to the South Island. 


Highlands was an unexpected delight, as was my time in Cromwell and Clyde. Many flock to nearby Queenstown for its undoubted attractions, but like many former residents of that bustling city, I prefer the 'real' New Zealand experience that you find here. Make sure to put both on your itinerary if you're ever in these parts – you won't regret it.


OAMARU At first glance Oamaru seems just like another of the many quaint towns you pass through as you drive along Highway One on the way north to Christchurch. However, to merely pass through would be a big mistake because this town has some delightful attractions. For a start, it is the largest town in North Otago so there’s plenty to keep visitors amused, including a colony of blue penguins. Oamaru was a prosperous place in the late 19th century, thanks mainly to gold and timber, so the town also has some elegant heritage buildings.


But it’ s the Victorian Precinct that really sparks the imagination, along with the headquarters of Steampunk. For those who don’ t have teenage children, Steampunk is a quirky genre of science fiction featuring steam-powered machines – a kind of Thomas the Tank Engine meets Suicide Squad.


You’ ll get the general idea as you walk up to the HQ in Itchen Street, with a huge locomotive and blimp stationed outside. Inside is The Portal, which features hundreds of multi-coloured LED lights shining off reflective walls. One visitor claimed it was the closest thing to time travel, but maybe he’ d just inhaled too much steam...


For those who prefer the past to the future, the Victorian Precinct is a time capsule from a different era. There are antique shops, art galleries, craft stores, a bakery, cafes and museums – even the signs outside look authentically Victorian. If you’re in time for the sheep shearing demonstration, you’ll also enjoy authentic smells as traditional artisans ply their trade.


You could easily spend hours (and a lot of dollars) down here but make sure you have enough left over for a visit to Scotts Brewing. Here you’ll discover that Oamaru once had more taverns and brothels than any other town in New Zealand.  Fortunately, these days they just brew great beer. Thankfully some traditions still continue.


Jon Underwood toured the South Island courtesy of Apollo Motorhome Holidays, Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand.


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Written by: Jon Underwood
Published: 17 April 2017

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