Doing the Dunstan

Doing the Dunstan

Nothing is more golden in autumn than Central Otago, and nothing is more satisfying than seeing the lesser-known side of this destination hot-spot. While most road trippers head to the lakes (Queenstown, Wanaka, and Hawea), the Maniototo is for those in-the-know. And among Maniatoto’s best kept secrets is the Old Dunstan Road. This off-the-beaten-track delight is not to be confused with the Dunstan Cycle Trail, which is centred in Clyde. Rather, the Old Dunstan Road is a hugely scenic treat involving 46km of mainly unsealed, dirt, rock and gravel trail, and it can be undertaken in several different ways.

Confident, experienced, drivers of 4-wheel drive vehicles can enjoy all or parts of the road, independently, or as a self-guided or guided adventure. Provided you check ahead for current road conditions and weather updates, sections of the Old Dunstan Road can also be undertaken by experienced, confident, 2-wheel drive vehicles. The road isa treat for very fit cyclists or fit e-bikers with batteries that will go the distance (allow 2 or more days for the journey). And, if you enjoy hiking, day walks from various entry points are also do-able.

The entire road trip is a feast for the eyes. On a fine day, kilometre after kilometre of golden tussock stretch out to meet  the bluest of skies, while on a misty morning, endless acres of magnificent rock tores lend an eerie moon-scape feel to the land.

Highlights of the journey include the Poolburn Dam, an isolated high country reservoir which was originally built in 1931 to provide work for the unemployed of the depression era, and irrigation for local farmers. The dam is a favourite spot for fishers, and its waters are fringed with a scattering of quaint fishing huts. Today, the dam makes for a pleasant day trip for experienced drivers (in the right vehicle) from the Ida Valley end of the road. It is also a favourite haunt of Tolkien fans, having been used as a filming location in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Another watery attraction on the Old Dunstan Road is the Loganburn Dam (also known as ‘The Great Moss Swamp’). Classified as regionally significant wetland, its water spreads out in arm-like fashion to contrast strikingly with the dry mountain landscape surrounding it. Fishers head to it, along with photographers in search of the perfect high country shot.

Historians also make for the Old Dunstan Road, to soak up the gold mining history, synonymous with the area. Originally known as ‘the Dunstan Trail,’ the route was established in the early 1960s as one of several access ways from the Central Otago goldfields to the port at Dunedin. It was considered treacherous in winter, crossing four mountain ranges (the Lammermoors, the Rock and Pillars, Rough Ridge, and the Raggedy Ranges), with its highest point being 1.040m above sea level. However, the trail was shorter than the alternative ‘Pig Route’ by 48km, so the tens of thousands of miners who used it, were prepared to take the risk. In total, their journey from Dunedin was 176km, and it would take horse-drawn drays 2 to 3 weeks, depending on weather, to complete.

If you are thinking of following in the footsteps of these early travellers, do your homework carefully. Pack everything you will need for refreshments, and for safety’s sake, consider making the journey in the company of others. Be aware the Old Dunstan Road is closed for around four months each winter, and always check with local information centres about the current status of the road (even in fine weather). Above all, don’t be put off by the necessary preparations. If you take the Old Dunstan Road, you will be seeing some of the finest scenery our country has to offer.