With a 2013 population of 4,800, Alexandra is the main centre for the Central Otago district. It is 195 km north-west of Dunedin and 95 km south-east of Queenstown, at the junction of the Clutha/Mata-Au and Manuherikia rivers.
The ‘lower Dunstan’ goldfield settlement formed in 1862 was named Alexandra in 1863, when Queen Victoria’s eldest son Albert Edward married Princess Alexandra of Denmark. Gold dredging boomed in the 1890s and 1900s – but after this, Alexandra was quiet.
The arched steel bridge opened in 1958, replacing the swing bridge, whose masonry pillars still stand. The electric clock on the hill above was installed in 1968. Since 1957 the town has staged an annual blossom festival in spring (September). The Central Stories museum opened in 2005. It replaced the William Bodkin museum, named after the local MP and community leader. Alexandra also has a notable cricket ground.
Alexandra is a retirement town. Over-65s accounted for 27.1% of the population in 2013, compared with 21.3% in the Central Otago district, and 15.7% in Otago as a whole.
With a 2013 population of 1,011, Clyde is 7 km from Alexandra and 27 km from Cromwell, on the Clutha River. The 1862 gold-rush town was first known as Dunstan after the neighbouring Dunstan Mountains. The name was changed to Clyde (a variant of Clutha) in 1865.
Pavement plaques identify historic points of interest. A 1934 steel-arched road bridge across the Clutha to Earnscleugh sits on the stone piers of an 1881 bridge. The railway line closed in 1990; 10 kilometres of the track became a ‘rail trail’ for walkers and cyclists in 1994, and the full 150-kilometre Otago Central Rail Trail opened in 2000. The Clyde hydroelectric dam and power station are just north of the town.
Fruit of the vine
The first wine grapes in Central Otago were planted at Earnscleugh in 1864 by John Desiré Feraud. The district now accounts for around 7% of Central Otago’s wine plantings, found both on the Earnscleugh side of the river, and between Alexandra and Clyde.
District with many gold-dredging tailings, left from the 1890s until 1963, when the last dredge stopped working. From 1922 orchards thrived with irrigation. Since the 1990s they have been complemented by vineyards, especially of the pinot noir grape.
The Manuherikia rises between the St Bathans and Hawkdun ranges, joining the Clutha more than 60 km south at Alexandra. Near Chatto Creek, Merino sheep on Moutere Station are descended from the Merino brought from Europe in 1863.
Ophir and Ōmakau
Ophir, named after the biblical gold mine, is an 1863 gold-rush settlement known originally as Blacks. The railway was routed through Ōmakau in 1906, after which it thrived and Ophir waned.
Farm locality 35 km north of Alexandra. Nearby Becks used to be known as White Horse, after the hotel run by Joseph Becks in the 1880s. It was later named after the publican. The Matakanui district (once Tinkers), Drybread and Cambrians were mining areas. The four-wheel-drive Thomson Gorge road crosses the Dunstan Mountains to the upper Clutha valley.
The Brass Monkey Rally, held annually at Ōtūrehua, is New Zealand’s best-known motorcycle rally. The rally’s name alludes to the low winter temperatures, often below freezing – ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’, as the saying goes. A huge bonfire is lit to help keep riders warm.
The name refers to the sacred Mt Ida of Greek mythology. At Ōtūrehua (earlier called Rough Ridge), farmer Ernest Hayes (1851–1933) invented a range of devices to help with farming tasks. The abandoned mining town of Moa Creek was used in filming the Lord of the rings movie trilogy.
On the slopes of Rough Ridge are Poolburn dam, and the Manorburn and Upper Manorburn (Greenland) reservoirs. The oldest, Upper Manorburn, dates from 1914.
The northernmost gold mining settlement in the valley, 61 km north-east of Alexandra, with just a handful of permanent residents. Historic buildings include a bank and gold office dating from 1864 and the Vulcan (formerly Ballarat) hotel, built in 1882. The ghost that reputedly haunts the hotel has prompted the organisation of a ‘Ghost to Ghost’ triathlon and duathlon – a pun on the rather more strenuous coast to coast race between the West Coast and Christchurch.