I think I’ve found the closest thing to heaven in New Zealand. I’m in the middle of the mountains, surrounded by soaring cliffs riding the country’s newest cycle trail. I’m not a cyclist by nature, so it feels like someone has unleashed a jackhammer on my derriere. In my ideal world, I’d love a moment to get off my bike, stretch the muscles and enjoy a hot coffee – but I’m in the middle of nowhere. That’s never going to happen.
Hang on. What’s that? I’m like a shark with blood when it comes to caffeine. Am I picking up the smell of freshly roasted beans? Or am I in a state of depresso and my mind is playing tricks? My legs start cycling a bit faster.
Around one more bend, I screech to a halt. Floating in the Cromwell Gorge, at the base of an enormous cliff, is a floating coffee shop. It’s called Coffee Afloat, but really should rename itself Nirvana.
I’m on the new Lake Dunstan Trail, a remarkable feat of engineering connecting the Central Otago towns of Cromwell and Clyde. The 55-kilometre trail opened in early May, after years of planning and construction. This is no simple trail; it weaves along the cliffs of the Cromwell Gorge, with the lake on one side and soaring cliffs on the other. At first glance, it looks like building a cycle and walking trail here would be impossible; but engineers were determined to overcome the challenge. And as I’m about to find out, their solution is spectacular.
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We’re starting the trail at Highlands Motorsport Park, outside Cromwell, where Trail Journeys (a bike-hirer) has a depot. I don’t suggest you bring a city bike that’s been hoarding dust in the shed; rent one that’s designed for this trail – and go electric too (more on why that’s essential later). After a quick induction on using an electric bike, including how to use the “boost” feature, we headed towards our first stop.
Just a few kilometres along Lake Dunstan, we park at the Cromwell Heritage Precinct. After the Clyde Dam was finished in the early 1990s – which formed Lake Dunstan – the old town was flooded, and a selection of heritage buildings were moved to a new lakefront location.
Today the heritage village is home to cafés, artisans, and art galleries, and it’s the perfect spot for breakfast or a quick coffee. But as picturesque as the town is – you haven’t seen anything yet.
Next, we head towards the gorge, passing a few vineyards in Bannockburn – the district’s wine-growing region. We cycle up the side of a hill to discover we’ve ascended to a wine lover’s heaven: we’re at the gates of an organic winery. You can jump straight off the trail and onto a beanbag for a glass of wine overlooking the lake.
Once you’re back on your bike, the trail weaves around the edge of the vineyard before heading toward Cornish Point, where you can look directly down the gorge. Gazing down the long narrow valley, with water on one side and towering cliffs on the other, there is only one question that comes to mind: how on earth did they make a cycle trail through here?
A few minutes later, the answer becomes apparent. To get around granite cliffs, which extend hundreds of metres into the air, engineers strapped cantilevered platforms to the side of the rock – it’s one of the most advanced bike tracks anywhere in New Zealand.
We continue along the gorge before a familiar feeling hits my brain: is that the smell of caffeine? Then, just around a corner in the middle of nowhere, I come to a complete stop. There are 15 people sitting around enjoying a coffee in front of a floating café.
Owners Jolanda and Richard Foale had quite the journey starting their business. The pair run a scenic helicopter company in Cromwell, which was heavily reliant on foreign tourists. With reduced flying after the borders shut, the couple wanted to pivot and couldn’t go past the proposed cycle trail. It was missing something: a café, but nobody could figure out how to make it work. The solution eventually arrived: it needed to float.
Now, every morning (provided the weather isn’t horrific), they motor in a small boat out to their solar-powered coffee barge and start the grinder. And it’s by far the most popular stop on the trail; 70 cups of coffee had already been sold by the time we arrived at lunch. Sitting down next to the silent lake enjoying a hot drink surrounded by peaks is one of the best feelings.
I was also procaffeinating (procrastinating with coffee). It turns out there is a huge hill after the coffee shop, and I was enjoying my drink pretending it would go away.
Remember I told you electric bikes are essential? Here’s why. The hill is steep with a stunning switchback that towers into the air. I moved my e-bike to turbo, shifted down to a low gear, and got to the top without raising a sweat. Thank you, electricity – that was easy. And my power was probably generated from the nearby dam – a beautiful circle of life.
The trail then takes its time weaving back towards the lake, with spectacular elevation offering birds-eye views of the gorge. The next remarkable feature is an 85-metre suspension bridge known as “Hugo Bridge” after the late Hugh Green, whose charitable foundation paid for its construction.
At the other side of the bridge, as I was taking photos, I got chatting to a retiree who was cycling the track with a bike that looked like a F-18 fighter jet. I asked if it was electric, to which she replied. “Yes, my name is Emily.” So pointing to herself, she said with a smile, “it’s an ‘E’ bike”.
Feeling a little guilty someone about twice my age was just using their legs, I steered the conversation in another direction. “Is this the best bike ride you’ve done in New Zealand?” I asked.
“You know,” Emily replied. “I’ve cycled all around the world, and it doesn’t get better than this.”
After the bridge, it’s an easy ride back towards the water, where the trail eventually widens. Before long, you’ve reached the Clyde Dam and its historic mining town. Many of the hire companies run a shuttle here so you can be driven back to the Cromwell (definitely recommended), or it’s possible to bike the return journey in a day – although it will be a long trip if you’re not an experienced cyclist.
In the next few years, I’m confident this trail will become the Roy’s Peak of bike riding – it will be everywhere on social media. Best get in before all the foreign tourists eventually return and fall in love with it too.
Need to know:
Does it connect up to the Otago Rail Trail?
Yes, the Otago Rail Trail begins/ends in Clyde – that means you can continue on. You can also connect to the Roxburgh Gorge Trail, which is another spectacular short ride.
The Lake Dunstan Trail is part of a master plan by the Central Otago Queenstown Trail Network Trust to eventually create a 536-kilometre network of trails connecting Queenstown and Wānaka to the existing Great Rides.
Can I ride Clyde to Cromwell instead?
Yes, it’s a two-way trail, but Cromwell to Clyde is the easiest.
Is it steep?
In places, yes. E-bikes make it much easier.
Are there cliffs?
Yes, some parts of the trail is unfenced, narrow and with steep cliffs. Be mindful of oncoming bikes, runners and walkers, and dismount your bike if you feel it’s getting a little narrow.
How long does it take?
It’s a leisurely three to four hours one way, with stops for coffee and photos. You can then either catch a pre-organised shuttle back, or ride back.
Do I need to check the weather?
Yes, especially in the colder winter months. Don’t do it in a storm.
When is the best time to go?
Spring onwards is expected to be busy, although it will be open all throughout winter. On a sunny winter’s day, as long as you have warm clothes, it’s a beautiful ride.
Getting there: Cromwell is less than an hour drive from Queenstown.
Trail guide: centralotagonz.com/lake-dunstan-trail
Bike hire: From $55 standard or $110 electric bike with Trail Journeys. Shuttles back to the start are $30 per person. See: trailjourneys.co.nz/nz-cycle-trails/lake-dunstan-trail
Where to stay: Cromwell: Central Park Apartments, adjacent to Highlands Motorsport Park, from $150 a night. See: centralparkapartments.co.nz Clyde: The Lord Clyde from a night $265. See: thelordclyde.co.nz
Stuff Travel deal: Stuff Travel has an exclusive deal to experience the Lake Dunstan trail over a three-night escape. This includes luxury accommodation, breakfasts, a winery visit, e-bike hire, car hire and transfers. From $779pp twin share ex Queenstown. See: travel.stuff.co.nz/dunstan for all inclusions and to book.
The author’s trip was supported by Tourism Central Otago.