Jackies Journey: Exploring Alexandra

By: Jackie Norman, Photography by: Gareth Scurr


This month MCD writer Jackie Norman explores the Alexandra region in the South Island of New Zealand

Ask a group of South Island travellers where they are off to next, and at least half will answer "Central Otago". Not hugely familiar with the area ourselves, we figured there had to be something special about a place well known for its delicious stonefruit. So when we were asked to house-sit for friends in Alexandra, we jumped at the chance to check out the country’s most inland region.

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The walk to the top of Flat Top Hill is steep but worth it

Life of Bryan

The main reason for our two-week mid-winter house-sit was to look after an adorable and energetic dog called Bryan. Bryan (who is actually a girl) was an excellent tour guide, her enthusiasm for exercise ensuring that we, too, spent hours at the end of a lead.

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Bryan takes in the scenery at Flat Top Hill

Aware of Alexandra’s spectacular hoarfrosts, we wrapped up like a couple of Eskimos. But the weather was remarkably kind, and we only once noticed a few ice crystals in our hair (and in Gareth’s beard). No two days in Alexandra are the same – everything from fiery sunrises to thick, mystical fog encouraged us out into the elements to explore.

The mighty Clutha

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The Clutha River looks stunning from above

We stayed just a few minutes’ from the start of the 12.8km popular trail that joins Alexandra to Clyde. This easy, well-maintained track follows the Clutha River and takes three to four hours (one way). Although we didn’t manage the entire distance, it soon became one of our favourite routes. The water was almost impossibly blue.

Some days, the mist made our walks eerily haunting, with the fog hanging in the air so thick, you couldn’t see the opposite river bank. Other days were bright and serene, but it was always spectacular. As for Bryan, she wasn’t interested in the scenery, preferring instead to chase the hundreds of rabbits who peeked out of burrows and lolloped along enticingly just out of reach. 

The Clock on the Hill

I was enchanted by Alexandra’s Clock on the Hill from the moment we arrived. One of the town’s best-known features, I saw it every time I looked out the window, especially at night when it was lit in red and blue, and couldn’t wait to get up close. Reaching it meant crossing the historic Shaky Bridge, a suspension walkway mercifully less wobbly than its name suggests.

The route from town takes about an hour and is steep. But what a feeling it was to finally stand at the foot of the 11m-diametre landmark looking across Alex to snowy mountains in the distance. Gareth and me, with the whole town at our feet, until daylight began to fade.

Flat top hill

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View across Flat Top Hill

Live on the road and almost every day is special. But few more so than those we spent exploring the Flat Top Hill Conservation Area. Home to off-the-beaten track biking and walking trails, the 800-odd hectare DOC reserve is about 6km south of Alexandra. For two days, we climbed mountains, scaled rocky ridges, crawled into caves and stood at eye level with snow caps. We marvelled at water as smooth as glass and trudged through acres of wild thyme.

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Wild Central Otago thyme

The views from the top of Flat Hill over the Manuherikia Basin and down to Lake Roxburgh and the Roxburgh Gorge Trail are breathtaking. From so high up, the Clutha River glows a bright emerald in the stark, rocky landscape. As I stood, breathing in the scent of thyme, my mind’s eye taking a snapshot of the scene below, I thought of my dad. He would be 79 today but died at 57.

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If the hike isn’t enough of a workout, there are plenty of rocks to climb

An inspiration for how I now live, he was looking forward to a retirement he never got to enjoy. I think of him every time I climb a mountain, or walk through a forest, or see a view I know he would have loved. Our time in Central Otago was too short, but now we can also claim it as a must-visit. We’ll be back – as soon as we can.

Before you go

Keen to walk Alex? Take these few tips on board.

Wot no bins?

We love the Alexandra to Clyde River Track (also known as the 150th Anniversary Track). But when walking a dog, it pays to know that there are almost no rubbish bins on the 12.8km track. This is crazy for a walkway that is otherwise well-maintained and used.

Stick to the markers.

Keep an eye out for trail markers when at Flat Top Hill – blue for cyclists, red for walkers. Although clearly visible, they can be a bit confusing. We came across a few people who were lost. Take water and appropriate footwear as you may well end up walking for longer than planned. (It is difficult to go genuinely astray as you can always see down to the main track and across the dam to the highway.)

Check out Wastebusters.

When we weren’t hiking or being walked by the dog, you could find us browsing through the Central Otago Wastebusters recycling centre on Boundary Road. The community enterprise is a terrific example of environmental responsibility. And if there’s anything you need on your travels, you’re almost guaranteed to find it here.

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