This trip is a collection of quiet gravel roads, 4WD tracks and old wagon trails pioneered as a bike route by gnarly cycle tourers in the 1970s.
Grade 3+ Time 2–4 days Distance 170 km
Track conditions 35% sealed road, 45% gravel road, 20% 4WD track
Maps To follow the Dunstan Trail proper, it is essential to take NZTopo250 26 Alexandra and NZTopo50 CD15 Paerau. The existing road diverts from the trail twice.
To leave Dunedin by the shortest possible route, cycle straight up Stuart Street from the Octagon and veer right onto Taieri Road, which turns into Three Mile Hill Road. Soon after crossing Silver Stream, turn right onto Milners Road. Carry straight on and you’ll reach Highway 87 a few kilometres north of Mosgiel. It’s mostly uphill cycling, northwest on Highway 87, to Clarks Junction 49 km from Dunedin.
Alternatively, a fun way to start is to catch the train to Middlemarch or Pukerangi (see Otago Rail Trail).
The Old Dunstan Road turns off to the left here, and you head into an isolated and barren Central Otago landscape. From Clarks Junction, it is 48 km of up and down (but mostly up) to the abandoned Paerau township (called ‘Styx’ by the locals) where there is an esplanade reserve by the Taieri River. The jail here has a fireplace that may be useful if it’s raining or snowing. If you go any further than the river, you’ll be on private land.
It’s a hard 71-km day from Paerau to Alexandra with a lot of uphill and heaps of downhill. Cycle north out of Paerau on the Styx-Patearoa Road for 1.5 km. A fence heads off to the left 150 metres after a hay shed. The next 800-metre section of the old trail you’re looking for has been ploughed up, but if you cycle along the northern side of the fence up towards the hills, you’ll soon pick up two historic cartwheel ruts in the grass. They’re marked on the map as a 4WD track and lead to a derelict house on Linnburn Runs Road, 7 km away. In this stretch, you’ll need a compass to avoid drifting onto new, misleading 4WD tracks.
From the house, head north for 300 metres before turning west onto another 4WD track, which is also part of the original Dunstan Trail. After 3 km, this track meets up with the Old Dunstan Road. Route finding from here on is relatively easy. From Poolburn, it’s 50 km mostly downhill to Alexandra.
Notes The historic Dunstan Trail was the route originally used by goldminers in the 1860s to travel from Dunedin to the goldfields in Central Otago. This area experiences extremes of weather any time of year, so go well prepared. In wet conditions, parts of the trail are unridable because of sticky mud.
During a northwesterly wind, it’s easier to do this trip in reverse, from Alexandra to Dunedin.
If it’s wide open spaces free from man-made structures that you’re after, get in quick. The area is earmarked for large-scale windfarm development.