Heart of The Desert

It’s the river that runs through. Turquoise, mighty, restless. An oasis crossing the heartland of mountains turning into desert. Where brown and scorched slopes dominate, the Clutha river feeds a green band of willow trees, orchards and vineyards. It’s this river that enchanted  me last year when we first discovered Central Otago, and it kept calling me back. For adventures, trails to ride and the magic that lies in the azure pulsating stream itself.

The Silly Season

The Southern Lakes, where we left off after the journey to the edge of the world, were to be our home over the holiday season. Offered a job without even applying seemed to good to be true, to live and play against the epic backdrop of mountains and crystal waters. Two weeks in, the hook started cutting through, as the work turned into mild slavery over the Christmas and New Year’s period. What would normally be such reasonable and down-to-earth Kiwi people mutated into party monsters and guess who was to clean up the mess after them… Limits reached, I took the ‘fire escape’ and spent my days biking the mountains instead.

Adventure Time

Not that I would have ever got bored there, but all the dirty work deserved some reward so I treated myself. First, Daniel took me on a little pre-birthday roadtrip, crossing Central Otago and surfing in Dunedin. Unsurpassed then was the guided canyoning trip; sliding, abseiling, jumping and swimming down a gorgeous creek that cuts deep into the rock for amazing scenery. And then, finally, being one with that mighty Clutha and kayaking the rapids. Crystal clear water, the ground 7 metres below seemed to fly by as we floated down New Zealand’s swiftest river.
To slow it down a bit, Daniel’s days off were a perfect opportunity to explore the area by car together and chill by the fantastic lakes. Constant burning sunshine allowed for regular dips in all the rivers and lakes, and having Wanaka and its food options close by made it real quality time.

Not the winner takes it all

Wanaka’s epic singletrack inspired me over and over again, even more after completing my first MTB race ever. The Bannockburn Classic, set in the sunburnt hills of Central Otago, offered a 24km circuit that seemed doable when I signed up in November. As the day got closer, doubts had me almost withdraw, but Daniel proved his motivational qualities—big thanks and credit to my coach and taxi driver!

The race turned out to be an expedition in itself. Brisk headwinds saw every one, without exception, push their bikes up the hills, and I kept walking just as well down the steep and loose descent. Then, where did the route go? Just to cross a knee-deep muddy creek (in the middle of a desert), and literally climb up the next slope with hands and feet, dragging the bike. The final run was pure bliss, downhill on smooth tracks and good vibes among the contestants. That I missed a medal was secondary, given the doubts if I’d finish at all beforehand. All I could think of was triumph over myself and the next water bottle, having lost mine at 4km…

Sure enough that experience kept me pumped for expeditions like the Grandview Mountain track, just short of scratching 1000m elevation. The last mission, the Clutha Gold trail, though, was not feasible in the end with a heatwave of 30°C+ persisting. Instead we headed back to Alexandra for vineyard work…

Home is where…

Who would say no to a final travel funds bonus, five more days of thinning grapes seemed acceptable for that matter. The daily plunge into the river became an existential necessity and even so it was hot. Very hot. Melting, scorching, blistering hot. That’s the deal with my unlikely favourite home of the heart, Central Otago. Who would have thought this little town in the desert, baking in the summer sun, would capture my heart like that? May it be for the remoteness, the last remainder of the proposed 100% Pure NZ, kind people and all you need (pizza, waffles, trails, river) in one place. It was a fitting end of the circle, selling my beloved bike where I got it first hand. Goodbyes said, I took the bus to Queenstown, then the most scenic road through the Southern Alps to Christchurch airport. Farewell Aotearoa.

Next: Parting Thoughts. The aftermath of 456 days in New Zealand.

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