Central Otago was founded on gold – old stone buildings, dredgings, water races, stamping battery, even place names – all are reminders of these early intrepid explorers.
Only a few pastoral farmers and shepherds lived away from the coast in the 1850s. But when gold was discovered in Lawrence in 1861 thousands of hardy, adventurous young men arrived to seek their fortune, and they were soon exploring the rocky valleys and streams all over Central, fossicking firstly for alluvial gold.
Rumours would have hoards of diggers rushing to new goldfields. The “Dunstan Diggings” in the Cromwell Gorge (1862) resulted in the shantytown of Clyde quickly becoming the most populated town in New Zealand.
As you cycle along beaten paths, wearing dry clothing, looking out for the next café, spare a thought for those first adventurers. Without meat from the sheep farmers many of the earliest diggers would have died from starvation – look out for "Muttontown Gully" viaduct near Clyde. Some did die, drowned in floods (no roads or bridges), or frozen in snowstorms (no houses).
The use of giant gold dredges on the rivers gave another boost to mining in the 1890s around Alexandra. Some miners stayed on after the gold rushes, starting businesses, farms, orchards – which brought the Railway – and now the Rail Trail.