We leave Queenstown on a morning of my fortieth birthday, and head for Clyde, a small ex-mining village in Central Otago, about 60 miles away. Our plan is to take a day getting there (as it's going to be undoubtedly scenic, as everything is in this wonderland of hills, rocks and water) and to go via Arrowtown, a popular day-trip destination from Queenstown.
Scenic it is indeed, and we take a while even to drive the twenty-odd kilometers to Arrowtown, passing through pretty valleys and nearby ski areas. Arrowtown is now something of a tourist trap, aka heritage town, known for its gold mining past.
The town, which is the last of the major gold-rush towns in Otago, sits in a valley at the confluence of the Arrow River and Bush Creek. Gold was discovered here in 1860's and the small river had a reputation of being the richest for its size in the world. This wealth drew scores of prospectors, including a sizable community of Chinese gold seekers (of whom now a museum-village remains on the banks of the river).
There are several good walks nearby, towards the Remarkables and along the Arrow River (the full Arrowtown-Macetown circuit is 32km/almost 20miles long), but it's pleasant enough just to stroll along the river itself, surrounded by willows and poplars. You can buy a (plastic) dish for a couple of dollars and try panning for gold yourself or just poke about, imagining the gold rush days.
Modern Arrowtown is a pretty place, with old, restored cottages and stores lining up the main street. Tourist-trade dominates, and there are numerous gift shops, jewellery and greenstone stores and other purveyors of normal tourist merchandise. We are here in low season though, and the place has a sleepy feeling of an out-of-season resort, recognizable the world round. A look in the estate agent windows shows that it's not just tourist trade that followed gold, as property prices in the area are astronomical. The natural beauty, relative isolation and skiing seemingly draw those attracted by the idea of living the rural dream on their own acreage.
We look into several shops, buy some fudge (which is better than American counterpart but still not a match for a good Devonshire clotted cream product, or, for that matter, even Polish "krowka"). The jewellery shops are more interesting and (as it is, after all, my 40th birthday) I receive a rather lovely greenstone and gold pendant from the Other Adult (as well as a felt beret and assorted gifts form the Older and Younger Child).
After that, it's a lunch of pies and we get going on the way to Clyde.
The road soon joins the highway 6 and we are on the Gibbston Highway, passing through the Central Otago wine growing area. It's the world's most southerly wine-producing region and commercial cultivation only started in the 1980's. The climate and soil conditions make the production quite expensive, which means that the resulting wines are quite expensive boutique products (prices start at around 20 NZD, or 10 GBP, and are usually quite a bit more) but the quality often justifies that. We buy a bottle of a fine Pinot Noir to take to our next host at Gibbston Valley shop and it is (it better be, at that price) one of the best reds I have tried, tight, fragrant and deeply satisfying.
Not far from Gibbston Valley is the site of the original bungy jump, where those in search of a risk-free thrill pay 180 NZD for a five-second, 43m jump off the historic Kawarau Bridge. The concept appeals, but the charge appears as over the top as the original idea must have seem. Watching is free, though, and we spent an enjoyable half hour observing two people leaping (or being nudged) off the bridge strapped to latex ropes.
The Kawarau River gorge cuts through bleak but dramatic scenery of the surrounding mountains, and soon we are in Central Otago proper, approaching Cromwell. Much of Cromwell's old centre is now under water due to construction of the Clyde dam and the Dunstan Lake, and the town is nothing but a service centre for the local area, known for fruit growing and goldfileds related tourism.
The last stretch of the route takes us along the Dunstan lake, a high and open road cut from the rocky hillside. Artificial lakes often look bleak and industrial; it takes many years to create a more natural and appealing shore which vegetation, animals and people can enjoy.
Wet flurry of snow fills the air and we are glad to arrive at our hosts' house; the last couch-surfing experience of our trip and one of the nicest. There is a traditional Kiwi salt-beef meal ready, and even a hand made card and a present for yours truly – such are the beauties of CouchSurfing.