Self-guided driving day tour of Central Otago landscapes, walks where photographes go wild
BEST TIME TO GO
(Winter check weather forecast, expect low lying fog and carry snow chains).
- Scenery that inspires international acclaimed artists
- Extraordinary places where the bustle of the gold mining era has left its legacy
- A place where your mobile is likely to be out of service, no Wifi
Route map Dunedin to Middlemarch (return)
Alternative gravel route Middlemarch to Pukerangi (note section to Pukerangi is a loop, returning on the same road) rejoining SH87 at Sutton returning to Dunedin.
Outram is a great place to get into the vibe out on the road. Outram is an urban oasis with switched on cafes and real fruit ice cream for the kids (plus the parents). Make sure to stop for a berry packed frozen delight at MacArthurs.
It is seasonal with an array of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, boysenberries and for a sharper bite try red and orange currents. Fresh ice cream is whipped through with crushed berries and served in a waffle cone. Visitors have a choice of yogurt or dairy ice cream.
Your drive takes you through sweeping land meets sky dramatic landscapes. Lord of the Rings film series featured Strath Taieri’s district (Middlemarch is the largest settlement) scenic beauties. In the series the journey of Bilbo Baggins and fellow Middle-earth creatures was filmed in Strath Taieri district. The director, Sir Peter Jackson specifically mentioned the charms of Middlemarch in production clips, describing, “incredible … close encounters of the third kind skies.”
Middlemarch greeting is the schist sheep on top of their pillars reminding visitors of the economic importance of the wool industry. Time for the first selfie as the sheep are overlooking central Otago landscape.
KISSING GATE CAFE
A cafe that advertises cups of tea is guaranteed to be child friendly. There is a wide variety of brunches, lunches and outdoor seating in a pretty garden. The wooden cottage is inviting with the hosts willing to give advice about up and coming events. Collect your snacks for the day and let’s get on the road. Before departing for the exploration check the local museum, Strath Taieri Historical Society’s Middlemarch Museum in the old Masonic Lodge is well worth a visit for an insight into the history of the district and brochures about the district.
SUTTON SUSPENSION BRIDGE
The Sutton Suspension Bridge, just a couple of kilometres from SH87, was an engineering marvel featuring fetching stone pillars, and there’s a decent swimming hole beneath it. The swimming hole remains however the bridge of many selfie photos is permanently beyond repair and has been dismantled.
Best reason to stop:
Because the landscape is jaw-dropping while the peace and quiet provides respite from the bustle of everyday life. Painters and photographers go wild for this region.
There are uncountable instagram photos of the original bridge. The bridge was an engineering schist stone triumph incorporating the skills of the nineteenth century builders (1875) however floods in 2017 destroyed the original bridge. The glorious pillars are now in storage awaiting a decision about a new home. While the bridge has now a modern weight bearing replacement the magical views remain the same. Time to rack up some snaps of the new bridge and the timeless landscape.
SUTTON SALT LAKE DETOUR
Among the tor rock forms and tussock is New Zealand’s sole inland salt water lake. The landscape is predominantly schist outcrops with the seasonal lake offering birds and wildlife a watery refuge. The easy undulating 40 minute walk provides numerous photo opportunities of rock tors and plants. By mid summer the lake disappears. Evaporated into a dry cracked mud pan which in itself is interesting. The 143 hectare reserve is five minutes from Middlemarch.
Sutton Railway Siding is well known through Grahame Sydney’s painting of the siding and the dramatic scenery.
For environmentalists a rare native lizard calls the place home. Grand and Otago skinks are two of New Zealand’s most impressive and distinctive lizards, and grow as long as 300 mm. Both species are unique to Otago, and are two of New Zealand’s rarest reptiles. The DOC brochure.
State Highway 87 at this point is officially Kent St. A reminder of Sutton’s past as a nineteenth century busy village with a post office and school. The area is named after runholder John Sutton who arrived in 1854. The former school site is home to Otago Youth Adventure Trust Camp.
Alternative Route Middlemarch heritage loop thru Pukarangi
Well maintained gravel roads where ruins, cairns and significant schist stone buildings are framed against the backdrop of central Otago makes for an interesting detour loop. The section Pukerangi is a return on the same road. This detour is beautiful and well worth the time spent savouring the sheer austere beauty surrounding the drive .
The first stop is the new Sutton Bridge with its dramatic framed view of the mountains in the distance. The next stops are the characteristic stone buildings of the region.
Gold mining relics, stone cottages and sluicings
Matarae sluicing evidence takes the form of alluvial pits and regular stone pilings. Timbered water races have decayed and there are little visible remains. Matarae is where the steam trains collect water for the boilers. The sliding was closed in 1985. The former station witnessed soldiers acting in a disorderly manner during WWI. Tracks were built to hold 27 wagons in 1928.
Schist stone sheep yards, abandoned picturesque farm cottages and rusting mining equipment.
A significant heritage farm building collection with a category 1 rating is Cottesbrook’s stunning schist woolshed, stables, stone pens, and outbuilding dating back to the late 1860’s. The historic farm buildings supported a much larger pastoral run than the current farm. Originally the pastoral lease covered 250,000 acres with documents suggesting runs of 68,000 merino sheep. The ruined stone cottages along the route were formerly part of the Cottesbrook original lease.
As NZ Heritage Trust describes, the buildings are ‘ They are magnificent examples of stonemasonry, and are superbly placed in the rugged rock-strewn Strath Taieri landscape’. The farm is privately owned and buildings can only be viewed from the roadside.
As you return, take time to think about the sometimes bitter public debate in the late 19th century about large pastoral holdings. Land was forcibly divided, in some cases resulting in uneconomic sheep runs.
The landscape is a powerful inspiration for New Zealand artists from Grahame Sydney, Colin Mccahon, Rita Angus and others.
AND THERE IS MORE
Macraes Conservation Area is beyond Middlemarch and the home of the extremely rare native lizard found in Macraes Conservation Reserve. (see Travel pack section for details). At the end of the journey is Macraes Reserve and an extinct bird (sculpture). Check What’s so great about Macraes.
Hamel, Jill ‘East of the Taieri River’ Department of Conservation, 2000
Cottesbrook Station Complex Heritage NZ
Grand and Otago skinks: Lizards Department of Conservation.
Otago region Malcolm McKinnon, ‘Otago region’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,published 8 May 2009, updated 1 May 2015
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