Renowned for its autumn colours and mirror-like reflections, Butchers Dam has become a staple of New Zealand calendars and postcards, but climbing the nearby hills gives a new perspective on this stunning landscape.
Butchers Dam is in Flat Top Hill Conservation Area, about 9km from Alexandra, and lies beneath the Old Man Range, overlooking the vast Central Otago Basin. The area also hosts a surprisingly diverse ecosystem and has a rich gold mining history.
Rising above Butchers Dam to 500m, the Basin View Track is a relatively easy day walk which includes the best views of the reserve.
Starting from the main car park, the track follows the shore of Butchers Dam where information signs explain the area’s gold mining past. Gold was discovered in the valley in 1862 and a small settlement was established, but the 24m high dam, completed in 1937, flooded much of the gold mining site. The dam was built as a reservoir for nearby Alexandra, but is now used for irrigation.
After about 15 minutes, the track leaves the dam and follows a 4WD track which climbs steeply towards the hilltop. Schist tors stand near the ridgeline and views of the nearby Old Man Range (1682m) and Dunstan Range (1667m) improve as you get higher.
The landscape was once covered in beech and totara forest, but according to DOC the forest was destroyed by fire about 2000 years ago and the trees failed to regenerate in the dry climate. The area lies in the rain shadow of the Southern Alps and gets just 350mm of rain a year. DOC has started to restore the shrubland and forest that have been lost from the area and small nurseries dot the hillside. Despite the lack of native trees, the landscape is surprisingly full of life. Over 180 plant species and a number of rare insects are found amongst the tussock and wild thyme.
Once atop the ridge, the hilltop forms a broad plateau and a poled route continues to the north.
Extensive views of the Central Otago Basin are revealed to the east. The dry and flat basin extends to the Hawkdun Range 75km in the distance, while the Pisa Range is visible through the Cromwell Gorge 45km to the north.
A short detour off the track here leads to the edge of the Roxburgh Gorge, with views down the steep valley walls to the emerald Clutha River, 400m below.
After about 30 minutes, the track descends to a smaller gorge at Butchers Creek. The remains of an old rusty pipeline, used for an earlier irrigation scheme, can be seen on the schist cliffs opposite.
Another 30 minutes brings walkers back to the picturesque Butchers Dam and the car park.