I’m just joking. But not about the riding. Alexandra is sprawling with some of the finest singletrack you can find in New Zealand — heck, maybe even the world. For me, it’s up there as one of my favourite spots to ride. I’d put it in my top 10 and, for some reason, even though the riding is so amazing, no one seems to know about it. Well, apart from those who know. In a world where we have information at our fingertips at any time, Alexandra has escaped blowing up on social media and has managed to stay the hidden gem of Central Otago.

About a one hour drive from Wanaka, 75 minutes from Queenstown, and 2.5 hours from Dunedin, Alexandra is located in the heart of Central Otago. You can track the origins of this quiet sleepy town back to the Central Otago gold rush of the 1860s. Established in 1862, (formally called Lower Dunstan) its humble beginnings and rich history came from gold mining. Miners from all around the globe flocked to Central Otago in search of the precious, shiny, rare metal, hoping to strike it rich. The miners might have gone, but there’s still plenty of gold to be found. Not so much the gold you would find in a wedding ring but the type any mountain biker craves: technical flowing singletrack in an amazing landscape. The magic we all search for.

“Alex”, as it’s affectionately known by locals, has somehow avoided the hustle and bustle craziness of Queenstown and Wanaka. The all go, non-stop, 24/7 mentality of those towns hasn’t travelled across. Instead, you find this beautifully quiet town, where the locals all know each other. They are proud of their town, and so they should be. It’s a stunning little place. There’s a real sense of community that stays true to its humble beginnings. The pace of life seems a lot more relaxed, and you won’t find most of the high street shops open on a Sunday. Instead, people close up shop and make the most of their weekend before starting back into the week. It’s a refreshing feeling in this modern world we live in, but don’t get lured into thinking Alex is a calm place; it’s a town of extremes. Take the climate for example; during the summer it’s the hottest, driest place in New Zealand. Temperatures often reach over 25 degrees Celsius and sometimes even push up into the mid-30s. The flip side of that, is it’s the coldest in winter; on average it’s below 0.

It’s not just the climate that’s extreme, there is the landscape (or moonscape, as some would describe it). In the surrounding hills, it’s rugged wild country. Sharp, rocky outcrops are a common occurrence; they appear to have viciously pierced through the earth’s surface many moons ago, leaving a reminder that it’s tough out here. It makes for a real ‘Mad Max’ feeling. Wildflowers, briar and thyme make up the main vegetation covering the rolling hills. The story goes that miners planted thyme so they could put it in bread for a better taste, but the thyme took off due to the rich, fertile soil. Now, Merino sheep can be found roaming the land, thriving in the extreme conditions of the high country. It’s a landscape that demands respect. Treat it wrong and it will bite back but look after it and it will reward you. If you get it right and catch one of those perfect days, you will see just how beautiful it is. The days when you hit the golden hour, blasting along the narrow hand-built singletrack on the ridges. Purple thyme bush all around, dust trailing behind, in that perfect flow state. It’s at this point Alexandra really takes your breath away.

The mountain bike trails in Alex started like many: illegally. Back in ‘95, Richie Bailey and Gordy Rayner pioneered the way when they started to scratch lines and loops around the area. From what I’ve heard, there were more XC trails in comparison to a lot of the tech you will find in Alex now. As bikes developed, so did the trails. Things started to get harder and more technical. Old motorbike tracks and water races were adapted and made into bike tracks. Although it was very much a stealth operation. Dave Fearnley and Phil Oliver are responsible for a lot of the legendary trails. Initially, they did not realise that they were both building the trails. Each of them went on their own stealth operation but, eventually, they bumped into each other and the rest of history. Phil and Dave are responsible for some of the finest trails found out here. They have this amazing ability to find flow where there shouldn’t be. Scratching in creative lines through the rocky outcrops and chewing through the thyme with the “Thyme Eater” — a petrol push lawnmower that cuts its way through to leave a line in the thyme. They are actually onto the Thyme Eater 2 now.

There are two main riding areas in Alex: behind the clock, and Flat Top Hill. A couple of years ago, Flat Top Hill was the only place to go if you didn’t have a local to show you about. This was due to the trails behind the clock being on private land, so there were no trail maps for them. It was hard to work out where you were whilst up there, as a lot of it looks the same. “Yeah, it’s the trail that starts next to the tree and the rock. The rocky looking rock. After you finish that, head back up the road and take a right next to the cattle gate.” Cue spending hours riding round in circles. After a few times up there, you kind of get an idea of the lay of the land but you could still easily head down the wrong trail.

Flat Top, on the other hand, is on DOC land. All the trails on the hill you will be able to find on Trail Forks as they are all legal and sanctioned. Although they never started that way. The Roxburgh Gorge Trail opening up is what really started the Flat Top movement. This trail gave a way to ride out and back to town. Not long after opening, Phil, Dave and the crew started poking about. They scratched out an exceptional bit of trail down the face of the hill to the river trail. These tracks were Ledge of Death to Rock of Doom. It wasn’t long before DOC picked up on this trail. DOC had a meeting with the MOA, ‘Mountain Bikers of Alexandra’, which subsequently led to a land management agreement between MOA and DOC. DOC gave MOA the go ahead to build legal, sustainable trails on Flat Top Hill. Now you can find seven legitimate trails on Flat Top. It’s all signposted with markers to help guide you around the loop. But don’t think that you aren’t getting the creme de la creme just because they are legal, marked trails on DOC land. Far from it. There are some flipping incredible trails up there. I love parking up at the car park right next to Butchers Dam and heading up the wiggly switchback climb to the start of ‘Black and Blue’. A quick buzz down upper Black and Blue then on to Ledge of Death to Rock of Doom. (Yup, there’s some zest in these trails). This takes you down to the Roxburgh Gorge Trail. Head along this the opposite way from Alex and you’ll find a climb to take you back up to the start of Black and Blue. This time around, hit the whole Black and Blue, back down to the carpark, and be sure to also hit the bonus lines. Just make sure you look before you leap. It’s a tremendous loop that has a bit of everything for all abilities.

For me, though, the real Alexandra riding experience is behind the clock. Here lies Matangi Station MTB. In 2021, the trails became established and legitimised when the farm owners saw the value in mountain biking and what it brought to the town. Before 2021, the tracks were there, but they were all illegal. The farmers that owned Matangi would kind of turn a blind eye to it. Nothing was marked; you had to be a local to know where you were going. No maps, no signposts, no trail heads. Locals only. If you didn’t know there was riding out there then, you would never know. The Linger and Die (now in its 26th year) was the one race a year where you would be able to get out and have a route to follow, following the pink dots to make it down. Since Matangi Station MTB made the trails official, there has been a big investment in infrastructure of the trail network. There is an extensive trail map, and the trails are all signposted with arrows pointing you in the right direction. Stiles have been put in to help get across the fences. There is a massive table at the top of the hill with a post showing lots of iconic riding spots across the world, including my old stomping ground, Innerleithen. Some of the trails have also had a lot of work making them more sustainable for the future. Passes to ride Matangi can be purchased at Henderson Cycles and Willbike Cycling Central Otago, as well as at the Foursquare and Unichem Pharmacy.

So, what’s the riding like in Matangi Station MTB? Well, I needed a reminder. It had been about three years since I’d last been across to Alex. Having spent the last two years living in the Capital (Wellington), I rounded up some mates and we hit the road to Alexandra. We left on a Saturday afternoon and stayed at the Antique Lodge, in Clyde. A great little spot for the evening, it gave us the full day to make the most of Alex. If we weren’t local-ish it would have been the perfect location to base ourselves for the weekend, as we could spend the day shuttling Clyde DH on one of the days and ride Alex on the other. Breakfast was provided, bright and early, and to let us make the most of the Sunday. Fizz, the host, showed us her gin tasting bar — just to give us the full experience of the place. Definitely a top spot on the list of places to base the weekend out of. We set off on the short drive to Alex to meet up with Phil. It has been years since I had ridden with Phil, so I was looking forward to catching up and trying to hold his tail while he effortlessly guided his bike through the rocks, turns and rolls. Our crew for the day was Phil Oliver, Jimmy Ramsay, Craig Munro, Luci Vo and, later, Ashton Oliver (Phil’s son) would join us. We parked up at Phil’s and rode through town to the Industrial Eater Cafe to pick up some lunches to take with us. An inversion layer had happened during the night, so the town was covered in cloud and fog. There was a grey, moody monotone feel about the place. The streets were quiet, almost lifeless. It seemed like we might have been the only people up and about. After picking up lunch, we set off on our way to the top of Matangi Station MTB.

We crossed over the shaky bridge and headed to the start of AC trail. AC I think was formerly known as Shit Track. It’s a slightly techy climb that weaves and meanders its way up through the valleys. The steep hills overlook the trail, covered in lines that zigzag their way down to meet the valley floor, with rocky outcrops towering overhead. The further we headed up the climb, the more the fog started to lift. Eventually, we made it to the start of the second climb, called Carter’s Grind. Like the name suggests, it’s a bit of a grind but it gets you up to the top of the hill in a fast, efficient manner. We made it out of the inversion and were blessed with perfect blue skies. We parked up at the bench at the top of the hill for lunch, with the vast moonscape stretched out ahead of us. Alexandra was still covered in a layer of cloud in the distance. The table really made for a great place to take a rest before dropping into some seriously fantastic singletrack. The first descent of the day was Supercharger. A classic. Right from the get-go you are thrown in at the deep end. The trail sends you charging at high speed over a rock lip, followed by a sweeping left to right. From there you duck, dive and weave your way through the rock fields. Quick right lefts, rocks, rolls, and turns. Up and over obstacles. Holding off cambers. You have to be on the ball. The trail could change direction at any moment. It’s not an easy trail to read. The line is sort of faint. You can’t just ride off instinct. It keeps you on your toes. The flow comes from riding smooth; linking your turns and nailing your braking point. If you get it right it’s oh so rewarding. The rock, if dry, has heaps of grip; you can trust it. You can trust the line as well. It’s built well. There may not be the berms, lumps and jumps that you’re used to but what you will find is raw and rugged. You’ll find Alex berms — ruts that have formed from people riding the lines. There’s just enough support.

We blasted down Supercharger with big grins on our faces. It was so good that we looped back up to the top for a second blast. This time around it was a bit tidier. We had gotten into the Alex style of riding. It involves thinking about what you’re doing. From the bottom of Supercharger we pedalled back up to the main dirt road, crossed the stile and rode up Connector to take us to the top of one of my all-time favourites, Dr Strangelove. This trail really sums up Alex riding to me. It’s got it all: fast flowing sections where you’re blasting along a ridge on a narrow trail that Thyme Eater has carved out many moons ago, into some tight awkward tech jank before you head into the steeps with Alexandra blossoming below. You can smell the thyme as you fly along the ridges and down the corkscrew. The trail spits you out into the bottom of 5th Amendment, just for a little extra spice when you think you’re close to done. It’s just got a little bit of everything, this trail. Some moments you’re speeding along at mac 10, following your mate’s thyme smelling dust. Next minute you’re at crawling pace, working your way through rock channels trying to make the janky turns flow. The steeps will keep you on your feet; control your braking, drive the line. It’s such a tremendous piece of trail. Just Alexandra riding summed up in one trail.

After we got to the bottom of Dr Strangelove, Luci, Craig and I decided to call it a day and head to the pub for a beer. All good rides should finish with a beer, right? Jimi, Ash and Phil set off for another lap and would meet us at the pub after. We crossed back over the spring bridge and headed to the main pub in town, Monteiths, on the main street. The cloud had burned off and we were graced with Alexandra in all its glory on an early spring day. The cherry blossoms were starting to flower, and the temperature was just right. Just a perfect chilled Sunday afternoon in Alex.

Beers started to flow. The outside beer garden was still getting the sun, and the mood just seemed right. We weren’t the only riders that had the same idea — there were a good few that had been out on the hill that day, all parked up at the pub afterwards for a pint and yarns about the day. Jimi, Ash and Phil joined us after their second ride; they’d smashed out another big loop. More pints were poured and cheers were made to a great day out in Alex. “I’ve said it before, but you never have a bad thyme in Alex.”

As we were sitting, shooting the shit in the sun, Phil was off talking to some locals about their rides. You can really get a sense of how proud the locals are of the riding community and what they have — their exquisite trail network, the local club, and the town itself. It’s fantastic. On Wednesdays they have the local shop ride out, on which you’ll normally find 60 people on average. How cool is that?! During Christmas time this sometimes reaches up to 200. It’s a strong bike community that’s only going to grow stronger with the legacy that has already been left.

I may have painted Alex as a place for extreme riders, but it’s far from just that. There are plenty of great XC loops and trails you can put together. In 2018 and 2019, the Pioneer ran two of its six days in Alex and, since 2021, Phil and James Williamson have been running the Prospector XC stage race — a three-day race named the ultimate XC challenge. For the last two years, riders from all over NZ have come down to give it a go, and have been blown away with just how good the trails are and how great Alex is. For 2023, Phil and James are looking forward to getting some overseas competitors over, to really show them some great racing. There really is riding for everyone here.

So, I’ve broken the first rule of Fight Club. But who cares?! Rules are meant to be broken and people need to know about the gold that still sparkles in the hills around Alex. Should you be putting Alexandra at the top of your ‘must ride’ list? 100%. I really can’t say enough good things about it. The trails are world class, and now the Matangi Station MTB is established, there is no better time to head to Alexandra for a riding trip. It’s in my top five places to ride in NZ — and I’m sure it will be in yours after you go. The riding really is all thyme in Alex.



Words and Photography: Jake Hood