Conroys Gully Dam, also known as the ‘Illustrious Energy’ Historic Area or the Aldinga Conservation Area, is a perfect half-day outing if you’re near Alexandra. The small lake results from the dam which was constructed in 1935 to catch water for the adjacent area of 'Fruitlands,' where orchards were planted but no fruit ever grew, due to harsh winter frosts. A boat ramp gives easy access and the fishing is reportedly good.
The area is now managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), partly in conjunction with The Central Otago Regional Council, as an Inland Saline Wetland, and the Central Otago Ecological Trust have a sanctuary for the mokomoko (Otago skink).
On the 1.5 hour walk track around the dam lake, you will come across a small stone dwelling built into the cliff. This restored hut dates back to the 1860s, lasting evidence of the area’s rich gold-mining history. Mining began in Conroys Gully in 1862 and the area became a base for Chinese sojourner miners in the 1870s. The hut’s restoration owes something to a humble hidden gem of New Zealand cinema, ‘Illustrious Energy’ (directed by Leon Narbey, released 1987). As well as being the only feature film to explore the 19th century history of Chinese people in New Zealand, the film has been praised for its awe-striking scenery and evocative soundscape. In the film, the hut is home to Chan and Kim, who live a precarious life panning for gold in the riverbed now submerged in the man-made lake.
Another prominent pair of miners in the gully were Danish migrants, the Iversen brothers. From 1864 onwards they increased their land holding to several hundred acres and developed a market garden and orchard. Andreas Christian Iversen became involved in the management of settlement of the area through various roles with committees and as a respected bush lawyer.
Visit Cromwell Old Town (another ‘Illustrious Energy’ film location) to see a full re-creation of a gold-mining village.
Further around the track you’ll come across a mammal-proof fence; the boundary of the Mokomoko Drylands Sanctuary. Since 2009, the sanctuary has become home to the endemic and endangered Otago skink and Grand skink.
Conroys Gully is a ten-minute drive from Alexandra township. Leave Alexandra southward on state highway eight. After the bridge, turn right onto Earnscleugh Road, left at Chapman’s Road and left again onto Conroys Road. After about 1km, take a right-hand turn down a shingle road marked ‘Conroys Dam’.