Sunday, March 12, 2006

Central Otago Rail Trail

Once upon a time, in the twentieth century, a railway line ran from Dunedin to Cromwell, passing through tiny Central Otago towns and rugged river gorges.In the twenty-first century, the Dunedin to Middlemarch section of the line still lives, and a train for sightseers runs on it regularly. The Cromwell to Clyde section has disappeared under the waters of Lake Dunstan and the Clyde to Middlemarch section, now rail-less, is a motor-vehicle-free cycle route. This 150 kilometre route is called the Central Otago Rail Trail and it featured on Marcus Lush's TV series "Off the Rails". After watching the programme featuring the rail trail we were inspired to ride it and we incorporated three days on the trail into a two-week Central Otago holiday in February.

We began the rail trail experience by spending a night in the camping ground at Middlemarch, having driven there from Dunedin on a splendid sunny Waitangi Day afternoon. Middlemarch is 88 km from Dunedin and is technically an outer suburb - you don't pass the Dunedin City Limits sign until you get past Middlemarch, somewhere in the middle of nowhere on SH87. We had brought my aging mountain bike with us in the back of the station wagon and we hired a bike for Ian at the campground - the owners are agents for the Cycle Surgery in Dunedin who own the bikes, and also for the Catch-a-bus service which runs daily shuttles between Dunedin and Wanaka. We packed the panniers provided for 3 days of biking and went to bed.

On the morning on February, having been woken by an insomniac rooster well before dawn, we and the bikes caught the shuttle to Clyde. The day had begun cold and foggy, became bright and sunny but was cloudy and warm when we reached Clyde. The plan for day 1 was the 46km stretch from Clyde to Lauder, passing through Alexandra, Galloway, Chatto Creek and Omakau. I was a bit apprehensive because it included the steepest gradients on the trail.

The Clyde to Alexandra section goes through orchards and is semi-rural and pleasant. It seems designed to lull you into a false sense of security about your ability to cycle 150km. The route is flat, straight and the surface is hard and smooth. We left the trail at Alexandra and had lunch in a cafe in the main street.Leaving Alexandra again we crossed some nice bridges and were cheered by the markers every kilometre that helped keep track of progress. The first marker after Alexandra said 206 and we worked out later that this is the distance back to Wingatui where the Central Otago line branches off the main trunk line just outside Dunedin. Things to admire on this part of the route include typical Central Otago rocky countryside and distant hills, sheep, deer and wildflowers.

At Omakau we deviated onto the highway so we could visit Ophir, a nice old town with historic buildings, reached by a fabulous stone suspension bridge crossing the Manuherekia River. There was almost a tantrum as I contemplated the highway heading steeply uphill, but luckily the turn-off to the suspension bridge was just before the hill.
We arrived at Lauder at 5 o'clock with me feeling I had biked slightly too far for my liking, and having learned that headwinds are a much bigger enemy to the cyclist than the hills on the trail.We stayed at the Lauder hotel, which I can't enthuse enough about. The bed was comfortable, the shower was fabulous and cookies and cups of tea on arrival particularly welcome. We met some other cyclists at dinner so we were able to compare notes, and were too tired to lament the lack of night-life.

February 8th, Ian's Birthday, dawned grey and gloomy. The day's agenda was 64km from Lauder to Waipiata, via Oturehua, Wedderburn (the highest point on the trail) and Ranfurly. We set off about 9am and since the route goes through the Poolburn Gorge which has tunnels and viaducts we had lots of photo stops and only travelled 6 km in the first hour.After the gorge there's a downhill section through the Ida Valley and passing the Idaburn dam which was speedy and exhilarating.We stopped for lunch a few kilometres past Oterehua at Whiskery Bill's Cafe and Bar which is handily postioned in the middle of nowhere to sustain cyclists. Lunch was delicious and proved that you can get good lattes even in the middle of nowhere. It started to rain during lunch, luckily not heavily, and the negative flavour of the afternoon was exacerbated by Ian's bike getting a puncture (a birthday treat,no doubt). Next stop was Ranfurly, and one of its claims to fame is cute art deco buildings, which we admired in addition to the contents of the art deco gallery.The final 8km of the trail for the day from Ranfurly to Waipiata was gruelling. It should have been a pleasure, being straight and slightly downhill, but a stiff headwind put paid to the pleasure.

Peter's farm hostel, where we had elected to stay, is supposedly 3km from the trail but it felt suspiciously like 5. It is a very pretty mudbrick farm house with lovely timber interiors and original fireplaces but the musty smell was unattractive. The good shower was a redeeming feature and we got acquainted with it immediately.

We got back on our bikes (ouch!) to go back to Waipiata for dinner at the pub where we met more fellow cyclists. Meals there come in "town" and "country" size and the house wine (which wasn't out of a cask) was $4 a glass.Amazing! A variety of scrumptious desserts, which almost all featured chocolate, led Ian to say that the chef must be female.

Day 3 was sunny (hurrah!) and we had breakfast outside with magpies singing to add to the rurual ambience.Unlike Day 2, we met lots of other cyclists on the trail. The route goes through the Taieri Gorge,

which is particularly pretty and unlike the other sections it has lots of trees. The surface was probably the roughest we encountered, with large stones, ruts,plenty of sheep dung and a scattering of pinecones. Roughly halfway between Waipiata and Middlemarch is the Hyde cafe, where we had lunch outside with all the other bikers. Hyde to Middlemarch was a pleasure - all downhill and going fast.
The scenery is on a grand scale with the Rock and Pillar range on one horizon and the Taieri range on the other, with a fertile plain with poplar trees in the middle. There is a slight sense of comedown when you reach the end - nothing that couldn't be overcome by a cheering crowd. Perhaps they could pay the natives to spend a few hours there each afternoon.......

So should you cycle the rail trail? I think you should, as long as you don't hate bikes. It's an opportunity to spend time in the great outdoors in a very scenic part of the country that most of us don't go to often. And you get to cycle somewhere with no cars, take great photos and meet lots of people. As to the great debate over which end to start at, I think the Clyde end is the one. Either way you're going uphill on day 1, but the Clyde end has lots of pubs and cafes to sustain you, whereas from Middlemarch its going to be a sustained long uphill with only the Hyde cafe in the first 50km. And going downhill from Wedderburn to Alex, you may speed past some bridges and scenery that deserve closer attention. Anyhow, enough from me - you can go and start planning now.

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