Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail

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February 5th 2008
Published: February 17th 2008
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Day 99: Dunedin to Middlemarch to Ranfurly. The first 60km through the Central Otago Goldfields

I arrived at Dunedin's impressive railway station at nine this morning ready to catch a train along the Taieri Gorge Railway. Unfortunately the train wasn't a steam engine as I'd hoped (only to make my dad jealous, to be honest, I wasn't so bothered so long as I got to see the scenery and reached the end of the line in one piece). Having climbed aboard one of the old wooden carriages and found my seat, it was a short wait before we started slowly moving out of the station. Leaving the houses and warehouses of the city behind us, we entered the countryside, initially quite lush and green, it became drier and more barren, with mounds of schist stone rising out of yellowing grass, as the tracks ran east towards the Central Otago Goldfields, across fields, bridges and viaducts.

The railway itself was built as a result of the nineteenth century goldrush in Central Otago, which led to extensive mining and lots of little villages springing up across the area. The branch originally ran out from Dunedin to a little place called Clyde, but by 1990, they'd shut most of the line and taken up the tracks. I was subsequently getting the train only as far as Middlemarch, which has been the end of the line since 1990, with a view to cycling the remaining 150km to Clyde, stopping at some of the old ex-mining villages en route.

The train stopped a couple of times so that we could all pile off and take photos of the fields and gorges we passed and crossed, before eventually stopping, three hours after its departure from Dunedin, in the small town of Middlemarch (201m). I had a quick stop to eat my packed lunch, before heading to the cycle rentals place, where I met Sam (name established after 10km), my two wheeled companion for the next three days. There was a bit of confusion over the carriage of my backpack. Apparently, the bus that was meant to be transporting it for me had left at nine, and the bike hire place were subsequently threatening me with paneers and a trailer, until after some discussion, we came to an alternative transport arrangement. (I'm not lazy, but I'm not carrying 18kg of luggage on the back of a bike). Aware that I had quite a long ride ahead of me, I got going as soon as I could, continuing where the train left off, along the route of the Taieri Gorge Railway deep into Central Otago.

My trip to Ranfurly was, according to most descriptions of the track, and the initial sign, due to be 'just' 60km, however, after cycling a little way (in the right direction), this increased to 61km, and I was more than a little miffed, when having cycled 15km in blazing sunshine along the exposed track, Ranfurly was still 55km away. I've still no idea how far I actually cycled, or who's in charge of measuring the distances between towns, but it all got very confusing and a bit demoralising at times as the signs continued to provide conflicting distance measurements. The heat was pretty intense, and having got through two litres of water already by mid-afternoon, I stopped at Hyde, a tiny place on the rail route to refuel. Approaching Hyde, I first passed the rail disaster monument, erected to commemorate the 21 people who died following a crash on the line in the 1940's, before moving a little way along from this and reaching the town itself. There wasn't really a lot to Hyde, but they did have a cafe that served very good smoothies and cake, and so I had a happy half an hour eating, drinking and letting Sam rest a little while.

Back on the bike, I checked my map and realised that I wasn't even halfway to Ranfurly and so with sunscreen reapplied, I headed off again along the never-ending gravel track further east. Although quite tough in the heat, the scenery was great. Going across viaducts and through a rather dark tunnel (with no lights, no torch and just a glimmer of light at the end of it), I passed happy hours imagining who would have been travelling the same route a hundred years ago (and wishing that I could go that quickly).

At six o'clock, I finally arrived at Ranfurly, a town that, to my disadvantage, was larger than most, and without a map, I had to cycle round for a good ten minutes looking for the place I was due to be staying (admittedly, this was on some very welcome tarmac). The place was like a ghost town when I arrived, with no cars or people around and all the cafes and shops shut. Soon enough I happened on the 'Old PO' (also the village laundrette and video store), and having met the owners, located my luggage, and put Sam in a shed for the night, I needed to go and find some food, only to find that the only thing open in town was the local petrol station. Checking my money situation, it turned out that I had also been slightly ill-prepared for village life, having a total of thirty dollars in my purse and little chance of coming across a cashpoint for a couple of days. There followed a delicious meal of economy size cheesy crisps, chocolate (x2 bars), and a tin of apricots. Yum. The Old PO was a nice place to stay though, very homely, with a big comfy sofa in the lounge, a great shower and a very comfy bed.

After a lazy evening listening to music and chatting to the only other guest, a kiwi also doing the rail trail, I went to bed, hoping that the weather would be a bit cooler in the morning.

Day 100: Ranfurly to Lauder, 48km. Where noone can hear you squeal

With 'only' 48km to cover all day, I had a lazy start, popping into the now open shop to get some food for breakfast and lunch, and going for a walk around Ranfurly. Apparently, in the 1930's, someone burnt down a few of the buildings around the town, and they were rebuilt by an architect with a particular liking for art deco. The town is subsequently famous as being New Zealand's rural centre for art deco architecture, and it did indeed have some interesting buildings, including the Centennial Milk Bar Cafe, where passengers used to stop for refreshments before continuing their journey.

They say be careful what you wish for. Well, today's weather couldn't have been more different to yesterday. It was freezing cold and windy, with drizzle that had started by the time I got up, and continued right through the day. Despite my warm and snuggly fleece, I was still pretty cold, even when I got on my bike. Having reacquainted myself with Sam though, the weather became the least of my problems as I discovered that following my previous day's bike ride, I was now in rather a lot of pain, my bottom protesting lots everytime I put it anywhere near my bike seat. My knees have had better days as well. A few painkillers and with gritted teeth, I cycled out of Ranfurly. Although for the mostpart I was able to forget about the pain in my deriere, I kept getting rather uncomfortable reminders every time the gravel on the track became that little bit coarser or I cycled over a bump, with the movement of bikeseat hitting bottom often resulting in a little audible yelp. Although not much fun at the time, I'm sure it would have been amusing had anyone been watching (for them at least).

I passed the highest point (618m) of the track shortly after the village of Wedderburn. An hour or two later, the drizzle turned to rain, and so I stopped in one of the red workmen's huts, sited at regular intervals along the track, to shelter and eat muesli bars. Still cold, but with the rain easing off a bit, I cycled on to Oturehua, the village that time forgot. I only ventured into the village store, but the place was like stepping into a timewarp, with wooden shelves and counters, tin signs, and some ancient produce on shelves on the walls intermingled with in-date food available for purchase. I came out with (some more) crisps, a bag of trail mix, and a big bottle of old-fashioned ginger beer, and I sat on the bench outside sheltered from the rain, watching the world (two cars in half-an-hour) go by.

The highlights of the ride were probably the amazing views over gorges across the stony landscape (that apparently doesn't usually see much rain). There were plenty of sheep around to admire as well, with Sam and me occasionally having to chase some off the track, usually because they'd seen us coming, leapt out infront of us and then run along ahead of us. They're either very stupid, quite clever (in that they slowed us down), or just like playing games. I'd like to think it's one of the latter two options, since they're still quite cute (though I did manage to refrain from taking photos of all of them). There were plenty of bridges on the route too, and although these gave great views of the valleys below, my rear end wasn't so fond of the restored ones constructed of sleepers alternating with wooden slats, with many a little squeal sounding out across the valleys. I also passed through two tunnels, and having not learnt from the previous day, I still wasn't carrying a torch. Both slightly longer than the the previous day's tunnel, and going round bends, I wasn't able to see a thing as I went through them and had to get up and walk through, preempting a collision with a wall.

I'd been quite excited when I'd learnt that I would be crossing some more Lord of the Rings landscape, with the Poolburn Reservoir (aka Rohan), supposedly clearly visible from the track. Well, I looked out for it, I climbed banks and walked through thistle bushes (what with that and gorse, the Scottish aren't so popular in these parts), but there was nothing even faintly resembling something out of Middle Earth. A bit disheartened, but similarly feeling quite soggy and achy, I gave up in the end, and took a photo of a small muddy tarn in the middle of a field. It could be Rohan if you squint a little bit and use your imagination...

Not wanting to make the same mistake two evenings running, I wanted to arrive at my next stop in plenty of time before the shop(s) shut, and so I pressed on, getting to the 'Railway School' in Lauder at four. I picked up my bag and was shown to my own little cabin out the back, complete with armchairs on the veranda, it was really lovely. Two minutes later, I was back in the lounge in the main building being fed coffee and biscuits, chatting to my hosts, Ralph and Nicki, who also owned a cattle/sheep/deer farm up the road. On asking what time the store shut, I soon learned that actually there wasn't one. Meals were at the pub opposite, where a set dinner was served every evening. Having seen some of the menus at places I'd passed through, I was fairly sure that the set dinner wasn't likely to be nut roast. Luckily, I had one spare emergency pack of noodles in my backpack, and with a couple of slices of bread from the B&B, I used the kitchen and had a nutritious and tasty meal of noodle sandwiches (not a first), whilst my hosts and a couple of other guests dined at the pub across the road, and I had the house to myself. Since I'd arrived at Lauder, the weather had brightened up somewhat, meaning I could utilise my very own veranda as I sat out and caught the last of the evening sun, before retreating to my little cabin for a good night's sleep.

Day 101: Lauder to Clyde and back to Dunedin, 43km plus a bit.

In a town where people don't lock their doors at night, I was up early and in the kitchen helping myself to food by seven. After a very welcome breakfast, I chatted to Ralph for a little while, before taking Sam out of the bike rack where he'd spent the night unlocked, and headed out again to the rail trail. The weather was just right today, cool but with bright sunshine.

I was due to catch a bus at one o'clock in Clyde and so I didn't have too much time to spare, but nonetheless, on passing through Omakau, I found myself following the 6km road detour to Ophir, because it 'has a very nice bridge' (gullible tourist, has wheels, will travel). It was nice to be on tarmac, and it was indeed a nice bridge (although I've crossed quite a few nice bridges over the last two days, with none of them requiring a detour), and a nice village, but having done a downhill stint to Ophir, I had a fair bit of uphill to do to get back on the cycle track. Since it was on a main road and without a pavement, getting off and walking wasn't really feasible and I had to struggle up a fairly steep road to get back on track. I got there eventually and was soon continuing on my merry way following the Tiger bends, large curved sections, designed to allow the train to go up hills at a more gradual incline than would have otherwise been the case. Luckily, once I'd got back on the cycle path, it was downhill pretty much all the way, and so I had enough time to stop a couple of times to admire the scenery, rest my poor behind and read the various explanatory displays en route.

From Middlemarch through to Lauder, the track had been really quiet, and I could be on the track for an hour or two seeing noone, but along the final stretch, there were quite a lot more people, walking, cycling and jogging. Bit of a shame really, I'd quite liked having a free run of the route, but I was starting to wonder where everyone else was (it just turns out they've got more sense than to cycle for three days). The final stretch crossed a couple of bridges and dams, across schist and thyme landscape overlooked by mountains and occasional fields of sheep, eventually reaching Alexandra, a largish town. With a bit of time to spare, I had a little ride around Alexandra, stopping at the store to get a juice and fruit, before continuing on the final stretch and the last eight kilometres to Clyde, reaching the end of the track with more than hour to spare. It was a couple of kilometres to the centre of town, and I soon found the place where I had to say goodbye to Sam. It had been a tough three days, but all in all, he'd been a good bike and will be remembered fondly. Amazingly, my bag was also ready and waiting for collection, and so with everything going to plan, I settled down with a drink and slice of carrot cake and waited for my transport, the once daily minibus, doing a shuttle run from Wanaka to Dunedin.

What with the bus picking people up, dropping them off, and carrying luggage from one B&B to another, the ride back took nearly five hours. I actually can't believe how far I cycled, it didn't seem that much following the straight route of the railway, but driving across the winding gravely tracks (a significant proportion of the roads in central Otago being unsealed), it's quite a mission to travel by road. Apart from my travelling companion to Dunedin, an elderly lady from Alexandra, waking me up with a commentary of the landscape everytime I fell asleep, it was a fairly uneventful journey. Despite having had two good night's sleep, I was still quite tired, and not having the inclination to go all the way to the supermarket (and with nothing much available on the 'free food shelves'), I bought eggs and bread from the YHA reception and made some minimal effort fried egg sandwiches for dinner.

I'm flying to Auckland tomorrow, and for once, I'm determined not to be over the weight limit (for baggage), or have anything confiscated from my hand luggage, so my task for the evening, is to sort through my luggage and repack it (and maybe even throw a few things out if I can bear to part with anything. I'm sure I still have far too much). I can't believe I'm finished down South already. It's been awesome and I will be back. In the meantime, it's back to the North Island tomorrow to explore the northern tip of the country and Bay of Islands. Here's hoping for good weather.

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