Given as the Otago rail trail was listed as number three in the Lonely Planet “things to do in New Zealand” I thought it was probably worth a go. While sometimes skeptical of such recommendations – particularly if cycling routes are listed simply because they are relatively easy rather than picturesque – we decided to give it a go. Covering150km or so this would account for our last three days riding here and even if the route was not quite as expected we would at least be free from traffic. To date many of my favourite rides had been on the gravel paths, much less frequented by cars, campers and trucks. With only cyclists, walkers and horse riders allowed on this route we would not even bump into the occasional 4 x 4. Bliss. As it was was we saw just a few others riders and for many stretches it was just us, our bikes and the fabulous scenery of central Otago.
Trains were taken off this gorge based rail line having previously been a main trade link between Dunedin, on the East coast, and Cromwell and in 1993 the line was taken over by the Department of Conservation. While local towns saw economic decline for the ten years following closure in 1990 the DoC finally opened what would be the Otago rail trail between the villages of Clyde and Middlemarch.
Bridges were altered, gravel tracks were laid and a local group would take on responsibility for signage and information. These days some 20, 000 people ride the route each year and it’s estimated that around $7, 000, 000 are now brought into the region rejuvenating local towns and associated amenities as hotels expand, B and B’s develop and cafes and local stores are needed to service those passing through. Locals are also involved in tour booking, baggage transfers and bike hire for many rail trail users. For such isolated, small rural communities these developments have been critical for employment, entrepreneurship and community facilities. As someone who has always been interested in community regeration, as well as a keen cyclist, this really is a remarkable story.
We took the main highway from Cromwell to Clyde and following a cup of earl grey and a lemon slice it was time to hit the gravel, stopping briefly for a wee photo. The early part of the trip passed by vineyards and farmland, cutting through rocks and with the sun shining right on us at over thirty degrees. It had been a while since we had ridden in these temperatures and I struggled as we neared the end of the days ride, throwing water over my head and into my mouth to refresh before arriving into Omakau. While we took cabins each night as our stops were determined by the position of campgrounds – aka the budget options.
Following a detour to Ophir to visit New Zealand’s oldest post office, we made our way a further 55km to finish in Ranfurly. The uphill section of the trail pretty much complete it would be even easier from here. Despite being gravel it was well wheeled and packed down so fine even with heavy touring bikes and at gentle gradients the trip was a relaxing end to our riding here. This section of the trail saw us pass through tunnels (torch required) and over viaducts. Despite one puncture it was a glorious ride and our timing had been perfect. The following day was the Ranfurly Art deco day and Cavalcade so we would be entertained and despite not being able to stay an extra night and join in all the activities we decided to leave later the next day given it was light until reasonably late.
The final section of the trail had described the big skies of the Maniototo Plains and we were not disappointed. The skies were huge against rural scenes and we had more bridges and viaducts to cross. Tailwinds followed us and we were happy not to be riding in the opposite direction. To celebrate this good fortune we stopped for a beer at Hyde before finally arriving at our cabin in Middlemarch. It was getting chilly, the town seemed deserted and despite this marking either the start or end of the trail and being the stopping point for the Taieri Gorge scenic railway it didn’t seem to be thriving in the same way as the places we had passed by. While a come down for us as riders it was the town I felt most disappointed for.
Despite this we found the best cabins we had booked in New Zealand and a fabulous breakfast the next day. Our rail trail ride had been an amazing end and as we boarded the train to Dunedin we felt pretty chuffed. I would live to see more routes like this back home and of course the thriving rural communities alongside.
If I wrote a guidebook this would rate even higher.