|As promised, this blog is about my adventures on the Central Otago Rail Trail. This is a 150km section of the old railway line between Dunedin and Cromwell in the middle of the south island. Built in the early 1900's, the line was used to service the local sheep farms and various small mining communities but in the 1990 the line was closed down as it was considered uneconomic, which had a devastating effect on the local communities, most of which are villages with less than 1000 people.
Fortunately, in the mid 90's somebody had the bright idea to convert the railway line into a walking and cycling track, to the scepticism of the locals. Soon work was underway to lift the tracks, improve the safety of the bridges and tunnels and arrange for cycle hire locations in Clyde and Middlemarch, on either end of the line. The result has exceeded everybody's expectations with up to 50,000 people a year, following the trail since its opening in 2004. This has resulted in lots of new B&B's, shops and restaurants opening up on the route, with villages just off the route organising side tours to local museums about the mining industry, wintersports etc.
One of the reasons, the route is so popular is that it runs through some interesting gorges, along rivers and through some wide open farmland. Also as a former railway line, the steepest gradient is just 1:50 which means that almost anybody with a reasonable level of fitness can complete it in 3 to 5 days (although fanatics like Sjuul would probably only need a day !!). What they don't tell you in the brochure is that in November you have 50km+ winds which can totally change the character of the route !! I decided to start in Clyde and cycle to Middlemarch with stops in Lauder (45km) and Ranfurly (90km) along the way, having my bags transferred in between so I would have the lightest possible load. This turned out to be a good decision as I had the wind behind me or from the side for most of the trip.
Day 1 started with a short section through some apple tree plantations and vineyards on the way to the town of Alexandra, the biggest town on the route. The scenery changed almost immediately as the route moved north east along the Manuherkira river and though some simple gorges, before moving through some fertile farmland and the first stop of the day at Chatto Creek which is a small bar/restaraunt in one of the old station houses. After a stop for a local cider and a sandwich and a chat with some Irish and Australian tourists, it was back on the bike for the final 20km stretch though some cuttings though the hills of the North Rough Ridge. This felt a bit like cycling though a western movie as you half expected a steam train to come rocketing around the corner any minute or to see some cowboy's making their way on horses across the plains. This impression was increased when arriving in Lauder which consisted of about 10 houses, 5 of which are now offering accomodation. The "town" consisted of 3 main buildings the Hotel, Store and School. Only the hotel is still operating in its original form an the rest have been converted into B&B accomodation. I stayed in the "Store" which is a now a very comfortable B&B run by Earl and Pam. As the only guest that day, I ended up having the entire house for myself, very comfortable after 3 weeks in a small campervan !! Dinner that evening was held in the hotel across the street where the owner Gerald was a very friendly host seving some excellent local beer and wines !
Day 2 was the most spectacular part of the the trip with the "uphill" section to Wedderburn through the Poolburn gorge. This involved cycling over some 100m high viaducts and through some of the original tunnels. The first of these was particularly interesting as it was curved which meant there was a section in the middle where you were in complete darkness so you had to be careful not to cycle into the wall !! From there it was on to Oturehua for the morning stop at the General Store which again looked like something from a western movie. Once you were over the top at 630m, it was an easy 20km drop down through open countryside to the town of Ranfurly. This was where the effect of the wind was particularly noticable as you breezed past the unfortunate individuals struggling to go the other way. The wind behind me meant that the trip had only taken me 3.5 hours despite continuous stops for photos, a visit to a Engineering Works museum and a long coffee break ! That meant I had the afternoon free to tour around Ranfurly's two main streets. This was more interesting that expected as a lot of the buildings were built in "Art Deco" style. Fortunately, there was also internet access in the hotel which meant I could finally update my blog that evening !
The final day was the 60km section to Middlemarch. I left early, around 9.00am, as I knew I had a 2.30 pick up in Middlemarch and the chances were high that I would have to cycle into the wind for a lot of the day. Fortunately, the first 30km were with the wind coming slightly from behind which meant that I could make good time across the open plains south of Ranfurly and though the picturesque Taieri gorge and over more viaducts and tunnels. Coming out of the gorge the wind struck and I could had the full force of wind in my face. It was a strong swirling wind which had wind flags strong enough to either stop you in your tracks or blow you off the road, not always a good idea since you were often cycling on a raised embankment. This made it necessary to cycle on the right side of the track so you could avoid getting blown off the road on the left hand side !!. After the morning stop in the Otago Central Hotel in Hyde, I caught up with Marcus a german tourist from Munster who was cycling round New Zealand, and who also had been staying in the same hostel in Ranfurly. This meant he was doing the route with 5 bags on his bike and having even more problems staying on the road. After the break it was a long 30km into Middlemarch, through an open valley where the wind was staight in your face. The strength of the wind was such that the last 30km of the day took almost twice as long as the first 30km. Fortunately, there was a nice restaurant open in the village of Middlemarch with some tasty bacon and eggs and a very good cappucino. A nice way to celebrate.
After hanging out with Marcus for another hour or so, I went to find my pick up and found out that as the only passenger that day, I could leave a hour early back to Clyde. The return trip by van took about 2.5 hours and I had an interesting conversation with the driver Mike, a scouser from Liverpool, who had been living in NZ for 5 years after 10 years in Australia. He was able to give me an interesting insight into life in New Zealand. From there, it was back into the van for the trip up towards Mount Cook and last nights overnight stop in Twizel (the only town in the area with an ATM !).
More news soon !