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BIKING (OR WALKING, OR HORSEBACK RIDING) UP TO 90 Miles of MAINTAINED roadbed
Along a historic abandoned railway across a remote region of new zealand.

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN AUTUMN 2011; LAST REVISED: 2014. EXCEPT WHERE NOTED, ALL PHOTOS © HOME AT FIRST.

 

          An elderly American veteran I met in Switzerland some years ago bristled as I extolled the virtues and rewards of hiking the Alps. “Not for me,” he spat after I paused for a reaction. “I’ve seen all I want to see of Europe on foot fifty years ago during the Battle of Bulge.”
          I expect the old GI probably couldn’t be coaxed onto a bike for a basically flat ride across New Zealand either. Some folks see picnics. Others only see ants.
          This article preaches to picnickers who prefer their adventure-filled days to end with hot showers, good food, and soft beds. We postulate that among the more relaxing and rewarding of adventure activities for any holiday are excursions by bicycle. This article describes one of our favorite bike trips in one of our favorite vacation destinations. Included for each is some practical info: whether to rent bikes independently or join a guided group, a weather forecast, and where to get your picnic items, hot showers, good food, and soft beds. Expect no ants.

 

 

 

D

AY 5: On the fifth morning I was up by 6AM, in order to get packed, get breakfast, and get out. I had nearly twenty miles to go to get from Hyde to Middlemarch in time to catch the shuttle van to the late-morning train at Pukerangi: a final twenty miles across one of the loneliest parts of New

Zealand's South Island, a final 90 minutes of cinder roadbed that had once carried a lifeline railway to the pockets of gold miners and sheep farmers who came to seek their futures or escape their pasts here at the end of the earth.

Day 5: Hyde to Middlemarch to Pukerangi to Dunedin — the morning Taieri Gorge Express from Dunedin turns at Pukerangi, exchanging passengers like me with the rail trail. Photo © Home At First.
— DAY 5: HYDE TO MIDDLEMARCH TO PUKERANGI TO DUNEDIN —
THE MORNING TAIERI GORGE EXPRESS FROM DUNEDIN TURNS AT PUKERANGI,
EXCHANGING PASSENGERS LIKE ME WITH THE RAIL TRAIL.

          When I said good-bye to my fellow cyclists after a farewell dinner party the night before, I didn’t imagine I would see them again. They wouldn’t begin their last hours in the saddle until at least two hours after I pushed off for Middlemarch. They had a more leisurely schedule today — they were catching the late-afternoon train at Pukerangi for Dunedin, or were returning by our tour company shuttle van to Queenstown. Sitting alone over cereal and coffee in the breakfast room of the Otago Central Hotel in Hyde, I was mildly surprised when Jacque (Jack), our group guide, walked in and asked to join me. Jacque was always first up and last to bed. Ours was the first group that he led solo across the trail, and Jacque worked long hours to ensure that all the details were in place. I was flattered that he showed a little concern about my pushing off ahead of the others today.

          As I finished my coffee and got up to leave the breakfast room, most of the other six members of our group were coming in. After four days and nights together — sharing the challenges of the trail, eating three meals together each day — we were far from strangers to one another. We had laughed, complained, enthused, commiserated, encouraged, and, once, cried together. Despite mixed genders, mixed generations, and varied backgrounds and nationalities (I was the only Northern Hemisphere group member), we had become close, like a sports team or a military platoon. Handshakes, hugs, and kisses were laid on me as I went out the breakfast room door to climb on my bike to ride the last leg of the trail alone.

Day 5: Hyde to Middlemarch to Pukerangi to Dunedin — My last night on the trail was spent here at the Otago Central Hotel, Hyde, a century-old inn rescued by the rail trail. Photo © Home At First.
— DAY 5: HYDE TO MIDDLEMARCH TO PUKERANGI TO DUNEDIN —
MY LAST NIGHT ON THE TRAIL WAS SPENT HERE AT THE OTAGO CENTRAL HOTEL,
HYDE, A CENTURY-OLD INN RESCUED BY THE RAIL TRAIL. .

          In spite of it being late-summer (early March in New Zealand), the morning was cloudy and cool, threatening rain across the broad, arid valley. Southbound — toward Antarctica — the trail was flanked by the Taieri River to the east and the Rock and Pillar Range to the west. The higher Rock and Pillar summits — 1,000 meters above the valley — caught the clouds and some dark, hanging curtains of rain. I dressed for a cold rain on the bike — rain pants, waterproof windbreaker, shoe covers, gloves — but the rain clouds clung to the ridge. Still, the dark morning left me with a sense of foreboding as I departed the frontier hamlet of Hyde and cycled alone for the first time in five days. I pedaled hard, probably too fast for conditions and my high center of gravity. My backpack was heavy with my camera rig, water, and extra clothing I might need in Middlemarch just in case my suitcase didn’t arrive in time. The track was dry, but occasional soft cinders, gravel, or sand tugged at my wheels and threatened to dump me. I wouldn’t be the first casualty of the railway curves and cuts just outside of Hyde through the foothills of the Rock and Pillar mountains. In 1943 a speeding southbound Cromwell-Dunedin Express left the tracks in one of these curved cuts that crossed the Kinney family farm. Twenty-one passengers died at this lonely place. One of those, Francis Kinney, was the son of the farmer who owned the land. A pyramidal cairn along the nearby Rt. 87 highway commemorates the tragedy. I sped through the anonymous cut unaware of the wreck site that had ruined so many lives now marked some distance away by a roadside pile of stones. Probably the world did not even footnote the disaster, as it happened so far from most, and during one of history’s darkest years. But those families who call this region home still speak of the June wreck as the worst day in local history.

          After the cuts and curves south of Hyde feed into the broader Strath Taieri valley, most of the track south to Middlemarch is arrow straight: “tangent” in American railway speak. Here former Otago Central Railway expresses dared run fast on its 3’ 6” narrow gauge track (called “New Zealand standard gauge” here), passing through sheep station stops at Rock and Pillar and Ngotuna before stopping at the first real town along the line in more than 35 miles, Middlemarch. “Real town” = buildings, commercial and residential, plus sidewalks, cars, and pedestrians, restaurants, cafés, and other services. But at 9AM Middlemarch looked more like an empty Hollywood set than a real town.


M

IDDLEMARCH: According to local history the town may or may not have been named after the eponymous English novel by Georgia Elliot that was published at about the same time as the town was founded. No matter. The town lives still: as a center for local agriculture and as a stop on the

railway. And, since 1991 — as it was briefly exactly 100 years earlier during the fitful construction (141 miles of railway in 42 years from 1879-1921) — Middlemarch is once again the inland terminus of the Otago Central Railway that followed the Taieri River north from near the South Pacific coast just south of the city of Dunedin into the rugged southern South Island interior.

          Middlemarch is just large enough that my riding goal, the offices of the Trail Journeys operator who organized my five-day cycling trip, was not obvious. With empty streets and no one to ask directions, I rode through town until I found the offices, which had just opened for the day. I was early, early enough to hang on to my bike for another hour so I could visit the rail yards, the station, the engine shed, and have a coffee and pastry at the only open café I could find, the Quench Café and Bar at the corner of Snow and Mold (really).

Middlemarch — Western end of track of the Taieri Gorge Railway. Eastern end of the Otago Central Rail Trail. No train today. At 9AM Middlemarch looked more like an empty Hollywood set than a real town. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
WESTERN END OF TRACK OF THE TAIERI GORGE RAILWAY.
EASTERN END OF THE OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL. NO TRAIN TODAY
.
at 9AM Middlemarch looked more like an empty Hollywood set than a real town.

          Trains still come to Middlemarch, but not every day. A couple times a week the Taieri Gorge Railway tourist train travels the twelve miles beyond its normal final stop at the non-town of Pukerangi to the end-of-track in Middlemarch. The occasional freight train comes up from Dunedin bringing in or hauling out cars for Middlemarch area businesses and farms. Looking much like a branch line terminal town in the American Midwest, Middlemarch could easily serve as a template for a model railway layout town. Its old-timey rail station is the centerpiece of the town’s railway yard. Across the tracks from the station is a locomotive shed, and nearby is a refurbished armstrong roundtable. Maybe the twice weekly summertime Taieri Gorge Limited train causes some excitement in Middlemarch, but during my one trainless morning there everything was dead quiet.

Derelict Austin truck at Middlemarch station. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
DERELICT AUSTIN TRUCK AT MIDDLEMARCH STATION

Middlemarch Station with posters advertising the Taieri Gorge train and the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
Middlemarch Station with posterS advertising
the Taieri Gorge train and the Otago Central Rail Trail

Middlemarch — railway yard with water tank for old steam engines and railway sheds. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
railway yard with water tank for old steam engines and railway sheds

Middlemarch — Derelict locomotive in railway shed. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
Derelict locomotive in railway shed

Middlemarch — Strath Taieri Hotel across from the railway station. Photo © Home At First.
— MIDDLEMARCH —
Strath Taieri Hotel across from the railway station


L

ET ME INTRODUCE MYSELF: Maybe you think I am a train geek (railfan) as well as a cycle nut (bike buff). You’d be off the mark a little. When I was in college I walked (and photographed) the two dilapidated railway lines that ran through the

rural university town. On a dare, I once slept on the railway bridge that

crossed the river into town. Railways seemed curious anachronisms tied to simpler, less stressful times: 19th century dinosaurs. They have a culture all their own, with an extensive esoteric language, not unlike baseball. They are at least as photogenic as

 

babies and dogs. Their expansive literature includes

The author at altitude. Photo © Home At First.
THE AUTHOR AT ALTITUDE

maps — I'm crazy about maps —and inevitably stirs any urges you might have for adventuresome travel. But I’m no train nut. Model railways are toys that can hold my interest for up to a minute. Trainspotters are a particularly onerous variation of Trekkies, with worse taste in clothing.
          I cycle because I can no longer run (knees). It’s great exercise. I cycled every day as a kid (newspaper boy). Delivering papers earned me enough money to pay for the delivery of our first baby. Cycling can be great fun, but it can be hard work (wind and hills) and dangerous (traffic, gravel, mud, sand, ice). Cycle nuts may not be as compulsive about their passion as train nuts, but their clothing is no improvement. Men’s bike shorts have more in common with men’s Speedo swimsuits than they do with short pants. And, unlike most railfans, cycle nuts often need a bath.

 

          Travel’s got me, especially the soft adventure

sort. Soft adventure usually requires some daring and some sweat, but must supply decent meals, beer and/or wine, a shower, and a real bed with a roof. Climbing Mt. Everest (8,848m high on the remote Nepal/Tibet border) is hard adventure travel. Climbing the Breithorn (4,164m high on the very accessible Swiss/Italian border) is soft adventure travel. No tents. No heavy packs. No K-rations. No sleeping bags. No hypothermia. Just take the cable car most of the way, put on the gear, walk to the summit and back in a few hours, take the gear off, descend the cable car, shave, shower, and dress for dinner: raclette in a cozy Zermatt chalet restaurant. Or, my latest favorite example: five days cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail.


H

ISTORY OF THE OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL: Soon after the 90 miles of rail line north and west from Middlemarch to Clyde in the Central Otago district of New Zealand’s South Island was declared a conservancy to be operated by the New Zealand Department of Conservation (NZDOC) in 1993,

abandoned railway was transformed into a recreational path, the Otago Central Rail Trail, modeled after similar projects in the US and elsewhere. Once the rails were removed, some 68 bridges — including several long and high trestles — were re-decked and the roadbed surface and 3 tunnels were improved for bicycle, horse, and foot traffic. When first opened in 2000, the Otago Central Rail Trail offered an experience that was more hard adventure than soft. Camping (but without fires) was permitted along the trail (and still is), and, for many, camping was more efficient (and possibly more comfortable) than staying in any of the few line-side accommodations available. Few available restaurants and groceries meant hauling food as well as clothing and shelter.

The Otago Central Rail Trail crosses the re-decked 105-foot-high Price's Creek viaduct. Photo © Home At First.
THE OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL CROSSES THE RE-DECKED 105-FOOT-HIGH PRICE'S CREEK VIADUCT.

          Over the next ten years, the Otago Central Rail Trail began forging an international reputation, largely by hosting an annual two-day run/cycle race from Clyde to Middlemarch on the last weekend in February (remember – that’s high summer in New Zealand). The duathlon drew large numbers of entries from around the world, and word spread about the 90 miles of nearly isolated cycle path in glorious, remote surroundings. People came to ride and walk the trail, and others expressed interest but did not come. Initially, the trail lacked the ancillary infrastructure necessary to supply users any but the most basic food, shelter, and toilet facilities. However, perceived demand over the next ten years resulted in the development of a tourism industry built around the trail. Three things helped:

1. On the western end of the trail — from Alexandra west to Clyde, Cromwell, Bannockburn, and beyond almost to Queenstown — a new and burgeoning Central Otago wine district was emerging, drawing upmarket tourism to the world’s southernmost wine area to fancy its award-winning pinot noirs and other varietals. There has been crossover interest between rail-trail and wine-trail tourists, so much so that at least one tour operator offers a combined guided Central Otago wine trail and Otago Central Rail Trail itinerary. (My trip was one of these.)

Ripening pinot noir grapes at Gibbston Valley Winery, near Queenstown, Otago, the southernmost winery in the world. Photo © Home At First.
 
RIPENING PINOT NOIR GRAPES AT GIBBSTON VALLEY WINERY,
CENTRAL OTAGO, THE SOUTHERNMOST WINERY IN THE WORLD

2. Immediately west of Central Otago is the Queenstown region. With dozens of famous hard and soft adventure activities (start point for several of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and center for whitewater jetboating, bungy jumping, skiing, climbing, mountain biking, and other adrenaline rushes), Queenstown is well-established as New Zealand’s adventure capital, and probably the South Island’s most popular destination for international visitors. The “what’s the latest rush?” ethos of Queenstown tourism has promoted the Otago Central Rail Trail as a flavor of the month. Indeed, most tour operators on the OCRT provide shuttle van services from Queenstown lodgings (including those used by HOME AT FIRST) to and from the trail at no extra charge.

Queenstown's activities attract adrenaline junkies for many different rushes. The original extreme sport of the region was (^ is) bungy jumpring from the Kawarau Bridge near Cromwell, Central Otago. NZ Tourism Photo.
 
QUEENSTOWN'S ACTIVITIES ATTRACT ADRENALINE JUNKIES FOR MANY DIFFERENT RUSHES.
THE ORIGINAL EXTREME SPORT OF THE REGION WAS (& IS) BUNGY JUMPING FROM THE
KAWARAU BRIDGE BETWEEN QUEENSTOWN AND CROMWELL, CENTRAL OTAGO.

NZTourism Photo

3. Immediately east of the trail – at the town of Middlemarch and, more frequently, at the middle-of-nowhere turning point of Pukerangi – is the operating remnant of former Otago Central Railway: the Taieri Gorge Railway. Its namesake train, the Taieri Gorge Express (express in the sense of slow, scenic, and nostalgic, like various “express” trains that lure train nuts to Switzerland) operates at least one turn-around trip daily from Dunedin — principal city of southern New Zealand, and second in size only to Christchurch (five driving hours to the north) on the South Island. Initially the only draw for the Taieri Gorge Express was as a tourist day-trip by rail inland from coastal Dunedin through the dramatic Taieri River canyon region as it climbs 1,000 feet up from the Pacific plain up to the Central Otago plateau, reaching Pukerangi in just over two hours or Middlemarch in 2½ hours. Most passengers of the Taieri Gorge Express are traveling the route as a round-trip day excursion. But, with the train offering a convenient connection to the eastern end of the Otago Central Rail Trail, more and more of its passengers are traveling one-way: to begin the ride at Middlemarch, or – like me on Day 5 – as a return to civilization following the completion of the ride at Middlemarch.

The Taieri Gorge Express train makes a photo stop at Hinton, where passengers are invited to detrain and shoot the scenery along the Taieri River gorge. Photo © Home At First.
 
THE TAIERI GORGE EXPRESS TRAIN MAKES A PHOTO STOP AT HINTON WHERE PASSENGERS
ARE INVITED TO DETRAIN AND SHOOT THE SCENERY ALONG THE TAIERI RIVER GORGE.

          The “build it and they will come” philosophy has worked on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Over its first ten years the trail’s infrastructure has expanded in anticipation of increased ridership. New emergency weather shelters and toilet facilities have been added along the line. Many new accommodations — especially 2-star and 3-star lodgings — have sprung up in towns, hamlets, and on isolated sites along the trail. (Most of these have web sites with links on the official OCRT web site, and may be easily booked by independent riders.) Some old accommodations – like the Otago Central Hotel in Hyde that provided my last night’s lodging and breakfast on the trail (see photo above) – were rescued from certain extinction by the new source of guests: cycle tourists from around the world. Restaurants, cafés, taverns, pubs, frontier bars, grocery stores, bike rental and repair shops, and all manner of OCRT-related services have started up or experienced a renaissance thanks to the trail. Some non-related businesses are also prospering from the transient cyclists, including the big, remote, indoor curling hall in Naseby (unique in the Southern Hemisphere), off the rail trail by at least 3 miles (nearest point: Ranfurly). For international guests, casual cyclists, and anyone looking for more creature comforts or less do-it-yourself organizing (I qualify on most of these categories), a number of tour operators have been awarded concessions to run guided and non-guided-but-completely-arranged tour itineraries on the trail. (My trip was organized by one of these companies. I paid the full retail price for my trip.) So much development has occurred in the past decade, that, at least from November through April (the warmer months in Central Otago), a trip along the OCRT may now be considered “soft adventure”.


M

Y RAIL TRAIL TRIP: I may have several advantages over most international riders on the Otago Central Rail Trail. I am enough of a bike nut that I brought my own pedals and shoes. And, I am no novice traveler in New Zealand. This visit was my 7th trip, and I am a registered "Kiwi

Specialist" travel consultant with annual certification from New Zealand Tourism.

Our "tiki tour" side trip to historic St. Bathan's village: its partially water-filled hole in the ground is evidence gold had once been mined here. Photo © Home At First.
OUR "TIKI TOUR" SIDE TRIP TO HISTORIC ST. BATHANS VILLAGE: ITS PARTIALLY
WATER-FILLED HOLE IN THE GROUND IS EVIDENCE GOLD HAD ONCE BEEN MINED HERE.

          I selected a combined wine tasting and cycling trip — the newest guided tour offered by Trail Journeys — a 5-day, 4-night itinerary with all meals (4 breakfasts, 4 lunches, 3 dinners, 4 morning snacks, and 3 afternoon snacks), a half-day of vineyard visits with wine-tasting (on Day 1), plus side-excursions to various on-line attractions (a historic gold rush town with water-filled pit mine shown above; a Welsh settlement; a haunted frontier saloon; a primitive engineering works that fabricated inventions for the region's sheep farmers show below; a lonely hilltop cemetery associated with a former tuberculosis sanitarium; a curling hall where we broomed and slid but never lost our incredulity; and a massive, moonlike, working, sinister, open-pit gold mine that looked something out of Goldfinger), van transfers from my Queenstown lodging to the trailhead at Clyde and from Middlemarch at trail’s end to Pukerangi station, and the Taieri Gorge Express train from Pukerangi to Dunedin. This premium itinerary was available 8 times during the 47 guided-trip program that Trail Journeys offered between from September through April. Including a single-person supplement, I paid something over NZ$1700 (more than US$1200) for the trip.

Rusty tractor at Hayes Engineering historic site — much New Zealand history seems to be from the industrial age. Photo © Home At First.
RUSTY TRACTOR AT HAYES ENGINEERING HISTORIC SITE —
MUCH NEW ZEALAND HISTORY SEEMS TO BE FROM THE INDUSTRIAL AGE.

          Trail Journeys reckons 16 persons is the maximum they will accept for any guided trip. Eight persons is their minimum. Most trips sell out well before the company closes their registration period. Mine did not. At registration close, my trip had only 7 registrants, but Trail Journeys decided to run it anyway. The other six customers who paid good money to cycle up to five hours a day across a little-known, less-remarked landscape included four New Zealander women ages about 40 to about 60 and a 30-something newlywed couple honeymooning from Australia. Our guide, Jacque — born in Holland, but, since about 22 years of age, a committed Kiwi — was very much the eighth member of our group and the glue that kept us tight. Jacque took extraordinary care that our trip was perfect. Perhaps his concern was due to our tour being Jacque’s first solo assignment, but I suspect Jacque is a natural sheepdog who will tend his hundredth flock as conscientiously as he did his first. Jacque wasn’t perfect — he made rookie mistakes. But he was so earnest and likeable that we were quick to forgive him when he didn’t have the right answer to one of our interminable questions, or when he forgot something like ensuring that all of us understood an important instruction. His endearing desire that we all have a perfect trip was soon mirrored by our desire that Jacque have a perfect first group.

Jacque, our guide for the five days of our Trail Journeys' organized ride across the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo © Home At First.
JACQUE, OUR GUIDE FOR THE FIVE DAYS OF OUR TRAIL JOURNEYS'
ORGANIZED RIDE ACROSS THE OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL.

 


T

HE CYCLING — the essence of the trip — often seemed an afterthought, the

background music to a five-day summer camp focused on exploring the Maniototo Plain, the high, remote plateau of Central Otago crossed by the rail trail. The first day’s one-to-two-hour ride was was indeed secondary, coming

after four hours of guided wine tasting and one hour of changing into cycling clothes, getting kitted out with rental bikes, meeting our guide, and choosing between two routes, the only time we had route options. Two ladies took the one-hour straight-and-level Otago Central trail from Clyde to Alexandra. Five of us took the parallel but more adventuresome, longer, more scenic, winding, and wooded Clutha River Centennial Track. With constant undulations, numerous small streams to cross on narrow, wooden spans, blind corners, and some loose, sandy surface, the Clutha River Track presented two hours of ever-changing cycling and some athletic challenge. It was the only such stretch encountered on the trip, and was, for me, the most fun on the bike over the five days.

The most scenic western section of the ride was the 14km Clutha River Track from Clyde to Alexandra. Shown above from Day 1 are two riders taking a scenery break along the Clutha River Track. Photo © Home At First.
THE MOST SCENIC WESTERN SECTION: THE 14KM CLUTHA RIVER TRACK FROM CLYDE TO ALEXANDRA.
DAY 1: RIDERS TAKING A SCENERY BREAK ON THE CLUTHA RIVER TRACK

Day 1: wildflowers and pebbles photographed along the Clutha River Track. Photo © Home At First.
DAY 1: CLOSE-UP OF WILDFLOWERS & PEBBLES ALONG THE CLUTHA RIVER TRACK

Day 1: local lads at their favorite Clutha River Track swimming hole near Alexandra. Photo © Home At First.
DAY 1: LOCAL LADS AT THEIR FAVORITE CLUTHA RIVER TRACK SWIMMING HOLE

          By comparison, the Otago Central Rail Trail was straight, flat, and wide open. Its vistas, while rarely grand, were broad, sweeping expanses edged with big skies and distant mountain ranges. Sometimes we were told we were on a plateau, and sometimes in a valley. It didn’t matter. The uphills were long, steady pulls that did not require standing on the pedals. The downhills were long, steady descending ramps so slight that pedaling was nearly always required. Curves were mostly slight bends in the straight roadbed, built to keep trains moving at steady rates and not to wow cyclists with tight corners. Nowhere were the track straighter and its grade less noticeable than crossing the Ida Valley on the morning of Day 3. With my clipless bike pedals providing power on the upstroke as well as the downstroke, I often was well in front of the rest of the group. During the long (approximately 90-minute), soporific crossing of the Ida Valley, I was surprised to see my speedometer register over 35km/hr (about 20mph) on a long tangent that I thought flat or perhaps slightly uphill.

Day 3: The Otago Central Rail Trail at Lauder Station — straight, flat, and wide open. Photo © Home At First.
DAY 3: THE OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL AT LAUDER STATION: STRAIGHT, FLAT, & WIDE OPEN

 


T

WO DRAMATIC SECTIONS: The sexiest — and most photographed/

advertised sections of the Otago Central are its two crossings of rugged canyon lands. The first of these traces the Manuherikia River through the Poolburn Gorge between Lauder and Auripo stations. In a just a few kilometers the trail

crosses the line’s longest trestle (363’ long, Manuherikia Bridge No. 1), then climbs high above the river, passes through two pitch-black tunnels, and exits the gorge via the 121’ high Poolburn Viaduct. This scenic portion comes during the early morning of Day 3 in stark contrast to the endless Ida Valley tangent that follows the mid-morning snack break at Auripo. Day 3, with three distinct geographic sections, spans 45km (27mi) on its climb from Omakau to the trail’s high point at Wetterburn. The Poolburn Gorge section (17.5km — 10.5mi — downhill from Auripo through the gorge to Omakau) is often targeted for one-day rides by cyclists with limited time, money, or both. (One operator offers Queenstown pick-up and drop-off plus bikes, helmets, weatherproof jackets, and lunch for about NZ$200/adult for the day ride over this scenic section of the OCRT.)

Day 3: Manuherikia Bridge #1 entering the dramatic Poolburn Gorge section. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC CENTRAL SECTION: 10.5KM FROM LAUDER TO AURIPO—
DAY 3: MANUHERIKIA BRIDGE NO. 1 ENTERING THE DRAMATIC POOLBURN GORGE SECTION

Day 3: Cyclists exiting the southeastern portal of Poolburn Gorge Tunnel #1. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC CENTRAL SECTION: 10.5KM FROM LAUDER TO AURIPO—
DAY 3: CYCLISTS EXITING THE SOUTHEASTERN PORTAL OF POOLBURN GORGE TUNNEL #1

Day 3: The 121-foot-high Poolburn Viaduct, southeastern exit from the Poolburn Gorge. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC CENTRAL SECTION: 10.5KM FROM LAUDER TO AURIPO—
DAY 3: THE 121' HIGH POOLBURN VIADUCT, SOUTHEASTERN EXIT FROM THE POOLBURN GORGE

          The second canyon section occurs during the afternoon of Day 4 when the OCRT descends from the Maniototo Plain south of Kokonga and enters the greener (wetter, coastal) climate in the upper reaches of the Taieri River canyon after the Rt. 87 road crossing at a place called Daisybank. In the 10km (6mi) south of Daisybank, the trail winds high above the Taieri River, clinging to the canyon walls in remote country, crossing the 105’ high Price’s Creek Viaduct and feeling its way through the 500’ long Price’s Creek Tunnel before returning to civilization (sort of) by emerging at the Otago Central Hotel at the hamlet of Hyde. This section could be done independently as an overnight trip from Dunedin using the Taieri Gorge Express train to Pukerangi or Middlemarch. Pick-up your pre-arranged bike rental at Middlemarch, then cycle north to Hyde, where you can stay a night in the refurbished, frontier-style Otago Central Hotel. The next morning cycle north through the Upper Taieri Gorge to Daisybank, then return to Hyde for lunch. After lunch, cycle back to Middlemarch, turn in your bike and take the late-afternoon train back to Dunedin. Total cost for the two-day excursion ranges between NZ$300-NZ$450 per person for each of two persons sharing a room (with meals).

Day 4: Lining up at Daisybank to begin the dramatic section 10km south to Hyde. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC EASTERN SECTION: 10KM FROM DAISYBANK TO HYDE—
DAY 4: LINING UP AT DAISYBANK TO BEGIN THE DRAMATIC SECTION 10KM SOUTH TO HYDE

Day 4: At the 105-foot-high Price's Creek Viaduct the Otago Central enters the wetter climate of the Upper Taieri Gorge. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC EASTERN SECTION: 10KM FROM DAISYBANK TO HYDE—
DAY 4: AT THE 105' HIGH PRICES CREEK VIADUCT THE OTAGO CENTRAL
ENTERS THE WETTER CLIMATE OF THE UPPER TAIERI GORGE.

Day 4: The 500-foor-long Price's Creek Tunnel is the third and final of the line's bores. This is the northwestern portal. Photo © Home At First.
—THE MOST SCENIC EASTERN SECTION: 10KM FROM DAISYBANK TO HYDE—
DAY 4: THE 500' LONG PRICE'S CREEK TUNNEL IS THIRD AND FINAL
OF THE LINE'S BORES. THIS IS THE NORTHWESTERN PORTAL.

 


W

HY GO WITH A GROUP? Although I am a veteran independent traveler, traveling with a guided group appeals to me sometimes. I was aware that many (perhaps most) cyclists crossing the OCRT were independent riders. “Independent” comes in several varieties:

Most Independent: Following a completely self-designed itinerary with no support services beyond bike rental and transfer to/from the trailhead. All lodging and meals organized by the rider.

Less Independent: Following a self-designed itinerary, but using a service for bike rental, transfers, and the booking of overnight lodgings with breakfast. Lunch, dinner, and snacks organized by the rider en route.

Even Less Independent: Following a set itinerary where all travel dates, overnight stops, transfers, equipment rental, and meals are organized by a tour operator. The cyclist rides alone, or with a group of his family/friends/colleagues, but without a guide.

Practically Not Independent: Everything organized by a tour operator. The cyclist is a member of a “group” of strangers with whom he shares the experience and led by a guide who sees to the efficient movement of the group, acts as an emergency back-up for injuries, accidents, and illnesses, and can make changes on the fly in the event of rotten weather, or natural disasters. (All of New Zealand is inside of active earthquake zones. Recently quake-stricken Christchurch is about five hours drive north of the OCRT.)

Fully Guided With Optional Side Excursions: My Trip. The only “independent” part of my experience was pedaling and steering the bike, except for Day 5, when I rode alone from Hyde to Middlemarch in order to make the morning Taieri Gorge Express from Pukerangi. (I needed to be in Dunedin by 4PM to begin my next New Zealand adventure.)

Day 1: More than a bike ride: our trip's first stop was to the sunny vineyard at Queenstown's Gibbston Valley Winery. Photo © Home At First.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 1: MORE THAN A BIKE RIDE: OUR TRIP'S FIRST STOP WAS TO THE
SUNNY VINEYARD AT QUEENSTOWN'S GIBBSTON VALLEY WINERY.

Day 2: Good lodgings, like here at Omakau, awaited us daily. The van delivered our luggage to each lodging ahead of us. Photo © Home At First.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 2: GOOD LODGINGS, LIKE HERE AT OMAKAU, AWAITED US DAILY.
THE VAN DELIVERED OUR LUGGAGE TO EACH LODGING AHEAD OF US.

Day 3: More than a bike ride. After cycling we learned curling at the Naseby rink. Photo courtesy Catherine Carter.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 3: MORE THAN A BIKE RIDE. AFTER CYCLING WE LEARNED CURLING AT THE NASEBY RINK.
Photo courtesy Catherine Carter

Day 4: Saddling up at Wedderburn. Traveling light in a group between pre-arranged lodgings adds comfort and security. Photo © Home At First.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 4: SADDLING UP AT WEDDERBURN. TRAVELING LIGHT IN A GROUP
BETWEEN PRE-ARRANGED LODGINGS ADDS COMFORT & SECURITY.

Day 4: More than a bike ride. A poetry recitation by our local hostess accompanied dinner in the former Hyde School. Photo © Home At First.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 4: MORE THAN A BIKE RIDE. A POETRY RECITATION BY OUR
LOCAL HOSTESS ACCOMPANIED DINNER IN THE FORMER HYDE SCHOOL.

Day 5: More than a bike ride: cyclists fill an antique passenger car on the Taieri Gorge Express train at Pukerangi. Photo © Home At First.

— EXTRAS YOU MIGHT GET FROM A PRE-ARRANGED, FULLY GUIDED TRIP —
DAY 5: MORE THAN A BIKE RIDE: CYCLISTS FILL AN ANTIQUE
PASSENGER CAR ON THE TAIERI GORGE EXPRESS TRAIN AT PUKERANGI.

           

             My Trip cost more than any more “independent” itinerary. For the extra money I received:

1. Company on the trail, whenever I wanted it. As a solo rider spending 4-5 days in a remote place, having the option of companionship was a pleasant extra. Most important among the “company” is the guide, a source of information about the trail, the region, the flora & fauna, the history, the culture, and the future. In this case, the 7 paying riders became a cohesive group willing to share the intensity of five very active days with each other. Saying hello to one another as absolute strangers when the van collected us at our various Queenstown lodgings after breakfast on the start of Day 1 was awkward and uncomfortable. Saying good-bye with kisses and hugs with the familiarity due family or teammates after breakfast four days later was natural and sincere.

— MEN OF CENTRAL OTAGO —

Northburn Station Winery vintner. Photo © Home At First.

DAY 1: VINTNER,
NORTHBURN STATION WINERY.

2. The assurance that if I needed help — again I was riding solo in an unfamiliar and largely unpopulated place — help would be close by.
          I hope I never need to test the readiness and effectiveness of the emergency services in such a remote location. Our guide, Jacque, was nearly late once to our morning snack because he stopped to help an “independent” rider who had crashed and was bleeding in the wild tunnel/bridge section of the Poolburn Gorge.

3. Confidence that the itinerary — booked by knowledgeable, local professionals — would work as advertised.
          Had I done all the research and made all the reservations myself, the trip probably would have come off without a hitch. But, one dropped reservation could have jeopardized all the complex dominoes of the 5-day itinerary. Not worrying about such things is well worth the extra cost.

4. More than a bike ride.
          On and off the trail I explored a largely unknown region, Maniototo, which I would otherwise probably never have encountered. Our guided trip introduced me to local people (a grizzled gold prospector turned grizzled wine maker at Alexandra; a metal-fabricator turned tour guide at Hayes Engineering historic site in Oturehua; a frontier school marm turned poetry-reciting restaurateur in Hyde; a school bus driver turned children’s book author in Middlemarch) who gave this unpopulated region a unique personality to go with its unmatched landscape. I experienced some activities — curling, gold mining, wine making — I would not have experienced as a solo, independent cyclist on the OCRT. I would have enjoyed the OCRT without meeting the people, without the extra activities and the off-line mini-excursions (called “tiki tours” by the Kiwi members of our group) to low-impact destinations (a bar, albeit a haunted one; a partially water-filled hole in the ground, albeit one where gold had once been found; a small, rural house of an eccentric Welsh recluse who was not at home; curling — really, curling), without the camaraderie of my fellow riders, and without the kind patience of our guide. But for the extra money (maybe NZ$300-NZ$500), I received a broad education, a mental scrapbook of fond memories, a treasury of fast friendships, and much more laughter than one might assume likely on a 5-day cycle ride from nowhere to nowhere.

Vintner and gold prospector, Alexandra. Photo © Home At First.

DAY 2: VINTNER & GOLD
PROSPECTOR, ALEXANDRA.

Innkeeper, haunted hotel, St. Bathans. Photo © Home At First.

DAY 2: INNKEEPER,
HAUNTED HOTEL, ST BATHANS.

Guide, Hayes Engineering Historic Site. Photo © Home At First.

DAY 3: GUIDE, HAYES
ENGINEERING HISTORIC SITE.

 

 


 

IF YOU GO:

TOUR COMPANIES DROP-OFF AT AURIPO NEAR POOLBURN GORGE.

WHERE?

Location of the Otago Central Rail Trail: between the towns of Clyde (western trailhead) and Middlemarch (southeastern trailhead) in the Central Otago district of the South Island of New Zealand.

Nearest HOME AT FIRST Lodgings: Queenstown, Dunedin.

Which Direction to Ride: The prevailing winds suggest riding west to east (Clyde to Middlemarch). Riding with the sun to your back suggests east to west (Middlemarch to Clyde). If you elect to ride with an guided group, the tour company will decide based on your travel dates.

HOW?

Getting to the Trailhead:
     From Queenstown: Various tour operators offer van transfers from all Queenstown lodgings to the trailhead at Clyde.
     From Dunedin: Rail on the Taieri Gorge Express train from central Dunedin to Pukerangi (then shuttle bus to Middlemarch), or, on Fridays and Sundays train all the way to Middlemarch.

Basic Web Information (non-commercial):  
          http://www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz/.

Tour Operators Who Work the OCRT: Here’s a listing:
       http://www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz/places/Tour-Operators-c3.html?Seed=1643491710&&__ggback_noMerge=*&currentPage=1.
Services offered vary from support for fully independent riders to fully-serviced guided trips with cushy extras, like mine.

We Have Limited Time. Can We Do Just One or Two Days? Yes, if it’s the best of the scenery you’re after, you will find doing the two canyon sections (with tunnels and trestles) possible by themselves as a one-day or two-day trip from Queenstown or Dunedin, respectively. See the section in the article for a description of Abbreviated Trips.

Will Home At First Organize This Trip for Me? Yes. As part of your HOME AT FIRST New Zealand fly-drive itinerary, we will book an organized group trip (guided or unguided) for you through a reputable local OCRT tour operator. We charge no service fee to arrange & manage the booking for you.

WHO?

Who Can Do This Trip? The complete 90-mile OCRT can be done comfortably in either direction in 3-5 days by most normally-fit people between 14-75 years of age who can ride a bicycle competently. Expect to be in the saddle 3-5 hours per day to cover the miles between lodging stops.

NOTE: The Otago Central Rail Trail is available to walkers, runners, and horseback riders, too.

 
Horsewomen at Ranfurly Station riding the Otago Central Rail Trail with tour operator Trail Treks. Photo © Home At First.
HORSEWOMEN AT RANFURLY STATION RIDING THE OTAGO
CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL WITH TOUR OPERATOR TRAIL TREKS.

 

WHEN?

When to Go: The OCRT is open year round. Much of the trail’s lodging and dining infrastructure is seasonal: September through May. Most popular month: March. Best time to go when the weather may be excellent and trail crowding minimal: late-November into early-December.

 

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