The Central Otago Rail Trail





Flying back into Dunedin over the South Island coastal plain, it is easy to see why New Zealand is such a successful food producer. It continues to amaze us that since the withdrawal of all subsidies from farming back in the 80’s New Zealand farmers have become some of the most efficient and successful in the world. They do have a climate that helps, but they have to overcome all the problems of exporting over vast distances to their foreign markets. They have done this without transforming farms into huge industrial enterprises. A very large proportion of New Zealand farms are still relatively small family holdings.


Before heading out from Dunedin, Vicky had to pay a visit to Baldwin St., the self-proclaimed steepest street in the world. Hire cars are banned from going up it, as someone tipped one over trying to do a three-point turn to come back down!








Our foray onto the Central Otago Rail Trail began ironically by bus, but at least the starting point was appropriate, at Dunedin’s magnificent Victorian railway station. From there the bus took us cross-country to Clyde, where we joined the western end of the Rail Trail.



As with virtually all rail lines, the Central Otago line was gently graded, even though it passes through some quite hilly countryside. The rails are all gone now, except in a few sidings. Instead there is a gravel track 150kms long for cyclists and hikers. The trail has recently received a good deal of publicity and as a result it is pretty busy in the peak summer months. You can bike the trail in either direction, but we had decided to go from west to east on the grounds that the prevailing summer winds are NWlies. In the event, we had very little wind during the three days of our trip.









Having spent half a day to get by bus to Clyde, we did a shortish ride in the afternoon to get our legs moving – having only just recovered from long-haul lurgy. Our first evening was spent at Ophir (rhymes with gopher!), where there were yet more examples of Victorian public architecture and engineering.


In order to penetrate the hills, the line’s engineers blasted occasional tunnels, which are unlit and only partially lined, so that they present interesting challenges for cyclists guided by dim cycle lights. There are also a number of soaring viaducts across valleys. The way is punctuated variously by distance posts, mostly in kilometres, but sometimes in miles just to add confusion and interest – further added to by the fact that they did not always seem to be from or to the same location.









Some sections of the trail – notably the flatter ones with good road access at either end -are particularly popular with day-trippers who are bussed out to a morning start point and are collected in the afternoon, or even at lunch time. This bike rack outside a lunchtime pub stop illustrates the popularity of the trail.


There are a number of tourist attractions along the way. If you are interested you can visit an ice-rink to go curling or the Hayes Engineering Works to see the ultimate Kiwi farming invention, the fence-wire tensioner, originally designed in the late 19th century and still in use today.





Shortly after the high-point in the trail we stopped at Wedderburn. The accommodation there was fairly typical of the very basic standard available on the trail. It was adequate, but no more. The popularity of the trail has made all accommodation along its length fairly pricey.









However, in the very pleasant summer weather, the rural scenery stifled any complaints we might have had as we pedalled our way fairly gently along. . .








. . .With only very occasional hiccups, such as this early morning puncture. Fortunately we were carrying a spare tube and tire irons – made of plastic –and the repair was fairly easy, especially as it was a front tire.


Though the sheep along the way were not inclined to race us, several hares, which thrived in the adjacent fields did – and lived up to their reputation for speed by easily out-pacing us.






At Ranfurly, the Station had been preserved as a tourist attraction to complement the town’s attractive art-deco architecture.


Along the way we intermittently passed red gangers huts, which were originally to shelter workers on the line.








Coming from the west, the trail is maintained until Daisybank by the Alexandra office of the DOC (the Department of Conservation). We found this section to be excellent, with smooth well maintained gravel. Much of the section in the Dunedin district, which is maintained by the Dundein DOC office, was in less good condition. The trail was much rougher and more of a challenge to already bruised hindquarters.


However, by this time we were well into the home stretch. Unfortunately, there is limited accommodation at the natural stopping place, Hyde, so we were collected by minibus and ferried to Macrae’s Flat.


This side trip had the advantage (if that is what it is!) of giving us the chance to see a working gold mine, which operates a short distance from the village. To all appearances, it was no different from a huge gravel quarry, yet sufficient gold is extracted to make this huge operation worthwhile.






The countryside surrounding the goldmine had been bleak, so it was a relief the next day to get back into green hills and grazing land, where we even had to share the trail briefly with a herd of sheep on its way from one pasture to another. It is always a pleasure to watch the clever, well trained sheep dogs working with the farmer to control such large numbers of much larger animals. Sometimes there were other creatures, such as these huge bulls, with whom we were less eager to share the trail!












All good things come to an end and just about the time that we were getting to a level of fitness at which we could enjoy the scenery and still pedal fairly quickly, the trail came to an end at Middlemarch.


Fortunately this was not quite the end of the trip, however, as we still had to return to Dunedin. Luckily for us, there is still a working rail line between Middlemarch and Dunedin which passes through the spectacular scenery of the Taieri Gorge.


Though the engine which pulled our train was modern, the cars were from an earlier era.








The rail line through the gorge is a remarkable feat of engineering considering the challenges of the terrain. Much of the time the line runs on ledges and through cuttings hacked from the cliff sides over the gorge.





Alternatively, the valleys and ravines are bridged by the ironwork of spindly viaducts. It is not surprising that this has become one of the foremost tourist attractions of Otago, especially since it is possible for tourists to take the train both out and back from Dunedin.





Our return to the ‘wedding cake’ railway station at Dunedin marked the end of our side trip. We would thoroughly recommend this outing to any summer visitors to New Zealand. Vicky made all the accommodation bookings for us and we used our own bikes. However, most of those biking the trail booked a package, which included a hired bike, usually virtually brand-new, and all accommodation along the way. It is in fact becoming quite difficult to make individual bookings, as the tour companies block-book much of the available accommodation during the peak months.