OTAGO CENTRAL RAIL TRAIL
SUBMERGE YOURSELF IN COLOURS
Reading time: 3 minutes
New Zealand’s very own Wild West – a short story
– “Fact was, we were expecting to bump into Clint and his buddies any second” –
Maybe it was the sound of the gravel shooting in all directions from under our MTB wheels. It could also easily have been the landscape that made us think of those great American western movies that triggered it. Fact was, we were expecting to bump into Clint and his buddies any second. Wearing a worn down Cowboy hood, a shining revolver on each hip, sitting on his faithful black stallion. Completely ignoring us of course, on our 21 shifts two-wheelers.
But we also feel like real cowboys for a moment. It is the landscape that evokes it. The land of the big skies, as the Kiwis tend to call it. No forests, high mountains or cities to block the views. A continuously changing dry and rocky landscape with huge sheep farms, spectacular gorges, tunnels and viaducts. And always magnificent skies. Sometimes bright blue, not much later filled with wonderful clouds, a moment later deep red or of a threatening grey. A never ending gorgeously colourful display of nature, one Mr. Van Gogh would have been jealous of.
Back in time
Central Otago is the wild west of New Zealand. The Otago Central Rail Trail takes you in roughly 150 kilometer right through the heart of it. It feels more like a journey 150 years back in time though. A time where men from all over the world came to these barren lands to try their luck. It was a real harsh existence. Hoping to find some gold and a better life. That marked the landscape. Of course the former railway, with 97 impressive bridges, viaducts and 13 tunnels of which some are more than 200 meters. But also ghost towns, abandoned gold mines and old rusty machineries.
First of the Great Rides
When the railway officially closed in 1990, the government decided to transform the line to a cycling trail: the Otago Central Rail Trail. New Zealand’s first of the great rides. Right through the heart of Otago. An impressive scenery. Beautiful, unique and with tons of history. Just like Clint, really!
” a time where men from all over the world came to these barren lands to try their luck “
three days of enjoyment
Reading time: 7 minutes
3 days en route – our days on the trail
– “no cars, just the odd tramper or horseman” –
‘Did you say you guys are from The Netherlands? That is the country where everybody loves to cycle, isn’t it?’ Ehr yes…. ‘Then you really have to give the Otago Central Rail Trail a go. You’ll love it!’ More than once we had this conversation when we were exploring New Zealand. 152 kilometers of bicycle lanes build upon an old railway line through stunning pristine scenery. No cars, just the odd tramper or horseman. Yes, our cycle hearts truly started beating faster when hearing about such a trail!
The Otago Central Rail Trail runs from Clyde to Middlemarch right through the heart of Central Otago, on New Zealand’s south island. A magnificent vast, rough and untouched landscape. No human interference, but nature as nature is supposed to be.
Ever Changing Landscapes
The Otago Central Rail Trail is an easy, mainly flat route (grade 1), predominantly on wide gravel roads. The trail can be ridden whole year round. You will encounter a continuously changing landscape that will set your mind of wandering way back to the days of the Wild West. The trail follows rivers, takes you through deep canyons, past steep rock formations, traversing dark railway tunnels, heads over old viaducts and bridges and there always will be a magnificent view on the hills and the wide plains. We really enjoyed the vastness and desolation. But also the rich history out of the feverish gold mining days like abandoned mines, historical towns and neat old railway stations that you’ll encounter en route.
Browsing the internet lead us to Trail Journeys. Since 2003, they offer all you need to make the Otago Central Rail Trail a succes. They were the first to offer bicycle rental and closely involved in developing the trail. It took us one phone-call to arrange the whole package. Bikes, including helmets, odometer and panniers, accommodation and a shuttle to take us back to where we started from (it is a one-way trail). All for a very reasonable price*.
Our cycle adventure starts in Clyde, an historical little town near a river gorge, surrounded by schist hills and big steep rocks. Schist is an auriferous stone that triggered the gold rush late 19th century. You’ll find it on various sites in Otago. The gold rush made Clyde a busy settlement, with well kept historical buildings being silent witnesses. Nowadays it is a cosy village where it is pleasantly sleeping, eating and relaxing.
From Clyde to Lauder
Our first stage takes us from Clyde to Lauder, an easy 54 kilometer of cycling. The sun is shining and the sky displays a deep blue. Awesome! On our way to Alexandra we make a stop to buy some energy-providing apricots. They grow here in massive numbers, just like plums and peaches. Alexandra is a booming town situated at the Clutha River. Being way to early for lunch, we decide to keep moving and follow the Manuherikia River through a stunning valley all the way to the smallest still operational post office of New Zealand, in Chatto Creek. It is still possible to mail your postcard here! Additional benefit: the Chatto Creek Tavern serves a delicious nutritious lunch, which will certainly come in handy when we’ll have to climb Tiger Hill!
” a unique landscape that makes you unwillingly think of ancient western movies “
97 IMPRESSIVE BRIDGES
beautiful, unique and with tons of history
Tiger Hill turns out to be Kitten Hill, a knoll easily conquered. Just before we enter Omakau, famous for its red station, we decide to make a small detour via the Daniel O’Connel suspension bridge (1880). It leads us to the historic town of Ophir (we love all the exotic names!). Here we are in the heart of the gold fields and it shows! This place breaths history. It feels like you will stumble upon guys walking around with huge beards and holding a gold panning pan any minute. The town really only is one straight street, with stone buildings out of the gold days. Colourful facade signs display the purpose of the buildings. Like the Post & Telegraph Office dating way back to 1886. The oldest, still operational post office in New-Zealand. Unfortunately, we couldn’t mail our postcard, it closes at 12 noon.
Late afternoon our wheels roll into Lauder, where a cold beer already is awaiting us. It is a small village dedicated to the Otago Central Rail Trail. The former school and shop are now B&B’s. Lauder Hotel is a pleasant spot, authentic, with neat rooms and a cosy bar. A perfect place to have a cold one with the locals. The terrace serves us well for sitting back and enjoy the skies displaying a colourful show. First being a bright orange and a few moments later turning into a deep purple. A magnificently clear starry skie is now our reward. We could sit here for hours and hours to come, but tomorrow waits us another day of wonderful cycling. To bed!
Havin’ a break at an old railway station
Lauder to Ranfurly
Today will take us from Lauder to Ranfurly (a gorgeous 47 km bike ride). This stretch is the most spectacular of the trail and very noticeable. There are more cyclists on this part of the trail. We cross the famous Poolburn viaduct, a technical masterpiece. High above the Poolburn Gorge it offers a spectacular view over the deep ravine, the surrounding hills and the vast landscape. Good thing we kept our torches close at hand, cause we need it when we conquer two pitch-dark tunnels. Tunneler’s Camp is a place worth to visit. This little ghost-town dotted with a number of stone walls and chimneys show how the workmen used to live.
Old Country Pub
In Oturehua we treat ourselves to a cold beer at the Oturehua Railway Hotel, an authentic old country pub only still found around here. Make sure to pay the more than a hundred years old Gilchrist General Store a visit. Triggered by the smell of detergents, jars of sweets in every possible colour, sealing-high cupboards with all kinds of tins and containers and even an antique cash register, your mind will travel back in time by itself. Keen on a real historical experience? Make a stop at Hayes Engineering Works, just outside of Oturehua. It will give you a good idea of the resourcefulness, skills and the perseverance of the English pioneer family Hayes.
We keep on wondering how human hands, 150 years ago, build railway lines here, all the way from Cromwell to Dunedin. A harsh and tough life. Unbearable heat in summer and freezingly cold in winter. Removing huge rocks, digging tunnels, building viaducts and away from a warm home for months and months. Purpose: bring economic growth to Central Otago. In the end, the railway was surpassed by the automobile (and trucks). In 1980 the stretch from Cromwell to Clyde was removed and ten years later the Clyde to Middlemarch part suffered the same fate. Only the Middlemarch to Dunedin line is still operational. Offering a fantastic train ride through the spectacular Taieri Gorge.
Magnificent wide open plains
Sleeping in a Post Office
Slowly we climb out of Ida Valley to the highest point of the trail in Wedderburn (618m). From this point we have a marvellous view of the Ida Mountains. A prefect place for a picnic! Via the vast Maniototo plains we arrive at Ranfurly. A small village with a few cafes, a pub, museum and bookshop. We spend the night in the Old Post Office Backpackers, a cozy place, sleeping up to 20 people. At night, we cook together with the other guests in the communal kitchen. Our bellies filled with our home-cooked nutritious meal, we sit down at the cosy fire-place to share our cycle adventures and a bottle of very nice local wine.
Ranfurly to Middlemarch
Our final stretch! Hard to believe our fantastic cycle adventure is coming to an end. We cruise our last 60km through the Upper Taieri Gorge, between Daisybank and Hyde and follow the Taieri River which leads all the way to the sea. But that’s not how far we’re going. We stay in beautiful Wild West Country. Vast plains with beautiful skies. The cycle path is as straight as a line and together with a mean head wind, it’s a tough ending of our cycle tour. But, no time to pause, our shuttle back to Middlemarch is leaving right on time.
Tired but happy
Tired but very happy and thankful we arrive in Clyde at the end of the day. Our ride back to the starting point of our cycle trip is stunning. A real bonus! Otago Central Rail Trail exceeded our expectations. A great cycle adventure for young and old and people of all skills, with diverse landscapes, interesting history and very nice and hospitable people.
” Tiger Hill turns out to be Kitten Hill “
how to arrange your trail experience
Some practical stuff
– how we arranged our trip and a little historical info –
DID YOU KNOW?
It started here
Did you know it al started with this trail? Otago Central Rail Trail is the first official rail trail in New Zealand. It became a huge success. Because of that, the New Zealand government set up the New Zealand Cycle Trail Network in 2010. The network supports the development of other trails in the country. And not without success, at this moment there are 22 trails! In 1993 DOC (Department Of Conservation) bought the old railway track from Clyde to Middlemarch for recreation. Together with Otago Central Rail Trust, local companies and lots of volunteers, they realised the Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand’s first off-road-cycle-way. The trail was opened in 2000 and draws yearly thousands of visitors.
GOOD TO KNOW
We booked our trip with Trail Journeys (www.trailjourneys.co.nz) in Clyde and they helped us splendidly. But there are more tour operators who can help you to organise your cycle adventure. Just have a look at the trail website. You can also organise is yourself, there are lots of hotels, guesthouses and B&B’s along the trail.
The price you pay depends on your wishes. You can sleep in basic accommodation or luxurious ones. It’s up to you! *We paid 720 NZ$ for two persons.
a fun way to expand your adventure is a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway from Middlemarch to Dunedin (www.dunedinrailway.co.nz) through the spectacular Taieri Gorge. Don’t worry, there are also shuttles back to Clyde from Dunedin!
Otago Central Rail Trail is the oldest en most colourful cycle trail in New Zealand. Brown, yellow, green, red and golden shades vary under ever-changing skies. You cycle along former railroad tracks through a rocky landscap with vast plains, river gorges, viaducts and tunnels. A variable trail in the footsteps of gold diggers.
Got a question? Just drop us an email. Happy to help!
In a nutshell
: 418 meters ( 2% rise in elevation )
: 152 km ( without detours )
: 2 to 5 days, depending on your time, your shape and on what you like to see on your way
: Easy, mostly flat
Otago Central Rail Trail starts in Clyde. An authentic little village an hours drive from Queenstown. You can park your (rental)car at the bicycle rental company. They are also willing to help you with the bookings of your accommodatie, bicycle rental and good information.
You can ride the Trail whole year round. Otago has a land climate, meaning that summers are warm and winters cold. Still, the winter months are a good period to head out. Nights might be cold, but days often bright and sunny. As a bonus, it will be nice and quiet on the trail. Visit the Real Journeys office, they are able to tell you all you need to know about the trail.
Head out in autumn. The time when Otago displays its finest colours. Otago is famous for its gorgeous autumn palette!
Former railroad track between Clyde and Middlemarch. Over 97 bridges, viaducts and 3 tunnels.
Lots of hotels, homesteads and B&B. Camping is also possible, but free camping is not allowed.
Shuttle-busses to and from start and finish point. You have to organise this! No worries, there are several companies who’ll gladly transport you!
Extend your trip with a ride on the famous Taieri Gorge steam train to Dunedin
Don’t forget to bring a torch, some of the old railway tunnels are 200 meters and pitch-dark!
Our pros and cons
- No traffic; only cyclists, hikers and horseback riders
- Plenty to see and do en route like historic places out of the gold seekers days
- Hospitality and easygoing are invented here! A perfect place to unwind and relax
- Extend your trip on a steam train to Dunedin via the famous Taieri Gorge
- The straight parts can get a bit monotonously
- It’s a populair trail, so plan ahead, especially in high peak season!
- The sun can be ruthless, so bring your sunscreen, hat and sunnies
- You’ll get addicted to this trail….
Cool bonus. Official trail video!
Have fun and an awesome cool time on the trail. We did!