We had talked about doing the Central Otago rail trail for years. We’d even bought mountain bikes to explore the trails around Wanaka, but it took a phone call from our friend Fiona in Sydney to galvanise us into action. Fiona and Graham were planning a trip to New Zealand and they wanted to do the rail trail – would we join them?
A great idea – so we booked ourselves to go with a company called She-bikes. They would organise the itinerary, book the overnight accommodation and provide rental bikes for Fiona and Graham. Kerrie and I would take our own – at last our mountain bikes would be put to the test!
We had ridden them around Wanaka over the past year or two but nothing more than an hour or so’s cycling. We decided we’d better get into training – the rail trail is 152 kilometres long and most people take 3-4 days to do it.
We hit the dirt, tackling tracks to Hawea and part of the Newcastle track. Apart from Kerrie doing a backwards somersault into the tussocks at one point, we seemed to manage ok.
We put the bikes in to be serviced ahead of the trip, which would have been fine except that Andrew then decided to spray the gears with a lubricant which turned out to be completely the wrong thing to do – and the bikes had to be given another clean by a bicycle mechanic who only just refrained from calling him an idiot.
Finally, we were packed, prepped and ready to go.
Day One – Sunday 26th January
We fitted the bike carrier to the towbar, tied on the bikes and headed off to Clyde. There was a minor drama on the way to Cromwell when Andrew noticed that one of the bikes had come loose, the ties weren’t tight enough – and it had bounced off one of the arms but fortunately it hadn’t come off altogether. Phew!
The bike tied back on and with one eye on the rear-vision mirror, we pressed on and reached Clyde in good time without further mishap. We had arranged to meet Fiona and Graham at the She-bikes office at the old Clyde railway station at 10am. And there they were! After hugs and gerdays we checked in, received our passports to be stamped along the way, watched a safety video and were all set to go.
There was a wee moment of tension as Andrew discovered that the chain on his bike had come off – it must have come loose when the bike was dislodged during the car journey. Uh oh! Luckily the She-bikes employee, while not a cycle mechanic, noticed that the gear lever on the left-hand side had been flicked into the wrong mode and, shifting that back, was able to rewind the chain onto the gear train. Double phew! Hopefully, that was going to be the end of our dramas (it wasn’t!).
Fi and Graham had been talking to the driver, the guy who would ferry our bags to that night’s accommodation in Ophir. He recommended taking the ‘scenic route’ to Alexandra, following the river rather than the more conventional, less interesting trail that ran alongside the state highway.
Kerrie and I were game and so the four of us navigated our way through the historic town of Clyde down towards the Clutha river. We found the bridge across and on the other side got onto the dirt trail. It was indeed picturesque, running through native bush and passing relics of old mining sites. Fi and Kerrie were chatting, so Graham and I pushed on ahead, enjoying the undulating trail. There were some especially gravelly or sandy sections where you had to be careful but nothing too challenging. We got to a point where we thought we’d wait for the girls to catch up, but there was no sign of them. Graham said he’d go back and check everything was alright. I said I’d stay put – but then I got a text from Kerrie. Fiona had had an accident! I turned around and headed back as swiftly as possible. After a couple of kilometres, I came on a woman waving at me to slow down and as I rounded a bend, a dramatic scene confronted me.
There was Fi, lying on the side of the trail, holding her arms across her chest and looking very pale. I could see she’d injured her arm, there was a nasty looking scrape. More worrying though was the fact she had apparently hit her head coming off the bike. Kerrie was on the phone organising an air ambulance. Graham was monitoring Fi. A couple who’d been cycling had stopped to help – each taking a position on either side of the accident to warn other cyclists and walkers.
Kerrie who’d been with Fi when the accident happened was worried as she thought Fi may have knocked herself out and seemed disoriented.
A first aid team was on the way – but it was going to be tricky as the only way to reach our location was via chopper and then a kilometre’s hike along the trail. However, there was no other option. A family with two young girls arrived, it turned out the father was a member of the local volunteer fire brigade, who also attend car and other accidents. He was on his day off, but after speaking on the phone to the chopper pilot who he knew, said he’d run back to the place where the chopper could land and meet up with the paramedics. His wife who was a midwife took it all in her stride and stayed with us, with their two girls.
While we were waiting, a woman walking the trail came along and said she was a trained paramedic. She talked to Fi, looked at her injuries and asked her if she could sit up. We were a little concerned, but she seemed professional and to know what she was doing. Gently but firmly, she helped Fi sit up and asked how she felt. Fi appeared to cope in the sitting position and the woman said she thought it unlikely there was a serious head injury. We were still waiting for the chopper and were in contact with the volunteer firefighter who’d run back to link up with the team.
As Fi seemed to be improving, Graham asked if she thought she could stand up. She said she’d try – she is a gutsy gal! She was able to stand and so Graham suggested they walk slowly in the direction of the chopper ambulance team landing spot.
We made our way along the track, Graham supporting Fi and the family helping by wheeling along Fi and Graham’s bikes until we reached a fork in the trail. Meanwhile we heard the chopper come in low and land not far away. We halted and in a matter of minutes, two female paramedics appeared with all their gear. They spent some time evaluating Fi’s condition and decided she should receive medical attention at the local hospital. She and Graham went off in the chopper and the off-duty fire fighter very kindly offered to take their bikes on his truck and drop them off at the She-bikes office. Kerrie had called them to let them know what had happened. We’d agreed with Fi and Graham that we’d meet them at that night’s accommodation in Ophir – and decide what to do the next morning, depending on how Fi was feeling.
Kerrie and I chatted to the midwife with the two girls, commiserating about their lost family time together but she was quite sanguine about it – they both get called out at short notice, it was obviously something they were used to.
Finally, it was just Kerrie and I – by now it was early afternoon and we’d barely made a dent in the cycle trail. Our destination was Ophir, a good 35 kms away!
It had been a dramatic and worrying start to what was supposed to have been a leisurely and enjoyable meander through Central Otago. We didn’t know how serious Fi’s injuries were or whether she’d be able to continue but we felt we should see how things turned out.
We followed the trail alongside the river and while it was delightful, we felt it had been an unwise recommendation from the She-bikes driver as it was mostly all gravel and decidedly tricky in places, part of the trail running on narrow boardwalks. You needed to feel confident on a mountain bike and able to negotiate twists and turns on what is in fact a walking trail, as we later discovered. It’s not actually a proper cycle trail.
After cycling 5-6 kilometres, we came to the bridge that crosses the Clutha leading into Alexandra from Roxburgh. By now it was almost 3 o’clock and we were hot, tired, hungry and thirsty. One of the helpers had recommended a place to eat and after a bit of a search we finally found it – the appropriately named Industry Lane Eatery, in the light industrial section of town. It was airconditioned and the food was good. We gulped down litres of cold drinks, wolfed starchy substances and then with a degree of apprehension faced up to the fact we’d still got the major part of the day’s cycling ahead of us. We asked our waitress if she knew where the rail trail was – she pointed out the window and said, ‘right there’.
Thank goodness, by some miracle our recommended lunch-stop was right beside the trail.
We climbed back on our bikes and set off. We stopped to get our Alexandra Station stamp in the passport shortly after, but sadly – and annoyingly – someone had nicked the stamp. We’d have to see if we could get it somewhere else.
We followed the trail out of town and very soon found ourselves in the starkly beautiful rocky country that frames Alex.
Through a brief splash of green, we crossed an old wooden bridge over Manor Burn.
Still familiarising ourselves with the bikes over different ground and conditions.
We didn’t see another soul as we cycled along the trail. It was close to 4 o’clock, hot and getting hotter as is typical in Central Otago where the temperature in summer keeps rising through till early evening. Stopping for regular drinks from our water bottles we paused to take photos and thought about Fi and Graham.
A shame they’d missed this section, but we had our fingers crossed Fi was not too badly injured and that maybe she could resume the trip tomorrow.
After some seven kilometres we reached Galloway station – although station is rather a grand word for a bright blue/purplish wooden shed perched on stumps, about the size of a public toilet.
This was one of the stamping stations on the trail where you can record your journey. Here there was a stamp and it worked.
We set off again, with ten kilometres to our next stopping point, Chatto Creek. We remembered that the driver (the same one!) had given us another recommendation, to pause and take in the view when we reached the Olrig gangers shed. These sheds offered shade and a rest place for the hard-working ‘gangers’ who maintained the railway.
The galvanised iron shed was even less prepossessing than Galloway station but there was a seat beside it and so we decided we’d take the driver’s advice and stop to admire the view across the Manuherikia Valley.
It was beautiful, with afternoon light casting a bluish tint on the distant hills. Central Otago is all about enjoying the sense of space and expanse. A signboard inside the shed told of the harsh conditions the gangers often had to work in, while pointing out the geographical highlights such as the Old Man and Old Woman ranges to the left.
Conscious of time, we continued on, wondering when we’d get to our accommodation. We were booked in for dinner at something like 6:30pm. That wasn’t looking very likely.
The country was looking very dry and the heat was becoming oppressive, but we soldiered on, arriving at the Manuherikia River which flows between the Dunstan and Raggedy Ranges, eventually joining the Clutha.
There wasn’t much water to be seen between the fringing willow trees.
Ten kilometres on from Galloway Station, we finally reached Chatto Creek. By now it was after 6pm, still hot and we were exhausted. It had been a very long day and according to our rail trail map we had a further 10-12 kilometres to go to reach Ophir, including a long uphill climb. We rang our hosts at Pitches, the accommodation in Ophir and they very kindly offered to come and get us. What a relief! After stamping our passports, we wearily wheeled our bikes into the garden of the Chatto Creek pub and ordered a pint of lemonade, lime and bitters each.
Not long after, a minibus turned up, with Fi and Graham aboard! Although bandaged up and looked somewhat bruised, Fi was in good spirits. She was determined to press on with the rail trail. The minibus wasn’t that big and it took some manoeuvring but we managed to squeeze our bikes in; except that didn’t leave enough room for all four of us as well as ‘mein host’. Graham gallantly offered to stay behind and our host said he didn’t mind doing a second run – it was only ten minutes to Ophir.
Finally, we reached our first night’s destination. Pitches was very nicely done up, a historic house that had been converted into accommodation and restaurant.
After a welcome hot shower and change of clothes we met downstairs for dinner. Our hosts had kindly shifted our booking back, so we were able to enjoy a drink in the garden before the meal arrived. The food was excellent, although rather expensive for what you got. Still, it was very pleasant, a relaxing end to a dramatic start to our rail trail adventure.
After dinner, Graham and Fi retired as Fi was pretty knackered – not surprisingly. Kerrie and I went for a stroll up Ophir’s main street (only street, I suspect) and tried to see if we could spot the house of some Dunedin friends, but our memories were pretty foggy, we’d only visited it once and that was many years ago. After admiring the starlit skies, it was time to turn in.
Day Two – Monday 27th January
Following a good night’s sleep, we awakened to aching muscles. Even with a lift on the last section we reckoned we’d cycled more than 30 kilometres the previous day. There was no sleeping in however – we packed up, had a pleasant breakfast and took our bags downstairs to be collected by the She-bikes driver at 8 o’clock sharp!
For the record, we got a photo highlighting Fi’s injuries outside Pitches.
Despite a heavily bandaged elbow, Fighting Fi was raring to go. We cycled out of sleepy Ophir, across the bridge and into Omakau. During the course of yesterday’s drama, Fi had broken or forgotten her sunnies and needed to buy a new pair. Mission accomplished at the local pharmacy, we left State Highway 85 and re-joined the rail trail – which doesn’t actually go through Ophir. Very shortly we came to Omakau station, comprising a large shed, the old platform and the now familiar stamping box.
Once we’d all got our passports stamped, taken some photos, including a rail trail signboard on the platform, we headed out on the trail. Today we have some 30 kilometres to cover.
The first leg was through largely rural country, with grazing cattle on green pastures one side and the more typical bone-dry Central Otago country on the other. Sultry clouds painted the sky in a grey gouache.
In the distance, a road bridge over the trail looked like a worm-hole entry to another universe. Far ahead, Kerrie disappeared through the hole and into the haze.
Our first stop was at Lauder, seven kms from Omakau. The Lauder station building was bigger than the others we’d seen and in better condition, smartly painted in a cream colour. Half close your eyes and you could image passengers waiting inside for their train to Clyde or Middlemarch.
Something about passports and stamps seems to affect us, memories of stultifying airport experiences perhaps. All that was pre-Covid, of course!
Passports stamped, we headed off to the Stationside café which had been recommended for a coffee and to stock up with lunch. This was the last place you could get food or water until our destination – Oturehua.
A friendly couple happily made sandwiches to order and in between told us stories of how accommodation along the rail trail had all been snapped up by a film crew working on the latest Jane Campion movie. Kerrie passed this onto her news editor just in case.
The next stage of the trail was 10.5 kms and touted as iconic and very scenic and included going through two tunnels.
Around two kms after leaving Lauder we came to the No. 1 bridge across the Manuherikia River, a green ribbon of life flowing through the Maniototo.
110 metres long and 14 metres high, the concrete pier bridge was completed in 1903.
We stopped to take photos up and down river – and photos of each other taking photos of each other!
Fi shows off her heavily bandaged arm – it can’t have been easy cycling with the injury – but not a squeak of complaint from Fighting Fi.
Having crossed the Manuherikia, we followed a tributary, the aptly named Gorge Creek, into one of the scenic highlights of the trail, Poolburn Gorge.
It was a steady climb up from the river valley – past the very modest Poolburn Gangers shed.
The rocky cleft is a hidden wonder that you wouldn’t know about driving across the Maniototo. Shaded by thickly growing willows, Gorge Creek has over aeons carved a steep-sided passage through the dry, ancient landscape and the wonderfully named Raggedy Range.
Like a green serpent Gorge creek winds its away around the rocky spurs on its way towards the open plains beyond,.
Kerrie took a great shot of the journey of the creek with the rail trail a faint line following the contours of the valley.
We admired the views from the great vantage point and our two actresses staged an impromptu pose for the cameras!
Clambering down from the look-out over the gorge, it was time to enter our first tunnel – Tunnel No. 13!
At 230 metres long, there was no sign of light from this end of the tunnel. The advice was to dismount and walk your bikes through , having got out your torch. At first, it seemed overly cautious but after ten metres or so, you realised just how dark it was and how easily you became disoriented.
Having exited the first tunnel, we could see the second one around a curve.
As we’d cycled further into the gorge, the views became more dramatic and imposing. We stopped to soak up the atmosphere.
Running alongside Poolburn Gorge, the trail offered splendid views – it must have been a spectacular rail journey. What a shame it was dismantled in 1991 – but then of course, we wouldn’t have been able to cycle our way through this dramatic landscape.
Rocky outcrops assumed curious shapes with one like a raptor’s head, stark against the sky, gazing sphynx-like into the distance.
We headed into the second tunnel, confusingly signposted as Poolburn No.1 but is in fact tunnel No. 12 (counting from Dunedin). This was 201 metres long and with a glimpse of light at the other end. The century old stone and brickwork still looked solid and displayed great craftsmanship.
We wheeled our way through and came to a DoC rail trail sign which helped us orient ourselves.
Some 300 metres after the second tunnel was the Poolburn Gorge viaduct, 37 metres high and 108 metres long.
Arguably the most impressive structure on the rail trail, the viaduct was constructed between 1901 and 1904 and is supported by large schist stone crafted by Stone Masons to a standard seldom seen today.
As we took photos, a couple cycled across with a small child in tow in its own little side-car like trailer. It’s amazing to think how this whole section of the rail trail was built by 300 workers in three years with hard physical labour, wheelbarrow, pick, shovel, horse and cart.
Coming down off the Raggedy Range, the open plains of the Maniototo were spread before us.
Here we came upon a sculpture representing the planet Uranus. This forms part of a quirky but inspiring concept of developing a scale model of our solar system overlaid on the Otago Rail Trail. The idea came from Ian C Begg, the grandson of the co-founder of Dunedin’s Beverley-Begg Observatory.
As we descended onto the plains, the naturally dry land contrasted with the bright green of irrigated farmland.
We soon came to Auripo Station, our next stamp station.
This isolated part of the Ida Valley was once the site of a small stockyard used for freighting sheep and wool to Dunedin. There were still some healthy looking sheep to be see but one suspects nothing like there used to be.
From here, the trail stretched out seemingly forever into the dry expanse of the Ida valley.
Punctuated only by a rusty-looking gangers’ hut, the old Swamp Road ganger’s shed had a sign advising the nearest toilet was 1.8 kms down the track.
The trail was Roman-road straight, overhung with brooding cloud formations.
The Ida valley is known for its extremely harsh climate over the winter months, which is why we’re doing the ride in summer!
Four kilometres on from Auripo we came to Ida Valley Station, our next stamping station. The opening of this station in 1901 introduced a daily mail services between Alexandra and Dunedin. A horse-drawn coach would leave Alexandra at 4am to connect with the train here at 11am.
We had another eight kms to go to our destination, just enough in the afternoon heat to instill a sense of weariness.
We reached a crossroads in what felt like the middle of nowhere, with a signpost marked Ida Valley Oturehua Road. Beneath a string of grey sculpted clouds that looked like a hugely magnified smoke signal emanating from the distant Hawkdun mountain range, we paused for a drink of water and a breather.
Finally, we reached Oturehua where we got our last stamps for the day.
We’d cycled at least 30 kms today, slightly more in fact, as we had also cycled from Ophir to Omakau, another 1-2 kms. Hot and bothered we headed straight for Gilchrist’s Store, Est’d 1902, which calls itself the oldest “continuously trading store in New Zealand” for a much-anticipated, refreshing ice-cream.
We discovered our accommodation was another 500 metres out of town, in the direction we’d be heading tomorrow, so we climbed back on to our bikes and pedalled our way to Inverlair Lodge.
A section of old rail track marked the entrance to our lodge which was modern, comfortable and well-set up with views over the Idaburn valley towards St Bathans and the Hawkdun Range.
It was B&B only, so we followed the owners’ advice and booked ourselves in for dinner at the Oturehua Railway Hotel which even had a courtesy van that came to collect us. Along the trail we’d got talking to a couple of Aussie guys who were younger, fitter and faster than us and who were also staying at Inverlair, so we buddied up for dinner which was classic country pub style – ample portions served by a jocular host – just what we wanted at the end of a long day. Full and ready for bed, the courtesy van took us back to Inverlair (although the two Aussies opted to walk).
Day Three – Tuesday 28th January
Over breakfast we watched a farmer lead a bull along the rail trail, obviously a shortcut between paddocks. Luckily, no cyclists were up and about. We had to pack up and have our bags ready for collection by 8am again, but in fact this was a good incentive to make an early start. We’d concluded it was better to break the back of the day’s cycling in the morning. Afternoon temperatures kept climbing and it became uncomfortably hot from about 3pm.
We kitted up and headed off down the curving driveway of Inverlair Lodge and onto the rail trail. Our Aussie companions planned on visiting the Golden Progress Mine, a side trip off the main trail but we decided to press on, not being so interested in old mine shafts.
Conditions were dry and the classic Maniototo landscape was spread before us. We’d been steadily climbing so far on the trail but today we were going to reach the highest point.
Some six kms on from Oturehua we reached the crest of a hill and there was the sign telling us we’d “summitted” at 618 metres above sea level.
The Aussies had caught up with us and we each did the photo honours to record the achievement.
That meant we’d climbed around 400m since leaving Clyde – a gentle ascent but still it had pushed our fitness levels at times.
The views from the highest point were stunning in all directions.
As the sign said, it was all downhill from this point (mostly) and we enjoyed the exhilarating rush of wind and speed as we freewheeled our way down the next 6 kms to Wedderburn.
Just before we reached Wedderburn, we came across another planetary sculpture, mighty Saturn with its rings etched against the blue Central Otago sky.
The Red Barn visitor centre was a popular stop for refreshment and information at Wedderburn.
But the station is probably most famous for the painting by New Zealand artist, Grahame Sydney of the Wedderburn goods shed.
We stamped our passports at the Wedderburn station.
We still a way to go so we pressed on towards Ranfurly, our planned lunch stop.
This was actually quite a long stretch of the trail, 13.5kms according to our rail trail map, meaning we’d have covered 25kms by lunchtime. Not bad – but of course, it was mostly downhill!
As we continued our descent, the plains and their green pastures were framed by small hills and in the far distance the North Rough Ridge range.
Finally on the flat, we passed another planetary sculpture, Jupiter – the distances all to scale relative to the sun being in Ranfurly. Not exactly the town you’d imagine as the centre of the solar system – but perhaps appropriate in the context of Central Otago. Ranfurly had after all been the railway line’s main crew and engine change-over station.
But we still had several kilometres to cover before we reached the ‘heart of the sun’.
The Maniototo plains were beginning to bake in the heat – and so were we. At the Maniototo Plains Gangers’ shed, we stopped for a drink.
The shed was tiny, side on to the track, and dwarfed by the vastness of the plains and distant mountains.
This is what is described as “Big Sky Country” and you can see why. We still had just under 5 kms to go to reach Ranfurly – and lunch!
Ranfurly station was certainly the grandest so far, testament to the fact that Ranfurly owes its existence to the railway line rather than the Central Otago goldfields.
We paused to admire the station building and read the signboards, but didn’t linger too long, as we were hungry and thirsty. We stamped our passports, parked our bikes in a small park by the road, thoughtfully kitted out with bike racks, and repaired to the Maniototo Café almost directly opposite.
Mindful of the fact we still had 18 kms to go to our night’s accommodation, we dragged ourselves away from the airconditioned comfort and ‘saddled up’ for the next leg to Waipiata.
This section was mostly on the flat, not the most inspiring ride as we cycled out of Ranfurly and into very dry looking country. And it was by now very hot.
After 7.5 kms we reached Waipiata, where the pub apparently offers good food and a relaxing atmosphere but it was too soon after lunch and we had another 10.5 kms to go to reach our lodgings for the night, Kokonga Lodge.
We stopped to read the rail trail sign and stamp our passports.
According to the signboard, the railway line reached Waipiata in 1898 and the hamlet was almost entirely dependent on the rail connection for mail and groceries while livestock from local farms were transported by train. Waipiata once boasted the largest sheep yards in Central Otago. How times have changed.
Andrew took some photos of a tired, almost derelict looking cottage and shed.
The cottage looked like it must be occupied, with TV aerial and satellite dish attached. You wonder what kind of lives people lead in such a desolate spot.
The trail from Waipiata passed another sculpture of Jupiter (the solar system is mirrored either side of Ranfurly) and beneath an old road bridge before heading towards the low surrounding hills, the start of the Rock and Pillar range.
Andrew tried his hand at some ‘live action’ shots taken on his cell phone while cycling along behind Kerrie. Despite a bit of wobbling as he cycled one handed, they came out surprisingly well.
The ‘Big Sky’ was broken up by cotton ball puffs of cloud, seemingly just hanging there for decoration.
The ten kilometres from Waipiata to Kokonga were hot and dry, a reminder of why it was important to get away early in the morning.
By the time we reached Kokonga Lodge we were bone-weary. It had been a long day – we’d cycled 43.5 kilometres, not bad for rank amateurs in their sixties.
The lodge was set in garden surroundings, above the Taieri River which explained the line of trees and lusher green land nearby. This gave it the appearance of a small oasis in this predominantly dry country – and it certainly was a welcome relief after our day’s pedalling.
We’d made it! Happy smiles all round.
Our hosts had cold drinks at the ready and after a shower and time to relax we were ushered to the dinner table. What a feast! To our delight and amazement we were treated to a cordon bleu meal – the quality, variety and originality of the food was remarkable. And there was plenty of it! Our Aussie mates were there as well, so we caught up on their day’s adventures. The only sour note was due to a middle-aged couple from the north island, festooned in chunky gold jewellery and with politics to match. They soon decided to keep their views to themselves after it became abundantly clear to them that their opinions weren’t shared by anyone else at the table.
After dinner, Kerrie and I went for a wander around the grounds. We tried to find a track mentioned by our hosts to a local church but couldn’t spot it. In its day, Kokonga station was a substantial railway construction camp with a thriving township of homes, churches, shops and a school. Discovering some of the local history is just one of the many pleasures and benefits of riding the trail.
Day Four – Wednesday 29th January
Our hosts at Kokonga not only served up excellent food, they also did our laundry for us! After three days, this was much needed.
Fi and Graham were still sorting out their stuff, so Kerrie and Andrew who were generally slower decided to get a head start and hit the trail. We had another long day ahead – 42kms to cover by 2pm when we were due to rendezvous at the She-bikes office in Middlemarch for our return shuttle bus ride to Clyde!
Bags packed and prepped for pick-up, off we went.
A matter of a few hundred metres along the track, we found some desultory remnants of the rail days, a short stretch of tracks and set of points.
This was also where we got our Kokonga station stamp.
From there we followed the contours of the Taieri river valley, and State Highway 87 that goes to Middlemarch.
Above us, the characteristically distinctive cloud formations cast patterns of light and shadow over the landscape and made you feel you were cycling through a scene from a film.
We passed a rail trail sign for Daisybank, where the rail trail crosses the road. A truck and trailer looked strangely out of place in this remote spot – and a reminder to be careful at the crossing point.
Here the landscape turns from dry and sweeping curves of gently undulating hills to more dramatic, steeply sided rocky valleys as the Taieri carves its way through the land.
The light cast a diffuse, shimmering haze over the rocks and tussocks.
Even with our modest cameras, we captured a sense of how William Turner might have painted the scene.
A little further on we came to an old railway workers’ shelter, curiously named ‘Red Dwarf’, doubtless by the observatory aficionados who established the Otago Interplanetary Cycle Trail.
To Kerrie and I it conjured up memories of the classic British TV comedy sci-fi series of the same name. That may explain Kerrie’s pose – flying through space!?
After another few kilometres we reached Tiroiti Station, time for another stamp.
Between Tiroiti and Hyde we would encounter three significant and interesting features, two bridges and a tunnel.
The first was the historic Capburn stone railway bridge, 40 metres long and 7 metres high above Capburn Creek which flows into the nearby Taieri river.
The bridge still has its original sleepers and railway lines, one reason at least why a sign asks cyclists to dismount and walk their bikes across.
As we stopped to take photos of the bridge, we spotted Graham and Fi in the distance, they’d finally caught up.
Not much further along we came to the impressive and spectacular Prices Creek viaduct, which is 91 metres long and 32 metres high.
This steel and concrete structure was built in 1963, one of the last major constructions on the railway. The viaduct replaced an older wooden bridge.
Andrew stopped midway across to take photos of the viaduct’s shadow far below and the course of Prices Creek flowing to the east.
The cycle track across the viaduct is quite narrow, guard rails have been erected on either side for safety as winds can gust strongly down the valley.
From here, there were gorgeous views down the Taieri gorge valley.
Another kilometre or so on we arrived at the Prices Creek or Hyde tunnel. By now, the four of us were back travelling together. Slightly curved, the tunnel is 151 metres long and the only tunnel fully bricked along its entire length.
We dismounted, got out our head torches again and made our way into the darkness…
…emerging the other end blinking and squinting into the bright sunshine.
It was only another 2-3 kms to Hyde. So far, we were making reasonable time, but not enough to stop at the Hyde pub so we pressed on towards Hyde Station, another two kilometres on.
This was much better preserved and with more to see as we approached the station, with multiple railway tracks, a signal and rolling stock.
The station itself was like a small museum. Through the windows you could see the signal and points control system, desks and filing cabinets, stamps and a sign for the General Waiting Room and Ladies Restroom.
Just south of Hyde Station site is the scene of the region’s worst rail disaster. On 4th June1943 the Cromwell–Dunedin train derailed, killing 21 passengers and injuring 47. The train left the tracks in a narrow, steep sided cutting. Apparently, the train was travelling at around 100kms an hour, twice the speed allowed. The driver was charged and found guilty of manslaughter. To this day, it still ranks as the second worst railway accident in New Zealand.
It was just after 10am as we left Hyde Station, and we weren’t half-way yet.
The downhill gradient definitely helped, and from here the rail trail followed a pretty straight line parallel to the state highway and Taieri River on our left and the Rock and Pillar Range with its distinctive rocky outcrops on our right.
It was another gorgeous day, pale blue skies with flimsy veils and puffs of cloud scattered here and there.
We crossed the last substantial bridge on the trail over Five Mile creek.
Not long after we passed the Scrub Burn Gangers Hut.
We came across a bunch of cyclists heading the other way, it looked like they were on a group tour, probably a day trip from Middlemarch to Hyde where they’d be picked up.
Our journey continued uneventfully along the trail to the Rock and Pillar Station, another stamping location. It was 11:30am, we’d been going for three hours or so and we had another 14kms to go.
Somewhat tired, by now we were looking forward to reaching our destination. The countryside was beautiful but not dramatic, with farms spread out on the plains alongside the Taieri river – grazing sheep and cattle on irrigated pastures.
We reached Ngapuna (Springs) Station just before midday, our last stamping station before Middlemarch. Just 7 kms to go!
It only took us twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of Middlemarch where we posed by a sign for photos where the rail trail ends, 400 metres short of the actual station. The first line to reach Middlemarch was completed in 1891.
We cycled on to the station, where there are several buildings, railway tracks and rolling stock.
Here we got our final stamp.
It didn’t take much imagination to conjure up a bustling scene of activity, with trains shunting back and forth, stockwagons full of sheep and cattle, carriages packed with eager passengers on their way home or to visit friends and family. It must have been a colourful and exciting time, fading in the latter part of the last century as trucks and cars took over and trains, which never seem to have become a major part of New Zealand’s national transport culture, were deemed uneconomic or out of fashion.
Weary but happy with our achievements – especially Fi who had overcome her accident to get back on her bike and battle on – we cycled to the She-bikes office and checked in. We had an hour to go before our departure time, and were starving. We got directions to the highly recommended Kissing Gate café and cycled off – finding it after a couple of anxious twists and turns.
Fed and refreshed, we returned to the She-bikes office in time to get our bikes lashed onto a large trailer and climbed on board our shuttle bus.
Our adventure was over, we could relax and watch the world go by as our driver took us back through the Maniototo. It was interesting to observe how different the perspective was from the road compared to the rail trail which gave you a much more intimate and varied connection both to the landscape and to the history.
One final drama on our trip, as we came to the turn off for the back road between the state highway near Galloway and Clyde, we saw what looked like a serious accident. We wondered if we should stop but there was already someone else at the scene and with our bulky bus and trailer likely to get in the way of any accident and emergency vehicles needing to attend we opted to press on. We heard later that fortunately, and surprisingly given how it looked to us, there were no serious injuries.
Back at the Clyde Railway station, we managed to get stamps in our ‘passports’ for a couple of stations we’d missed either because there wasn’t a stamp or there wasn’t enough ink.
Then it was time to load all our bags into the car, strap our bikes on the rack, and the four of us headed for Wanaka, after an eventful but thoroughly enjoyable adventure. Andrew even said he’d like to do it again, perhaps going in the opposite direction. Kerrie wasn’t so sure.
Either way, we’d proved to ourselves that despite our limited off-road cycling experience we’d successfully covered 150kms and completed the Central Otago Rail Trail. Hoorah!