The Otago Central Rail Trail is a 150km off road cycle/walking trail between Clyde and Middlemarch in the South Island. It follows an old disused railway line and crosses the vast open grasslands of Central Otago.
The original steam railway was built between 1891 and 1907, following the gold rush in the area, to help farmers move their stock and produce to the markets. However, over time the railway gradually became less economically viable and sections were increasingly replaced by roads. By 1990 it was officially closed and the tracks were removed leaving a flat path through Central Otago. The cycle/walking trail was developed and opened in 2000.
Cycling the Otago Rail Trail did not feature in any of our initial plans for NZ. As a “Grade 1” easy trail, we dismissed it as we thought it would not be particularly exciting or challenging to cycle that distance over a few days. We were originally going to fly or drive to the South Island with our own bikes instead. But we weren’t keen on driving what would have been an over 3,000km round trip from Hamilton, or leaving our bikes in the car on non-cycling days (there are high rates of car thefts in NZ), so we eventually decided to leave them behind entirely and changed our minds about the Rail Trail after doing some more reading about it… especially as Mark realised that we could do diversions each day to make the route longer and more interesting. He didn’t think 50km a day, albeit on a mountain-bike, was far enough!
It felt a little strange at first to be going somewhere without our bikes considering that we’ve been everywhere with them since we left London in September 2015. In some ways, it was also quite liberating to go away without hauling large amounts of luggage with us.
Day 1: Clyde to Lauder with Roxburgh Trail extension (79km)
We picked up our Specialized Hardrock mountain-bikes complete with “comfort saddles” from Clyde Station in the morning.
They were heavy… and slow… and it wasn’t long before I started missing my own Specialized road bike.
We diverted from the Clyde to Alexandra part of the Rail Trail straight away, taking the 150th Anniversary track on the west side of the Clutha River instead – a more technical route and one where someone had apparently knocked themselves out the week before after taking one of the blind corners too quickly. It was a lovely shaded twisty trail next to the river, weaving in and out of the forest.
After 12km we arrived in Alexandra where we could have re-joined the Rail Trail. But no, Mark decided that we should do another extension along the first part of the Roxburgh Trail through the Roxburgh Gorge. From the green and shaded anniversary track, we turned the corner and were suddenly in a gorge which looked almost desert-like in its dryness with a deep blue river running through it.
This trail also has historical significance with remains of old huts built into the rock by Chinese miners and ruined old mining villages along the way.
We cycled 10km to Doctors Point where I posed for an obligatory photo.
To continue to the next part of the trail you have to take a boat for 11km down the river so we turned round and cycled back to Alexandra again.
There we finally joined the Otago Rail Trail but by now it was lunchtime and it was hot. What didn’t really occur to me until we started on the actual Rail Trail was that, as the track was originally built for steam trains, this meant that it is flat. Very flat. Wide. And hot and very dusty under the high sun of summer.
We passed old railway stations along the way like these ones.
As it was built for steam trains, it also means that any incline is very gentle. The toughest climb on the entire trail was on Day 1, just after Chatto Creek where the trail gently rises at 2%. It was surprisingly hard work on a heavy mountain bike in the crosswind.
We did another small diversion to see the historic mining town of Ophir, which had some well preserved old buildings and provided a welcome chance to ride on a (smooth!) road for several kilometres.
By the time we rolled into Lauder, where we were staying the night in an old school house which had been converted into a motel, I was pretty relieved to be getting off the bike. Comfort saddles my arse.
Day 2: Lauder to Waipiata with Naseby diversion (80km)
Leaving Lauder in the morning, I was struck by how wide and open this part of Otago is – you could see for miles, and everything just seemed big.
Poolburn Gorge was a spectacular part of the trail. There were 2 long and very dark tunnels that had been roughly hewn out of the rock.
We also cycled across the 108m long Poolburn Viaduct, the highest viaduct on the trail, built in the 19th century.
In Oturehua we stopped for a quick snack at Gilchrist’s – NZ’s longest operating general store.
After Oturehua we climbed to the highest point of the trail at 618m before heading downhill to Wedderburn.
Shortly after Wedderburn, we left the Rail Trail and headed north towards Naseby Forest where we had lunch by a lake (Coal Pit Lake).
Naseby was an important township during the 1860s Otago gold rush and many of the buildings have been preserved from this time.
There is good mountain-biking in Naseby Forest. We did a short ride beside a water race, basically a channel built to divert water that was used in gold prospecting. This one, the Mt Ida Water Race, originated from a source 108km away! Had we known about it we could have ridden from Coal Pit Lake to Naseby along this water race (6-7km).
Naseby is also famous for having the only international curling rink in NZ (which we thought was rather random for a small settlement) so we went to have a look.
The gravel road (Channel Road) to Waipiata from there was downhill all the way. Sunset in Waipiata that evening was stunning – everything was bathed in golden light.
Day 3: Waipiata to Middlemarch (53km)
On our final morning we re-joined the Rail Trail, and for a change remained on it the whole way to Middlemarch. 53km isn’t much to cycle in one day, but we had to be at Middlemarch by 1pm in order to catch a minibus back to Clyde.
Soon after Tiroti was another stunning gorge and then viaducts on which remnants of the old railway could be seen.
We stopped for morning coffee in Hyde.
By now the sun had disappeared, dark clouds were looming over the hills and the wind was starting to pick up.
Hyde to Middlemarch was headwind all the way. At times it looked like it was going to rain and we had stupidly left our rain-jackets in our bags which were being transported to Middlemarch.
However, by the time we reached Ngapuna and then the end of the trail at Middlemarch, it was hot and sunny again.
As I’ve mentioned before, the weather in NZ is extremely changeable!
Overall, we enjoyed the cycling the Rail Trail. The extra diversions on the Roxburgh Trail on the first day, and to Naseby on the second were definitely worth doing – the track on the Rail Trail itself is flat, often windy and could be quite monotonous at times. However, the scenery in Central Otago was very different to any other that we had seen in NZ so far with a great feeling of wide open space, seeing mountain ranges in the distance which you then eventually pass by on the bike.
Although it would probably be possible to cycle the whole way in one (or 2) days, I think it is worth taking the time to ride it over 3 days in order to take in the history of the trail and the sights along the way.