Escapism

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Central Otago: Caffeine-fuelled on the rail trail

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The Prices Creek Tunnel portal. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Prices Creek Tunnel portal. Photo / Jill Worrall

A southerly was splattering rain into our faces and our bikes as we left Lauder on Day Two along the Otago Central Rail Trail. It was also distinctly uphill towards the Poolburn tunnels and viaduct. (So much for our motto of not doing hills, headwinds or rain).

As we toiled along in low gear, a woman and her dog materialised out of the gloom ahead of us.

"I don't envy you one bit going up there today," she said ominously as we drew alongside her. We looked along the trail with some trepidation.

We reached the stone portal of the first of the tunnels and as instructed got off our bikes to walk through it. My daughter Rachel powered into the gloom, the light from her headlight bobbing wildly. I was almost running to keep up with her - she was sure feeling fit I thought. It suited me though ... it was rather eerie in the velvety darkness, with just the sound of our tyres scrunching on the gravel.

When we emerged at the other end, slightly breathless, Rachel sighed with relief: "I didn't like it much in there..." Like mother, like daughter.

I then helpfully told her how I always became jittery going through the Otira rail tunnel after my father told me that one of the niches was haunted by a long-dead tunneller. We absolutely galloped through the next tunnel, each of us casting furtive glances into pitch black recesses set into the walls.

By now the wind was gusting across the trail. We were high above the Poolburn Gorge and the sides of the viaduct, 37 metres above the valley floor, didn't seem quite high enough for novice cyclists being buffeted by a crosswind.

But we both hung on grimly to our handlebars and battled across ... the last latte stop seemed a long way away.

We prevailed though, eventually reaching the summit of the Raggedy Range and then freewheeling down the other side, the wind at our backs, the wild flowers tucked into Rachel's pannier bag shedding petals as we tore along.

We were now in the wide Ida Valley and waiting for us was the support crew (alias Derek my husband) who was standing beside the track with a thermos of hot coffee.

Several groups of hardcore cyclists passed us as we sipped. They stared at us ... we decided they were just envious but maybe it was incredulity.

Despite the presence of so many lycra-clad lean and mean cycling machines we were undaunted, on a roll.

We reached the high point of the trail, 618m up in the North Rough Ridge above Wedderburn and decided it had been a bit of a doddle.

We ended the day at Wedderburn, stamping our trail passports beside the old goods shed immortalised in a painting by local artist Grahame Sydney.

One of the pleasures of the rail trail is there's no need to spend all day on the bike - we'd left time this day to visit historic St Bathans with its startlingly turquoise Blue Lake and supposedly haunted pub.

And there was time to sip coffee and eat chocolate cake in Naseby, which boasts the Southern Hemisphere's only indoor curling rink. Daily cycling meant eating without guilt, we decided.

Our last day on the trail dawned clear and cool. The southerly had left the Maniototo sparkling; we cycled towards Ranfurly under a vast Central Otago sky of bright blue, and with skylarks plummeting joyfully from a great height around us.

Ranfurly provide the morning latte stop and a chance to browse through one of the town's art deco shops. Just as well we had the support crew, otherwise getting Rachel's three-tier cake stand on the bike could have been tricky ... probably not a problem Lance Armstrong has has to contend with.

Back on the trail we were soon climbing gently into the Taieri Gorge. A sinuous curve of willows hid the river from view but we stopped anyway en route to admire the briar roses flowering prolifically beside the track.

Above us clouds scudded across the big sky and as the sun warmed the gorge walls we rode into wafts of rose perfume and - closer to Hyde - the sharp tang of pine trees.

Thanks to the presence of other cyclists we managed not to panic each other into a stampede through the 152m-long Prices Creek Tunnel.

We ended our ride at the Hyde pub. (Officially there was still 28km to go to Middlemarch but we had to get home).

We glided downhill into the village elated with our efforts of cycling 120km in two and half days, full of the joys of biking and already planning our next expedition.

But are any other trails that can offer such regular coffee stops?

* My Otago cycle trip was part of my preparation for leading the Save the Children India Cycle Challenge in September 2010. Along with a five-day cycle through rural Rajasthan, sightseeing in Agra including the Taj Mahal, the Keoladeo National Park and Agra we will be spending two days visiting Save the Children projects in Delhi. The tour price includes a donation component of at least $2655 to be donated to SCNZ's work so if we have 20 people that's more than $50,000 - a sum that can make a tremendous difference to the lives of the world's children. For more information check out savethechildren.org.nz.

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