Otago: Snail's pace adds silver linings to trail

By Joanna Sullivan

Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Supplied
Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Supplied

Some call it the rail trail, others the ale trail, but it's definitely the snail-and-snap trail for me. Every day along the Otago Rail Trail I ended up pedalling well behind the bunch, but I finished with a rewarding portfolio of photographic memories.

I just couldn't resist recording every shed, weathered rail bridge and historic hotel. These structures speak of history, telling visual tales of the era of railways carved painstakingly out of the terrain using pick and shovel.

Rusted handmade nails and railway dogs lie abandoned in the undergrowth. The hotels, by contrast, are still prized, even getting a bit of a spit and polish for a new cycling clientele. The mismatched gear of trail bikers leaning on the bar form a distinct contrast to the earthy locals, with their hayseed jerseys and sun-beaten faces.

Riding comfortably along the trail in gentle stages, taking three or five days to suit your level of fitness, maybe suffering the occasional sore or complaining muscle, is nothing to the hardships endured when the track first went in.

Then tedious months were spent in all weathers hand-cutting the rail bed out of rock and plains. If only they could have looked ahead to the future. What would they think? Now, with the track torn up, cyclists come from all over the country and overseas to ride easily along the steady inclines and declines.

Gold fever drove the railway into central Otago and opened up farming and industry. Gold is the landscape hue now, with the tawny gold of smooth hills of dry grasses disappearing to the far distance. Biking along the rail trail is like riding inside a Grahame Sydney painting. The landscape is so stunning, even amateur photographers feel like professionals as scene after scene is captured in the viewfinder.

Cycling with a bunch of friends, all dames closer in age to gold cards than suave boyfriends, we booked a five-night small group tour with Adventure South. The tour came complete with bike hire, accommodation and, if you needed a rest, a van to pick you up along the way. Sorted, as they say.

While the Otago Rail Trail is on many bucket lists, it was the many extras and inclusions that really made this trip special. I count myself as a committed New Zealandophile, yet I encountered places and experiences I didn't know existed.

Curling was a new skill acquired at Naseby. We may have been beginners, but competition on the ice, amid the swishing brooms, was intense - determination stronger than technique - as we encouraged the opposing team to miss their target.

Beside the river at Clyde, we rode alongside the riverbank, the trail carpeted in golden autumn leaves. After the trail, on the way back to Christchurch, we cycled a coastal road from Moeraki to Oamaru. Running alongside the pounding surf of the Tasman and with a fringe of snow-capped Southern Alps in the distance, this unexpected ride added the final magic to the tour.

I have to acknowledge feeling a little trepidation as I leapt on my trusty two-wheeled stead and tested my cycling legs at the Adventure South depot in Christchurch. My wheeled companion, a hybrid bike, was especially good for going over both rough and smooth. Luckily the camera was still packed that first day, however by the end of the trip I was such a seasoned cyclist I wanted my photograph taken to prove I'd been there and done that.

What was sheer pleasure was the freedom, with no worries about where to stop for a coffee, eat lunch or bed down for the night. Somehow when you join a group, you believe there will be restrictions. I found the opposite, because with the daily organisation taken care of, there was freedom just to get out and make the most of the time on and off the trail.

Some enthusiasts return frequently. I am definitely tempted to try another season to capture a different picture. Autumn was magic, so now perhaps it would be great to be there in the spring for bud burst and blossoms, or in summer for cherries, or maybe the winter landscapes.

Checklist: Otago Rail Trail

* Further information

Adventure South run small group guided tours and tailor-made personalised tours of the rail trail and can also hire suitable bikes. See www.advsouth.co.nz.

* The rail trail has its own website at www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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