Otago: Riding the rails

By Margaret Macklin

The Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Creative Commons Free Licence
The Otago Rail Trail. Photo / Creative Commons Free Licence

Energetic baby boomers, and the not so athletic yet keen, are leaping on to two wheels and pedalling along the Otago Rail Trail. Wheels are much easier on new/ old knees and hips and it is a great way to exercise and see the country.

Aboard a bike you see much more than from a car or bus. There is time to look at the views and old buildings, time to stop for a coffee or a beer and time to chat so camaraderie develops along the way.

My personal bucket list included the Otago Rail Trail and I decided to do it with a small group of friends joining an Adventure South tour. Yes, that sounds like taking the easy way, and yes it is. Having all the accommodation booked, bikes hired and vans with guides gave us the freedom just to get out there and enjoy.

Adventure South's small groups tours to the Otago Rail Trail are a round trip from Christchurch to Christchurch adding a day at Tekapo on the way down and a day on the Otago Coast on the way back, both with added cycling if you are keen.

None of the cycling was extreme, and with a guide and van we could do as much or as little biking as we choose. Also, as the guide admitted, each day was carefully planned so there was only so many kilometres to cycle between coffees or loo stops.

The Otago Rail Trail is usually cycled over three or four days, it can be shorter for the very fit or longer for those who want to go leisurely. I liked the slightly leisurely approach with time to see and do more off the rails along the way.

There is history behind each small village in Central Otago and exploring these provides plenty to discover. For Kiwis there is a strong sense of 'our heritage' and 'our history' not least just in the trail itself. The building of the railway, the cuttings and bridges and the old timber painted railway sheds.

The towns are old gold mining towns and many built of stone which look European, perhaps like parts of France. Quaint shops, small cottages with fox gloves and roses, with the obligatory post office, bank, hotel and school house. Now many of the official buildings have become restaurants or B&Bs hosting cyclists on their way through.

Off the beaten track, or trail, we went to visit towns that are still small rural centres including Clyde, St Bathans, Naseby and Ranfurly.

Idyllic small townships wrapped in pioneering farming history. Naseby is one of those places people talk about. It is a township of cottages many of them now holiday homes and beside the outdoor ice rink stands an international ice curling rink.

Riding from the Clyde end of the trail towards Middlemarch we set off through Alexandra and picturesque vineyards. For those meandering there are little stops all along the way - with gardens, coffee stops and small towns. I certainly stopped frequently.

The trail quickly sorted the personalities of the group. Those who wanted to be first or to cycle every bit and others who wanted to look at the view, smell the wild thyme and take in the history of the area - or taste the local produce of wonderful fruits and wines.

For New Zealand, this is an area rich in history. The train provided the link along which the small villages were built. Each railway stop along the way has a shed, a siding, or a Railway Hotel.

Many of these scenes recall the famous Rita Angus painting of Cass. She was one of the first artists to highlight the iconic 'kiwiness' of the timber sheds beside railway tracks that dot the vast South Island landscape.

Possibly early train passengers never noticed the many bridges and overpasses along the way. Cycling provides a "slower journey" with time to admire the ingenuity and hard toil that carved out the track.

The old hotels along the way are being re invigorated with new owners and the new patrons. Garden bars are edged with bikes and strewn with cycling helmets as riders drop in along their route. The Otago Rail Trail is called the ale trail by some.

Cycling is relatively easy, and everyone goes at their own pace. The landscape feels empty most of the time, occasionally other cyclists catch up and others stop for the obligatory photographs. There are always a few gathered around the timber sheds.

Being part of a group was ideal, There was a chance to cycle alone enjoying the remoteness in this huge landscape. Other times being joining others to chatter as we rode. With the back-up van we had the option to stop if the going got tough. I have to admit I didn't cycle every inch of the trail.

We stopped for nights in Clyde, Lauder and Naseby along the way and then an overnight in Dunedin for a celebration dinner before heading north back to Christchurch. We headed out of Dunedin and up to Moeraki for a coffee at Fleur's Place. Then on our bikes we took to a coastal road with the sea on one side.

By then my legs were bike fit and I was ready to take on another Adventure South cycleway immediately. So hurry up New Zealand and open a few more trails.

On the web:

Adventure South

New Zealand cycleways update:

Exciting news is that several new cycleways will open this summer and more in the next two years.

- MY GENERATION

- NZ Herald

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