Escapism

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Central Otago: Cycle trail a road test for new hip

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Schist outcrops on the way to Chatto Creek. Photo / Jill Worrall
Schist outcrops on the way to Chatto Creek. Photo / Jill Worrall

We'd set the ground rules ... we didn't do hills, we didn't do head winds and we didn't do rain. Other than that you'd not be able to tell us apart from real mountain bikers...

Only, of course, Rachel, my daughter and I were easy to spot on the Otago Central Rail Trail. We were the ones who were wearing regular shorts over the top of their bike shorts (I did this to preserve the scenic values of the rail trail; Rachel had no need to be coy), the only pair who had small bouquets of wild flowers affixed to their bikes, and who had four tiny rabbits (released from the captivity of four Kindersurprise Eggs) tied to their handlebars. But other than it was the Tour de France all the way ... we even had water bottles.

The last time I'd cycled any distance was when I was at school and in recent years a deteriorating hip had meant I'd been unable to as much as turn the pedals on a bike. But I had two major incentives to accomplish this ride of more than 100km. I had a new hip and was keen to test it out and more importantly I had recklessly signed up to lead a fundraising cycle journey in India in September 2010 for Save the Children New Zealand.

If I could manage the rail trail I had a reasonable chance of achieving my goal of cycling 340km through Rajasthan (see end of blog for more details).

We began our ride in Clyde (the original railway from Dunedin had once reached Cromwell but this section now lies under the waters of Lake Dunstan). The section between Middlemarch (the other end of the trail) and Clyde had taken 16 years to build, with work beginning in 1891. A vital link between Central's gold-mining towns, the railway also served as an economic lifeline for the farming community and was used to ship in supplies for the building of the Clyde Dam. But in 1990 it was closed (a trust now operates the Taieri Gorge Excursion Train on the Dunedin to Middlemarch section).

For a decade the scenic line's tunnels, viaducts and bridges lay silent until the Department of Conservation, working with the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust, breathed new life into the route, opening it as the rail trail in 2000. It now generates millions of dollars for the local economy every year.

We planned to do our bit. Our support crew of one - was charged with the task of checking out cafes and pubs en route.

But first of all we had to acquaint ourselves with our bikes at the Clyde depot of Trail Journeys.

It was a relief to find we were not dealing with strapping young cyclists in neck-to-knee lycra (Rachel may have felt otherwise, of course).

We identified ourselves to an older man who endeared himself to us instantly by not falling about laughing at the thought of us biking 125km.

His popularity rating wavered a little when he led us to two Giant Sedona bikes - so much for disguising the bike shorts I thought ... But most of the 400-500 cycles in the shed seemed to be the same brand. While making a few vital adjustments to the bikes and helmets he told us that in February-March there'd be barely a bike left in the shed, such is the trail's popularity.

And so we set off, first stop Alexandra - a whole eight kilometres along a completely flat stretch of track. We thought that a latte stop early on would be a good way to assess how my hip was doing and whether in fact we liked biking at all.

We whizzed along, however, past vineyards in full leaf and with goldfinches darting across our path - and by the time we found the support crew, the lattes and a couple of enormous savoury muffins (eating can be guilt free when one is biking all day) we were sure we'd make it.

Beyond Alexandra the trail took us through outcrops of glistening schist and beside the Manuherikia River. The day was warming up now and the smell of the wild thyme growing on the hillsides beside us wafted past - something you won't experience in a car. We had been converted.

By now we'd even changed down (or should that be up?) a few gears to deal with a slight hill, but as yet there were no complaints from either bums or leg muscles.

Lunch was under a dazzling cloudless Central sky at Chatto Creek - the support crew had bought an Earnscleugh riesling from a vineyard close to Clyde and cherries at Alex's farmer's market and set it out beside the track. Would we able to bike in a relatively straight line afterwards?

Maybe we should have read our touring notes first. Slightly soporific with wine, cheese and bread, we discovered too late that the next stretch to Omakau was the trail's steepest. We'd be climbing Tiger Hill, although we were promised that the trail would be gentle with us as the trains had to keep to no more than a 1 in 50 gradient.

We set off on the long, gradual pull uphill, when we stopped to admire the view (ok, it was also to have a short rest) we were amazed to be able to pick out Alexandra in the distance and gratified to realise how far we had climbed without actually becoming too hot and sweaty.

At the top of Tiger Hill we flopped beside a small lake dotted with maimais used in the winter duck-shooting season. Viper's bugloss was flowering in blue drifts around us.

From then on there was the fun of coasting, standing up on our pedals to rest very slightly tender behinds, into Omakau where the support crew was waiting with cold ciders. By now we felt desperately sorry for the cyclists who did not have this essential service.

Our first day finished a total of 44km from Clyde at the small settlement of Lauder. We were reunited with the Support Crew at the pub, surprisingly. But lest anyone think this had turned into a booze cruise on two wheels we ordered lemon, lime and bitters.

Finely honed athletes that we were we wanted to be in peak condition for the following day when we'd be toiling our way up to the trail's highest point on the North Rough Ridge.

* The India Cycle Challenge in September 2010 is a first for Save the Children NZ and 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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