Otago: Serenity in the saddle

By Pamela Wade

Escorted rides take the muck out of exploring Otago's scenery, writes Pamela Wade

Choose a horse over a bicycle for a more tranquil way of exploring the Rail Trail. Photo / Pamela Wade
Choose a horse over a bicycle for a more tranquil way of exploring the Rail Trail. Photo / Pamela Wade

I'm glad it's Kelly and not me who has taken on the task of mucking out the Otago Central Rail Trail: all that springing in and out of the saddle looks far too athletic. Fortunately for her, we're not riding the whole 150km length of it on this perfect blue-gold morning - just the half-day 12km amble from Chatto Creek to Omakau.

The edges of the rocks are sharp against the sky, the hills are velvety with hay-coloured grass rippling in the warm breeze and the peace is disturbed only by skylarks, baaing sheep and the crunch of our horses' hooves on the gravel.

The Rail Trail is well known as a haven for cyclists but horses are allowed to follow it, too, although until Kelly set up Trail Treks, you had to have your own mount. Now it's possible for anyone to do as much, or as little, as they choose on an escorted ride using one of her well-mannered horses. I've been given Shiloh, who walks easily with a swinging stride and allows me to relax and enjoy the scenery; I'm already regretting I haven't signed up for the full five days.

In between hopping on and off to kick droppings off the track, Kelly tells me about flood irrigation, life on the trail and her plans to invent a muck rake with a telescopic handle, to use from the saddle.

The cyclists we encounter all look, I fancy, rather sweaty and flushed, and envious of our comfort and superior view. Their pedaller's pride would never allow them to admit that, of course. We exchange greetings and then they pump away again, heads down, as we continue our leisurely ride, surveying the glories of the Manuherikia Valley. The nearest we get to over-heating is a warm glow of self-congratulation after rescuing a lamb with its head caught in a fence at the top of a bank.

We've been so far from people all morning that little Omakau feels like a bustling metropolis when I reluctantly say goodbye to Kelly and Shiloh and head off to the Muddy Creek cafe for lunch. Just around the corner is Shebikeshebikes, which set me up for a taste of the classic two-wheeled trail. They drop me off with a comfortable bicycle at Auripo, which though it looks to be in the middle of nowhere is right at the beginning of the trail's most spectacular section.

Freewheeling down the gently sloping gravelled track, I'm excited to note I'm doing 25km/h. Perhaps there are advantages to cycling, after all. I cut through the Raggedy Range's dramatic schist tors, following the Poolburn Gorge. There's a viaduct 37m above the river, bumpy but impressive, and then two long, curved and pitch-dark tunnels, cut by hand using only picks and shovels.

Now that I'm on wheels, the cyclists I meet are full of camaraderie, and in the cosy cafe at Lauder I meet a family with a 6-year-old, who are doing the whole trail - "like eating an elephant, bit by bit".

Whether on your feet, two wheels or four hooves, it doesn't matter. The important part is to get out there.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Trail Treks can customise the Rail Trail experience for riders of all ages and abilities, with all arrangements taken care of.

Shebikeshebikes offers a similar service for cyclists, supplying whatever is needed to enjoy the trail.

More information: Otago Central Rail Trail and centralotagonz.com

- NZ Herald

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