Venetia Sherson looks at alternative two-wheelers to enable more people to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail

The people of Ophir in Central Otago (population 50) have seen some strange sights pass through their old mining town, which borders the Otago Rail Trail.

Thousands of Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra); parents with toddlers riding shotgun; spindly-legged septuagenarians dealing to flat tyres.

But the sight of Liz Kelly rolling into town stopped them in their tracks.

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"The main reaction was probably incredulity," says Liz, a just-turned-60-year-old education consultant from Melbourne.

"There was a group of people outside the pub, pointing and laughing. But in a friendly way."

Liz is the first person to ride the trail on a Segway — the nippy, balancing scooter now favoured by tour groups in large cities. She would have preferred to ride the trail on a normal bike — like her husband — but a compression injury to her lower spine makes sitting painful.

"I'd ridden a Segway in Europe, and San Francisco where there are some very steep hills. When my husband suggested I ride one on the rail trail, I was a bit anxious, but keen." She contacted the Clyde-based company Bike It Now! and Segway on Q, a Queenstown company that specialises in Segway tours.

The Otago Rail Trail is New Zealand's oldest rail trail, and traverses 150km of dry and rocky plains and deep river gorges from Clyde to Middlemarch. There were logistical questions to be answered: would the terrain be suitable, how far would the battery take her, where could she recharge along the trail, and would standing for long distances be uncomfortable?

Segway on Q founder Kevin Hey, who has biked the trail, saw no concerns for the vehicle and Bike It Now! tour organiser Lois Mulvihill was enthusiastic.

"Liz had ridden Segways for 10 years. She was confident and keen. We thought, why not?" Lois set up a 24/7 system where Liz could contact her when her battery ran flat. The Segway was transported by trailer to her overnight accommodation, where it was recharged.

Liz Kelly rides a Segway on The Otago Rail Trail.
Liz Kelly rides a Segway on The Otago Rail Trail.

Segways have a battery life of 39km on smooth surfaces and in good weather. But the Otago Rail Trail has a mix of terrain and the weather is changeable.

"On one day, when it was cold, the battery lasted for only 21km." Her best day was 28km. She says the soft gravel was harder to navigate, but the Segway easily handled hills, bumps, bridges, tunnels and cattle stops."

She rode the trail with her husband and two university friends, who rode e-bikes. It cost her $1000, but she says it was worth every cent. "It was the most amazing experience.

The hospitality was so good and it was great to be out in the wilderness, but knowing the support was in place if there was a hiccup."

A previously "very fit" woman, Liz says she is frustrated by her injury but keen to pursue options that allow her to push her limits. "Next step might be Mt Everest. Segways are very good on hills."

Bike It Now! co-owner Kathryn Fletcher says while Liz was the first person to complete the trail on a Segway, there is an increased demand for electric bikes from people who have health issues or lack fitness. Last year, the Department of Conservation relaxed its policy to allow anyone to use power-assisted cycles, not exceeding 300 watts.

Bike It Now! has doubled its fleet of e-bikes from six to 13 to cope with the demand, particularly from those aged in their 60s and 70s. Other cycle companies have done the same. Kathryn says their oldest e-bike client was 88.

"There are three women in Alexandra, aged in their 70s, who have bought their own e-bikes after renting them. They call themselves the Battery Hens".

She says some cycling purists say e-bikes are cheating. "I come from an outdoor education background. I say the more people that can get out there, the better."

Kathryn owns an e-bike, which she refers to as The Monster. "I'm not as fit as I used to be, but I still want to get out into the hills."

E-bikes can travel up to 140km on battery and reach speeds of 25km/h, although most people ride at the same speed as pedal bikes, using the battery to only assist uphill. Recharging takes three hours, and the battery uses the same amount of power as a cellphone.

Central Otago locals Todd Sisson and Lois Mulvihill ride e-bikes on The Otago Rail Trail.
Central Otago locals Todd Sisson and Lois Mulvihill ride e-bikes on The Otago Rail Trail.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies daily from Auckland to Queenstown.

Further information: For details on hiring Segways or bikes, go to segwayonq.co.nz and bikeitnow.co.nz.