Blair of Balclutha was a standout among the chic and affluent riding the Otago Central Rail Trail last weekend.

He was squinting over the rails of a viaduct above Manuherikia River: having spotted some enormous brown trout, he was plotting how to catch them for lunch.

No high-end titanium cycle or designer shades for this guy.

Riders from Auckland and Melbourne were kitted out in the latest brand-name gear, but Blair had just an old bike with "slippy gears" and a dozen of beer strapped to the carrier.


The cheery dairy worker disdained padded shorts, having joined mates to pedal the trail in jeans (not recommended).

A rough diamond perhaps, but more than 100 years ago it was plain Kiwi blokes like Blair who laid foundations for this remarkable rail trail.

Central Otago farmers and orchardists needed a railway, so the navvies were put to work.

Tough guys wielded picks and shovels, humped barrows and lit the odd stick of dynamite.

They piled up the vast earthworks and constructed huge bridges and viaducts...

Sadly, by the 1990s the line was uneconomic. Tracks and sleepers set in place with such pride were ripped up and carted away.

But then came the local visionaries, the wise heads whodecided to turn New Zealand's longest branch line (Clyde to Middlemarch) into a world-class bike track.

The Otago Central Rail Trail has been open since 2000, attracting 10,000 to 12,000 riders each year.


You can ride 150km, passing mountains and valleys which have inspired galleries full of paintings.

Our long weekend -- riding about half the trail -- topped a long list of shared adventures for my wife and me over many years.

We crammed in 80km of trail proper (Oturehua to Clyde); plus an amazing 30km detour -- Roxburgh Gorge to Clyde.

Though we are regular cyclists, we'd barely prepared, but we need not have worried. Trail Journeys Ltd provided excellent bikes and took care of all logistics.

The company van carried us to the highest point of the trail to trundle back to Clyde for two days with gravity on our side.

What's more, staff picked up our baggage in the morning and whisked it to our evening accommodation.

Depending on the level of service, this can add up to about $150 a day, with accomodation (from $65 a night) on top.

So with very little to carry, the uphill sections weren't that difficult, while the downhill ones were exhilarating. The only pains we experienced were not in the legs. We left the trail with the heartache oneexperiences farewelling a close friend.

But on that score -- and with all due respect to Blair -- proper food and hydration (plus protective clothing, including padded cycle shorts, or a gel seat cover) are essential.

Central Otago landscapes seen on TV had initially attracted us, but the reality far exceeded them: the mountains, the brooding, dramatic cloud formations, boulders like Stonehenge. Lambs were playing; quail and pheasants scuttered before our wheels and hawks circled.

You lunge for a camera at each corner, while long, empty straights seem a tonic. They're calming and meditative for us cyclists who get pushed around in Auckland traffic.

At Clyde, if you get the opportunity to load your bikes into a Clutha River Cruises jetboat, take it.

After being shown through ancient goldminers' huts built into walls of the gorge, we were put ashore to pedal about 10km back to Clyde.

The almost deserted Roxburgh Gorge Cycle Trail seemed almost ethereal that afternoon, like cycling beside a vast Martian canal.

I could write more about superb stone-walled hotels, fresh local produce, abundant trailside cafes and friendly service... but why not see and find out for yourself.