The Otago Central Rail Trail is a 150-kilometre cycling track on the New Zealand South Island. The trail runs in an arc between Clyde, and Middlemarch along the route of the former Otago Central Railway. The “Rail Trail” has been ridden by hundreds of thousands of people since opening in February 2000 and is arguably New Zealand’s best known rail trail.
Located in Central Otago the Rail Trail has international airports close to either end with Queenstown Airport only one hour from the Clyde end and Dunedin Airport only 50 mins from the Middlemarch end.
Central Otago’s climate is the closest New Zealand has to a continental climate but I was surprised to find it was almost considered as a desert with Alexandra having the lowest average annual rainfall (340mm) recorded anywhere in New Zealand.
The seasons are sharply defined: summers are typified by long days (daylight lasts until 10pm) that are hot and low in humidity; autumn sees cooler evenings with hot and still days shortening as you head into winter; winter mornings are often misty, the days cloudless and windless and the nights freezing; while spring sees a return to warmer weather.
Saturday, 1st October 2016 – Sydney to Queenstown
We flew from Sydney into Queenstown Nz, and hopped aboard a shuttle bus and promptly dropped at our accommodation (Queenstown YHA Lakeside). Our stay was pleasant and i recommend to anyone after budget accommodation. From the YHA accommodation a quick stroll had us in the middle of town but now being around 10pm our meal choices were limited but we did find a Mexican takeaway place.
Sunday, 2 October 2016 – Clyde to Lauder
Note: GPS details are available here
We caught the Intercity Bus, Queenstown to Clyde from centre of Queenstown at 7:40 am. Arrived Clyde at 9:00 am and dropped at Shebikeshebikes Clyde depot in the Historic Clyde Railway Station in Clyde.
Shebikeshebikes setup our bikes, fitted helmets and briefed us on the ride. There were two options on this part of the ride both linking up at Alexandra. One following the river and the other following the actual Rail Trail and is fairly flat from Clyde to Alexandra, passing orchards, vineyards and pastures.
We choose the river route and enjoyed a windy dirt trail with short little rises as we cycled along the river to join the trail that passes behind Alexandra. From there to Chatto Creek the landscape changes from rural to unique Central Otago schist rock.
The trail crosses a single lane bridge over the Manuherikia River and passes through the old Tucker Hill gold diggings.
The trail follows the Manuherikia River into Chatto Creek and now we find our self’s cycling through irrigated farmland of the lower Manuherikia Valley.
We choose to do a quick 5km detour from Omakau to checkout the town of Ophir being a well preserved village of the gold rush era with mud-brick and stone buildings, many of which are in use today, including the post office. The return leg to Omakau was via the 1880 Daniel O’Connell Suspension Bridge and continued on to Lauder.
Lauder itself has a population of about 18 and two accommodation options were recommended to us being the the former Lauder Railway School which has been converted into a B&B or Lauder Hotel. We booked into Lauder School and were very pleased with the accommodation with its large lounge room, beautiful country garden and outdoor spa (oh! we skipped the spa as it happened to be a rather cool night and we didn’t fancy the walk to and from but on a warmer evening it would of been great). .
Fortunately the Lauder Hotel which is the original Railway Hotel, built in 1904 was just across the road and the service plus food was also very pleasing. One of our party was able to convince the publican to open early so she could get a coffee hit for the day.
Monday, 3 October 2016 – Lauder to Waipiata
Note: GPS details are available here
From Lauder the Rail Trail crosses the curved Manuherikia No.1 Bridge, the longest on the trail at 110 metres.
The trail starts a gradual climb into the Poolburn Gorge and then enters the tunnels cut through schist-stone. As a note of caution it helps to take off your sun glasses before riding through the tunnels and turn on the lights fitted to the bike. The tunnels are 201 and 230 metres long, respectively.
Next, the trail crosses the spectacular Poolburn Viaduct. This awesome bridge is 108 metres long and 37 metres high with impressive schist rock piers and abutments.
It took 300 workers, three years to build the two tunnels and two bridges necessary to get the railway through this rugged terrain.
As you approach Oturehua you find the old Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead which is the legacy of English immigrants Ernest and Hannah Hayes, who settled in Central Otago after their arrival in 1882. Unfortunately it was closed for us but it’s famous for inventing tools, including the fence strainer still used on New Zealand farms today. We had lunch at the pub in Oturehua and then proceeded across the road and checked out the historic Gilchrist’s general store.
Back on our bikes after lunch the trail gently ascends to its high point at 618 metres above sea level, just before Wedderburn. The trail then descends across the Maniototo Plains to Ranfurly, Maniototo’s commercial centre and once a bustling railway town. We take the opportunity to pickup supplies for the last day of riding as this section has no real lunch stops. The trail then continues along the Maniototo Plain to the village of Waipiata.
Peters Farm – Historic 1882 mud-brick lodge and cottages. We actually stayed in Tregonning Cottage (Self-contained) with one of the best views in the Maniototo. Peter will pickup from Waipiata and return but we choose to cycle the 4 km’s out to the farm. Peter also provided us an all you can eat BBQ dinner for $25 along with beer and wine which was purchased separately. You will need to organise dinner prior to your stay.
Tuesday, 4 October 2016 – Waipiata to Middlemarch
Note: GPS Details of the day’s riding are available here
We begin the day cycling the 4 km’s back to Waipata from Peter’s farm. From Waipata to Kokonga the trail passes the former 2km-wide Taieri Lake, the demise of which began with silt build-up from gold mining activities. Basalt stone was mined from the hills to build Dunedin’s grand railway station.
As the trail enters the beautiful Taieri Gorge, it follows a scenic river course to Tiroti, and passes the old Red Dawf Hut, a former railway workers’ shelter at Daisybank (Look closely at the photo and you will see it in the background).
The trail crosses the 91-metre long, 32-metre high Price’s Creek Viaduct. Built of concrete and steel in 1963, the viaduct replaced an older wooden bridge. Price’s Creek tunnel soon follows. It is 152 metres long and fully bricked.
The trail then opens out onto the Strath Taieri plain. Cone-shaped hills east of the river were caused millions of years ago by erupting volcanoes but gently rolling and flat landscape characterises this section of the trail along with its many bridges and culverts.
The trail traverses the foothills of the 1400-metre high Rock and Pillar Range with its distinctive, huge rocky outcrops, before meandering through the valley’s productive farmland to the Ngapuna Station site. In the east is the 700-metre high Taieri Ridge.
The Otago Central Rail Trail ends in Middlemarch where we did a quick cycle around the town and grabbed some refreshments in one of the cafes. We returned our bikes to Shebikeshebikes shop and changed into more appropriate clothes for our trip to Dunedin. Shebikeshebikes shuttled us to Pukerangi station where we met the Taieri Gorge Railway train to travelled to Dunedin. On Sundays the train actually comes all the way to MiddleMarch but suggest you check the timetables.
Journeying by train through the spectacular Taieri River Gorge, across viaducts and through tunnels until it reached Dunedin where the land was flat and it was the perfect way to end our Otago Central Rail Trail experience. We stayed in Budget accommodation which there seemed to be ample choice. The weather had been particularly warm for this time of year and sunny but Dunedin was cooler with grey sky’s and misty light rain hanging about.
Wednesday, 5 October 2016 – Dunedin to Sydney
We had the best part of the day to fill out before catching our late afternoon flight back to Sydney. Walked steepest residential street
My planning was greatly helped by Shebikeshebikes who provided itineraries, bike hire, transport services. They also recommended and booked our accommodation at no extra cost to us. If you are of a reasonable fitness then I recommend doing the cycle over 3 days. The gradients were gentle but relentless at times. The trail is largely on a compacted gravely dirt surface so I highly recommend doing it on a mountain bike and i was impressed by the specialized 29’s we had hired. We had our luggage transported for us along the trail and very glad we had that luxury. Not having been to Queenstown before it would have been nice to spend more time there by either flying in a day earlier or returning via Queenstown. You can cycle the trail either way but we choose Clyde to Middlemarch as it was more likely to have more favorable winds.