Bike tour part three

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Otago Central Rail Trail

The Otago Central Rail Trail is pretty much a cyclist's dream. Just imagine: a road, with a maximum grade of 2%; gorgeous scenery, with bridges and tunnels; no motorized traffic allowed; and a pub ever 12 km. It's almost too good to be true.

We kept hearing about this mythical land of milk and honey while we were in Dunedin, so we decided to go check it out. However, between Dunedin and Middlemarch (the start of the trail) are some of the most vicious hills described in our wonderful guidebook. We opted for the "historic train" option, which goes to Middlemarch one day of the week, and Pukerangi (20 km shy of Middlemarch) on all the other days.

Due to our decision to see the penguins on our last evening in Dunedin, we spent the night in a cozy little cabin on a farm on the Otago Peninsula. Penguin Place is a good 40 km from the city centre, so splitting the difference and staying out on the peninsula meant that we only had 20 km of terrifying night cycling on the winding bay road. It also meant that we had another 20 km to go in the morning before the 9 AM train ride. Fortunately, we set out early enough to fight through a stiff headwind and get to the train station in time to enjoy a delicious pie from the farmer's market.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was a fun experience in itself. The train was nearly empty, and it's clearly used as a tourist sightseeing adventure rather than a transportation tool. I'm guessing that it might not be too many more years before it disappears, which would be sad; but then again, it might get converted to cycling trail. In any case, at the present it is indeed a train. Here's photographic evidence.

Looking back down the Tairi Gorge

At Pukerangi we got off the train and started getting our bike gear in order. The train then turned around and took its shipment of tourists back to Dunedin, and we were left alone in the middle of nowhere. I'm not sure what we were expecting, but it is rather odd for a train to have a destination that consists of a hut and a portapotty.

Pukerangi: the end of the line.

From Pukerangi it was 20 km of "mostly gravel and occasionally steep" deserted roads passing through farmers' fields on the way to Middlemarch. We reached the beginning of the rail trail at about 2 pm, and conveniently managed to give our camping gear to a tour company. This left us with only two panniers each to deal with on the (mountain bike recommended) trail. We set out in blissful vehicle-free silence and easily covered the 27 km to Hyde in under two hours.

The start of the rail trail!
Bridges are fun.

We reached Hyde just as it was starting to get pretty cold, and managed to snag a room at the only establishment in town. It was also the most expensive place we stayed at, and we shared a massive buffet dinner with a group of retirees who had almost finished their guided tour down the trail in the opposite direction, and who had chosen the tour company primarily based on their food offerings.

The Historic Hyde Hotel

The second day of rail trail adventures came with more interesting scenery, such as tunnels!

Riding into the tunnel!
Tunnels are dark. We actually walked the bikes, aside from these photo ops.

Day two was also our first encounter with the famous South Island Nor'wester (similar to the Chinook back home). Unfortunately, at this point in the trail, we were heading North west. Combined with the very slight uphill, we only managed to go about 8 kilometers per hour in Granny gear. When we rounded a corner and had the wind from the side briefly, I actually got blown off my bike. Yikes. Fortunately, the bridges/viaducts have railings:

I don't know what makes a viaduct different from a bridge.
Waipiata Man!
You'd never know there's a gale-force wind blowing right now.
Uh oh, those clouds don't look good...
We're at the peak! Too bad the wind doesn't slow down too...
We crossed over the 45th parallel (S) twice.

We reached Oturehua (Oh-ter-ee-HU-ah) just as the first fat droplets of rain were beginning to fall. We found ourselves as the sole occupants of the Crow's Nest Hostel, and had a nice relaxing evening with a bottle of unlabelled wine (purchased from the hostel owner), a deck of cards, and Whiskey.

Ryan loves Whiskey

After a night of pounding rain, Whiskey woke us up bright and early to a surprisingly sunny morning. The wind had shifted to a strong (and COLD) South Westerly, and we had also begin heading South West. Sigh. Apparently there's a reason most people did the trail in the opposite direction.

Another viaduct.
Tunnel 13! We didn't actually pass through 13 tunnels...
The view from the cockpit.

We had planned to finish the trail on the third day and spend the night in Clyde at the end of the line. However, by the time we'd fought through the (now bitterly cold) headwind to Alexandra, the rain had started up again and it was starting to get dark. Though we only had 8 km to go, we decided to hole up in Alex and hope for better weather in the morning. Fortunately, we got it! It didn't get any warmer, but our last 8 km of rail trail took about 30 minutes in the calm and beautiful morning.

We did it! 150 km of gravel and headwinds.

Thus concludes our rail trail adventure. Though less idyllic than anticipated due to the headwinds, it was gorgeous and a great break from the traffic and undersized shoulders of New Zealand highways. To anyone considering biking the rail trail: Highly recommended, but if you have a choice, pick West to East!

Finally, you can stamp a passport along the way at each former railway station. I didn't have the official passport, but I stamped my journal.

Stamps from Stationmaster Ryan!

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