The Grandaddy of Greatness
Otago Central Rail Trail
Our Trail Story
Ask any kiwi cyclist about what they know of the Great Rides and they will inevitably refer to the Otago Central Rail Trail. It’s already legendary. As I prepared to travel to Central Otago I pondered the notion of whether this trail has earned its status simply due to being the first of the cycle trails, the granddaddy; or on its own merits by delivering unique charms that enhance the journey – I was about to find out!
Opening at the turn of the century, the trail is a generation older than most of the new kids on the block. The former railway line was transferred to the Department of Conservation (DOC) in the early 1990’s. The Otago Central Rail Trail Trust helped to work with DOC to transform the line to a cycle trail and manage thereafter - about the time I was still getting to grips with my first mountain bike. The vision must have been a challenging concept at a time less ridden. I marvel at how those trustees could have possibly pulled off such a massive idea without precedent.
Arriving at the Clyde trailhead early one morning I started my familiar routine of attaching and warming up the GPS units on my bike while I gathered my gear for the ride. Every so often I would turn to watch the spectacle that surrounded me. The carpark was an emotional scene reminiscent of the heightened atmosphere of an airport, filled with laughter and the tears of separation and relief.
There is a collection of bikes scattered around the area with riding gear orbiting it like satellites around each group.
There is excited chattering in several tongues coupled with the spectrum of brightly coloured clothing; the sights and sounds stick with me. Never before have I seen such a colourful gathering and vibe at any trailhead.
And we’re off. Our varied pedal speeds soon separate us into clusters heading east along the railway straights to Alexandra and beyond. The dry landscape is only broken by schist outcrops, the railway cuttings at times revealing rich layered schist foliations. Before long we regrouped at Chatto Creek, a quaint tavern that was once a Cobb and Co coach stopover. While others collect refreshments, I collected waypoints on the GPS, photos and stories of yesteryear for the Great Rides App that I have developed.
Leaving the tavern and drinkers, I continued inland along the line to one of the most extreme climatic zones of any Mainland towns. I make a small detour at Omakau to reach Ophir. There I was richly rewarded with gold mining history and the charm of commercial buildings dressed in schist facades. It felt like a Hollywood recreation of a mining town… except this is real. It would have been easy to spend more time here for lunch, dinner or even overnighting but my sleeping bag and tent on the back of my silver steed were destined for Ranfurly - a long day ride for me, but normally ridden in two.
Further along the trail just past lovely Lauder I reached the Poolburn Gorge, often considered the highlight of the trail. It is definitely one of mine. Climbing gently from the town is the curved viaduct over the willow lined Manuherikia River - one of the longest viaducts on the trail and a graceful span to behold. Not long after this the trail enters the gorge, slowly winding up the hill to one of two long tunnels - the cold air in the darkness of the tunnel was a welcome respite from the furnace like conditions waiting outside. I’m not one for heat, but my wife is. She was lapping it up! After crossing a second viaduct high above the Ida Burn there is a blissful descent into Oturehua.
Although I’m writing about “hills” there are a bit, the thing to keep in mind is that trains don’t generally go up steep inclines, so biking the Otago Central Rail Trail is generally a mellow affair. At least with regard to gradients. Wind, Snow and heat… well you take your chances there folks. There can be some real extremes here, and it is part of what makes the ride special. The land is forged by those forces, and somehow you just absorb it. Soak it in. Feel this land get under your skin, and know it will call you back once you return home.
Oturehua is the home of the seemingly unchanged and nostalgic Gilchrist’s General Store. It is the oldest operating in the country - entering the store is the closest I will ever get to being a time traveler with the inside of store just like those from old cowboy movies. I grapple with pronunciation of this town’s name so much so that I am helped by some ‘Oh-Terry-Who-A’ locals. Also on the edge of ‘Oh-Terry’ is Heritage NZ’s Hayes Engineering Works and Homestead – a must do in my view.
Even for the least mechanically minded, the Hayes museum is a delight. A tour of the workshop was exceptional with working belts, bellows and tool boxes that give an insight to an entrepreneurial couple of the 1800’s. The whole place whirs and whines and belts flap and machines grind. Fantastic! It’s often open to the public, but not always running. Told here is the incredible story of pioneer Ernest who invented a range of ingenious tools to simplify his farm work. Meanwhile his wife, Hannah dressed in an ankle length skirt, took intrepid bicycle trips for multiple days at a time right throughout the wild Maniototo and MacKenzie selling the homemade tools – 100 years before the rail trail was even just rail!
Not far away and just off the trail is the Golden Progress underground mine, a short walk takes us past tailings to the mine shaft. This is a great place to hop off the saddle for a stroll into the scrubby foothills, past a cute stone miner’s cottage before reaching the original large wooden frame of the poppet head. That’s the big frame thing above a mine shaft that a cable wrapped around before it lowered and raised equipment or miners below. This poppet head is one of only two left in the country. The shaft here is 45 metres deep. I waypointed this place into my GPS, so Great Rides App users can find their way here.
Back on the main trail I climb up to the highest point of the trail on Seagull Hill (618m). From here the trail is generally downhill passing Wedderburn to reach the Maniototo Plains -
a section of trail that looks like a cartographer has drawn a 15 kilometre straight line across the map.
Wedderburn, as made famous in Grahame Sydney painting of the railway station looking so bleak you’ll feel cold just looking at it. In fact Wedderburn made SO famous that the good people of Wedderburn relocated the railway building back onto the rail trail.
Halfway along the plains Ranfurly beckons, and my tired legs come to a halt. It’s been a long day of riding and recording, so much so that I’m too late to take on provisions in small town New Zealand. I pitched my tent at the local camp grounds, ate a Chelsea bun and turned in early. I can only say I spent a few minutes awake in the art deco capital of the south, before returning next morning to the cartographer’s line shooting like an arrow across the Maniototo Plains.
The next notable feature on the trail is “blink-and -you’ll-miss-it” Waipiata before reaching the upper Tairei Gorge. My friends have stayed in the Waipiata Pub on two previous Rail Trail trips and loved the welcoming environment and wholesome food. Meanwhile I get to the gorge which offers a visual transition both in geology and landcover.
As I ride I can see rail cuttings exposing volcanic basalt intrusions coupled with schist; the familiar dry brown landscape now revealing hints of green. The gorge is a welcome break from the plains, with a tunnel and viaducts ... or is that bridges? Google tells me that all viaducts are bridges, and yet not all bridges are viaducts - I never got to the bottom of that. When I pass an unassuming rail cutting past Hyde I’m dragged back to a sadder focus - a dark part of our country’s history.
The Hyde railway disaster occurred in 1943 just prior to the then ‘Kings Birthday’ weekend. The tragedy occurred at Straws Cutting. Here in a curved slot cut through a hill, a steam train traveling at 112 kph failed to negotiate a 48 kph bend. The train derailed and the impact was massive. The engine plowed 60 metres from where it left the tracks, seven passenger carriages derailed, four of them concertinaed together with the second carriage somehow ending up in front of the engine.
The attending doctor described the scene as being like the result of a bomb blast. 21 passengers perished.
One surviving passenger unbelievably got thrown out one window, hit the bank and was thrown back in through another window!
First on the horrific scene was a local farmer. This was his land. His son had boarded the train at Hyde just minutes before. Heartbreakingly his son was among the dead. The train driver was found drunk and was later imprisoned for three years.
After passing the rock cairn memorial near the point of the crash the trail straightens soberly as it stretches towards Middlemarch, so named because the two nearby rivers are separated by a creek which formed a border or ‘march’ between them. At Middlemarch is a fascinating and sudden transition between the cycle trail finishing and the beginning of the still operational train line to Dunedin. It caught me off guard.
The town has a real country feel about it with a few cycle operators and cafes thrown into the traditional mix showing the trail is bringing new opportunities to small towns in NZ. I decided to treat myself to a large meat pie and salad after my meagre meal the night before. I inhaled the food. It was really good. As I did and then waited for my shuttle back, I reflected on my journey of the past two days, and revisited the question I posed right at the start.
Is the rail trail popular because of its status as the original Great Ride, or does it have greatness through it’s own merits? Having ridden all of the 22 Great Rides I know that each trail brings something exceptional to the national cycle trails. The special qualities I discovered on this trail were the rich pioneering history across the prairie-like landscape, the romantic railway era realism while crossing viaducts, and the big-sky vistas that come into view on exiting the tunnels.
This trail bursts with greatness.
Trails like people become legendary not necessarily by being the best, but venturing into unchartered areas, pushing the frontiers, and being so fresh that others will follow in their tyre tracks.
In my eyes, thanks to the trusts vision, this grandfather of trails has shared its wisdom through the wrinkles of time to a new generation of Great Rides.
Half of the NZ Great Rides that have followed since have some portion utilizing former railway corridors. I suspect had it not been for construction of the original railway that opened over a hundred years ago, and this trail that followed after it’s closure; the NZ Great Rides as we know them may not have come to life. Life without the Great Rides wouldn’t have been so great, and riding greatness would have been measured by the muddiness of shared 4WD tracks we’d be riding instead - so thanks Otago Central Rail Trail. You’re the Granddaddy of Greatness!