Our arrival in Middlemarch was a wet one but overnight the rain stopped and the morning looks promising. Well, it’s dry, at least. We have breakfast, pack the bikes and head off to the start of the Central Otago Rail Trail, New Zealand’s first rail trail.
It’s a bit wet in places but we can avoid most big puddles. The sky is clearing and things are looking up. It’s easy cycling as the grade is minimal. We only meet a few other cyclists, all heading the other direction, as we ride through undulating farm land with the Rock and Pillar Range to our left in the west. The mountain range, created when movement of two parallel faults pushed up the area in between, rise up to 1,450 metres and are named for the rock formations common along the range.
It’s very green everywhere we look. Sheep and lambs dot the landscape, and yellow slashes of blooming Scotch broom add vivid contrast, especially along the Taieri River valley. The Taieri has a convoluted path flowing north along the Rock and Pillars before turning east and completing a 180 degree arc to flow south and then southeast through Taeiri Gorge, hitting tide water south of Dunedin.
We have come up with a similarly convoluted route through the South Island. Cycle New Zealand has created the Tour Aotearoa cycle route from the northern tip of the North Island at Cape Reinga to Bluff, the southern terminus on the South Island. The TA is 3,000 km long, connecting several of New Zealand’s “Great Rides.” But there are some other routes we will incorporate into our tour that we think are more interesting, starting with the Central Otago Rail Trail we are now riding.
We take a break in Hyde and have a coffee at the historic Otago Central Hotel. The Otago Central Railway took three decades to complete. Construction began in 1877 and didn’t reach completion to Clyde until 1907. A further section to Cromwell was built between 1914 and 1921. The Cromwell section was taken out in 1980 for the construction of the Clyde dam and the remaining line was in use until 1990 when the track from Clyde to Middlemarch was ripped out. The only remaining part of the line is the Taieri Gorge Railway tourist train that runs from Dunedin to Middlemarch and draws thousands of people annually.
The old railway was turned into a cycling and walking trail, drawing up to 14,000 users annually and now forms the largest non-agricultural economic driver in the region.
The trail crosses Highway 87 at Hyde and we carry on as we move away from the road and follow the Taieri River northward, ending our first day at Ranfurly where we find a spot in the local campground and a great meal at the Lion Hotel.
The next day, we continue through Wedderburn and Idaburn as the clouds all around build into some kind of monster, bent on spoiling our good time. We take a lunch break in Otuherua at the pub and can’t decide whether to stay or move on. The weather forecast is for a lot of nastiness and the publican advises us to carry on before it goes completely to pot. We ride on as dark clouds close in all around and rain is obviously falling ahead as we head for Poolburn Gorge, arguably one of the most scenic stretches along the trail.
The rain hits us as we enter the gorge near the bridge across the Manuherikia River but a small gang shed along the trail offers us shelter. We have lunch and wait for the squall to move along.
It took three years to build the short section of railway through the gorge because of two tunnels and two bridges that needed to be constructed. The gorge is barren and dry as it cuts through schist rock bluffs. The only trees are in the river valley.
The tunnels, both more than 200 metres long, are completely dark. We can’t see a thing until we switch on our bike lights and we admire the construction of these hand dug tunnels with their bricked entrances.
The bridges are marvels of construction, in particular bridge 69. It’s more than 100 metres long with the steel trusses sitting on masonry piers constructed from the local schist rock. The centre span is nearly 50 metres and sits 37 metres above the river gorge.
But we don’t admire it for long as the weather is getting more unstable by the minute. Thunder urges us on as we fly downhill now, racing towards Lauder, hoping to find shelter. Out of nowhere, a curtain of rain hits us. We push harder. We can see the café a couple of hundred metres ahead. The rain turns to hail and we are forced to stop and turn our backs to the icy assault. We are pelted with ice balls for a few minutes when it stops as quickly as it started.
We quickly ride to the café where a familiar face greets us. It’s Bruce, a man we met the day before. He’s on a tour by himself on a lightly loaded mountain bike. He stays and eats in pubs and hotels every day. Bruce travels much faster than we do, and he tells us he’s been in the café for a couple of hours whiling away the afternoon as his lodgings are here for the night. The café owner hands us a couple of towels to dry off our sopping wet coats and pants. We dry and take off the wet gear, order coffee with cake, and join Bruce while we wait for the squall to move through.
After an hour or so, it’s barely raining and it looks like a good opportunity to ride the final few kilometres to Ophir, a small town just off the trail where we hope to find a cabin for the night. It’s far to miserable to camp. I phone but only get voice mail. We decide to take our chances and go.
When we arrive, the place looks closed but there is a house and I go to the door. Richard and Monique greet us with big smiles and invite us in. We are obviously cold, our blue lips tipping them off. I immediately recognize the Dutch accent and speak to them in my mother tongue. The smiles get even bigger and before long we’re set up in one of the cute little cabins and we are shown the kitchen and lounge area where Richard points to the fire place as he goes to get more wood.
A bit later he comes back with eggs, milk and butter as well as some stroop wafels, a delicious Dutch treat of two thin waffles with sweet, thick caramel syrup in between. He proudly shows us his life boat parked in the yard. It’s indeed a boat on a trailer with a canvas top. Under the canvas are all the necessary implements to make espresso drinks and waffles. It’s been his business for many years.
We slowly begin to feel human again as we eat the wafels with hot tea sitting by the pot belly stove that’s slowly heating up the room. We decide not to cook that night as the local hotel has a highly rated dining room and we feel a treat is well deserved after today’s assault. The meal does not disappoint and we have a great night, chatting to other guests and one of the owners who’s manning the bar. We wander back to our hostel and feel the cold. Hard to believe it’s nearly summer.
In the morning, snow blankets the mountains and the temperature outside is close to turning the falling rain to more snow. We make breakfast and ponder our departure but not for very long. We stoke the fire and stay another day. We read, watch netflix on the big tv and keep the fire stoked. When it finally stops raining for a while, we venture out for a short walk to have a look at some of the historic buildings in this little town that dates back to the gold rush of 1863.
It used to be called Blacks, but with the discovery of gold, it was renamed Ophir, after the biblical King Solomon’s gold mines, and the town’s population grew to over 1000. Now, only about 50 souls live in Ophir. Remarkably, many of the original 19th century buildings have survived and many have been restored. Ophir also has the dubious distinction of setting New Zealand’s record coldest temperature of -21.6 °C in July 1995, despite being at low elevation. Thankfully, it’s not that cold.
The weather is marginally better the next day as we ride 32 km to Alexandra where we have arranged to stay with Warm Showers hosts Kelly and Michael. We are warmly received and we spend a great night together swapping cycling and travel stories. They showed us a map of their Tour de Whisky in Scotland. I must do that one.
The next day is a stunningly beautiful, sunny day as we climb the road out of Alexandra. There is almost no traffic because the highway further on is closed due to a landslide. Good for us as we have the road almost to ourselves, except for a few locals driving to and from town.
Snow-clad mountains are all around us as we ride to Lake Roxburgh Village and cross the dam to get on the Clutha Gold Trail, a dirt track that follows the Clutha River down to Miller’s Flat. The trail is a great ride with lots of short ups and downs. It’s fast and fun until a wash-out stops us cold in our tracks but we manage to maneuvre the bikes past it and carry on.
We just beat the rain and stay indoors again as the camp site has small cabins that are not much more than camping. It’s just too miserable for tenting as the ground is saturated from the record rainfall. We sure picked a good time to be here.
We continue on the secondary highway as the bike trail has ended. We slowly climb in the drizzle to Edenvale but eventually the sun wins out over rain and we dry off over lunch in Tapanui. There are more road closures because of flooding and there is a long, hilly detour to get from Tapanui to Gore but we study the map a bit and find a flat gravel road along the Pomahake River that takes us to the closed highway 90 just past the flooded bridge. Again, we ride a highway with nearly no traffic until the detour rejoins it.
We arrive in Gore to find cheap camping at the local show ground. We pitch our tent adjacent to the race track and grand stand while chatting with some of the caravan dwellers who curiously come by and ask about our journey. The warm, sunny weather has persisted and we bask in the sun while wandering into town in search of nourishment and libations.
In the morning, as we ride through town, we see another cycle tourer ahead and we catch up with him at the bank. Before meeting him, I already know he’s Dutch by looking at his parked bicycle. Sven is 18, just graduated high school and on his first bike tour. We ride to the grocery store together and decide to carry on as a threesome since we have the same idea for the ride to Queenstown along the Around the Mountains Trail.
Compared to the previous couple of days, in which we climbed nearly 1,700 metres, the ride to Mossburn is relatively flat and we finish the 88-kilometre ride in less than five hours. Mossburn is a tiny town and the only place to get a beer is at the hotel pub. Sven has to show his passport to prove he’s 18 but he takes it in stride. We ride out of town to the camp site and set up our tents as more rain threatens to kill our buzz from what has been a spectacularly gorgeous day.
We are excited about the next days as the trail will take us off the secondary highways onto a dead-end gravel road north into a mountain valley that will eventually lead us to the shores of Lake Wakatipu at Walter Peak Station on the opposite shore of Queenstown.
We only meet a few vehicles as we ride the dirt road north through a wide valley. It is absolutely gorgeous. We slowly climb up to over 600 metres at rail grade and soak up the scenery. The weather, as has been a disturbing pattern of late, deteriorates as the afternoon rolls on.
A river stops us. There is no bridge. It’s a braided stream, about 40 metres wide and deep enough to take a moment to sort out how we’re going to get across. Sven takes off his boots and walks across in bare feet but we put on sandals for the crossing, first taking the big bags off our bikes and returning through the numbingly cold water for the bicycles.
As it’s late in the day and the distance to Walter Peak Station too far, we decide to camp a couple of hundred metres off the track along the rushing river. We have food and shelter, and the river provides us the water we need. We get the tents up and go for an exploratory hike towards the mountains rising up nearby.
While making dinner, the rain that was threatening begins to fall and we dash for the shelter of our tents, finishing dinner inside while the rain beats down. It promises to be a long night in the tent. No point in going wandering and getting soaked.
The rain stops long enough to get out and wash the dishes. We make some tea and settle in for the night, watching an episode of a Netflix series and reading before falling asleep to the gentle patter of the rain on the tent fly.
The morning is dry and we have a leisurely breakfast wanting to linger in this gorgeous landscape. But eventually we have to go and we break camp, making sure nothing is left behind.
The road continues to climb gently for an hour and then it drops steeply into the Von River valley as we drop 200 metres in less than two kilometres. We continue to lose elevation and suddenly the view opens up, revealing Lake Wakatipu.
We ride the final 10 km to Walter Peak Station where a coal-burning steamer ferries tourists to and from Queenstown all day long. We have missed the last boat but there is a free camp site on a point overlooking the lake where we spend the night. Sven goes fishing and before long he comes running back to show us his first New Zealand trout. We’ve already eaten so he releases the fish.
In the morning we take the steamer across the lake to Queenstown, New Zealand’s most expensive tourist trap. It’s quite a contrast from the peaceful mountain surroundings we have enjoyed the last few days.
We go to the one and only camp site in town, an overpriced holiday park filled to the brim with camper vans. Our little tents look sadly out of place between all the white vans. But it’s a necessary evil as we need a day off to rest, do laundry and prepare for the next section of our ride north.