We all know that Otago is one of the most awesome and adventure filled areas of New Zealand but as so often is the case, we zip through from the end of a bungy cord to the driver’s seat of a luge and don’t get the chance to smell the roses - or the lupins. So the perfect way to tiki tour and indulge in the glorious Otago landscape at a more leisurely pace is to get on your bike and spin your way around the 156 odd km’s between Clyde and Middlemarch - or visa versa - following the now retired Otago Central Railway.
A gentle climb from either end, the trail reaches a peak of around 620m above sea level, and is hard packed gravel which makes for an easy ride.
In 1990 the decision was made to remove the rail tracks of the then defunct rail line and luckily the following year the Department of Conservation took over running the area and launched the Otago Rail Trail cycle trail, as a means to reinvigorate the small towns left a little in the lurch by the removal of the rail line. And boy what a trailblazer it has been serving as a guinea pig and forging the way for other cycle trails around the country.
Today there is an almost constant stream of cyclers exploring Otago, be it bite sized day chunks or a leisurely 3-5 day adventure from Middlemarch to Clyde or Clyde to Middlemarch. Which ever way you choose it’s a superb roadie, albeit a two wheel pedal powered roadie. And the only things to impact your choice of take off point is where do you want to end up - Queenstown or Dunedin? And do you want to cruise with the prevailing wind helping to push you along a bit? (If this is the case then ride from Clyde to Middlemarch - for that little bit of extra assistance.)
You can embark on the trail and be completely self sufficient, or you can work with one of the skilled cycle trail planning companies who will do as much or as little of the planning and organisation as you choose. So before you start check out She Bikes He Bikes, Bike It Now, Cycle Surgeries, Trail Journeys, Off the Rails, Big Sky Adventures, Altitude Bikes, Adventure South NZ or Luxury Rail Trail Tours as there’s a plan for every taste and budget. However if you do like to be a little in the know, then we have an itinerary that should see you right.
A couple of things to bear in mind before you start, whilst you can trail any time of year, Spring and Autumn are particularly good times of the year as the weather is warm, the autumnal colours are super and the spring blossom adds a scent to the pristine air but neither of these times of year get too extreme, too hot or too cold. As there isn’t a great deal of shade along the trail please remember when you’re packing your gear to include a broad brimmed hat - for those moments when you park up. Other must haves in your backpack are sun block, a reusable water bottle to ensure you’re hydrated at all times and some warm layers as there are reasonable winds so it’s good to be able to layer up, and strip off - as required.
Another pretty important consideration is that given there are big distances to cover and that Otago is relatively far from major centres, it’s important to ensure that you pre-book meals in some of the towns and for some of the accomodation options. We’ll try to let you know where you need to do this, but it’s worthwhile checking with your evenings hosts when you book in advance. And that brings us to the next thing point - please do book your cycle trail adventure in advance as there are a limited number of accommodation establishments, and we’d hate for you to miss out.
We chose to fly into Queenstown, transfer to Clyde and ride with the wind, but Clyde is such a glorious wee town it’s worthwhile making your first night on the trail in Clyde.
Once you’ve sorted your bike kit, give yourself some time to wander around the enchanting heritage buildings of Clyde, pop into Olivers for a coffee and something delicious to eat (you can even book yourself in there for the night as they have elegant accommodation options to ensure you sleep easy before your cycle adventure.) Another great place to stay is the Hartley Arms.
With your coffee fix satiated explore the dam which fenced in the Clutha River and substantially shaped the area. About 1 km away from Clyde, it’s a mammoth engineering feat and well worth exploring.
Also whilst in Alexandra stock up on snacks and refill your water bottles as you have to cover a wee way before your next pit stop. And if you haven’t had a platter at Shaky Bridge, perhaps grab some picnic fare so that you can make the most of the picnic spots that you’ll come across at Chatto Creek, or further along on your way to Omakau, as you’ll discover some great opportunities to stop for a splash and a swim in the river. Or if you’re into a quieter pace, to simply indulge in a leisurely sprawl to enjoy your picnic. If hauling food is a wee bit too taxing at this stage in your trail, wait until you reach Chatto Creek Tavern where you can choose something delicious to eat, chat to the gluten free - obviously very loved - donkeys and bask in the picturesque gardens over a glass of Chatto Creek wine or beer to whet your whistle. How much better can you get?
Once you’ve torn yourself from your garden retreat, it’s back on your bike, next stop - Omakau.
Next stop that is - unless you take a wee detour to the enchanting and historically preserved town of Ophir. Having being surpassed early on when it was determined that the rail line should go to Omakau rather than Ophir, the poor town felt the effects economically and it slumped as a consequence. Whilst it would have been very disheartening for most Ophir residents at the time, the benefits to us today is that the town is relatively preserved in its early 1900’s splendour. Listed as an historic area, wander Ophirs main street, Swindon Street, passing stone buildings such as the courthouse and jail, the bakery, churches and the 1886 post and telegraph office - which is the country’s oldest continually running post office.
After all of this first leg you’ll probably be pretty keen on a shower and a cold drink, so check into your accommodation. Great places to stop and rest your weary head in both Omakau and Ophir, and all with glorious histories which we’re sure will add to your dreams, are Omakau Bedpost, Pitches Store (Ophir), the Bakery Cottages (Ophir) or the art deco style Blacks Hotel in Ophir.
Pitches Store is set in a lovely old schist building that has served as a general store, garage or in various other forms since 1863. The Bedpost in the old Post Office and Postmasters house and the Bakery Cottages are also set in historic schist buildings. And if your tastes are more for the art deco than pre turn of the century, then book yourself into Blacks Hotel in Ophir.
The next morning, make sure you grab your morning coffee from Pitches Store or Muddy Creek Cafe and stock up with snacks and possibly a picnic before setting off to explore the area.
You’re headed to Oturehua through Lauder, and after Lauder you’ll spin your way across the Manuherikia No.1 Bridge which at 110m is the longest bridge on the rail trail. From here you’ll make your way through Poolburn Gorge. Duck your head as you pass through the Poolburn Gorge tunnels - one being a mighty 200 metres long. Won’t you be thrilled when you come out back into the sunlight greeted again by the view of the majestic Otago landscape. As the tunnels are so long, it’s best to walk your bike through the tunnels and make sure you have a torch with you as there is no lighting inside the tunnel. Wwwoooooooooo.
After going underground make sure you try to hold your breath as you travel overground on the incredibly tall Poolburn Viaduct - a mighty 37 metres high.
Coming into Oturehua, you’ll cycle past the Idaburn Dam where curling is all the rage during the winter time. This is in fact the home of the national Bonspiel or curling competition, so if you’re here during the winter time do try to come and watch a spot of this icy Scottish sport which to the untrained eye feels almost like the Queen Of Hearts game of croquet - until you get the gist of it. And then you’re off, you’ll be desperate to wield your own stick after the 20kg stone - or grab a broom and sweep the ice in the face of the on coming stone! Go on, we dare you.
Make sure you have your camera ready for the little township of Wedderburn. In 1862 a hotel was built to provide coaches an overnight stop for passengers and drivers alike, and a changeover for the horses galloping on their way to the farms and goldfields of “Central”. Consequently, Wedderburn was born. Today you will recognise the familiar green Wedderburn railway shed that was immortalised in Grahame Sydney’s painting, “July in Maniototo.” So do make sure you grab a selfie at this quaint and memorable spot.
Now for the next night’s stop. You can grab your 40 winks at Wedderburn Cottages or spin a little further and over night in Ranfurly. Famous for its art deco architecture Ranfurly is a great place to explore once you’ve sorted out your accommodation. You can book into the Ranfurly Hotel or for a slightly more upmarket experience check out the Maniototo Lodge B and B.
Once you’ve unpacked your panniers and taken off your helmet, check out a town where a large number of it’s shops and homes were built in the 30’s. Make time to pop into the 1940’s Centennial Milk Bar now known as the local art deco museum, or pass by the Fenton Library which today houses Otago’s last remaining independent radio station - Burn 729am.