The Otago Central Rail Trail was the first bike trail established on an old rail line in New Zealand. It opened in 2000. The original railway was established in the mining boom and ran from 1879 –1990. It was referred to as “One of the Great Train Trips in the World” and opened up Central Otago.
The Otago Central Rail Trail runs between Middlemarch and Clyde, a distance of 152 kms.
You can do it in either direction. Most people start from Clyde (40 kms from Queenstown), as there is more accommodation available for the first night when you go in that direction. We went against the tide, starting in Middlemarch, which is located near Dunedin.
Even getting to the start at Middlemarch is fun. We chose to go on the Taieri Gorge Railway, a historic train that takes you up into the hinterland via the narrow and spectacular Taieri Gorge. There is a commentary on board, as well as stops for photos including one on a trestle bridge. You get a great shot of the train on top of the bridge. The train goes to Pukerangi and we were picked up from there and taken to the place we were picking up our bikes.
We had a group of four and we chose to use a tour company called Shebikeshebikes. The helpful staff organised everything for us – the train tickets, the bikes, the accommodation … and they move the luggage for you from place to place. So easy.
You can do the trail in two to five days. You can also just do a section if you are time poor. We did it in four but I wish we had added another night.
Because it was a rail line, the gradient is not steep. There are a couple of hills that are a bit of a challenge but I just took lots of photos so I could have a rest. On another hill a magpie was attacking me so I had a good excuse to get off and walk.
You don’t ride to any great altitude. It raises up to a peak of 618 metres. The steepest part of the trail is Tiger Hill, a series of S bends, but because we rode from Middlemarch to Clyde, we got to do it downhill. No matter which way you go, stop off in Omakau at the Muddy Creek Cafe. It is famous for its pies … if you can stomach one.
The scenery is absolutely gobsmackingly beautiful the whole entire length.
You ride over several trestle bridges, viaducts, and the most fun is going through the three old railway tunnels. You have to walk your bikes through. One of them Prices Tunnel, which is 151 metres long. The torches come in very handy.
A fun thing to do is to buy one of the passports for the trail. As a lot of the original train stations are still there, there is a special box at each one – you open up the box and then stamp your passport. It is a great keepsake from the ride. For photographers, the stations are very photogenic. There are other railway buildings along the way as well with highlights including the Wedderburn goods shed and the Ida Valley gangers shed, an old shed where the railway workers could shelter.
In Ranfurly, take time to explore the art deco buildings, browse through the galleries, or stop for a meal.
There are some great pubs and other interesting places along the way. One is the Wedderburn Tavern, built in 1885 as a rest stop for wagon and coach drivers – the horse-drawn kind of coach that is.
In Oturahua, stop at Gilchrist’s store. It is the oldest continuously trading store in NZ – and it is like a living museum. Also visit the Oturehua Railway Hotel, they offer a good range of home-cooked meals and it is really pleasant to enjoy it in the beer garden.
Another place to stop and explore is the Hayes Engineering Works & Homestead – the former home and workshop of an inventor by the name of Ernest Hayes. The homestead is mudbrick and had electricity, a flushing toilet and even piped radio through the bedrooms – quite impressive as it was built in 1920! Ernest’s wife Hannah was also quite the pioneer. It was her job to sell the inventions so she would take the samples and cycle far and wide – even as far away as Mackenzie Country. Quite an effort riding in a long skirt. Being a gentleman, Ernest invented a new bike wheel to make Hannah’s journeys a bit easier. You can see one of the prototypes for it on the property.
His most famous invention is a wire-straining tool from 1924. It is still being made and used everywhere there is a wire fence. Then there is the windmill water pump. It is a lovely spot and there is a café on site too.
Let’s talk bikes
Let’s get down to nitty gritty – the bikes. WIth Shebikeshebikes you get to choose whether you want the Comfort bikes, Mountain bikes or you can pay a bit extra for an E-bike. We went for Comfort bikes, a great option for anyone that doesn’t ride a lot or who wants to “take it easy” on the trail. You also get a helmet, puncture repair kit, pump, bottle cage, pannier rack, cycle computer, kick stand and a front bike light.
I would recommend getting the gel seat covers, the padded bike pants …. whatever you can.
Accommodation on the Trail
There is a good range of accommodation along the way. We stayed at Tregonning Cottage in Hyde, a historic mud brick farmhouse with stunning views. It was built in 1882.
In Ranfurly there is Maniototo Lodge, a beautifully restored home that used to be the Catholic presbytery. Everything was stunning, including the home cooked meal.
One of the reasons we should have stayed an extra night was to visit the Maniototo International Curling centre in nearby Naseby. I have been there before and it is well worth booking in for a go at curling. Australia had our very first team competing in Beijing in the curling, – Tahli Gill and Dean Hewitt. They would absolutely have played in Naseby. It is harder than it looks and heaps of fun. And in case you were wondering, curling was introduced by Scottish gold miners who came to Otago in the early 1860s.
Other places I recommend include Wedderburn Cottages, lovely cottages on a farm, and Lauder School – an old school with rooms named after what they were when it was a school. We were in the Detention shed. Not sure what that says about us!
On our last night, after we had finished the trail, we stayed in Clyde at the beautiful Olivers Lodge and Stables. Clyde was an old mining town for the gold that was found on the Clutha River. Olivers was formerly the Victoria store established in 1869. It sold everything that miners might need. Now it is a beautiful place to stay, and the restaurant and brewery next door are phenomenal. Many of Clyde’s historic buildings and quaint colonial cottages are still there, now operating as shops, cafés or charming places to stay.
When you have done this trail, there are 21 more to do in New Zealand spread over the north and south islands. There are three near Clyde; the new 42 kms Lake Dunstan trail, the 34 km Roxburgh Gorge Trail and the Clutha Gold Trail – 73 kms. You can organise everything for those through Shebikeshebikes.
So start peddling!