I am writing a guide for riding your first RAGBRAI so I am doing more research. I found a terrific movie, A Million Spokes, that follows a half dozen riders and tells their stories over the 7 day course, plus short profiles of lots of other participants–riders and townspeople. I was teary-eyed over and over again. Please watch it and tell me if you teared up too and if you have ridden RAGBRAI. I also laughed, winced and grimaced. I plan to use this video to recruit/educate potential team members for next year, so I would love to hear your thoughts. Note: I only found the DVD at Amazon–not available on Netflix, iTunes or Google Play.
I read Rumble Yell over the weekend. It is a memoir of Brian David Bruns first and only RAGBRAI ride. He is a travel writer by trade and does a fine job of telling his story. It is a quick read and gives you a taste of what your experience might be from the perspective of a small team that used an RV for their support vehicle. He emphasizes the characters you will meet on RAGBRAI and how a team may bond over the seven days.
Dumbest book title goes to RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces it Wrong. The author John Karras co-founded RAGBRAI and this is a history of how RAGBRAI became the biggest, longest, oldest bike ride in America (when you factor in all three). By the way, it is pronounced Rag-Bri (long i), not Rag-bray. Think “i” for Iowa.
RAGBRAI is also featured in Ian Dille’s The Cyclist’s Bucket List. It is one of 33 rides listed in the United States. It gets a whopping three pages of prose and no photos. Most of the other rides are longer on photos and shorter on prose. Just a taster though, no real information on how to participate.
The good news is my RAGBRAI Virgin book idea is going to fill a niche currently not fulfilled in the marketplace. Now I just have to write it.
At last! I am pleased to share the first publication from On Your Radar Media Company, “A Cycling Adventure: Otago Central Rail Trail.” It is available as a downloadable PDF by clicking on the image below.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is a terrific, accessible adventure on the South Island of New Zealand. You can bike or walk, and this guide gives you all the information you need to plan your own adventure.
It will hopefully be the first of many On Your Radar Media Company cycling and other travel publications. Let me know what you think of the format and if you have any questions I did not answer.
After pedaling 150 kilometers along the retired Otago Central Railway, it was a treat to ride the rails by train. The Otago Central Railway was instrumental in developing Central Otago as an agricultural region. Today day-trippers and cyclists are the main “cargo”.
As we left Middlemarch I noticed a cute café called the Kissing Gate and Nick explained it was owned by Kate, a Dunedin councilwoman. We are more than 60 km from Dunedin and yet we are part of the greater city of Dunedin. Go figure.
My Off the Rails guide Nick turned off the main road at the sign to the Taieri Gorge Railway; we still had 12 km to go in the middle of nowhere. We arrived a few minutes before the train was due. Nick groaned slightly when he spied the little flea market along the side of the track. Their presence signified that there would be a tour train catering to a cruise ship that would delay our train.
Nick purchased my ticket for me and drove me to Pukerangi. Pukerangi means the Hills of the God in te reo Maori. The isolation does make a person wonder about the choice of the railway terminus (Middlemarch makes more sense). It was raining by the time we reached the station. The train was a little behind schedule and Nick was able to suss out the delay was due to an extra train carrying cruise ship tour groups.
When the train arrived, Nick had a word with the elderly guard Joe. He confirmed that we would experience a delay of about 40 minutes because there is only one track so we have to wait for them to arrive and their cruise ship disembarked an hour behind schedule. Meanwhile people desperate for retail shopping browsed among the market tables. The rain started coming down hard and the vendors covered their goods with tarps. The hardiest tourists continued to browse as best they could.
Our train arrived first and the train conductors greeted us warmly. They had my souvenir ticket and loaded my bags. I had time to stop at the dining car and purchase an egg salad sandwich and some potato chips before the train filled with travelers. There was a family with a baby who screeched. Not the usual boo-hoo from a baby or toddler but a screech like a parrot. Thankfully the rocking of the train seemed to calm him once we were underway.
Too bad it did not quiet the opinionated American woman with the southern accent who responded to a gentle joke from the conductor, “Barrack Hussein Obama is a secret Muslim.” It was apropos of nothing and really awkward. The Chinese-speaking rider across from me obviously understood and caught my eye as if to see if I would respond. I really did not know what to say. I did write in my journal, “Tests for letting people out of the country instead of in.”
The train is aptly named as we passed one gorge after another. The Scotch Broom blooms bright yellow on the hillsides among the tor (rock outcropping). Seats are assigned, so if you are keen to take pictures, request a left side window seat en route to Dunedin and opposite on way to Pukerangi, and if you are afraid of falling off the side of roads request an aisle seat.
Gradually the terrain levels out and transforms into bucolic farmland. Finally we reach the outskirts of Dunedin and see homes and businesses. About 1 hour and 45 minutes later, we arrive at the majestic Dunedin Central Train Station. The station is a gorgeous Victorian era monument to railroads and is centrally located in downtown Dunedin.
Dunedin Railways (www.taieri.co.nz) offers several daily trips from the majestic Dunedin Railway Station to Pukerangi (short drive from Middlemarch) or one train to/from Middlemarch on Sunday and Friday. The fare (as of January 2015) is $89 per adult. Tickets can be booked on line and I recommend you purchase in advance especially during summer season.
My note in my journal for today’s ride is “Too short.” At this point, I was feeling very strong, though a little tired. I only needed to ride 12.5 or 13.5 kilometers depending on the signs you read. Nick designed the days so on Day 4 I could ride to Middlemarch and still catch the train to Dunedin.
I felt very melancholic about completing the ride. It was also one my final days for my adventures in New Zealand. I did my best to savor each moment. In no time I was in Middlemarch. First there was the finish at the official signs and stamp. Nick recorded my feat.
Then I rode further into the old rail station buildings and Quench Café. We loaded my bike in the trailer and walked to Quench to get a Flat White. I pulled out my Picnic candy bar to celebrate. Nick presented me with a certificate celebrating my accomplishment.
I had already packed my bag and so once I returned my cycling gloves, there was little else to do but head to the train station.
I loved cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail. I would do it again for sure. I spent a lot of time on the trail imagining how the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta could benefit from a similar rail trail. The rail trail is terrific for families, for school groups, and for cycling clubs or for individual cyclists like me.
This trail is the first of the Great Rides. Built and maintained by New Zealand’s excellent Department of Conservation. Nga Haerenga-The New Zealand Cycle Trail offers 23 “Great Rides” varying in difficulty from easy to advanced. You can discover all of the trails at www.nzcycletrail.com.
I ended Day Two in Ranfurly so I began Day 3 just behind the Information Centre.It was a pleasure to wake up and roll out of town with little fuss. I borrowed a pair of gloves from Off the Rails because the sun and wind had burned the back of my hands the previous day. It was also cooler and cloudier so the extra warmth felt good.
I still was not sore from cycling, just tired. I was confident in my ability to cycle the 44 kilometers to Rock and Pillar.
The plan was to ride to Hyde for lunch and then finish the day mid afternoon at Rock & Pillar, giving me ample time to get cleaned up and go curling before dinner in Naseby.
I packed my rain jacket in my pannier everyday—a wise precaution in New Zealand where the weather is changeable. Today I wore it to ward off the chill and “just in case” although it never actually rained.
I stopped frequently to take photos as the scenery was even more gorgeous than previous stretches. The place names are sometimes Maori, sometimes reminiscent of somewhere in Great Britain. I loved “Daisybank,” which likely describes the place in springtime. I saw some picnicking couples but otherwise I had the trail to myself.
There was another tunnel and quite a few bridges. It seemed like no time and I was rolling into Hyde. We stopped at the charming café Otago Central Hotel after quickly admiring the World War I memorial. The women in the teashop were very friendly and the cheese scone yummy. I warmed up with some tea and a little time out of the wind.
I was whizzing along lost in my thoughts and I rode right past the stamp stop at Tiroiti and also did not see the sign that indicated the memorial for the 21 victims of the Hyde rail accident. Fortunately the café in Hyde had the stamp for Tiroiti and Nick was happy to stop at the Memorial after loading my bike on the trailer at Rock and Pillar.
Then it was just 14 kilometers to Rock and Pillar. I clouds in the sky were spectacular. I felt like I was flying along.
Hyde Rail Accident
The 4 June 1943 Hyde rail accident was horrific. Of the 113 people on the train, 21 were killed and 47 injured. The train engineer ought to have reduced speed before Straw Cutting but because of his own fatigue failed to do so. The engine and 5 carriages jumped the tracks, several of them telescoping into one another. Passengers were thrown onto the cold ground and there was risk of dying from exposure. Rescue efforts were hampered by wartime petrol rationing, lack of manpower, and busy telephone lines. Locals will share some of the remarkable stories of survivors.
After a flat white stop in historic Ophir, we arrived at the trail stop in Lauder. Nick unloaded my bike and downplayed the climbing. He gives me a torch for the couple of tunnels I will pass through today. He will meet me at the bridge after the second tunnel and ride awhile with me. Then meet me for lunch. After Day One I know what to expect and I am more confident in my ability to tackle it. I am not the least bit sore in the limbs but my bottom is feeling the contours of the seat even with the gel pad.
Between me and my lunch stop was the first of two 7 kilometer inclines. “Climb” is an exaggeration. I decided to take my time and make steady progress. The views from the trail are definitely more wild and scenic. Nick mentioned The Lord of the Rings filmed in this area and I spent happy hours trying to guess what scenes might have been filmed in this rock outcropping or river gorge. Sheep were still my main companions as I only saw about 6 other riders in groups of 2 along the rail trail.
The first of two tunnels was exciting. I thought about my colleagues in Sacramento and how fascinated they would be with the tunnel engineering and it helped to distract from entering the tunnel with just my little bike torch. It got darker and darker then pitch black. I was glad I heeded the sign and got off and walked my bike. The sign suggested horses go around and I wondered if any horses would go through without fuss. The darkest bit did not last long and suddenly I could see the actual light at the end of the tunnel! The second tunnel was not nearly so long or dark and Nick had met me by then.
We met at a cafe in Oturehua for lunch. I was in search of soup, bread and cheese (Ploughman’s lunch). I wanted just a little something to warm me and hold me over without weighing me down. Nick checked at all of the establishments, alas every cook in the region was looking forward to summer and so no soup.
After I said goodbye to Nick, I stopped at Gilchrist’s Oturehua Store in the hope of finding proper bike shorts with a chamois. Thankfully they sell a variety of biking clothes and souvenir Rail Trail t-shirts. They do not take credit though so I walked across the street to the Pub. The publican kindly offered to be my ATM. I slipped on my bike shorts under my Terry board shorts and felt instant relief.
Thankfully since I faced the second 7 kilometer incline. Near the summit I passed the marker for the 45th parallel. Then stopped for a cup of tea and to answer questions for the local council. “How was I enjoying the trail?” That sort of thing. They asked if I thought electric bikes should be allowed on the trail and I emphatically said “No!” I imagined the last long slog and thought how demoralizing it would be if I was pedaling hard to get up the hill and then someone went scooting by on e-bike. Nick says they may be allowed regardless. I hope not.
Not long after the tea break I reached the highest point in the trail. Whether you start in Middlemarch or Clyde, the first half to this point is going to be a gradual uphill and the second half is going to be a gradual downhill. I was glad to think I had mostly downhill bits left.
As I began to roll down the hill into Wedderburn I remembered to shift into third gear and realized I did not downshift the whole time I was going up the grade. Duh! I saw Nick in Wedderburn and then began to hot foot it to Ranfurly. We would meet up later for dinner at the Vulcan Hotel. I wanted to get back to Ranfurly in time to restock some supplies from the chemist and clean up.
I still stopped as often as I could to take photos. I was especially intrigued with the old train station buildings. So is local artist Grahame Sydney. He paints ultra realistic landscapes that include many of the Rail Trail historic buildings. He is a bit of recluse so Nick was excited when he spied him eating his lunch near us in Oturehua.
Ranfurly is a decent sized town with a large information center, a hotel with restaurant and a café. They also boast architecturally interesting library now radio station. (It may be a Carnegie library!) I was particularly keen to check out the bookstore and to buy a Picnic candy bar to celebrate the conclusion of my trip in just 2 days.
Walking around town I also discovered a statue for John Turnbull Thomson, the Chief Surveyor of Otago. Nick’s couple of stories remind me of the adventures of American John Wesley Powell. Wallace Stegner wrote a wonderful book about Powell called West of the Hundredth Meridian. Please comment below if you know of something similar for Thomson.
My Off the Rails guide Nick arrived at my Queenstown hotel at 8 a.m. We were quickly on the road toward Cromwell. After about 45 minutes we pulled off the highway at the statue of supersize fruit. The original town of Cromwell was partially inundated by hydroelectric dam and reservoir. The project build a new town center and we stopped at the Tin Goose for a flat white.
We pulled into the parking lot at the Otago Central Rail Trailhead and Nick unloaded my bike and adjusted it for me. He put on a pannier and I loaded my backpack inside. I put my camera in the front “lunchbox”, and inserted my map. Nick had a snack and a water bottle for me to take along too. I was ready.
Lastly, he gave me my “passport” where I can collect stamps along the way. He explained that there are white kilometer markers along the way. I was ready to start my first 44 km of 150 km.
The railway was shut down in 1990 and then followed a period of construction. Between 100,000-120,000 people walk or ride on it each year—grinding up the rocks that make up the old rail bed. The trail started out flat and I found myself whizzing along stopping to take pictures as the landscape evolved from bucolic agriculture vineyards and paddocks to more open pasture and natural landscapes.
I stopped frequently to take pictures and drink in the beauty. Nick calls the trail “intensely scenic” and it is designated as an area of outstanding beauty, which is saying a lot in New Zealand where there are no ugly places.
It was 8 km to Alexandra, 7 km to Galloway, and 10 km to Chatto Creek. At each train station I stopped and stamped my passport and stopped to take pictures. Along the way Nick met me to make sure my bike was in good working order and that I was cycling without difficulty.
About the time my blood sugar was dropping I arrived at Chatto Creek pub and restaurant. I made the mistake of ordering the Bacon Buttie sandwich (bacon and brie). It was delicious and I ate almost all of it, which was fine until I got back on my bike and faced the hardest section of the day. I felt sluggish and heavy.
The first 8 km (of 12 km) on the way to Omakau is called Tiger Hill. None of the inclines are greater than 1:50; however, this section shifts direction so the wind from tail to the side. Plus it was 2 in the afternoon and had cooled considerably and the trail rocks were deeper and more difficult to maneuver through. At one point a beautiful egret was roused from the verge and flew overhead as a kind of encouragement.
I slogged up the hill and my reward was a nice downhill stretch for a couple of kilometers into Omakau. Then it was just 7 km to Lauder.
Nick met me and we loaded my bike. He dropped me at a lovely cottage built in 1906 in Ranfurly. It has two bedrooms, lounge, bathroom, dining room and kitchen. I have it all to myself this week because I am the only one booked on this tour. It feels a little odd but I am so tired that I am just glad to have a hot shower and comfortable bed.
One of the challenges of visiting any country where it takes 12+ hours to fly to: you want to pack in as much as humanly possible in your schedule. (My kids say not everyone approaches travel this way. Whatever.) When I was last in Dunedin I really wanted to spend a day cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail. It takes an entire day with the coach pick up from the railway station, the cycling, and the return; plus it was not offered the one day I could have made it work.
So this trip I was determined to make sure to experience the retired railway, now pedestrian and cycling path. After my experience with my Tour de France adventure, I knew I wanted a supported ride and as many days cycling as possible (in between penguin stops).
I started my research at the official website for the Otago Central Rail Trail. Interestingly, some tour operators advertise on the homepage but are not listed on the Tour Operators page. I made a complete list of possibilities. Then I went to Trip Advisor and checked the reviews under Otago Central Rail Trail. It is ranked the number #1 attraction in the Otago region. There were a few more tour operators reviewed here and so I added their names to the list.
Then I began the laborious process of visiting their websites and reading what options are offered and the possible schedules to fill in my matrix. Some options were eliminated because they only begin offering tours in January. Seasons are opposite from North America in New Zealand. (I know, duh.) Early December is not quite summer. I also have some time constraints and some companies have a minimum of 5 nights. Many of the businesses put together all of your reservations and equipment, but do not support you on the road. I believe I found my sweet spot. At a price of $1,200 a person or more, it is worth the extra time and effort to do my homework.
I also discovered that I will begin my adventure in Queenstown. This makes it easier to coordinate my car rental but adds some drive time to my overall adventure. I will take a train at the end of my four days to spend some time in Dunedin and fly to Auckland and then to the US from there.
Making these plans has definitely reenergized my bicycling workouts. I am using the training plan from Bike Your Butt Off! by Selena Yeager with Leslie Bonci.
Have any of you done this trip? What do you think, does it deserve its #5 ranking in AA’s 101 Must-Dos for Kiwis 2012? Any tips to better enjoy the adventure?
My adult kids and I will be celebrating my birthday and Thanksgiving in St Heliers, Auckland, New Zealand. I am so excited to share my favorite places in Auckland with them and tackling some adventures such as climbing Rangitoto. We will make a traditional American groaning feast for my Kiwi friends and then we will pursue our own adventures.
Every trip begins with booking tickets on Air New Zealand. For $50 one of their helpful advisors will help make more complicated reservations over the phone. Sometimes there is a savings if you are traveling to several places within New Zealand during your stay. This trip I made all of my reservations on line. Their easy to use site allows me to book my flight, pick my seat and let them know if I have special dietary requirements or need to bring an extra bag.
With my bookends of arrivals and departures (and notice that you lose a day on the way over from USA and live your last day twice on the way back), I begin to fill in the middle points. If I have confirmed dates in certain places I typically log on to Booking.com and make my hotel reservations, Kayak.com for auto reservations and then Trip Advisor for ideas for things to do and for reviews of hotels if I am undecided on Booking.com.
I am going to South Island for a combination of penguin viewing and cycling. Penguin viewing was my highest priority: I want to see both Fiordland penguins and yellow eyed penguins. And I want to visit Stewart Island (mainly for kiwi birds). My challenge was figuring out the best places to see these and then create an itinerary that is reasonable and fulfilling.
New Zealand Penguins website is a life saver. It lists several options for each type of penguin that I want to view. I decided to visit Lake Moeraki in South Westland, Stewart Island in Southland, and Dunedin in Otago for my three penguin stops. I created a matrix for Dunedin since there are so many options. I have begun searching the various penguin guide websites and emailing for more details. I will soon have my tickets or reservations.
The complicating factor is the cycling. I really would like to cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail from Queenstown to Dunedin (the last bit by train). I had to establish the timeframe for that before I could solidify my penguin plans. And I had to make some adjustments to my plans. Originally I thought I’d drive from Queenstown to Lake Moeraki to Invercargill to Dunedin, but the cycling trips begin in Queenstown. Some quick changes to my itinerary and voila! I am able to do everything I want to do.
It is a very full schedule, and not everyone would find four days of cycling the “relaxing” bit. I am super charged about it.
Due to my own planning errors I was driving the four hours from Raleigh, North Carolina, and calling Robert at Hotel Domestique to give me directions because my phone was almost out of juice and I could not rely on Google maps. (Forget the pathetic Dollar Car Rental map). Robert was very gracious. “Drive carefully. Don’t worry about the time. I’ll be here.” AT 1:00 a.m. I pulled in exhausted from driving through torrential rains and navigating on smaller highways with a minimum of signage. (I like more encouragement along the way). He carried my bag to my room and opened the wooden door with a real key. This was my first impression:
The next morning I woke up to the sound of music wafting up from the dining room where a delicious complimentary breakfast is served. The decaf coffee was really, really good. Very rare occurrence. My poached egg was done just right. I was tired and excited to get out on my bike. The front desk said they would set me up with a GPS programmed with one of the shorter rides. Oh, and the co-owner of the hotel (and inspiration), George Hincapie, was going to be leading a “climb” if I wanted to join them. Umm, thanks but no thank you. (I couldn’t imagine keeping up with George Hincapie or the sleek group of Toronto cyclists (average BMI 18).
I did see George Hincapie arrive and greet some other guests who were friends. I suddenly felt awkward about meeting him with the only agenda “meeting someone famous who I admire.” If you are not familiar with George Hincapie’s resume… he is best known for being an exemplar “domestique”. This involves working your fanny off for the general classification rider (Yellow Jersey). He has worked for several Tour de France overall winners, most controversially Lance Armstrong. He has just published his own memoir, The Loyal Lieutenant. I like him best for his time on Columbia High Road, the team based out of San Luis Obispo most famous for being the most successful lead out train for sprinter Mark Cavendish. The hotel restaurant is called “17” for his 17 Tour de France finishes. This boutique hotel is styled after a modern (up-to-date) French chateau complete with vineyards. It is already popular with cyclists across North America.
I took off on my own ride and discovered how ill prepared I am for the Yorkshire hills. I have my work cut out for me!
I returned and cooled off on my balcony, showered in the amazing bathroom and went downstairs to rustle up some lunch. I really, really wanted to try the restaurant for dinner. Alas, they do not serve until after 1 a.m. They do not have a lunch menu so much as a collection of paninis. I chose the goat cheese and spinach with tomato spead. It was yummy and hit the spot.
Listening to the car radio for hours educated me about the literal and figurative divide between South and North Carolina. The hotel is located near Traveller’s Rest. I learned from my new friend Pleasure Sawyer that this is in Upstate where Charlestonians go to get a break from summer heat. It is close to Greenville, SC. Hotel Domestique is also close to Asheville, North Carolina. However, it might as well be a world away. People in Asheville are quite happy to be from Asheville and when I stopped at a terrific local bookstore (for later post on Asheville) and they did not carry George’s book and had never heard of him.
I loved my time in Asheville and got back to the hotel around 9. The parking lot was full and a party was in full swing. I asked the front desk clerk if I could get a cup of decaf from the restaurant and she had me follow her to collect it. She pointed to a large group of festive people and said, “George is having a few friends in tonight.” I was ready to go to my room, pack up my stuff for my early morning launch back to Greensboro at 4 a.m. I was tucked into bed at 10 and the party was still in full swing. The music was clearly discernable in my room and when people left the party and said their farewells in the lobby it sounded like they were in my room. Suddenly the french doors to my balcony were not such a great thing. At 11:15 I called my pal Robert at the desk and asked if the party was ending by midnight. He offered to ask them to turn down the music and I dithered. I could hear the much quieter breakfast music so I was not sure it was worth it. Then Habitat for Humanity called me to ask for a donation! Argh. Now I was really awake. I used all of my relaxation tricks and the next time I woke up and checked my phone it was completely quiet and 1:15.
One lesson I learned at a Model United Nations conference in college. If the people making the noise in a private party at hotel would just invite their neighbors… the neighbors will likely say no (if they are like me) and will resent the noise so much less.
I was out the door with my farewells to Robert about 4:10 a.m. I had a 3.25 hour drive to the airport to return my car in Greensboro, then a quick trip by cab to the Amtrak station (because they are never co-located, right?!) When I stopped for breakfast at 6 and called Robert and asked him to have the manager to call me to discuss the noise.
Around 10:30 I got a call from Webster. He apologized and asked me more specifics about my experience. It was a great example of above and beyond service. Of course, sleep deprived should never be mentioned in the same sentence as hotel. He even said he would bring it up with his boss George. Wow. And he comped my last night. Wow! Did not expect it. It was a relief because I love this hotel. I want to be able to recommend it unreservedly. Since Webster asked such detailed questions I bet they address the noise situation and they made it right for my situation.
I will definitely stay again. However, I will fly into Atlanta or Charlotte and drive a lot les! And I will use their hotel’s excellent road bikes.