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.
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.
Before I started my second day of cycling on the Otago Central Rail Trail in New Zealand, Nick and I stopped in Ophir. Ancient Ophir was one of Solomon’s ports where rich minerals entered the kingdom. Not surprising then there are towns named Ophir in many goldfields. This small village in Central Otago is rich with historic buildings. This post office is part museum, part post office, part souvenir shop. Buy a postcard and post it from here.
I grew up in Sacramento which is at the heart of the gold story in California. I also spent a lot of time as a teenager in Nevada while crewing for endurance horse riders. I had a memory of Ophir Prison Band but could not remember what it was all about until I asked Google and rediscovered the crazy kazoo band.
There are terrific restored restaurants and accommodation in Ophir. Many of the businesses in Central Otago are for sale, so f you fall in love with the place and lifestyle, make an offer.
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.
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.