Cycling The Central Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand.
The Central Otago Rail Trail is New Zealand's best known cycle trail. Built in 1994 on a decommissioned railway from Dunedin to Clyde it traverses the dry, grassy South Island high country; winding it's way through rocky gorges, over high river viaducts and across the sweeping wide open grassy plains. This is big sky country - crisp blue wide open spaces or brooding dark towers of cloud.
Being formerly an old gold trail railway, this ride is not difficult and is mostly level. Whichever direction you go in, you start with a gentle climb from around 200 meters above sea level up to the roughly half way point at 618 meters high, then there is a gentle decent down the other side. Occasionally it gets windy up there, and this can sometimes be more of a challenge than hills. You are a little more likely to get a tail wind going from West to East - Clyde to Middlemarch.
The trail itself is in great condition, being made of light but well compressed gravel. There is plenty of room to ride two abreast, or to easily pass a rider coming in the opposite direction. The total distance of the ride is 152km. Energetic kids (10+) and fit older people should be able to do this ride. If doing the whole thing is too much, park up in one of the towns and cycle the most interesting bits.
The railway the trail has replaced was originally built starting in 1879, from Dunedin to Middlemarch. It was then extended through to Clyde in 1907. While it was envisioned to service the late 19th century Otago gold rush, in fact, by the time it was built this was all over. Instead the rail line was used for wool, livestock and general supplies. By the late 1980's the railway was used infrequently, so was decommissioned.
Although it seemed like an unusual idea at the time, a few dedicated people successfully lobbied for it to become a cycle and walking trail. Since then cycle trails have become a big thing in New Zealand with over $100 million invested in what are known as the 23 'Great Rides'. It all started with the Otago Rail Trail.
Along the trail there is plenty of food, accommodation and historic rail history to indulge in, so take your time. Children can get a rail 'passport' which can get stamped at every station and tells you a bit about this history of the area. The stations, sheds and bridges often have good information and photos on the local history.
Information on accommodation, bike hire and food is listed at the bottom on this page.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE STAGES:
Clyde To Alexander (8 KM)
For the first stage there are two routes, one is the official trail and the other is alongside the Clutha river. The latter is actually more interesting, winding it's way through the trees alongside the riverbank. A few sections are a little narrow so watch out for someone coming the other way. To get to this section go down to the river in Clyde, take the bridge across the river, turn right and loop around under the bridge. At the other end turn left back across another bridge as you enter Alexander. If you take the rail trail head to the railway station and it is a fairly straight less interesting ride gently sloping down to Alexander
Alexander to Ophir/Omakau (29km)
From Alexander the trail turns left in a NE direction and gently slopes up the valley towards Chatto Creek, where it crosses the road and continues to climb to the top of the Tiger Hill. Apparently this is the steepest part of the trail, though it is hardly vertical. There are nice open views back down the valley. From the top it is a short cruise down to Omakau. The appealing and historic town of Ophir is a couple of km down the road, where you can stay at the Deco Blacks Hotel.
Omakau - Lauder - Oturehua - Wedderburn (42km)
The section between Lauder and Oturehua is one of the more interesting sections of the trail. After crossing the impressive Manuherikia bridge, winding up the valley, through a number of tunnels whist glimpsing sweeping views out into wide open spaces beyond, you reach the Poolburn Viaduct near the top. Make sure you have lunch or snacks with you as after Lauder there are less places to pick up food. There are plenty of good stopping points along here.
In Oturehua there is the large historic Gilchrists Oturehua store which was built in 1899 and is still open today. Inside there is a mix of memorabilia and modern cycling necessities - like ice cream. Not too far past Oturehua the trail reaches it's highest point (618 meters) and then it is a cruise down to Wedderburn with it's historic Tavern and comfortable Wedderburn Cottages.
Wedderburn - Ranfurly - Waipiata - Hyde (54km)
From Wedderburn it is a a gentle and mostly straight descent to Ranfurly where there is a supermarket and a few cafe's, though perhaps not the best cuisine on the trail. There are a couple of nice art deco buildings in Ranfurly. From there the descent continues and from Waipiata to Hyde there is another nice river gorge with several large bridges. Hyde has a large old Hotel which looks interesting, but is currently closed.
Hyde- Middlemarch (27km)
Another gentle downhill though an wide valley to Middlemarch where on some days you can take the train to Dunedin.
TWO VIDEOS ON THE OTAGO RAIL TRAIL
This first video, by ourselves Travel Collected, was filmed summer 2017 and takes the Clyde to Middlemarch direction. Initially we follow the river to Alexandra, the weather looks bad but clears up from day 2 along the way. Leni - 10 years old - rides the whole 152km journey.
Oliver Heys has a drone and he knows how to fly it. For his video we get some nice flyovers of the trail, especially bridges, rivers and rolling hills. It looks to be Autumn so everything is golden and glowing. There isn't much practical information, but it looks nice.
OTAGO RAIL TRAIL TRIP RESOURCES
There are two quite comprehensive websites on the Otago Rail Trail.
The first - otagorailtrail.co.nz - is run by Peter Andrews who is also the owner of Peter's Farm Lodge and the author of book 'The Rail Trail Guide Book'. This book is an excellent resource for the trip, but also good for the shelf or coffee table when you return home. It's generously filled with photos from all seasons on the trail, good maps and lots of useful advice. It is easy to pick up along the trail (most places seem to have a copy) or you can order online from the website.
The second website, which also has lots of information, is at otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz. Between these two websites you should be able to plan your trip in detail.
You can do the trail independently, or with the help of one of several cycle tour businesses based in Clyde and Middlemarch.
While it wouldn't be hard to do independently, the advantages of booking it via and one of the local tour operators is they know the best places to stay, will come out and fix your bike if there are issues and they deliver your luggage to your next drop off point. You aren't part of a tour group so aside from the staying in prescribed accommodation you can go and do as you please.
The tour operators include Bike It Now (also a cycle shop, in Clyde) She Bikes He Bikes (Clyde) Trail Journeys (Clyde and Middlemarch) and Cycle Surgery (Middlemarch). All offer varying services to from luxury accommodation and electric bike cruise control through to the basics of gear transport or bike hire. We used Bike It Now and can recommend them.
If doing it independently it would just be a matter of doing some research into the best places to stay, taking a few tools and transporting your luggage on the bikes.
There is plenty of accommodation along the trail, though recommended are the deco Blacks Hotel (Ophir), the comfortable Wedderburn Cottages (Wedderburn) and the historic stone estate Peter's Farm Lodge (Waipiata - though they can supply transport back from Hyde).
Finally, another book worth checking before you go - or taking along - is the Kennett Brothers "Classic New Zealand Cycle Trails" which includes The Otago Rail Trail among the 23 great rides.