Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail - Day 1

We did it! We biked the Otago Central Rail Trail, 150 kms over four days. We had three lovely fine, calm days, and the final day it rained!

We had taken our bikes in our little car across Cook Strait five days earlier, and had taken our time getting to Clyde, in Central Otago, from where we departed on the trail. Along the way, we biked in every place we stayed in – Christchurch, Tekapo, and Lake Ohau. All of these were interesting and yielded great photos (mainly from John, of course), and I will write up these rides a bit later. But for now, I just want to write about the Otago Rail Trail.

I will publish each Rail Trail day as a separate post, so look for the other days further up the blog.

For the non-New Zealanders who read this blog, let me tell you a bit about the Rail Trail. Central Otago, in the lower half of the South Island, was the scene of a gold rush in the 1860s. Many communities grew as miners flocked to try their luck. Between 1891 and 1907 a railway line was built to service these communities. By 1921, when the rail head finally reached Clyde, the gold rush was finished, and farming had taken over. The railway was vital for the communities, bringing in mail and other supplies from Dunedin, and transporting wool bales and livestock to Dunedin’s docks and meatworks.

However in 1990 the line was closed. The rails were removed, and eventually, the track was made suitable for cycling instead. And in 2000, the Otago Central Rail Trail was opened to the public. It was the first in a series of great cycling trails to open in NZ in succeeding years.

The Otago Rail Trail goes for 150 kms from Clyde to Middlemarch – or vice versa – and rises from 170 m above sea level at Clyde (and dips to 150 m at Alexandra), to 618 m at its highest point near Wedderburn, and back to 200 m at Middlemarch. It goes through some quite varied landscapes of amazing beauty, ranging from lush valleys and river flats, to steep and harsh gorges, and wide open views to starkly beautiful, high hills and mountains in the distance.

The trail is described by the cycling fraternity and the NZ Cycle Trail information as “Grade 1, easiest”, meaning: “Off-road trail surface is either firm gravel or sealed (e.g. concrete or asphalt) and is wide enough for 2 people to cycle side by side for most of the way. Suitable for novice cyclists, families and others seeking a very easy cycling experience”.

The Kennett Brothers’ book “Classic NZ Cycle Trails” describes the grade as “Very easy: Flat, smooth and wide trails suitable for the whole family. The surface is concrete or smooth gravel. Any on-road sections will have little or no traffic, travelling at 50kph or less”. 

While I would probably agree with all of that, I would say that the trail was not exactly a “doddle”, and we found that the first two days of cycling were long and b… hard work. But the fabulous landscape makes up for the hardships – sort of ...

Because the Otago Rail Trail is a great drawcard for tourists, there are several companies that hire out bicycles, book accommodation, transport luggage from point to point, and shuttle passengers (and bikes) between any of the points between Queenstown and Dunedin and anywhere along the trail, if required.

We went with a company called Trail Journeys, which booked our accommodation along the way, moved our luggage to the next place every day, and brought us back from Middlemarch to Clyde on the final day. One of the reasons we used Trail Journeys was that they had a secure, under-cover, storage facility for our car. 

We chose to ride the Trail in four days, but in hindsight, it would have been much better to have done it over five or even six days. We had to cycle 45 kms for each of the first three days, which supposedly is about four hours of cycling, but it works out to be rather longer. It left no time to do any side trips, or to linger anywhere for any length of time.

Also in hindsight, it might have been easier to start from Middlemarch, as you get to the highest point sooner, and so the there is more downhill than uphill. Although nowhere was the gradient more than 1 in 50, which is fairly gentle, it seems like a really hard grind (for the likes of me, at least) if it goes on and on for miles. Then again, general advice seems to be that Clyde to Middlemarch is better because of the prevailing wind. We were lucky in that all four days were mostly calm – just a little breeze to keep us from overheating.

The map below was taken from this website. It shows the layout of the trail, the places we visited, and the elevation profile.

The Central Otago Rail Trail (map taken from

Day 1 – Clyde to Ophir

On Wednesday 2 April, we set off from the Trail Journeys depot in Clyde, having delivered our suitcase for transfer to our next accommodation, and our car for storage for the next four days. We each bought a Rail Trail “Passport” which provided information about all the places we would be cycling through, and which had space for a Rail Trail stamp at each former railway station.

Our Rail Trail “Passports”. John’s bedraggled one, on the left, got rather wet on the last day of the trail (photo by John)

Half a kilometre down the track, we realised we hadn’t recorded the place of departure. That’s not a good start when you’ve got a blog to write, so we rode back just to take a photo of us in front of the Otago Central Rail Trail sign.

Departing from Clyde (photo by John)

We debated whether to ride the official Rail Trail to Alexandra – which is 8 kms long, and runs more or less parallel to the highway (some sources describe this as the “boring” option) – or ride the 16 km Centennial Walkway, which runs along the Clutha River and is reputed to be more interesting, but goes up and down some serious humps. We decided on the simpler option – we didn’t want to tempt fate right at the start of our trip. That reduced our distance to ride on that day from 47 kms to 39 kms.

The trail between Clyde and Alexandra was very straightforward (photo by John)

We rode into Alexandra to find an ATM – no such thing in Clyde – to get some cash out, because we’d been advised that some of the food outlets along the trail might not have access to Eftpos. This turned out to be incorrect. Everywhere we went, there were Eftpos or Credit facilities.

The first of the many bridges of the Rail Trail crosses the Manuherekia River (which joins the Clutha at Alexandra)

Soon out of Alexandra the terrain changed, and we were going up an incline. For a short distance, right next to the Rail Trail, there was a very narrow track, that went up and down steep hummocks and around sharp bends. A group of young people – a tour group, I think – was careering along this track. I admired their energy and skill.

The landscape was immensely varied, as you can see from the next two photos. Sometimes we rode through pleasant leafy glades, with pretty bridges, and other times it was fairly boring straight track with nothing much of interest along the edges, but with great vistas towards the surrounding hills, far away.

Pleasant glades with bridges over pretty streams … (photo by John)

…and boring straight stretches (photo by John)

At Galloway, the only building remaining of the original settlement was the ladies’ waiting room of the once busy railway station. The red box on the post contains the stamp with which to “certify our passports”.

Galloway Station (photo by John)

Looking out through a hole in the wall of the station (photo by John)

In a number of paddocks along the way there were long lines of polythene-wrapped rolls of silage, ready for feeding out to stock during the cold winter days. There was a very distinctive smell coming from them – sort of sweet but also a bit sour …

Long lines of silage (photo by John)

All along the Rail Trail there were “gangers’ sheds”. In the days of the railway, these were used by the gangers (working gangs), who were responsible for track maintenance. The sheds provided shelter in foul weather, or a place for the men to have their “smoko breaks”. Some, I noticed, still had fireplaces in them.

The Olrig Gangers’ Shed (photo by John)

Inside many of the gangers’ sheds there were boards with information about the area – what can be seen in the landscape, how far to the next station, historical photos, information about fauna and flora, geology, side trips that can be made from there, etc.

Information was provided in many of the gangers’ sheds (photo by John)

Almost everywhere we went, we saw these plants by the side of the track. According to a helpful little book about the Rail Trail, they are a non-native plant called “woolly mullein” (Verbascum thapsus). They start as furry-leaved rosettes, and these big flower spikes grow from the middle. Most were pretty dried out by this time of year, but some still had a few yellow flowers at the top. 

Woolly mullein (Verbascum thapsus) lines the trail in many places (photo by John)
The flowers of woolly mullein

After Galloway, the trail started to climb. It was incredibly deceptive. The track looked to be flat, but our legs told us it was going uphill. It was quite a grind (for me, at least). The supposedly average 10 km per hour speed slowed down appreciably for me. And it seemed to be going on forever …

The track seemed flat, but was actually quite hard work (photo by John)

We crossed the Manuherekia No 2 Viaduct and the contrast between the growth by the river and the lack of plants up on the hills is remarkable. The willows by the river had started to turn on their autumn colours.
The Manuherekia River (photo by John)

There were some spectacular rocky outcrops

It was only nine kilometres from Galloway to Chatto Creek, though it seemed longer. It took us an hour and a half (with photo stops, of course). It was a fair slog, and my thighs were hurting, I could get no energy out of them. While grinding along I thought about how stupid I had been to take the Anti-Flamme out of our suitcase the night before, in a bid to reduce the amount of stuff we were trying to cram in there (there was a weight limit to the bag we could have transferred by Trail Journeys).

We were relieved to get to the delightful Chatto Creek Tavern. The garden setting is quite charming, with roses and hollyhocks still flowering, tables under brollies on the lawn, and of course plenty of bike racks. The remains of a gold dredge that was used in this area in the late 1800s were displayed next to the tavern, along with a board providing information about these devices.

The garden at Chatto Creek Tavern (photo by John)

Plenty of bike racks (photo by John)

The remains of a gold dredge

We duly ordered lunch, coffee and some “donkey doo’s”, as they were labelled at the counter. These were gigantic, solid, truffle-type balls, made of malt bicuits, currants, and coconut, held together with condensed milk. Very stodgy, very delicious, and just what we needed after our ride. Lunch included the most delicious crispy “wedges”, which didn’t look like wedges at all. 

Crispy wedges and “donkey doos” for lunch (photo by John)

I suspect the “donkey doos” were inspired by the two donkeys in the paddock next door

We took a look at the Chatto Creek Post Office – the smallest post office in NZ. It is still possible to post letters here, which will be stamped with the Chatto Creek postmark. It dates back to 1892, and was restored by the local community (of 20!) and relocated from the original railway station to here next to the tavern. The inside was set up as it was, when it was last used.

NZ’s smallest post office is at Chatto Creek

Postman Pat (terson) in the Chatto Creek Post Office

The sign indicating where Chatto Creek Station once stood, gave the distances to and from various places on the trail. So far, we had done 25 kms, and we had another 12 kms to go to Omakau, plus a further 2 kms to Ophir, where we would be staying overnight.

The original railway platform is behind this board at Chatto Creek Station

When we ordered lunch, the woman at the counter asked how we were doing, and I said I was knackered. “Oh dear”, she said “and you’ve still got Tiger Hill ahead of you!”. That put the wind up me! “How bad is it?”, I asked. She reckoned it wasn’t very bad, but she had some advice for me: “Don’t look at where you are headed, look around you. That will distract you from how much further you have to go”.

Tiger Hill is the steepest section of the Rail Trail. The incline is “only” 1:50 (i.e. it rises 1 m for every 50 m distance), which is the steepest a train can manage without losing traction on the rails. So to negotiate a hill, the track has to swoop around its contours, in ‘horse shoe bends’, a big sweeping S shape. The disadvantage of that, of course, is that it takes a much longer distance to get to the required height. And OMG, was it long! My poor legs!

While you’re riding it you are not aware of how the trail rounds the hill (my sense of direction is pretty hopeless), so it was quite interesting to look up the track on Google Maps when I got home (look up “Tiger Hill, Otago, NZ”).

It is quite amazing to think that this railway track was built by men using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows. No earth moving machinery! Rocks from cuttings and tunnels were used to build embankments over stone culverts and across gullies.

The huge cuttings were dug out by men using picks, shovels and wheelbarrows

The schist outcrops on Tiger Hill are quite spectacular. In one place, I spotted some sheep taking shelter from the sun under some of the outcrops. I thought it looked rather “biblical” – like something out of the 1950s film “Ben Hur”.

Looking down from an embankment to the stream far below

Sheep in a “biblical” setting …

The hill was fairly gruelling – to this old flatlander’s body anyway – and my thigh muscles were fair burning from the effort. But I am proud to be able to say I did bike up all the way without having to step down and walk. The advice from the woman at Chatto Creek was spot on. Just admire the scenery around you, and keep those legs pumping …

“She’ll be coming round the mountain, when she comes …” (photo by John)

Near the highest point, there was the Tiger Hill gangers’ shed, with information about the building of the track, and about the mountain ranges all around us – the Merton Hills, the Dunstan Mountains, the Old Woman Range, Old Man Range, and Knobby Range.

Close to the gangers’ shed is a small grove of apple trees laden with ripening fruit – the result of apple cores thrown from railway carriages. There we met a skinny, wiry man, who had cycled from Omakau (8 kms away) to help himself to some apples. He had a long-handled grabbing device, so he could reach up into the branches. He told us he had retired from Tauranga to Omakau, and that he came every autumn to get some apples. He had a backpack and some other bags that he was going to fill. He offered us some apples, and they were crisp and juicy, though a bit sour. They’ll probably taste better when stewed with some sugar.

Groan! Does my bum look big in this? Yes, but only because I am wearing padded bike pants …
Yeah right! (photo by John)

We left him picking his apples, but before we reached Omakau, he caught up with us, having filled up two bags on his handle bars, one back-pack (only half-full, he said, as he did his back in last time filling it right up) and one on the bike carrier! He’s going to have to eat a lot of stewed apples! (Post script: My daughter suggested he's probably going to make them into cider. Of course! how naïve I am ...)

Once over the highest point, the trail went through an underpass under SH 85, and then it was an easy ride down to Omakau. Yay!

The underpass under SH85 (photo by John)

We crossed the bridge over Thomsons Creek. There are more than 60 bridges on the Rail Trail. Since the closure of the railway, they have been redecked and hand rails have been added to make them safe for trail users. Most of the bridges still have the old sleepers, with the gaps filled with new timber. It makes for a rather juddery riding surface.

The bridge over Thomsons Creek

Alternating old sleepers and new timbers on the bridge (photo by John)

Near the bridge, John took another picture of the rocks edging the trail. He thinks that the top of the rock looks like Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel, with his scarf flying behind him (from the Peanuts cartoons).

John thinks this looks like Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel (photo by John)

When the apple man caught up with us just before Omakau, he offered to ride with us, and to show us the way to Ophir, where we would be staying overnight. Strictly speaking, Ophir is not part of the Rail Trail, as the railway bypassed this township, in favour of Omakau. It was another 2 kms further along, by road.

We entered Ophir by crossing the beautiful Daniel O’Donnell suspension bridge over the Manuherekia River. Even if we hadn’t been staying in Ophir, a side trip to see this bridge would have been worthwhile. It is a most impressive bridge, 63 m long, and with pillars built of hand-hewn stone. It was opened in1880.

The Daniel O’Donnell suspension bridge – from a distance …

… and closer up

Ophir’s current claim to fame is its largest temperature range in NZ. It holds the record for the coldest place in NZ, which reached -21.6 C° in July 1995. And its hottest summer day was 35.2 C° in January 1959. But when we were there, it was a very pleasant mid-20s degrees.

Our accommodation had been booked at Blacks Hotel, an Art Deco building dating from 1937. Despite March and April being the “busy season” for the Rail Trail, we were the only guests staying there that night. The friendly publican, Steve, showed us to our room and told us to help ourselves to coffee in the dining room. He also gave us a leaflet about some of the buildings in Ophir.

Blacks Hotel in Ophir (photo by John)
The public bar at Blacks Hotel was very quiet in the mid-afternoon (photo by John)

During the gold rush days, Ophir was a significant town, and a number of original buildings have survived and have been restored. After we had freshened up, we took a walk down the main street, and ended up at the historic post office. It is the only post office in NZ where the mail is still franked by hand, and when it gets to Dunedin, it is sorted by hand (rather than by sorting and franking machines).

Ophir’s historic Post Office and Memorial Hall (photo by John)

The post office is only open a few hours a day – when tourists are likely to be calling in – and the hand-franking is their drawcard. So I bought postcards to send to my daughters and sister (and ourselves!), and the post mistress offered to let me come behind the counter to do the hand-franking myself.

Behind the counter, franking postcards by hand (photo by John)
Some of the old cottages were beautifully restored … (photo by John)

… others were not (photo by John)

After our walk, we settled to a welcome glass of wine on the deck at the back of the pub, to download the day’s photos, and try to write up a diary of sorts.  We chatted to some of the locals, who were enjoying a drink on the deck too. We found that almost all of Ophir's current population of 40-odd people were retired "imports" from other parts of NZ. And they absolutely loved living there, despite the cold winters.

We finished the day with an excellent pub meal of roast lamb.

A well-deserved glass of wine at the end of a rather tiring day

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