Saturday, 19 April 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail – Day 2

On Thursday 3 April, we rode the second day of the Otago Central Rail Trail. The blog post of the first day is here.

Day 2 – Ophir to Wedderburn

We woke to a clear, crisp, and quite nippy morning – typical Central Otago. But oh, ouch, my thigh muscles! I had trouble sitting down and getting up. Where was my Anti-Flamme, when I needed it? Ah, yes, it was sitting in a bag in our car, miles away. Fat lot of use that was, when I needed it HERE, NOW, to soothe my sore muscles!

Oh well, can’t be helped, let’s get on with the day – we have 45 km to cover! We bade farewell to Steve, our host, and biked off towards Omakau. It was chillier than I had thought, and I stopped to put on an extra layer.

Steve took this picture of us outside his hotel (with John’s camera)

A beautifully clear and crisp – and chilly! – Central Otago morning (photo by John)

We took the other route to Omakau, over the modern bridge. It wasn’t very far (2.5 km), and though we’d had breakfast not so very long ago, we stopped at the Muddy Creek Café for some proper coffee. The one bad thing about Blacks Hotel was that the only coffee available there was some execrable instant variety!

John was quite taken with this collection of vintage radios in the Muddy Creek Café
 (photo by John)

Fortified by coffee and a shared muffin, we went off to check out the Omakau railways goods shed, and to stamp our trail passports.

The Omakau Railway Station was built in 1904, and was once one of the busiest stock loading stations in NZ. Rather than building a railway bridge across the river to Ophir – which was then a thriving town – it was decided to create a town on this side instead.

The board tells us that we’re 36 km down, and 115 km to go! (photo by John)

Inside the Omakau Station goods shed

And so, off towards Lauder. It was quite a nice ride, though slightly uphill, just 7 km through farmland. On the way, we crossed Muddy Creek Road, by going through an underpass; and Muddy Creek itself, by going over a bridge.

The Muddy Creek Road underpass (photo by John)

The bridge over Muddy Creek (photo by John)

Near Lauder is an important atmospheric measuring station – one of 15 stations in a world-wide network, and the most important one in the Southern Hemisphere. Lauder has one of the cleanest and most pollution-free atmospheres in the world. Apparently NIWA’s research dome can be seen from the trail, but we didn’t see it.

When we got to Lauder, we thought we would just stamp our passports, and not stop for coffee. But we talked to some other cyclists who said “The next bit is the most interesting part of the trail, and that will be the place to have a picnic. Have you brought your picnic?” No, of course we hadn’t, so we stopped at the café and bought some sandwiches to take away.

Some railway relics in the yard of the Lauder Café. The builder in the background is building
 a new “old” house!

Before long we crossed the Manuherikia No 1 Bridge. At 110 m long and 14 m high, it is an impressive structure. Completed in 1903, it has concrete pillars and is built on a curve.

The Manuherekia No 1 Bridge

The bridge is built on a curve and has concrete pillars (photo by John)

The landscape became more dramatic. Lots of jagged schist outcrops on the side of the river. Some of the rocks next to the trail looked like they had been sliced with a chainsaw, with one relatively smooth surface, and all jagged on the other face. In some places, you could see where the rock had just fractured, and the broken bit was below the main rock. John thought that this was a natural feature, not man-made.

Rugged rocks above the river

Huge blocks of schist with unusually smooth end surfaces (photo by John)

John takes a closer look at some rocks

This one looks like Darth Vader!

We were now entering the Poolburn Gorge, which is a break in the mountains between the Raggedy Range and Blackstone Hill. It leads from the Manuherekia River Valley to the Ida Valley.

Entering the Poolburn Gorge (photo by John)

Looking back to the fertile Manuherekia Valley and the Dunstan Mountains beyond (photo by John)

It is a deep gorge, with the valley and river down on the left side of us, and high rocks on the right and embankments bridging the many gullies.

Down in the valley, by the river, the willows were starting to turn yellow

I was imagining the incredibly hard work those pioneering railway builders must have had to do, to build this railway in such a harsh environment – with nothing more than picks and shovels, wheelbarrows and horse and carts. Apparently, it took 300 men three years to build the Poolburn Gorge section of the Otago Central Railway, which includes two tunnels.

The Poolburn gangers’ shed had a fireplace in it – probably very necessary in the winter.

John arrived at Tunnel No 2 ahead of me. There was a narrow path up the hill from the tunnel, which he climbed while waiting for me to catch up.

The trail skirts along the hillside of the Poolburn Gorge towards the first tunnel (photo by John)

The entrance to the tunnel (photo by John)

As we arrived at the tunnel, we met a couple going in the opposite direction, who were riding electric bikes. They were riding to Lauder and back to Hayes, near Oturehua, where they had left their motor home. They were doing the Rail Trail in several there-and-back sections – each time returning to their motor home to camp overnight, and driving to the next section the next day. They took the bikes with them in a trailer.

The electric bikes are quite sturdy – and heavy! (photo by John)

This tunnel was the longer one of the two, 226 m, with a curve in it, so you couldn’t see the exit, and very dark inside. We walked the tunnel, and played with shadow photos. Our strong new torches worked a treat.

In the tunnel, John took a photo of his own shadow, while I held the torch (photo by John)

By the exit of the tunnel, there was an information board about the tunnels’ construction, which told us that they had been cut by blasting. The entrances at each end feature portals bolstered with schist slab facings, with the arches outlined in brick. The inside walls are lined with brick for about 10 m, after which the walls are just bare rock.

The tunnel entrance is lined with brick

As we emerged from the tunnel, there was a lovely picnic spot, overlooking the valley, so we called a halt here and had our lunch.

Huge rock walls by the tunnel exit (photo by John)

Several pairs of people went by, going in the other direction. We hadn’t seen very many other cyclists, despite this being the high season on the Rail Trail. Only another kilometre further on, there was another tunnel, shorter and straight, so we didn’t need our torches as we could see daylight at the end.

John’s typical stance when taking a photo with his handlebar-mounted camera

Towards the end of the gorge, we came to the Poolburn Viaduct, which is 109 m long and 37 m high – the highest bridge on the rail line. It was the last big masonry pier bridge with steel trusses built on the line. We marvelled at the magnificent pillars, for which the schist slabs had been quarried from nearby outcrops and precision-carved by skilled stone masons.

The Poolburn Viaduct

The central truss of the bridge is 47m long (photo by John)

At the far end of the Viaduct, we met some people from the Kapiti Coast – also travelling by camper-van. These people hadn’t been home since January – enjoying life on the road. I was amazed to see that the man rode in bare feet. I have “a thing” about people who won’t wear shoes – it makes me cringe. Yuck, apart from the fact that it’s dangerous, just yuck!

Another camper-vanning couple, enjoying their retirement on the road (photo by John)

So far the road had been climbing steadily, but now we had a little bit of downhill into the Ida Valley. As we descended, we could see a road snaking its way down the valley.

Heading down to the Ida Valley (photo by John)

Then there was a lo-o-o-ong, straight stretch of track, quite boring, with farmlands on either side. The track looked flat but was actually going uphill, and it was rather a grind. My thighs were so sore, I could get no oomph out of them. But I just plodded and plodded, thinking enviously of that other couple with their electric bikes. It was hot too.

This stretch was long, and heavy-going, and hot! (photo by John)

Comfort stop at a genuine “long-drop” (photo by John) 

The site of the former Auripo Station consisted of just a board and a stamping box. We still had another 12 km to go before Oturehua and our next cup of coffee! We were both feeling quite tired and in need of sustenance. Just as well we had water and some chocolate on board. At least the view was pretty.

Exhausted already, and another 31 km to go before we can call it a day! (photo by John)

A lonely shed or farm house down in the valley

From Auripo, it was 4 km to Ida Valley Station, but there was nothing there either, apart from a gangers’ shed. It was a long, uphill slog. A slight incline, but relentless.

The Ida Valley Station gangers’ shed (photo by John)

I read somewhere that the Ida Valley is “wide and flat, and 40 km long”. Yep, and we would have biked most of that by the time we got to Oturehua! But it definitely was not completely flat, or it wouldn’t have been such a slog!

Some of it was very pretty … (photo by John)

… but it did seem to go on forever (photo by John)

The Ida Valley is known for its very harsh winters. We knew about the Idaburn Dam, which is the scene of curling competitions in the winter, when it freezes over. It was mentioned in one of our booklets about the trail, so we were on the lookout for it.

When we went past it, it looked very disappointing – just a weed-infested bit of a pond. In fact we weren’t sure whether this was really it. But we asked at the café (when we finally got to it) if this was really the Idaburn Dam, and they confirmed that it was. I suppose, since it's a dam, they can let it fill up more so that there is a larger surface to freeze over.

The Idaburn Dam – the scene of the National Bonspiel when conditions permit – was somewhat disappointing (photo by John)

Curling is a rather quirky game (some might say, sport) of Scottish origin, in which players slide large, smooth granite stones across the ice towards a target. Rather like playing bowls on ice. But the amusing thing is that the trajectory of the stone can be influenced by rubbing the ice in front of it with little brooms. Two players brushing the ice furiously can look quite manic, as there's usually much yelling going on too. I apologise to any staunch curling aficionados out there, if I made it sound funny. I know that it is deadly serious to them.

When the conditions allow, the National Bonspiel is held at Idaburn.  A bonspiel is a curling tournament, and I gather that competition between teams is fierce in the area. The photograph in this link about the Idaburn Bonspiel shows that the scene is a lot more attractive in winter than in summer/autumn.

Finally, finally, soon after the Idaburn Dam, we arrived at Hayes Engineering Works, a historic site with a museum, camping ground and – halleluja! – a café. Just before we got there, we were overtaken by the people on electric bikes that we had met at the Poolburn Tunnel. In the time that we had slogged from there to here (16 km), they had been from there to Lauder and back, and then to here (26 km)! I told them I’d been fantasising about their electric bikes as I plodded along.

The people at the café must be used to cyclists “collapsing” on their doorstep (slight exaggeration!), because the first thing we saw as we entered the garden, was a table under a tree, with a large container of cool water which had a notice inviting people to help themselves to drinking water. It must be mentioned here that in the Rail Trail literature, cyclists are warned to take plenty of water with them, as there are no water sources available along the route. So this was a particularly welcome touch.

One very hot and tired cyclist – with the welcoming water container in the background (photo by John)

We went into the café and ordered coffee and scones. They arrived on a nice old-fashioned tiered plate, with scones on the bottom plate and small dishes of jam and cream on the top. Aah, bliss!

Scones with jam and cream – what could be nicer? (photo by John)

Hayes Engineering Works is an historic engineering factory, where Ernest Hayes invented the Hayes Wire Strainer in 1924. This piece of equipment for use in building wire fences is still used on farms everywhere, and even received a Design Award in 1981, long after Ernest Hayes had died.

The museum would have been very interesting to visit, as would the old Homestead, which apparently is full of “innovations” of the period, which are now commonplace, such as a flush toilet, electricity (generated by a water-driven Pelton wheel) and piped radio.

But it was already 3pm, and we still had 14 km to ride, including the hill to Wedderburn, which would get us to the highest point on the Rail Trail. So we had to skip visiting the museum and homestead. All we had time for was to take a little wander around the café garden (to find the loo!) and take a photo of the old tractor on display there.

The old tractor at Hayes Engineering Works

Only 2 km further along, we arrived at Oturehua, a small township, of which the major feature was Gilchrist’s Store. Built in 1902, this is believed to be NZ’s oldest continuously operating store. It is a large store, with one side kept as it might have been back 100 (or maybe 50?) years ago, while the other half was a modern shop with 21st century merchandise.

And guess what I found there? Some Anti-Flamme! Yay! Another item we bought was a gel saddle cover, to make the ride a little gentler on my hindquarters. The shop obviously was very sensitive to the needs of cyclists, with other necessities like sun screen, lip balm and anti-chafing cream available. And they also had such modern-day delights as Tip Top Trumpets (ice cream) so we enjoyed one in the shade of the shop canopy.

The “museum” side of Gilchrist’s Store (photo by John)

Enjoying an ice cream outside Gilchrist’s Store (photo by John)

Then came the final haul, the worst climb up to the highest point on the trail, just a few kilometres before Wedderburn, our end point for the day. I think it was cruel on the part of the Trail Journeys people to book us in Wedderburn, with such a hard haul at the end of the day, when we were so tired.

A short distance past Oturehua, we came to the first of two signs telling us that we were crossing the 45º South Latitude Parallel – exactly half-way between the Equator and the South Pole. And we crossed the line twice, because the trail first goes north, then curves and heads back south, and crosses it again.

We were to cross the 45º South Latitude line twice

A well-stocked hay shed with the Hawkdun Ranges in the background

The ride to the highest point of the Rail Trail seemed to go on forever. At every “peak” we hoped it would be the highest point which we knew would tell us “It’s all downhill from here”, but it was quite a while before we finally got there. But at last, there it was: The Highest Point on the Otago Central Rail Trail – 618 m above sea level – 448 m higher than where we had left from, at Clyde, the previous day. Whew!

Huff, puff, pant, pant! (photo by John)

It’s all downhill from here (photo by John)

After this, it was a shortish downhill ride to Wedderburn Cottages. It was a surprise when we got there. We came round a bend in the track, and there they were. It was 5:15 pm – we’d been on the road for eight hours! And feeling just a mite the worse for wear – blooming knackered actually.

We went into the Red Barn, which provided information, water and toilets to cyclists, and where postcards, coffee and icecream could be bought (honesty system), but there was no one in attendance. Our suitcase was waiting for us out the front, and there was a notice board with a list of people’s names and the cottages they'd been allocated. So we went to cottage No 10, which was very nice, with a nice little kitchenette and a table and chairs on the veranda.

Wedderburn Cottages

We settled in, and after a freshen-up, I applied liberal quantities of Anti-Flamme to my sore leg muscles. Aah, the relief!

After a while we wandered down to the Wedderburn Tavern, for dinner. We got ourselves a glass of Riesling each, and sat outside for a little while, but the midges were getting to us, so we went inside and ordered dinner.

An old shed, on the way to the tavern (photo by John)

The reward for a hard day’s cycling (photo by John)

The dinner, again, was excellent. John’s choice, roast lamb, came in two sizes – full-size and half-size. John chose the half-size, and it was plenty big enough. We saw the full-size version being taken to another table, and it was huge! Good old southern hospitality, someone said.

The Wedderburn Tavern

Walking back after dinner, for an early night and a well-deserved sleep (photo by John)


  1. Hi Dizzy, it's lovely to read your account of this. Your photos are uncannily like ours - including the 'chocolate box' cute shed amongst the poplars. We certainly picked the right week to bike the trail. You did it a bit tougher than us, in four days. We took a leisurely five days, starting on Tuesday in Clyde, and taking an extra night's stop at Waipiata. We stayed in Naseby instead of Wedderburn, to take the opportunity to do some curling there. It was such good fun I forgot I was standing around on ice in a big fridge (temp 4C, apparently) for an hour. And Naseby itself is a very pretty, historic little village.
    Looking forward to your next post,

    1. Hi Lesley, thanks for your comment. You're quick off the mark, I've only just put this post up this afternoon. I'm working on Day 3 now. We stopped in Naseby on our way home (by car), and had lunch at the pub. We loved all the curling memorabilia there.

  2. Hi Dizzy,

    I stumbled upon your blog when I was doing research into Poolburn Viaduct. Your post is very informative and has told me everything I wanted to know. The pictures are fantastic too!

    Thank you so much! Have a nice day.


    1. Hello Steven, thank you for your comments. We did have a great time riding the Rail Trail. And the Poolburn Gorge is particularly beautiful.