Tuesday 22 April 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail – Day 4

On Saturday 5 April, we rode the fourth and final day of the Otago Central Rail Trail. The blog posts of the first, second and third days are further down.

Day 4 – Hyde to Middlemarch, and back to Clyde

And on the fourth day, it RAINED! Not a gentle soft drizzle, but quite steady rain. How disappointing. Well, I guess we should consider ourselves lucky that we’d had three beautiful days, and now we got to experience the Rail Trail in the wet.

We’d got up early, as we wanted to make sure we got to Middlemarch by the appointed time of 2pm, to catch the shuttle back to Clyde. We had breakfast, then got ourselves organised with all the wet-weather gear. We packed up all the stuff in the bike bags into plastic bags, in case the bike bags were not waterproof. A good thing we did, as it turned out they were not completely water tight!

We donned our extra layers – T-shirt, merino top, fleece jacket – and our parkas. I put on my hood under my helmet, John wore a polypropylene balaclava under his.

We were the first ones to set off, but Lesley and John soon sailed past us. It was pretty miserable cycling – we were soon quite wet on the legs, wet trousers (a bit cold!), socks and shoes. But our bodies were warm in our multiple layers.

The Hyde Station is 2 km further along from where we had stayed, and we stopped there to take some photos. No handlebar-mounted camera today. John used his waterproof Pentax K5 camera instead.

Hyde Station (photo by John)

Some of the original wagons were still in a siding at Hyde (photo by John)

When I tried to take a photo, I found that my camera wouldn’t work. Then I discovered that I hadn’t put the battery back in. I had cleverly left it sitting in the battery charger, which had been packed into our suitcase! Duh! So no photos from me today. Anyway, it was too wet to mess about with cameras!

A few kilometres down the track, the Scrub Burn Gangers’ Shed provided information about the view one would have from here. Very useful – except there was no view! We could barely see the landscape, as it was shrouded in low clouds.

The info panel also mentioned the “Taieri Pet”, which is a tiered cloud formation that looks like a stack of pancakes. This type of stationary cloud formation – found in only in one or two places in the world – is formed by high north-westerly winds being forced upward over the Rock and Pillar Range. From what I can gather, it does not actually occur very often, and it certainly wasn’t happening today.

The information panel in the Scrub Burn Gangers’ Shed (photo by John)

We stopped at the Hyde Train Crash Memorial, which remembers the 21 passengers who were killed on 4 June 1943, in NZ’s second worst railway accident (the worst was the Tangiwai disaster in 1953, when 51 people died). The Hyde disaster occurred when the train failed to negotiate a curve, as it travelled at over 70 miles per hour (110 km/h) instead of at the speed limit of 30 miles per hour (48 km/h). The driver was found to have been drunk.

The Hyde Train Crash Memorial (photo by John)

There were no places to stop for refreshments anywhere along this 29 km stretch between Hyde and Middlemarch. Maybe just as well, as it would have been a pain taking off our wet parkas and shoes, and worse, putting them back on. So with the rain persisting, and nothing much to see, we put on a steady pedal, and just kept going.

We just kept going (photo by John)

Twenty-nine kilometres without a proper break. Towards the end I was starting to feel rather cold, and I was counting down the kilometres: 9 km to go, 8, … 3, 2, ah, we’re there – at last! It was about 11:30 am when we reached the edge of Middlemarch.

The goal: the Otago Central Rail Trail Middlemarch sign (photo by John)

John set up a photo of us both by the Rail Trail sign, and he took pictures of our bikes to show the state they were in. The bikes and bags, and our legs and shoes were spattered with mud, some of it even up the backs of our parkas! And we were squelching in our shoes!

A pair of quite saturated cyclists – proof that we got there! (photo by John)

My bike was spattered in mud … (photo by John)

… as was John’s (photo by John)

The trail ended here, so we rode down the sealed road into Middlemarch, and found our way to the Trail Journeys Depot. Kate and Wayne had just got there too. They had overtaken us some little while earlier. We reckoned we hadn't done too badly if we caught up with them again – they are at least 15 years younger than us!

The road into Middlemarch (photo by John)

It was nice and warm in the Trail Journeys depot. We were all in a dreadfully bedraggled state, but the Trail Journeys lady let us drop all our wet stuff inside. Then she got the hose out so John could hose down our bikes (and bags!).

With amazing foresight – or probably just experience – the Trail Journeys depot had showers and towels available for cold and wet cyclists to use. Five dollars bought us a towel and a five-minute hot shower. Unfortunately, our suitcase had not yet arrived and stupidly we had not thought of bringing a change of clothes with us on the bikes.

We dived into the showers. Ah, lovely hot water! After I had dried myself, I squeezed my trousers and my socks in the towel to wring out most of the water, and put them back on. Yick! Though my fleece jacket was wet at the bottom front, at the pockets, and at the sleeves, the rest of my core clothes were still dry. The merino top was perfect for the conditions.

Feeling more or less human, and the rain having stopped by now (isn’t that just “Sod’s Law”?), we trundled off to have lunch. The woman in the office sent all the bikers to the Kissing Gate Café, a block or so down the road, and the place was packed with wet bikers all waiting for their lunch. We shared a table with Kate and Wayne. They were going to Dunedin on the train, then flying home to Nelson the next day. Lesley and John, who were at the next table, were also going on the train.

Lunch at the Kissing Gate Café

We went back to the depot, as we had been told that we would be the only ones to go back to Clyde on the shuttle, so we could leave almost as soon as it arrived with our – and everyone else’s – bags.

Our bikes – neatly washed, dried and folded – ready to be loaded into the back of the shuttle
(photo by John)

But when we got there, we were told that we’d leave at 2 pm, as the driver still had to load all the other filthy dirty hire bikes onto the trailer to take back to the Clyde depot.

All the muddy hire bikes go back to Clyde, where they will be cleaned and serviced in the Trail Journeys workshop (photo by John)

To fill in time, we took a walk around the few streets of Middlemarch. It’s a pretty sparse-looking place, really. Omakau and Ranfurly were much nicer looking. But we were impressed with the width of the streets.

A street wide enough to turn around with a dray and bullock team (photo by John)

The water tower at Middlemarch Railway Station (photo by John)

Middlemarch Railway Station is still used by the Taieri Gorge Railway trains (photo by John)

Mission accomplished – 150 km behind us, we’re more or less dry, and enjoying a tiny bit of sunshine after a rainy start (photo by John)

The drive back to Clyde was pleasant, the company’s driver-cum-IT person was quite chatty. We stopped in Ranfurly to pick up a couple who were going to Omakau, where they had left their campervan. They were doing the trail in sections.

According to the driver a lot of people are doing it that way. They park the campervan, ride a section of the trail and catch the shuttle back. Then they drive to the next point on the trail, overnight in the camper, and start again. A bit of a logistical nightmare for the shuttle service, and messy to keep track of in his IT system, he said.

We got to Clyde just after 4pm. Our car was waiting for us in the carpark. Before leaving for Arrowtown – our next destination – I bought a red T-shirt with the Rail Trail logo, and “Biked it, Hiked it, Liked it” printed on the back.

So that was the end of our Otago Central Rail Trail adventure. But I have a Post Script.

Post Script

On our way back north to go home after our holiday, we followed the basic outline of the Rail Trail on the road, from Alexandra to Ranfurly. We wanted to see how far we had cycled, and especially wanted another look at that gruelling Tiger Hill. And we wanted to visit Naseby.

Since we had not taken any photos in Alexandra while riding the Trail, we stopped there to photograph the pedestals of the original Alexandra Bridge.

The historic pedestals of the original Alexandra Bridge (photo by John)

The Manuherekia No 2 Viaduct, seen from the road. You can clearly see the line of the Rail Trail
 (photo by John)

Tiger Hill – riding around this bump in the landscape was the hardest part of the Rail Trail
 (photo by John)

This is the start of the Tiger Hill climb

At Omakau, we diverted off to Poolburn, which took us over a very high hill. We realised as we were driving along, that this was the way we had returned from Middlemarch to Clyde in the shuttle. It is a fabulously bleak landscape.

The top of the Raggedy Range, between Omakau and Poolburn

We discovered that the hills, which look bare, are actually covered in low-growing wild thyme. I picked some at the road side, and it smelled beautiful.

The “bare” hills are actually covered in wild thyme (photo by John)

The wild thyme that covers the “bare” hills. It had a gorgeous fragrance

We drove through the Ida Valley. We were amazed by the length of the valley – we actually cycled all that way!

Before Ranfurly, we turned off to Naseby, as we hadn’t had time to go there from the Rail Trail. The place was completely empty – or so it seemed. In a couple of loops through the town, to look for somewhere to have lunch, we did not see a soul. Until we saw someone crossing the road from the shop to the pub.

The Ancient Briton Hotel in Naseby

We had lunch at the Ancient Briton Hotel. It is a charming historic pub. Though it was not actually cold, there was a welcoming fire in the woodburner.

It was interesting to wander around the different spaces in the pub. In one area were photographs of Naseby in the days of the gold rush. The area by the bar had a lot of memorabilia to do with curling tournaments. 

The photos in this area were reminders of the gold prospecting days around Naseby (photo by John)

This wall displayed curling memorabilia and trophies (photo by John)

More curling memorabilia. Above the bar is a large photo of the Bonspiel on the Idaburn Dam, and a display of miniature curling stones (photo by John)

Naseby is a great centre for the sport of curling. There is an Indoor Curling Rink, which is open all year. There are 14 clubs in the Naseby Curling Council, five of which are based in Naseby itself. It seems that competition between clubs is a very serious business. 

After lunch we took a walk around the nearby streets. There were several historic buildings which have been preserved and are being used by the local museum.

Apart from some clocks and watches in the window, the watchmaker’s shop
appeared to be empty (photo by John)

The Boot Manufacturer’s shop has become part of the museum (photo by John)

The newspaper office – no news today? (photo by John)

We drove to the Indoor Curling Rink, but there were no cars in the carpark, and it appeared as dead as the rest of the town (though the website claims it is open all day, 7 days a week). However, as we had to get to Oamaru by the end of the day, we decided to push on and not check out the curling.

A few afterthoughts

We considered the Otago Rail Trail to be a challenge, and it was. But a very enjoyable one. We were quite proud of ourselves to have achieved riding it in four days, without any ill effects (apart from sore leg muscles!).

I think I would quite like to do it again some time – before I am too old and doddery for such pursuits – but I would do it differently. I would want ride from Wedderburn to Alexandra, then shuttle back to Wedderburn, and ride from there to Middlemarch. This way we would be riding downhill most of the time, and avoid the uphill grinds.

I would also allow more days. More than 40 km a day in the first three days was just too much. It would be much more enjoyable to be able to take our time. With a more leisurely pace, we would be able spend more time reading all the info along the trail. We made the mistake of rushing, taking a photo of the info, and not reading it properly till later, and so we missed out on noticing some of the sights.

I think it might be nice to do the Rail Trail in late spring, when the hills might have more colour on them with new growth and flowering thyme.

Our folding bikes performed really well. We had no flat tyres, and no rattles or squeaks. No doubt this is thanks to John’s tender care and maintenance. Over the whole of our two-week holiday we rode 300 km (including pre- and post-Rail Trail rides), mostly on gravel, and they behaved perfectly for all of it.

But if we were to do this Rail Trail again, I might consider flying down, and hiring bikes. Though John assures me that it is not so, I can't help thinking that with the larger wheels, you would cover more ground for fewer turns of the pedal. I'm all for the easy (easier) life!

Monday 21 April 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail – Day 3

On Friday 4 April, we rode the third day of the Otago Central Rail Trail. The blog posts of the first and second days are further down.

Day 3 –Wedderburn to Hyde

During the night, with the window open as it was rather hot, I could hear the blind flapping back and forth gently, so I figured the wind had got up. I worried that the day might bring headwinds, but luckily, it was gone by the time we got up.

We parked our suitcase by the Red Barn for transfer to our next accommodation by 9 am, and we biked off at 9:15.

Only a kilometre or so down the track, we saw the big Wedderburn Station goods shed, made famous by Grahame Sydney’s 1975 painting July on the Maniototo.  When the Otago Central Railway was closed, this goods shed was removed to a site some kilometres away, but following public protest, it was returned to its original site and restored to its recognisable green colour. More recently, the railway station was returned and restored also.

The famous Wedderburn Station goods shed (photo by John)

The inside of the shed is not quite so photogenic, though the birds seem to love it (photo by John)

This Station building was returned to its original site too (photo by John)

The Maniototo is an elevated plain surrounded by a number of mountain ranges: North Rough Ridge to the west, the Hawkdun Range and Ida Range to the north, the Kakanui Mountains to the east, and the Rock and Pillar Range to the south-east. Being further away from the sea than anywhere else in NZ, it has NZ’s closest thing to a continental climate, which means low rainfall, cold winters and hot summers.

The wide plain of the Maniototo

The ride was mostly downhill, with a few gentle uphills, and it was only an hour before we got to Ranfurly, 12 kms away.

The Ranfurly Station building is very attractive, beautifully maintained, and is now used as a museum and information centre. A section of the original railway track has been left in place, as has the large red goods shed.

Ranfurly Station

A section of railway track has been preserved

A plaque next to the Ranfurly Station commemorates the official opening of the Otago Central Rail Trail in 2000

The big red goods shed is now home to a collection of vintage tractors and farm machinery, under the auspices of the local Lions Club.

The goods shed now houses vintage tractors … (photo by John)

… and farm machinery (photo by John)

With a population of about 1,000, Ranfurly is the largest town in the Maniototo. It is known for its Art Deco buildings, which were built after a spate of suspicious fires destroyed a number of buildings in the 1930s. We biked around a few streets to see examples of these, but we didn’t go too far afield.

The Art Deco style Ranfurly Hotel (photo by John)

Not far from the Station was a small garden with a statue of John Turnbull Thomson, who was Chief Surveyor of Otago in the late 1850s. He was responsible for naming many of the geographic features of the area. As was common in his homeland, the Scottish Borders, he named many streams (burns) after animals: Mareburn, Fillyburn, Hogburn, Swinburn, Eweburn, Wetherburn, Gimmerburn (hogget) and Kyeburn (cow).

In 1876, his method of triangulation survey was considered “economic, efficient and accurate”, and he was appointed as the first Surveyor General of NZ.

The statue of John Turnbull Thomson, Chief Surveyor of Otago (photo by John)

After our mini tour of Ranfurly, we headed to the nearest café for coffee and something to eat. We sat with a couple from Nelson, Kate and Wayne, who had also stayed at the Wedderburn Cottages, and whom we had seen at various places along the track the day before. We spent nearly an hour chatting with them.

From Ranfurly the track became much smoother, rather like the lime sand paths in Hawke’s Bay. AND it was going downhill. Lovely! Just out of Ranfurly, we rode past a fence where a whole lot of old bikes had been left to die. Quite funny.

The fence outside Ranfurly where old bikes go to die … (photo by John)

Before we got to Waipiata, we went through the underpass below the Waipiata-Naseby Road. The barely legible board on the right of the tunnel seems to be an advertising sign for coffee at the Waipiata Hotel. Just beyond the underpass you can just make out a little bridge, which crosses the Hogburn (stream). (Enlarge the photo by clicking on it.)

The underpass below the Waipiata-Naseby Road (photo by John)

A pretty, bucolic scene – near the Hogburn bridge

Waipiata once boasted the largest sheep yards in Central Otago. Today there is a small thriving community. There is a café, as well as some accommodation, but since we’d had coffee not so long ago, we just kept going. We just stamped our Trail passports. From here, there would be no refreshment stops until we got to Hyde, 24 km away.

“Waipiata Man” is made from bits of railway iron (photo by John)

The bridge across the Taieri River

The Taieri River

Somewhere near here was a siding where, during 1902-03, over 2,000 tonnes of basalt blocks were loaded onto trains, to be used in the building of Dunedin’s Railway Station, a rather magnificent building.

The lower slopes of the Rock and Pillar Range between Waipiata and Kokonga are dotted with basalt outcrops. This was also a major supply site for ballast – the base material on which railway tracks are laid.

Is this one of the basalt outcrops? We’re not sure (photo by John)

At Kokonga Station (photo by another cyclist with John’s camera)

A railway switch marks where Kokonga Station once was (photo by John)

The trail ran alongside the Waipiata to Kokonga Road (aka SH 87). We could see the road below us, and beyond it was the Taieri River. It looked like there might have been some lovely picnic spots under the trees, by the river.

We were to cross SH87 a bit further along from here, at Daisybank (photo by John)

Not far to go now, only 11 km to Hyde

Once we crossed SH87, the terrain changed completely. It was another gorge, with the Taieri River deep below. At the beginning of the gorge was a sign which said “Rock Fall Hazard”. The track went through a number of cuttings, the walls of which tended to drop bits, but nothing fell while we went past luckily.

At Daisybank the terrain changed dramatically (photo by John)

I love the colour of these Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare)

From here we went through some of the prettiest country we’d seen on the Rail Trail. Cuttings and filled-in gullies, purple thistles and blue echiums along the edge of the track, and poplars and willows in gorgeous autumn colours contrasting with the dark green of pine trees.

This area was very different from the rest of the Rail Trail (photo by John)

Gorgeous autumn colours

We crossed two significant bridges. The first was the historic Capburn Railway Bridge. This had been left unrestored as an example of railways engineering. Its piers are constructed of brown basalt blocks. Its original sleepers and railway lines had been left in place, but we were surprised at how close together the lines are. Surely they must have been moved – perhaps to make way for the path alongside?  [Note: There is an explanation in a comment at the bottom of this post. Thank you Patrick.]

The Capburn Bridge still has its original sleepers and railway lines

The piers of the Capburn Bridge are made of brown basalt blocks

The bridge crosses Capburn, a stream that joins the Taieri River. A sign by the bridge told cyclists to walk (rather than ride) across the bridge. Horse riders, who are also allowed to use the Rail Trail (though we didn’t see any) were told to take the “alternative route”, meaning they had to go down a path to the bottom of the gully, ford the stream and come back up the other side.

The Rail Trail follows the edge of the hill. Slightly up and to the right of centre in the photograph below, you can just see the next bridge, the Prices Creek Viaduct (you may need to enlarge the image by clicking on it).

Coming up to the Prices Creek Viaduct, which can just be seen in the middle of the photo
 (photo by John)

Prices Creek Viaduct (photo by John)

Prices Creek Viaduct is 91 m long (photo by John)

The Prices Creek Viaduct is rather newer than any of the other bridges. It was built in 1963 to replace the unstable wooden 1896 bridge. At this bridge, horse riders are told to dismount and walk their horse across, or take the alternative route. As this bridge stands 28 m above the creek, it would be quite a detour for horse and rider.

The alternative route for horse riders lies somewhere down there, 28 m down

The Taieri River runs at the bottom of this amazing landscape (photo by John)

Soon after the viaduct we came to Prices Creek Tunnel. It wasn’t too long (151 m) and though it was curved, you could see daylight at the end, so we didn’t need our torches.

Prices Creek Tunnel

The schist rocks at the other end of the tunnel. You can clearly see the layers

As we approached Hyde, we could see in the valley and in the cuttings, the white clay deposits that are still being quarried today for use in pottery glazes.

Deposits of white clay have been laid down by rivers in this area (photo by John)

And then suddenly, we were in Hyde. It was 2:45 pm, and it had been the easiest 47 km in the whole three days. We did have a few gentle uphills, but most of it was downhill, and a nice, not too bumpy surface to ride on.

The final bridge for today leads into Hyde (photo by John)

Arrival in Hyde, where we were staying overnight

We pulled up at the Otago Central Hotel, where there is a nice café. We sat in the shade of the verandah, and had a late lunch. I had a cheese roll-up which is a famous Otago snack. It consists of a rolled up slice of white bread with a cheesy (and other stuff) filling. It is then toasted, so that the bread is crispy and the cheese is all runny inside. Very nice.

Waiting for lunch (photo by John)

After a while we asked where the School Units were, that we would be staying in. The café staff referred us to Sue, the hotel’s host. She took us into the dining room of the hotel, and showed us where we would be seated for dinner. Dinner would be provided for “house guests” at the Hotel (the only place to eat in Hyde, apparently) and it would be a convivial three-course buffet.

Sue, our host, showed us the hotel’s dining room (photo by John)

She then pointed the way to the School Units, and explained that the “doings” for our breakfast would be on a named tray in the fridge of the common room at the end of the block of units.

The School Units were a few hundred meters up – and I do mean UP – the road from the hotel. I couldn’t bike up, my thighs just wouldn’t do it, so I walked. I only managed to bike the last little bit up the driveway. Our suitcases were there, and so were Kate and Wayne, with whom we'd had coffee in Ranfurly.

The School Units

Hyde School was established in 1869, during the gold prospecting days, and has educated generations of primary school children. But in 1999 it was closed when the roll dropped to a mere four. In the last few years the historic school building has been refurbished and made into a conference venue, and the accommodation units were built in the former school grounds.

Hyde School – closed in 1999 – has a new life as a conference venue

We settled in, freshened up, downloaded photos, made a cup of coffee (I had tea, I couldn’t stand another Nescafé experience), and chatted to our neighbours. At 5:30-ish we went down to the hotel, for a pre-dinner drink. At dinner, we found that we were sharing a table with Kate and Wayne, and with John and Lesley from Khandallah.

Dinner with (clockwise from my turned back) Kate, Wayne, (the other) John and Lesley (photo by John)

We had a beautiful meal – fresh bread and locally produced cheeses, pesto, and chorizo, then roast beef with roast potatoes and kumara and two kinds of salad, and icecream for dessert. The other guests were a party of six couples from Wellington, who seemed to be having a jolly good time together, and a table of people from Tauranga and somewhere else.

Our table partners were all very interesting to talk to, and dinner passed very pleasantly. It was 8:15 before we finished, and we walked back to the School Units with Wayne and Kate, while John and Lesley were staying at the Lodge.

Into the unit, finish with the photos, and write up the day’s events. No WiFi, again, so shower and bed!