Central Otago is one of our country's most stunning areas – and one of the most historic. Whether you do it by bike or by foot, an off-road tour of the Otago Rail Trail is a memorable way to experience the region's arid beauty.
Summer is the time New Zealand seems to escape en masse to baches, beaches and barbecues. But for a more unusual summer holiday, consider heading south to the sun-soaked sepia of the Otago Rail Trail. Once an 1800s railway that was considered one of the great train journeys in the world, the 152km long track slowly battled against the economic allure of cars and highways, and eventually shut down in 1991. A decade later, the track was smoothed over and reopened for cyclists and walkers to get up close and personal with the beauty of Central Otago.
The journey begins for most in Clyde, where you get kitted out by the professionals with your wheels for the next three days – and relearn everything about cycling that you may have forgotten since you last did the Weetbix Kiwi Kids triathlon. If you’re a novice cyclist like me, take the picturesque Clyde riverside detour to get your confidence up across some different terrain and inclines before hitting the track proper. It’s okay to fall off your bike. Once. Or thrice. It happens to the best of us.
Once you’re all aboard the rail trail, ensure you have plenty of sunblock, hydration and snacks between stops. Prepare to be wowed by the golden arid plains of Otago before being plunged into the darkness of the abandoned train tunnels in Poolburn Gorge. Stop for a cold cider at the Chatto Creek Tavern, nestled off the track behind overgrown trees and rusty machine skeletons. Even if the locals pick you out as an Aucklander for not ordering a pint of Speights, simply pat the friendly onsite donkey and feel the city melt away through your fingertips.
If your legs allow it, take some side trips off the beaten track as you work your way across the Otago plains. A mere 2.5km out of Omakau is the historic sleep town of Ophir, home of the oldest post office in the country. Stamp your own postcard with the old-timey equipment, and buy some Ophir “gold” and handmade soap from an honesty box on the side of the road. If you’ve got time, there’s also an engineering museum down the road that a local assured me at the time was “interesting for girls as well.” Also be sure to check out Gilchrist’s Store, the oldest shop in New Zealand and a living museum of vintage food packaging.
You can tackle the track in whatever way suits your preference: cycle the entire way on an e-bike or a regular bicycle, hit the trail on two feet, or just roll in for a section for a day trip. Take a tent with you and pack your precious few belongings into your pannier bags, or book yourself into the many hotels and lodges along the way (shuttles can take your luggage from station to station). I recommend freedom camping riverside at Daisybank, before visiting the hot showers of a packed-out holiday park (feels like a penthouse suite at The Hilton). If you’re cycling all the way, I’d also recommend taking a bike out for a spin in the weeks leading up to the trip. Your body will thank you.
Sore loins aside, the gobsmacking beauty of the rail trail is everywhere, from stumbling across Grahame Sydney’s famous “Wedderburn” shed, to eating a juicy, well-earned steak in the velvet depths of the Ranfurly Hotel, to simply sharing horror stories with your fellow trail folk (I swear I saw a hare the size of a dog one day). It’s encouraging to see all ages and all kinds of people hitting the track, and you don’t have to be Sarah Ulmer to make it work. On our journey, we passed just as many glacial, giggling families as we did racing, leathery old walkers with sticks and zinc and all. Other times, there’s absolutely nobody. Just you, the trail, and the odd dog-sized hare.