Freesteel Blog » New Zealand – Rail Trail


New Zealand – February (fourth week) 2001

Rail Gravel

In 1980 the last of the restrictions limiting the transport of goods and stock by road was lifted. All citizens were relieved to have gotten rid of those good-for-nothing regulations left by the previous generation who didn’t know any better. Finally, as it was supposed to have been, we could have dangerous lorries carrying logs and sheep on roads unfit for the purpose. And remember, this was done to improve the standard of living as a result of the “cheaper” transport costs. There would be more money and jobs, if you happened to work for a trucking company, although somewhat less if you were in the railways. Though, of course, it would all balance out with a net gain in jobs as well as a saving in money in spite of the fact that the only thing money can be spent on is salaries, diesel and foreign truck parts.

The head of the Otago Central Rail Trail in Clyde.

For the next round of deregulation, why not abolish the laws requiring houses to pipe their sewage into the municipal foul water interceptor. We could treat it more efficiently individually ourselves without having to raise taxes to operate central waste treatment plants. We could save endless amounts of money by being permitted to empty our toilets straight into the public streets. If we were that bothered about it, we could always sling it over the wall into someone else’s street with all the lorries that don’t belong to them either. Who cares if this makes the environment a more unpleasant and dangerous to live in? It makes perfect economic sense.

The Central Otago Railway, which had been built during the gold rush of the 1880s, was shut down. The first third of it, between Dunedin and Middlemarch, where it winds up through the spectacular Taieri Gorge, was saved for tourism. The last two thirds was dug up and was recently turned into a cycle path by DoC, the New Zealand Department of Conservation. This 150km Rail Trail between Middlemarch and Clyde through central Otago was opened by his excellency the Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, Governor-General of New Zealand, in February 2000. It’s a great ride, although it could do with a little more grading on the gravel as some parts of it still have the original rail road rocks. We had glorious sunshine and a good tail-wind for the two and a half long days it took to ride it. Our cheap and nasty mountain bikes stood up to the shaking, and so did we.

There are old suspension bridges everywhere in New Zealand still standing and often rather shaky.

We caught the minibus from Dunedin at midday on a Monday and were dropped off with our bikes in Clyde at four o’clock. We had a look at the hydroelectric dam just up the road, and then set off. The beginning was underwhelming, a few signs stuck up over a huge empty carpark. It wasn’t obvious where the track started. The track was deep-covered in huge chunks of gravel and after just a few kilometres our wrists started to ache. The trail ran along the roadside till it reached Alexandra, I was sorely tempted to pull over onto the nice smooth tarmac, but Becka said that would be cheating.

It was time to suppertime in Alexandra. The town was dead. We circled around the centre like hungry dogs. Then we went around it again in case we had missed something. There were a couple of pie shops and a steakhouse which had absolutely no veggie food on the menu. It didn’t look good. We explored a little way down the highway and struck lucky: an upmarket looking restaurant called Briar and Thyme with truly excellent food. Becka phoned ahead to the Ophir Lodge Backpackers Hostel — klicks further along the track and promised we would be there by ten. We dawdled off the track to see sights such as Shaky Bridge. Then, at eight thirty, the sun went down and we were still nowhere near our destination. Half an hour later it was really dark. We had one joke LED front light and a headtorch between us. I decided that the torch would spoil our night vision as well as compete with the camera for our supply of AA batteries, so we thundered on blindly. We were peddling as fast as we could. If we didn’t make it to this hostel we would be spending the night in a ditch. If a farmer had put a gate or a fence across the track on that section (like they did on all the others) I wouldn’t have needed a bed because I would be off to hospital. The hostel was just off the track in the tiny village of Ophir. We turned off at the right road and then got lost because we couldn’t see any of the junctions. Somewhere along the line we crossed a rickety suspension bridge with a frightening uneven floor. Finally we found the hostel only a quarter of an hour late. Saved! The hostel owner was out in the road with her torch looking for us. She showed us to a single room in a tiny hut covered in vine and decorated like an English summer cottage. Tea was available in the common room. We were alone in the place. I bought a large bottle of beer from the deserted pub at the end of the road, and we were set.

“Will this be all right?” the lady who showed us to our room in the Ophir Lodge Backpacker’s Hostel. It couldn’t have been better.

This hostel was perfect, It was so cheap it was embarrassing handing over so little money for what we got. Becka got me up early in the morning and we rolled ourselves back to the trail to look for breakfast. A greasy cafe served us eggs, chips, beans and instant coffee. It didn’t taste great, but it did line the stomach, which was important because the food places are pretty thin on the ground hereabouts.

The Department of Conservation put signs up at all the old stations. Unfortunately they tended only to post things ten to twenty klicks away as if for walkers rather than cyclists. Their leaflets are the same with half a dozen needed to cover the whole trail. You don’t get told how far you’ve gone or how far you have to go if you are on a bike. What would be good would be a schematic diagram like the tube train maps, with all the stations on in a straight line and the distances between each successive one, and a big arrow showing where you are right now. But they probably can’t stretch to this with their current version of sign painting software.

The DoC have done a stirling job of rebuilding all the bridges along the way. The train ones weren’t suitable because of the gaps between the sleepers and the lack of side rails.

Trying to calculate from our scraps of paper instructions how far we had come and how far we had to go was so hard that we just kept peddling as fast as we could without any idea of the right pace. We juddered along. There are a couple of tunnels on the way where the gravel was extra deep in the darkness so you get wiped out because you can’t see where you’re going. We passed about half a dozen other cyclists along the whole trail, most of them with fancy mountain bike suspension which would absorb some of that jarring and shaking. Apart from the extra-large gravel chunks, the other main gripe with the Rail Trail were the farmer’s gates strung across the track, sometimes several right after each other. Presumably the farmers coped without them when the trains were running, but now they feel like they own the place. Once there was a wire fence strung across the way without a gate. I pulled it up and tangled it up as best I could. The correct barriers to put in are little cattle grids that don’t impede a bicycle at all. There were a few of these. In Ranfurly, the biggest town on the route through Maniototo, we dropped into the tourist office. There is lots of literature promoting the Rail Trail, but they have no means of measuring it’s popularity. It occurred to me later that they could easily fit a little counter onto a loose bar of one of the cattle grids. As long as you knew that only bikes were crossing, all they’d have to divide the figure by two.

Free kayaking at Peter’s farm. The rule is you have to go upstream so that you can’t go further than you can return.

We rolled up at Ranfurly mid-afternoon, having fantasized about food for the past few hours. Each station stop we’d passed turned out to have just a couple of houses or a pub, or less. Ranfurly, the largest settlement on Manioto Plain, had to be worth waiting for. We cruised around the block which was downtown Ranfurly a couple of times. We’d heard a rumour of a pub might serve food it didn’t. After a couple of passes, we realised that the only option was veggy burgers and ice-cream shakes at the dairy. One round wasn’t going to be enough so we went for seconds, and then stocked up at the supermarket with potatoes and dried soup. We headed down to Peter’s Farm Hostel, off from the Waipati rail trail station stop. The sign said only two klicks down the road, but it was a deliberate lie. No matter. Gliding on tarmac made the miles pass in minutes.

Becka takes a break to check the map and give her back a break.

Peter’s hostel was way down a dirt track. It’s the best advertised (OK, the only advertised) business along the rail trail and deserves all the custom it gets. A lovely old restored farmhouse in quiet cattle country. Free bikes, free fishing rods and free kayaks. We set off to go kayaking but Pete raced after us to say he’d just had a call from the heli-crop-sprayer who’d seen us getting ready as he flew over with another load of poison and didn’t want us going down the river until he’d finished. We made dinned and got out later in the evening when the light was fading. The Taieri river was peaceful and mellow and very shallow in places. The current flowed swiftly and let us drift back home in the gloom past trees of noisy birds when we were tired.

In the early morning the river mist surrounded the house and the trees. Only the horses and cows were up when we cleared off at the start of our last day. The track surface was generally better than the other parts, which was a good thing as our wrists could not have taken much more. There were a few more fine bridges and a couple more short tunnels before a final long, flat run at the foot of big, dry, empty hill ranges. There was nothing to tell us we’d arrived, no big, You-Are-Here sign to have our photos taken against. Now I think about it, its great that its so unpackaged. It seemed a lost opportunity at the time but that’s just the way the developers think and we shouldn’t get caught up in that mind set.

The final sign between the end of the rail trail at Middlemarch and Pukerangi where we met the train.

After downsizing our expectations in Ranfurly, we weren’t expecting much from Middlemarch, and we weren’t disappointed. After the usual twirl around the block we located our single option: a dairy that did fry-ups and ice-creams. We ate like greasy truckers. We were sorely tempted by the chilled beer, but resisted it. Midday beers on a hard, hot cycling trip are not good news. This fact of life, like hangovers and the miserableness of going caving, is easy to forget. We slumped in the window with our pot of tea and watched the world go by. The world that day was composed of two pickup trucks with lawnmowers in the back.

Middlemarch is where the rail trail ends and the Taieri Gorge Railway heads off for Dunedin. But only on Sundays. The rest of the week the train stops short at Pukerangi, which does not exist, in so far as it is the place where the train stops and turns around. There is no phone box, no house, no tourist office, no walks to do. The train arrives from Dunedin. Some tourists get off to catch a bus to Queenstown that is waiting there. Most stay on. After half an hour the train heads back down to the city. If there is a reason why the train company doesn’t finish the job off and take people all the way to Middlemarch every day where there is at least something to see, and a town that desperately needs visitors, it must be a very good one. It’s not obvious. Later on in the week Middlemarch hit the headlines because they were holding a match-making ball to try and attract some women. All these good, honest, hardworking, kind farmers had no one to marry. In another twenty years the town was going to blow away in the wind like all the others.

The road from Middlemarch to Pukerangi turned off from the main Dunedin highway, lost its tarmac and started up a hill. After 150km of gentle rail trail gradients, this shocked. We struggled on and on, higher and higher, and there were several false summits. We hadn’t got enough food or water and we hadn’t psyched ourselves up for this. When we made it to Pukerangi there was one Dutch cycle-tourer who had made it there the night before and camped. Later on, a Scottish guy showed up on his unfeasibly heavily-laden bike, having been caught out by the hill too. They had stayed in different places along the Trail to us, so we had never crossed paths.

The train ride was excellent, swooping down the Taieri river gorge, one of only three ways inland from the Dunedin, avoiding the hills. After our journey, Dunedin overwhelmed us with its size and cold temperature, its weather being as perverse as San Francisco’s. Back in those days when these cities were founded, ports were more important than climate. Where there was a port, a city was established. If the port silted up, the city declined. Nowadays, roads go anywhere without limit, and cities exist wherever women want to set up home. This is either in the city where they grew up, in spite of the fact that the said city has no reason to be there anymore, or in some nice leafy factory-free suburb town with their own garden, detached house and new schools, and from which their menfolk have to travel two hours each day by road to get to work. City and town growth and decay is intimately tied to “What Women Want”. Both are unpreditable and inexplicable as each other.


Julian Todd 4/4/2001.