The Otago Central Rail Trail has become a rite of passage for middle aged kiwis.
If they haven’t already done it, it’ll be on their ‘list’. As it was on mine for years. After having friends and family around me do it recently, I screamed ‘enough’, and booked it.
So at the beginning of April we rode the Otago Central Rail Trail from Clyde to Middlemarch – 150kms through awe inspiring country.
Before I share my story, here’s a little history on the trail.
History of the Central Otago Rail Trail
Way back in 1861, gold was discovered in Central Otago. The area boomed, as people flocked to Central Otago to make their fortunes. The railway was built to support the townships that sprung up across the region, providing an economic lifeline from Dunedin. It was started in 1891 and took until 1907 to complete the rail section from Middlemarch to Clyde. As you’ll see as you ride it, the terrain is desert like in parts, and extremely rocky. In this difficult landscape, workers worked with picks, shovels, horse-drawn wagons and explosives to build the tracks. The tunnels are perhaps the best opportunity to wonder at the engineering and skill of our forefathers. We walked through them in total awe of the craftsmanship. The construction skills of our ancestors never fail to astound me.
The boom is over
But by the 1930’s the boom was over. As private motor cars became mainstream, and roads were built, the railways use became limited. It managed to survive during the 1980’s as it was used in the construction of the hydro-electric dam at Clyde. But in 1990 the Clyde to Middlemarch section was closed, and the tracks were lifted.
Thankfully some clever clogs in the Department of Conservation recognised the potential of the empty rail corridor, and purchased it in 1993. After years of working with the local communities along the trail, the Otago Central Rail Trail was opened in 2000.
There are now Rail Trails throughout most of New Zealand, but if you mention to a kiwi that you’re ‘doing the rail trail’, it is the Otago Central Rail Trail they’ll immediately think of.
One of the great things about the trail, is the total flexibility you have with it. You can ride any section of it as a day trip, or you can ride the 152kms over a few days. We rode from Clyde to Middlemarch, and took 4 leisurely days to do it. You can also ride it in reverse.
How far you’ll ride each day will be determined a little by your accommodation. Most of the accommodation options along the trail are small operators, with limited room capacity. For this reason, it’s really important to book early, especially during the peak periods from October – March.
There’s plenty of information online to help you plan. But, if you’re not a local, and you’re intending to do all of the trail, I can highly recommend using one of the specialist OCRT providers. I’m not usually one to go for a ‘packaged tour’, but this really is the one time to let someone else organise for you.
Book a ‘tour’
Why? Because quite simply they look after EVERYTHING and make it easy.
The tour companies will provide you with comprehensive information to help you plan. They’re quite happy to customise it when you throw in other recommendations from friends. You’ll be provided with bikes in primo condition, and they’ll book all of the accommodation for you. They also;
- provide comprehensive planning information – you can just let them do it all, or you can advise on certain things
- provide you with bikes in primo condition
- deliver your luggage to your accommodation so it’s there when you arrive each day
- book all your accommodation
- suggestions for all the things to look at / stop at / explore on your route
- total support while you’re riding
- provide transfers between destinations
- provide a gear list customised to the season you’re riding in
Do you get the picture? They make it so easy. For me I think the clincher was the luggage – organising that independently just wouldn’t have been easy.
So I stepped back and let She Bikes He Bikes do the work.
Local operators and information
This is the official website of the trail, so perhaps start your research HERE.
There are lots of companies to book your tour through, here’s a couple of options for you;
One of the nicest things that we came across, was seeing how these competing companies all work together.
Day 1 – Central Otago Rail Trail
We chose to ride from Clyde to Middlemarch. Clyde is a beautiful little town, with some stunning historic buildings. As much as you’ll be itching to just begin, it’s worth taking a little time to at least ride around, and check out some of the beautiful historic buildings.
From Clyde you have a decision to make. Take the ‘150th Anniversary Track’ alongside the Clutha river, or ride the normal rail trail. We chose the river trail, and really enjoyed having the beautiful aqua waters on our side the whole way to Alexandra. It also provides quite a different environment than you’ll encounter the rest of the way, so I highly recommend it.
At the end of the Anniversary Trail we came to our first town – Alexandra. We were given a couple of options of ‘where to eat’ from She Bikes He Bikes, and thankfully chose the Courthouse Cafe. OMG! The array and size of food in the cabinets was phenomenal. What’s more was they tasted even better than they looked. You all know I love my food, my only disappointment here was that I couldn’t try it all. We will come back to Alexandra just to visit this cafe – seriously!
So it was from Alex that we started on the real rail trail. The landscape immediately changed – we went from the greens and blues of the river ride, to the chalk and stone of central Otago.
Then we came to our first ‘railway station’! Isn’t it cute?!
We met some Merino friends along the way too (this is NZ, you’re going to see a few sheep!)
Our next official stop was the Chatto Creek Hotel, a great place to stop for refreshments. We didn’t need food because we’d gorged ourselves at the Courthouse, but we couldn’t resist the garden setting, and a chance to get off the bike seats for a bit. The hotel (ie. pub), is also home to the Chatto Creek Post Office – yes, it doesn’t look like it, but this is still a fully functioning post box!
The great thing with the stops, is that it also gives you a chance to meet other cyclists during the route. You’ll probably come across the same people at most stops, but as everyone jumps back on the track at different times, you’re unlikely to see them while you’re riding.
From Chatto Creek it’s 12km to Omakau, the next ‘big’ town. We were staying in Ophir, 2km out of Omakau, and chose to take the longer scenic route there, via the old bridge.
Yippee, we made it! Because of our detours, we actually rode just over 50kms today. It was a cinch for me on my e-bike, but even hubby was still feeling good at the end.
Day 2 – Central Otago Rail Trail
The next morning we woke up to the first frost of the season, and a stunning sunny day. Brrr – freezing out of the sun to begin with – this is when having good gloves becomes VERY important!
We rode back to Omakau to get back on the rail trail. It was a big day in town, with a ‘sale’ on. Now my city slicker friends could get very excited at those words, but trust me, in Omakau a sale is not what you’re thinking. I grew up attending these, but many riding the trail obviously hadn’t, and stopped to watch. I took a quick video so you could get an idea of how it sounds when you have a cattle auction (make sure you’ve got your sound on!);
Our next little stop was in Lauder – this coffee stop was compulsory as an opportunity to warm up my hands! We weren’t the only ones doing that!
Looking for just a day trip?
This was the most scenic leg of the trail for us. If you’re looking at just a day trip, this is what I’d recommend as a priority.
You’ll cross the Poolburn Viaduct – it’s 108m long and 37 meters high – built from hand hewn stone in the late 19th century.
Then you’ll go through two tunnels – over 200m long – it’s dark inside! You’ll want to do as you’re told and get off and walk your bike. It can be very disorienting, cyclists have been known to ride into the walls! Our bikes had lights, and we had our torches on our phones on as well to help in the middle.
The scenery on this leg is just stunning. It is such an incredible experience to ride through this, totally at leisure, slowing down your thoughts, and just enjoying being alive. It’s incredibly peaceful.
After a stunning day in every possible way, we’ve made it to our next destination, and home for the night, Oturehua.
Hubby took off to explore Hayes Engineering, a pioneering NZ company with a rich history. I wandered into town to check out the Gilchrist Store, NZ’s longest running general store. It is now part store, part museum.
We enjoyed the the fabulous hospitality of the publican for dinner and drinks, and walked ‘home’ to our lodgings for the night. But not before the town put on a brilliant light show for us;
This sky was followed by an inky black one, studded with 1000 stars. Without any light pollution, the night sky is INCREDIBLE. Star spotters – this is the place to be.
I was very encouraged by the sky at night (red sky at night, shepherds delight), but unfortunately we had something a little similar in the morning. (Red sky in the morning, shepherds warning!).
Day 3 – Central Otago Rail Trail
Whatever the day was about to be, it started cool and crisp again. My beanie came out for the first time, as did an extra couple of merino layers!
Today’s ride took us to the highest point on the trail – goods news for hubby that it’s all downhill from here. But oh, when you go downhill, you get the wind in your face, and that can be cold! Basically when you start the day like this, you’re just looking for where you can order a hot drink to wrap your hands around.
Today it was Ranfurly. Although it had been a chilly -1 degree start, Ranfurly put on the sun for us.
It was a great chance to thaw out. Today’s ride was just an easy 30 odd k, so we took our time exploring the town, and watched the video on the history of the rail trail in the information centre in the old railway station.
Our destination today was the Waipiata Hotel. It had been highly recommended we stay here, and consume a pie or two! I would of if I could of! There were about 10 delicious pie fillings to choose from. It was not easy, but I couldn’t go past the lamb shank. OMG! Totally lived up to it’s reputation, alongside the most incredible mashed potato I’ve ever had!! As much as I tried to finish it, it was so big I couldn’t quite manage it. I really tried!
Day 4 – Central Otago Rail Trail
Back on the bikes for our last day on the trail. 52kms from Waipiata to Middlemarch.
Rain was threatening today, and with another cold start, and not a lot of sunshine, we got on our bikes and the trail early. The ‘it’s all downhill’ from the highest point isn’t quite true, this section does involve a little hill climbing up to the tunnel.
The only ‘town’ you’ll go through on this leg is Hyde, now a shadow of its former self. There’s an honesty box system in the hotel here, for choccie bars and hot drinks.
As we got nearer to Middlemarch we could see SNOW on the hills. This was reflected in how cold this section was for me – I actually resorted to a balaclava half way through this section (lol, sorry no photos!). It’s the difference that a southerly in the face can make!
And then we were in Middlemarch – the end of the line – literally!
What a way to discover yourself, and genuine NZ
We had a great few days. It was just lovely riding alongside hubby, sometimes chatting, sometimes away with our own thoughts. Taking in the unique scenery of central Otago. Enjoying the gracious hospitality of all the hosts. Meeting fellow riders, and locals in the pubs along the way. It is a great reminder to slow down. It is a great chance to see, be part of and support townships that would be extinct without the rail trail.
This is NZ, and these are true kiwis. Book your trail ride now – you’ll love it. We loved it so much, we’re planning the next one. (Alps to Ocean – watch this space!)
To e-bike or not to e-bike?
Hubby had time to do a little training beforehand, but I was too busy with all my other activities. Although I’m fairly fit, I knew I wasn’t bike fit. So after some deliberation, I elected to use an e-bike. I really felt like a ‘light-weight’, and did seriously deliberate on it. I totally felt like I was cheating.
Can I tell you, now that I’ve done it – not so much! I think riding the e-bike made it so much more enjoyable for me. Hubby got sweaty going up the inclines. I just breezed up. It was FUN! And that’s what it’s supposed to be right?! No more guilt here. If in doubt, book the e-bike!
I also need to tell you that this ride is not flat. We’ve previously ridden a section of the Hauraki Rail Trail that was, so that was my expectation. Although this doesn’t exceed the 1 in 50 gradient that is required for trains, it’s definitely not flat! There are some hills that require a long slow climb to the top. SO much easier on an e-bike.
The other thing with it, was that if we’d both have had e-bike, we could have ridden together to a couple of the off-trail destinations. ie. St Bathans or Naseby. I found the shuttle cost to these towns to be expensive, but could have easily ridden there on my e-bike. If you’re wanting to explore further off the trail, an e-bike might be a good solution just for that reason.
Tips and tricks
- ride an e-bike!
- plan to be hungry and eat at the Courthouse Cafe in Alexandra
- essential items to have are your water bottle, good warm gloves (that allow you to use your phone/camera), sunscreen, lipcream, a scarf, beanie, sunglasses
- plan to stop at the Waipiata Hotel for a pie (legendary)
- purchase a Rail Trail passport – the funds from your purchase go towards the OCRT trust, and it’s fun to stamp the pages at all the stations
- get panniers with your bike, or bring a bungy to tie your backpack to your bike. Way more comfortable than carrying it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my story and tips. Don’t forget to pin it for future reference.
There are many great cycling trails around NZ. Check out our experience and my recommendations for the Hauraki Rail Trail ride.