Otago Central Rail Trail

One thing that has been on my list is the Otago Central Rail Trail, which runs from Middlemarch to Clyde in Central Otago. This is the original “Great Ride” in New Zealand.

“The Rail Trail offers a superb recreational walking/cycling/riding experience for both holidaymakers and athletes. It extends 150 kilometres between Middlemarch and Clyde, across unrivalled landscapes.”


I figured since we were in Dunedin, I might find an opportunity to do it. Especially, because Susanne seems to always be willing to shuttle me to and from various points in order for me to pursue this crazy passion of mine. No matter how hair-brained the scheme might be, she will still help me out. Super big thanks!

The railway was built in the gold rush in Otago in the mid-1800’s.

Gold was first discovered in Central Otago in 1861 and the railway was built during the ensuing prosperity. It provided an essential economic lifeline between Dunedin and the townships that had sprung up to accommodate the influx of people to the region.

Labourers and tradesmen worked with picks, shovels, horse-drawn wagons and explosives across difficult terrain. It took them from 1891 to 1907 to complete the Middlemarch to Clyde railway line.

By the 1930s the economic boom was over. Improved roads, the onset of the private motor car and the final scrapping of restrictions on trucking freight by road in 1983, ensured the railway’s demise. Construction of the hydro-electric dam at Clyde kept the railway open during the 1980s. But in 1990 the Middlemarch to Clyde section of the railway closed and its tracks were lifted soon after.

Central Otago Government

I watched the weather and found what looked like a good slot to head out and do the ride. A lot of people take 4 or 5 days to do the trail, but after reading the description of the various possibilities, this one spoke to me:

“The fastest time taken to complete the 152 km Trail is now under six hours – but, no pressure! Add some interest to your fitness /endurance training regime with a 2-day jaunt on the Trail. You will need to be a fit and experienced biker.”

The good news is that they did not discourage old fat guys from doing it in 2 days. So the plan was to have Susanne drop me off in Middlemarch and I would ride to Alexandra over two days and, depending on the weather and how I was feeling, I might ride part of the way back. I had my fancy new MacPac backpack to carry all my stuff and I was hoping it wouldn’t get too annoying riding that long with a pack on my back.

Ready to go at the start. My spiffy new backpack even matched my helmet. I am a fashion icon, no doubt
First part of the trail was flat, but then started to climb up into some more interesting terrain

The riding was pretty easy and not super interesting for the first 10 kms, but then it started climb slowly upward into some nice rolling hill terrain with some very interesting rock formations. I felt pretty good and was making pretty good time. I got to Hyde around 11 am and took a little break and checked out the museum in the old train station there.

Old ore train cars in Hyde
The bike path
The telegraph room in the Hyde station

Although I had picked a beautiful sunny day to start my ride, it was becoming clear that it was going to be way hotter than I expected. I was getting pretty warm, especially since the trail was a pretty steady climb into a slight headwind. Every time I got some shade, it was a relief. Going through the old train tunnels was a nice refresher!

Climbing through the hills
Old tunnel for the narrow gauge trains
They have converted the rail bridges

Once I climbed up and out of the main hill section, the trail was barren and exposed with little or no shade. The ambient temperature was near 30 degrees C (86 F) which meant it was over 35 on the trail itself. Whew. Early on in the ride, there had a been pretty frequent shade/weather shelters along the trail, but once out on to the open plains, they were few and far between. I did come across one place to take a break where someone was selling home baked cookies. In a very kiwi fashion, there was just an honor box and a note that said “pay what you think they are worth.” I did not buy any cookies, but did enjoy a few minutes and some peanuts sitting in the shade.

Lupines everywhere
A nice little shade break

It became clear that most people ride the trail from Clyde to Middlemarch rather than the way I was doing it. I deduced this from the relatively large number of people (mostly on ebikes) heading the other way. I didn’t pass or get passed by another bike the entire time.

I made it to Ranfurly around 1 pm. It’s a cute little touristy town that was clearly a very popular stop along the trail. I found a little cafe to have a coffee, a little food, re-hydrate, and just get out of the sun for a little while. The cafe was nice and they even provided chilled water for cyclists. I had only 15 km to Wedderburn, where I had reserved a farm stay for the night.

It was a bit of a slog from Ranfurly to Wedderburn as my motivation for having my brains cooked in the sun was starting to diminish a bit.

I got to the farm stay around 2 pm and the dude showed me around. It was a simple room with a common shower area, kitchen, and living room. It seemed super empty and there were no other bikes parked in the rack. That seemed odd. Later I found out I was the only guest that night, which was nice.

No shade to be found

I took a nice cool shower and just hung out in the shade for a while chilling, drinking water, eating a little food, and enjoying being off the bike.

Overall, it wasn’t too hard of a ride, but what had become clear is that the saddle on my bike was not working for me. My buttinski was pretty sore. Ugh. I kind of knew the saddle sucked, but had pretended that it would be ok eventually. It was the stock saddle that had come with the bike and I was being cheap by not replacing it. Shades of my ride to the Grand Canyon on a similar saddle that ended up trying to kill me. Clearly, I had not learned my lesson from that debacle.

Oh how I hate thee

There was a nice tavern just down the road that looked like it had a good restaurant as well. It was also a lodge, but when I had looked at the prices to stay there, it was about 4 times the NZ$95/night I was paying at the farm stay. Nope. I had a lovely dinner of venison and treated myself to the chocolate mousse for dessert. It was good, but my mousse kicks butt on theirs….not to be too immodest. Afterwards, I went back to the farm stay and sat on the outside couch and enjoyed the evening. One of their dogs made itself at home and joined me on the couch. Despite the sore butt, it had been a very nice day on the trail … 46 miles with 1500′ of climbing.

The main
The desert
The company on the couch

Day 2 was going to be distinctly easier than Day 1, as it was mostly downhill after a short climb to the high point on the trail. That was nice since it was supposed to be just as warm as the previous day. The biggest bummer about the farm stay was that they only had instant coffee. Ugh. The ride would start without coffee onboard. I got on the trail about 8 am and it was already feeling pretty warm. I got to the summit, took a pic, and then boogied down the hill the 12 km to Oturehua where I could get some coffee.

The effort
The reward

The scenery on this section of the trail was definitely more interesting. There were really cool rock formations and some pretty tight gorges to go over. The lupines were amazing throughout the trail. I stopped in Lauder for another coffee at one of the trailside cafes.

It was getting pretty toasty and my butt was super sore, so I was starting to think about getting to the end. At about 6 km to go, the battery on my electronic shifter ran out of juice. Doh! Forgot to charge it. I love electronic shifting, but this is one of the downsides. And once the battery dies, that is the gear you are going ride in for the rest of the ride. There is nothing you can do about it. I happened to be in a pretty low gear that would be good for climbing, but not so good for a dude with a sore butt wanting to make some time so he could get off the bike. Unless I revved up to 120 rpm, my top speed was reduced to about 10 mph. Sigh. Could have been worse.

I made it to Alexandra around 12:30 pm. The folks I had rented a place from said I could check in anytime, so I rode up to their house (which was up a steep hill, so now I was glad I was stuck in a low gear) and met them there. They showed me the place and I was glad to see it had a heat pump. I drank some fluids, cooled down, and showered.

I had thought about doing some rides the next day around there, but based on the status of my behind, I told Susanne that I would be ready for a shuttle pickup in the morning. Damn cheap saddle.

Susanne and Emmitt made the 2-hour drive the next morning and picked me up. I was so grateful to have such a high-end shuttle service … even if Emmitt kept complaining, in between naps, that he didn’t get his St. Kilda walk that morning, and that the car was boring, and on and on.

It was a great trip—I would highly recommend it and I would do it again. A few lessons learned:

  • Carrying a back pack was a bit of a pain and I should have gone lighter (I was worried about it getting cold).
  • I would probably ride it in the other direction too. I think getting the better scenery on the first day is the way to go.
  • Always recharge your shifter battery.
  • Don’t ride on cheap saddles. Maybe this time the lesson will stick.
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