A little nostalgia and a lot of pride live in Central Otago. Now that the long awaited trip is over, I can't convey my enthusiasm enough! If you're a local, what are you waiting for? If you're not, do a bit of reading, make the effort, and I'll guarantee that you won't be disappointed. It is in the least, incredibly scenic territory.
The weekend began at an open air concert at Peregrine Winery. The acoustics of their natural amphitheatre makes for a great venue. The day, weather-wise, couldn't have been better had we ordered it. And even with the liberal amount of wine and beer flowing, all in attendance were very well behaved.
After the festivities had ended, we made our way to Clyde to camp out for the night. In the morning, after polishing off a quick breakfast of bacon and egg sandwiches, we headed toward the starting point of the Central Otago Rail Trail and got to the business of pedaling. Initially, getting out of town is a bit tedious.. especially with those glimpses of the impending views.
Once on the trail and several road crossings later, I began to realise how dusty this adventure was going to be. Dust does a thirsty cyclist make.
Luckily most pubs have a very good selection of Central Otago wines and I took the opportunity to taste some of these and a few New Zealand beers that I don't normally consume. I live in Dunedin and that is, after all, Emerson's country. I did know that at the Royal Pub, World Famous in Naseby (for many reasons), there would be Bookbinder on tap. At least I am able to plan for a fix, even if it IS 2 days away. I suspect I'll be very thirsty by then..
Bookbinder is the very reason Naseby is included on the route.. that and the whisperings of great value pub meals to be had. This would later be substantiated by a fantastic steak dinner and a hearty breakfast of french toast.
Beer along the trail pretty much consists of Speight's, Speight's and Speight's.. other Lion Nathan and DB products. At our first stop, Chatto Creek Pub, under large swaying trees in their lovely open back garden, we savoured a nice Ploughman's lunch platter from the café and filled it out with a large buttery textured piece of gorgonzola and a loaf of ciabatta we had brought along. After quenching the thirst of the first 20 kilometers on sweetish Speight's, I also tried an Oranjeboom. Now brewed in NZ by Lion Nathan, it is also on the sweetish side but drier on the finish than Speight's, which is something I appreciate with food. But back to the café, the Chatto Creek pub is a great location, right on the trail and with a friendly orange tiger kitten.
Time to Chatto Creek from Clyde, 2 hours. Time at the pub, 3 hours. Hmm.
Pushing on, it was another 15 kilometers to Omakau. The views continued to impress. The Dunstan Mountains and the Raggedy Range are both incredible especially in the varying light provided by the setting sun. The Guesthouse, located behind the old post office (now a private residence), with its comfortable beds, 2 great showers and a well appointed wee kitchen (with included continental breakfast), was a welcome and downright luxurious stop after the hot, dusty day. The pub was just the next door over and there was a curious antique shop directly across the street. The local pub was holding a function and since I wasn't entirely up for a rowdy event at teatime after such a peaceful day on the trail, a picnic was fashioned up from the market provisions stowed in a flexible chilly bin and taken over to the river in Ophir.
Ophir is approximately a 6km round trip from the main street in Omakau and well worth the diversion even if you are cycling on to Lauder. There is a fabulously designed old suspension bridge to look at and plenty of picnic perfect spots along the river. A bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo and some prosciutto made for a nice light meal and relaxing end to the afternoon listening to the water. A few pints at the pub later on (supping a Monteith's Black while watching an amazing sunset) couldn't have been more fun. A big Thank you to the local women's softball team for keeping my cycling companion entertained. They were unwinding after a weekend tournament in Gore and I am still not sure he's recovered.
In the morning, only a few minutes to Lauder. We'd initially planned on staying here but everything was booked. If you are keen on any of the boutique Lauder B&B and historic lodge accomodation, get your reservations in as early as possible as they book out quickly.
This leg of the journey was looking to be a big day for the view, varying terrain, bridges (especially the impressive 110 m across the Manuherikia River) and the Poolburn Gorge tunnels. It was spectacular. Passing Auripo and Ida Valley Stations, there was a settling feeling of the vastness of this country as we cycled past abandoned train stop shelters in what seems to be the middle of (albeit an absolutely stunning) nowhere. A long-ish day, we covered 50 kilometers including a memorable stop in historic Oturehua.
Oturehua is a great wee town and it gets quite crowded in the winter months with the many popular events that take place at that time of year. On the frozen Idaburn dam, the Bonspiel is a massive draw as is the Brass Monkey Motorcycle Rally on Queen's Birthday weekend. I have decided that it might be worth the trip back to witness this and I'll bring more cash just in case.
We arrived just after 1pm and were looking to stay out of the midday sun for a few hours (and keep with our current cycling time to pub support ratio).
The pub (and whole town), unfortunately, was having issues with their phone lines and therefore, the eftpos terminals were out of order. As the pub had no back up credit card transfer machine, beer purchases were limited to the cash dug out of the bottom of the panniers. As we were rustling around in our bags, we were graciously offered a loan from a few jovial Auckland cyclists but it turned out that we had it covered. A jug of Speight's and a toasted sandwich later, onward!
The trail then begins a gradual climb on the tip of Rough Ridge and after easily making the trail's highest point (it's marked) we continued along crossing the Maniototo Plains to Wedderburn Station. On arrival in Ranfurly, a small ice cream shop caught my eye and I got the last of the hokey pokey. Ranfurly is a bigger town, with a bank, small supermarket and a large historic (art deco) pub.
The town would be a great place to stay but is also is well worth a few hours visit even if you are pushing on. Here we rang for a shuttle to Naseby. Lazy, I know, but we didn't want to miss this quaint historic town just because it isn't directly on the trail. There are many transport options run by the Naseby locals Ancient Briton and the Royal Hotel to get you there if you, like us, aren't keen to hit the tarseal.
The Royal provided another prime example of classic Kiwi pub hospitality. The whole trip was wonderful in this sense. Walls covered with nostalgia, history and local character.. good value meals, beverages and friendly publicans.
After a superb dinner, a few Bookbinders and a glass of great Central Otago Riesling (from Mt. Difficulty) later.. I was easily asleep by half eleven. Time spent on the trail 5 hours, 57 km and in the pub, same.
The last day was a bit of a push to get to the train at half four. Middlemarch was a full 60 kilometers away and Pukerangi (train stop) was another 19km on top of that. While the train does make occasional extended trips to Middlemarch, it wouldn't be making those runs for another few days. So, with no shuttle booked and uncertain if we'd even catch it.. onward. For the tailwind and predominately downhill grade of this leg, I'll be eternally grateful.
Leaving Ranfurly through to Waipiata (last stop for for 27 kilometers), Daisybank, Hyde and Middlemarch saw us cycling across some breathtakingly scenic terrain enhanced by the formation of the cloud cover. Today they were certainly living up to their full reputation. Threatening but never accumulating, the colours and cloud patterns made for some 360 degree postcard-type views.
The Otago Central Hotel at Hyde was a welcome stop in the heat of high noon. A couple of beers, a refreshing Monteith's gingery Summer Ale and a palate cleansing Steinlager, washed down yet another sandwich, this one nicely laden with salad and roasted turkey on a tasty grain packed bread. Not wanting to stop for long, the hour still passed quickly but at least the early afternoon sun would soon be behind us.
The last 30 km saw us passing the location of the Hyde train disaster and the monument marking the site. The trail slices across this continually flattening landscape of gold, golden grass, rocky outcrops and mountain ranges, I was sad that is was the final day but anticipating the train trip as well. You can see why through many of the links here.
This was the 6th of March.
A suitable day as it is also the release date for the Taieri George (a beer brewed by Emerson's Brewing Co. in Dunedin). George is not a spelling error. The beer is to honour of the birth date of the late George W. Emerson and his contribution as a founder of the Taieri Gorge Railway. All along the Rail Trail there are markers and historic photos, frequently credited to Mr. Emerson. Hopefully the collection will be collated by his family and available for viewing in Dunedin in the not so distant future.
The rail line runs from Middlemarch into Dunedin and will transport cycles at no extra cost. The train, as mentioned, doesn't always carry on all the way up to Middlemarch and ends its trip in Pukerangi. Shuttles pick up tourists at the Pukerangi stop as it is a very hilly 19 kilometers of predominately unsealed road frequented by busses and loaded trailers. It can be done but at the end of 150km, I was quite happy to sit at the Kissing Gate Café, sample one of their divine pies, ready my palate for Taieri George with an IPA, and wait for the local shuttle.
The train arrived in Pukerangi right on time. With our gear loaded and all aboard, the train slowly lurched into motion. I had been looking forward to this for 3 days and it did not disappoint. The on-board service is run by the friendliest lot you could possibly meet and they offer great commentary (and a few tales) along the way to complement the dramatic Gorge vistas.
The Taieri stops at one site, commemorating the late Arthur Rockliffe (Arthur's Knob) and slows over the Flat Stream viaduct to pass the memorial of the late George Emerson. Without the contribution of these co-founders, the railway might not have been maintained and the opportunity to link an exhilarating bike trip through Central Otago with this incredible yesteryear inspired journey would be lost. Raising a glass of Taieri George to these visionaries was the least I could do.
Taieri George has often been described as 'liquid hot cross buns' by many a beer writer and I can do nothing but concur. The rich, malty, almost cake-like aroma of this bottle conditioned, Belgian inspired beer is also subtly spicy with a creamy suede head that does not belie the mouthfeel. It has a decent level of complementary hopping, good for a dry leaning finish to keep the sweetish beer from being cloying. With such a smooth delivery, the higher alcohol (at 6.8%) might come as a bit of surprise.
There were several toasts to George and Arthur for their efforts in allowing the experience of the rail through what has to be the best day trip out of Dunedin without penguins. And as grand as the historic Dunedin Train Station is, I was sorry to see the trees part for houses and the city start to rise up around us.
To anyone considering this trip, it isn't a difficult one. It requires some planning and a bit of gear to make you more comfortable. I would recommend at least 4 days if you intend to cycle the trail in its entirety or use some of the many transfer services if you feel inclined. For food and accomodation, I heard nothing but praise regarding both aspects from all we passed along the trail but I would encourage reservations if you aren't prepared to camp. Either way, please adhere to the law of the land and be tidy, close gates behind you and mind the road crossings. I'd also suggest taking a friend or four to share the experience and drag along a local if you can. I can't begin to praise my cycling companion and local 'guide' enough. Such familiarity was very welcome and much appreciated on this trip. The regional passion and pride for Central is indeed infectious. Now, I can't wait to get back!
Happily enough, more Central Otago is in the works for sooner rather than later.. there are Pinot Noir adventures to be had soon!