Central Otago Rail Trail: Part One

Clyde to Omakau: 37km

The Otago Rail Trail was opened over two decades ago, not long before Neil and I made New Zealand our home. With a couple of friends we’ve done a lot of talking about riding it but never quite managed to get ourselves organised. Last year we decided that 2021 would be our year. Pure coincidence that a global pandemic means overseas tourists are as rare as trains on New Zealand’s main trunk line.

As the name suggests, the trail used to be a train route. This is good news for the hill-averse amongst us: trains don’t do hills any more than I do (on a bike). It runs between Clyde and Middlemarch, 152km, through small villages and settlements that, frankly, would have disappeared were it not for the thousands of cyclists that ride through them each year. One local described the trail as the ‘bloodline’ of the region. It can be cycled either way (we leave from Clyde) and it’s possible to race it in a couple of days, but it passes through beautiful countryside with a lot of history and rushing through means you won’t appreciate any of that. We choose to do it over five days, meaning we can ride at a leisurely pace and take time to stop and look. Various companies operate shuttle services that will transport luggage and to use one is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. We use Cycle Surgery, who also book all our accommodation and evening meals and, at the end of the ride, will transport us back to Clyde.

The mighty Clutha/Mata-Au

Our first day has a chilly edge, cloud dredging the hills and a cool wind blowing into us as we set off. Neil heads off to ride the Clutha river track, not recommended for e-bikes nor beginners. Julie and Paul are on e-bikes and I ride like a beginner, so we stick to the main trail following signs through the streets of Clyde to the official start. I laugh as Julie points out the line of cyclists behind us – I’m in the lead and, it seems, the Pied Piper of cycling.

We swing onto the wide easy path of the trail proper, passing new subdivisions and a couple of small vineyards, not exactly inspiring riding, being totally flat, meaning it’s hard to warm up. When we reach Alexandra we turn onto streets again and hunt for a hot coffee. Neil joins us and declares that we all could have ridden by the river, that it wasn’t challenging at all and that there were some e-bikes on it. Disappointing, but never mind.

Alexandra is the largest settlement in the area, originally a gold town, now a service town surrounded by orchards and a few vineyards. It sits at the confluence of the mighty Clutha and smaller Manuherikia rivers, has a large park at its centre, a decent supermarket, and more than a smattering of shops and restaurants. The café we stop at is excellent and chocka with cyclists, an early indication of the value of the trail to the local economy. On the hillside above the town a large clock marks perfect time. We detour on the way out to visit the Shaky Bridge, an original river crossing that lives up to its name – I’ve been on firmer swingbridges – now open for foot traffic only.

The Shaky Bridge

Back on the trail we turn northeast along the Manuherikia Valley. The terrain alongside becomes rough and rocky, hillocks created over a century ago by mine workings now creating a playground where cyclists more adventurous than I have carved paths. Spectacular schist outcrops dominate the skyline and tumble down hillsides in surreal shapes. We ride through small cuttings and over embankments, across bridges that seem the exact width of a train and hardly look strong enough to support the weight of one. At Galloway the waiting room has been rebuilt, a shadow of a platform beside it.

Cycling past old mine workings
Schist and sheep
The Manuherikia River

We stop for lunch at Chatto Creek, sitting beside the track rather than in the pub garden as we have our own food. The wreck of an old dredger crumbles inside a fenced area. Once a revolutionary machine that allowed deeper excavation into harsher territory, its days of scooping up soil and rock in the search for gold are long over. The precious metal is the reason many of these towns exist; the end of the fever the reason some disappeared, others shrinking to shadows of what they were at the height of the rush.

A rare picture of Neil

Refuelled we begin the longest and steepest climb of the trail up Tiger Hill. It’s not challenging, more a slow slog, the only evidence of the gradient being that my legs actually have to do a little work rather than just spinning the pedals. Wide sweeping turns take us gradually to the top, marked by a gangers’ shed and expansive views across the bumpy land. A couple of apple trees grow nearby, sprung from apple cores discarded through train windows by early passengers. We sample a couple but they aren’t that tasty. From here it’s a gentle downhill all the way into Omakau, a quick pause to check out a heron sitting incongruously on a rock, no water anywhere in sight. He eyes us warily.

No longer selling hardware!
Different times…

Our accommodation tonight is the Old Postmaster’s House, now let to users of the Rail Trail. The house sleeps six so our party of four have plenty of space, a bathroom for each couple. There’s a welcome plate of brownies, plenty of tea and coffee, and breakfast supplies for the morning. We make full use of the facilities, soaking in the spa before heading to the pub next door for a pint before dinner. It’s full of locals drinking, but the only people eating are cycling tourists. The host is welcoming, the beer good, the service excellent and the food a lot better than we expected for a small country pub. It’s been a good start.

I can see the pub from here!

Disclaimer: I’m compelled (seriously, almost at the point of a knife) to point out that some of the ‘action’ shots were taken by Neil on his phone whilst he was cycling and are not to his usual standard, possibly even not in focus. You may also work out he didn’t take his own picture and that I did. I wasn’t cycling at the time, but I had jumped quickly off the bike and turned around to snap it. It may be out of focus and it’s probably not far from my usual standard.

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