Ranfurly to Hyde: 32km.
Hyde to Middlemarch: 27km, plus 20km round trip to Sutton Salt Lakes.
We leave Naseby on an early shuttle in a complete whiteout, visibility so poor I’m glad I’m not trying to see my way on a bike. The driver tells us the mists have been bad this year, a consequence of heavy rain and flooding in January that have left the ground much wetter than it would normally be. I presume that the pivot irrigator we pass, its arms dissolving into the mist, is therefore redundant.
We explored the local mountain bike park yesterday afternoon, Julie and I sticking to the easy trails whilst Neil and Paul went a bit more gung-ho. We waved the boys off with entreaties to be careful and don’t get lost then, ironically and somewhat embarrassingly, got lost ourselves and had to retrace our steps (wheels?) back to where we’d started. We were never seriously in trouble, although it meant we had to do a bit more pushing and grunting uphill than we’d planned. Frankly, I’m just pleased when I get off the bike at the end of the day without having had an earlier, unplanned, dismount. Turns out that Paul had a couple trying to follow Neil. Not that you’d notice; he laughs about it and has no bruises or grazes. I’m more than a little envious – in the same circumstances I’d look like I’ve gone ten rounds with Anthony Joshua.
By the time the shuttle drops us in Ranfurly and we’ve had a caffeine hit, the sun has burned through the mist and we can see where we’re going. We can also see the stunning vista that is the Maniototo Plain, the vast area edged by the Mount Ida, Rough Ridge, Hawkdun and Rock and Pillar Ranges, a big sky sprawled above it. ‘Mani-o-toto’ is Māori for ‘Plains of Blood’. As there are no references to battles in the area it’s thought that the name refers to the prevalent red tussock which, especially at sunset and rippling in the wind, looks like flowing blood.
We pause for a photo stop in Waipiata, a small settlement at the side of the Taieri River. There are a couple of interesting side trails but none of us particularly want to add another twenty-odd km to our day. I know we’ll be back.
After Waipiata the hills close in around the Upper Taieri Gorge and the land turns green in a sign we are following the river, rocky outcrops above slopes with scattered patches of scree. We still can’t see the water as we freewheel downhill, just the line of trees that marks it, and it’s very picturesque. But this is countryside strictly for looking, no access to the riverside. It’s very common in New Zealand and disappointing to those of us who grew up picnicking by streams. We’re pleased to find a shady glade for lunch only to be gatecrashed by a noisy group, loud music emanating from one of their backpacks. Casting angry glares in their direction we climb back on the bikes and cycle off, still hungry. Why do people bother to spend time outdoors if they need loud music that shatters the peace of the countryside and spoils it for others? We ride on and resort to picnicking under a tree just off the track, hoping an angry farmer doesn’t turn up to evict us.
The riding is easy, no effort required, no breathing hard – I can talk as I ride, something I’m sure Neil is happy about. We arrive in Hyde, once a bustling town, now a row of buildings on a highway, long before our 2pm check-in time at our accommodation. Fortunately, some enterprising soul has parked a coffee cart nearby and we relax with a drink to kill some time, getting ‘dusted’ by a large truck driving off a gravel road across from where we sit. We’re already dust-covered from the trail, our bikes looking very grey, so it hardly matters, and I’d rather that than rain – for the third day in a row the forecast showers haven’t turned up.
The next morning a light cloud cover means we have a warmer start and we’re soon down to t-shirts. We cycle in the shadow of the Rock and Pillar Range, which is my type of country, a hillside pockmarked with rocks leading up to a ridge and then… what? Who knows without climbing up there. It reminds me of the hillside opposite the town I grew up in, Stocksbridge, although that was green fields and this is rougher, steeper, possibly higher. Tracks are signed, leading up through private land to public-access land on the ridge. I’m definitely returning to this area.
The riding is easy, a second day of little or no effort. I realise with a sense of disappointment that our time on the trail is almost over, as is our holiday, and slow down to appreciate the last few kms. Neil, off ahead in this flat terrain, pauses to wait for me and we ride to the end of the trail at Middlemarch together. It’s not yet noon and we join other cyclists and a few locals at the only café, the Kissing Gate, home of good coffee and very good food.
Paul hangs up his cycling gloves and the rest of us ride out of town to the Sutton Salt Lake, New Zealand’s only inland salt lake. The road is flat and I fly along, but cycling on the tarmac is hot work and the final couple of kms on a gravel road are even hotter. We park the bikes and walk along the marked track but find nothing resembling a lake. Dark clouds hang oppressively above us, the heat still suffocating despite the lack of sun and, aware we have to ride back, we give up the search, thinking perhaps the lake has dried out. (We discover later that the walk to the lake is nearly 4km rather than the few hundred metres we’d thought.) As we turn back north to Middlemarch I realise why today has been easy and I flew along the road to get here – we’re now facing a headwind and the return journey is a tortuous 10km into it, large spots of rain plopping onto us intermittently.
Middlemarch is the most disappointing of the places we stayed, a lot of the town flooded early in the year and a couple of businesses now closed because of it, including the pub we were supposed to eat in. In retrospect, we could have done the last two days as one, or arranged an afternoon shuttle back to Clyde. But it’s a tiny detail in what has been a fantastic week and I’ve enjoyed every second of it. Later, as darkness falls, so does the rain, a short but heavy shower. It’s the first we’ve seen on the trail. We’ve been lucky.
Once again my writing about our travels is strangely prescient! The following article appeared just as I began detailing our Central Otago visit. We’re glad to have helped! https://thespinoff.co.nz/business/02-05-2021/clyde-survived-how-domestic-tourism-saved-my-hometown/