Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Terns on the Trail: Otago Central Rail Trail

"What? You haven't done the Rail Trail?" was a common response when I mentioned that we were going to bike the Otago Central Rail Trail. In fact I'd done part of the trail with "The Men of Steel" mountain biking group (which with increasing age and joint replacements is now "Men of steel, titanium, and surgical bioceramics"); and Marg had cycle toured Central Otago when there were actual trains on the Rail Trail.
I could claim family history of travelling in the area: my grandfather had spent the 1890s touring the gold workings in an effort to convert the Chinese miners to Presbyterianism.

But we hadn't got around to doing the actual "Rail Trail" package.

We decided folding bikes would simplify the logistics of the Rail Trail, so a fine spring morning saw us hopping on the Terns at Queenstown Airport, next to the bike assembly stand that bizarrely needs a notice asking that it not be used as an ashtray. We had most of a day before the shuttle left for Clyde, so pedalled around the Lake Shore to Kelvin Heights, passing the Kawarau Falls bridge: due to become a cycle bridge when a new road bridge is built to hasten tour buses on their way to Milford Sound.
Marg and (sculpted) wildlife, Kelvin Heights
The rugged tussock slopes of Peninsula Hill now sport modern apartment blocks. Outside the Hilton Hotel we admired the ChargeAbout rental Moustache eBikes, but decided to stick with unassisted pedalling on this trip.

From Kelvin Heights it's only a few hundred metres across the water to the Queenstown side, so we phoned up the water taxi; although we lost the "they're baggage not bikes" argument, costing us $40 for the short trip with our folding bikes. After a coffee at the elegant Victorian Bathhouse on the Lake shore, it was time to get the shuttle, again not being able to persuade the driver that the Terns were baggage. Lesson: always pack the folding bikes in their bags. However it was a fine trip through to Cromwell and Clyde, enlivened by our driver's efforts to dob in a driver "of Indian or Pakistani persuasion" who was travelling at less than the speed limit and occasionally touching the yellow line. The gale blasting down Lake Dunstan made us glad we hadn't tried riding to Clyde from Queenstown, instead starting by riding down the river trail on the true right of the Clutha from Clyde to Alexandra.
River Trail to Alexandra
"Snow" blossoms on the river trail
Trailside furniture
At Alexandra we checked into the "Middle Pub" - actually now the end (or "bottom" in local parlance) pub, since the original end pub has been sacrificed to a risen Clutha. That night the weather turned, with a gale like an express train blasting the hotel's garden furniture across the road. Next morning we tarried until the rain had eased to drizzle, then set off along the Rail Trail proper as it skirted the heather fields of Tucker Hill, where the gold miners had barely made enough to pay for their meals, let alone accumulate the fortunes they dreamed of.

Gents toilet, Chatto Creek
Jonathan Kennett of Nga Haerenga had told me that the Rail Trail was a "mature" trail: most of the required services have been developed, and sure enough morning coffee time coincided with the charming Chatto Creek tavern, where a notice warned us not to feed the gluten free donkeys. Tiger Hill was well within the gear range of the Terns so we had no trouble making Pitches Store in Ophir for lunch as sun started to replace drizzle. After a loop over the historic O'Connell bridge, we headed up the straights to Lauder and the tunnels and viaducts of the Poolburn Gorge, making the Hayes Engineering works just before closing. Ernest Hayes was a classic kiwi inventor.
Toy car, in its own garage, Hayes home.
As well as creating a wire strainer that his Hannah wife peddled (and pedalled) around Central Otago on her bike, Ernest added lots of technology to their home, including an early home entertainment system that enabled music to be broadcast to all rooms in the house.
Pitches Store, Ophir
At the Old Store B&B in Oturehua we discovered another aspect of the Rail Trail infrastructure: concerned that Oturehua Pub was the only place to eat, we trotted across the road to book a meal. "That's OK - you're already booked in". The Rail Trail has a bush telegraph auto booking system.

Idaburn Dam
Next morning I explored the Idaburn dam, where Black Swans shepherded their fluffy cygnets on the far side. Then we did the final climb of the rail trail to the summit, which coincides with the 45th parallel, and the descent to Wedderburn and its iconic goods shed. Grahame Sydney must wish he had a dollar for every tourist photograph imitating his painting.

Ranfurly Manse, 1960
Wall mural, Ranfurly
At Ranfurly I sought out the Presbyterian Church and Manse where I'd stayed on a visit to my cousins in 1960 - still on the edge of town, though more protected by trees. On to Waipiata, where the trail starts to bend again as it follows the Taieri River to Hyde and the Otago Central Hotel. The war memorial in front of the hotel chronicles the gradual decline of the town - a dozen names from WW1, only two for WW2.
War memorial and hotel, Hyde
Fencepost bikes, Rock and Pillar
On the last day we parallel the snow dobbed Rock and Pillar range as we head down the Strath Taieri plain, past the dreadful bend that in 1942 a sleeping train driver took at 120km/hr, resulting in the deaths of 21 passengers. Middlemarch marks the end of biking, as we fold and bag the bikes - no arguments about bike charges - for the goods car of the Taieri Gorge Railway and Dunedin.

So we've finally done the Rail Trail. Surprisingly, it didn't feel like an ideal trail for beginners. Although the surface, gradient and services are easy, the monotonous straights could be a barrier for those unused to biking - particularly if going against the wind. The busy bike hire businesses to some extent recognise this by including options to just do the interesting bits of the trail. It will be interesting to see how other trails such as Pureora develop: will they acquire the same level of services that the Rail Trail has, or will they retain their wilderness feel?