Cycling in Otago – The Central Rail Trail

Having just booked another trip to New Zealand its about time I wrote a bit more about my visit in January 2018. Apologies for the photos in this one, there was no way I was lugging my SLR about in that heat!


The day had started with one objective in mind, I was going to bag my first Southern Hemisphere ton, and no 35 degree heat and searing headwind was going to stop me; even if, the end of the day drifted a bit too close to Type 2 fun. The ton, or 100km is a big bike ride, a solid effort, the distance which, I think turns you from punter into a proper cyclist.

An overriding thought as I drove round the South Island was that so much on New Zealand looked great to explore by bike, smooth ribbons of tarmac winding through stunning landscapes inviting the skinny tires of a road bike, or backcountry trails ripe for mountain bikes.

With only a couple of weeks in the country, and a to-do list as long as my arm I had very limited time to get out on two wheels. I whittled down all the potential adventures to one, a section of the Otago Central Rail Trail which follows the course of an old railway line for 152Km between Clyde and Middlemarch in the County of Otago on New Zealand’s South Island. Ideally it would have been nice to ride the whole trail over 2-3 days, but my return flight made the logistical juggling impractical so I decided to head out from Clyde and ride as far as I could before the threat of an imminently closing bike shop made turning round essential.


The bridge over Poolburn Gorge

It was blisteringly hot, I’d arrived off the plane in shorts ten days previously and had been happily tanning my legs ever since. New Zealand was in the middle of a heat wave, it had been warm in the mountains around Wanaka, and Queenstown but now traveling west into the plains of Otago the sun was like a blowtorch searing the landscape, desiccating the grass’ which lined the trail to a burnt yellow brown.

I had picked up my bike in a friendly shop in Clyde, fortunately they had 29er’s in stock which I hoped would make short work of the distance. The trail its surface covered in gravel ran arrow straight for the first few miles out of town passing small farms and vineyards as it headed towards the larger town of Alexandra where it swung north east and began to contour above the Manuherikia River. Barren hills, craggy and dry stretched up to my right, there lower slopes dotted with corse vegetation.


The trail is well surfaced, mountain or gravel bikes are ideal

After about 20 km the rail crossed the river and shortly after arrived at Chatto Creek where I stopped for lunch and litres of liquid refreshment at the Tavern which sits right by the railway. This was a good call as the next section of the trail lead gently but relentlessly uphill to the village of Omakau (40km) before levelling off towards the tiny hamlet of Lauder (45km, Cafe!). The farms beside this section of the trail were much bigger with huge irrigation gantries dominating the fields.


One of the Tunnels

I made it as far as the Poolburn Gorge, here the railway leaps back over the river before following it up trough the cliffs of the gorge helped by a couple of short tunnels. It’s the most spectacular section of the trail but unfortunately my Garmin had just hit 55km, and  if I was going to make it back to the bike shop before closing now was the time to turn round.

I was racing the clock all the way back to Clyde, for the fist walk of the return the kilometres flew by as I had the advantage of approximately 300m of hight to loose. Then about 10km short of Alexandra I ran into a block headwind that was like cycling into a hairdryer. With almost 90km in the legs it was a battle to fight into the wind and I motivated myself with the thought of a huge tub of ice-cream at the finish. I made it back to the hire shop with ten minutes to spare, I think they were slightly surprised when they saw the distance on the bike computer!



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