I warned that there would be at least one point of the trip that I would completely lose it, and possible throw my bike down on the trail and yell ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough.’
He replied ‘Well that’s fine, but if that happens I wil remind you that this was your idea.’
And it was – doing the Central Otago Rail Trail in the middle of winter actually was my idea. You wouldn’t guess it was my suggetion, as one of us owns three bikes and cycles 40km to work most days, and one of us doesnt and let’s just say I can barely tell my spokes from my rims…
When we’d brainstormed where to go for a New Zealand based winter holiday, the Otago Rail Trail came to mind quickly as I wanted a trip that offered a bit of adventure (winter seemed an unusual time to do the trail, so it ticked that box), space and isolation from our city lives (no one but sheep for miles down there, tick) and #exercise without danger(150km of #cycling on a gravel path- tick tick).
And so the planning began. Our trip would be in the middle of August, the deepest, darkest part of the winter and therefore the Trail off-season. Many tour and accommodation providers close in August as there are such low numbers of trail riders then. Apparently as many as 80% of the Trail visitors do it around Easter. Below is a graph showing the time of year of those who did the Trail in 2008/2009. See that sad little sliver in the middle of the graph? That’s when we did it….
The closure of some of the accommodation options absolutely wasn’t a problem, it just meant a bit more time planning. Because we wanted a bit of adventure, we opted to do everything ourselves in terms of getting to and from the trail and we also carried our own luggage on panniers and brought our own bikes from Auckland (thank you Air New Zealand sports equipment allowance!) .
We began our trail adventure in Dunedin, and took the Tairei Gorge Train from Dunedin to Middlemarch. The train trip was one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the trip. The beautiful wooden interior of the carriages made me feel like I was in a 1940s film set, but it was outside the carriage, standing on the back viewing platform, where you wanted to be. On a splendid, sunny winter’s day we watched beautiful scenery as the train wound away from the hills of Dunedin to the flatness of Central Otago.
From Middlemarch, the ride began. Day one was a sedate 30km ride, concluding at the Hyde Hotel. Our host, Sue, did a splendid job of making us feel welcome and relaxed and not at all awkward about being the only guests in a facility that, in the the high season, sleeps over 20 people and has a dining room packed each night. In fact, in every place we stayed we were the only guests at accommodation that slept 15-25 people at full capacity. We felt remarkably cosy by the fire at the hotel and greatly enjoyed talking to Sue and her husband about the joys and trials of working in the hospitality industry in such a remote park of the world.
We had been very concerned with being too cold, and had packed many layers of merino (and three pairs of gloves each) but as we had four days of sunny weather, I was able to get down to just a merino and bike pants by the middle of the days. I confess it was so sunny I complained I might get sunburnt…I didn’t, but I was a bit annoying to be around during my fits of complaining…
We added a few kms to our overall trip by going off the trail and up to the sleepy town of Naseby. Riding down the hill, in the late afternoon, into Naseby, with pine trees and thick piles of snow on the ground, was magical. As a North Islander who has only known snow on a ski field or overseas, it was lovely to experience winter as so much of the world knows it: clear, cold, snowy surrounds. And the two times we came across snow on the trail itself were so memorable. I now know what it’s like to ride through 10cm+ of snow and it’s not easy.
Because doing the Trail is so uncommon in August, we were a bit of a novelty where ever we went. In Naseby, we chatted with locals in the pub and agreed with the local mechanic that sometimes, you just need a holiday.
Many of the villages were ‘blink and you miss it’ in size. They ranged from just being a pub , to being a pub and an accommodation option (sometimes closed) through to having a couple of pubs, maybe a basic grocery store. The exceptions were Ranfurly and Alexandra, small rural towns that felt like the big city after we’d been riding through nothing for a few hours/days. In many places, I would look at the closed pub or cafe and imagine it in the peak season, the bikes leading up on the doors, the happy punters with a beer in hand and lycra on leg. The silence of our non-existent fellow trail-goers didn’t detract from our trip. It just gave us a different experience.
In Lauder, we stayed at the very comfortable Lauder Store and had a pleasant evening talking to the true blue southern farmers in the pub. I impressed them with my knowledge of sheep breeds and we were delighted to hear of the publican’s plans to own a microbrewery there. We also saw an amazing sunset, with nothing around us but hills and no light pollution. Our cameras didn’t do it justice – it was one of those things that’s better captured in the mind’s lens.
Our journey concluded in Clyde, where we proceeded to have one of the best meals of the trip at The Old Post Office Cafe, where we also stayed. Euphoric with the completion of some 180kms in 3.5 days, we proceeded to eat a rich main meal, followed by dessert with three types of dairy. This was a calorie/dairy food blow out second only to the first day, when we consumed a wheel of brie each. But what’s an active holiday without eating!
The trail completed, we travelled by bus back to Dunedin, surreptitiously eating some delicious pork pies.
As I sit here typing, in the evening after another day at the office, the memories of the trip are fresh and still present. I miss the open sky. I miss saying ‘Look at those mountains!’. (I said this over and over again, never tiring of seeing snowy mountain ranges not far from us.) I loved the freedom of just having to get to the next stop, and the quality time of being completely alone, together. I miss being a bit conspicuous, with a bike and a helmet and lycra whenever we bought something from a dairy. I enjoyed meeting the locals, and seeing their pride in what the Rail Trail has done, economically and for the community in their area. I loved being somewhere I hadn’t been before in my own country.
It was a fantastic trip. We made it our own while riding a well ridden path.