23. Biking the Rail Trail in Central Otago

From Oamaru, we drove via Palmerston into Central Otago, uphill from sea level to Ranfurly which sits at 430 metres altitude. Otago is hot in summer, cold in winter and the beautiful landscape is made up largely of rolling hills, flat valleys, dry-looking rivers, snow tussock and rocky schist tors.

There are many things I’ve wanted to do for years – and the Rail Trail, graded as easy, is one of them. It stretches for 150kms along an old disused railway line that once ran between Clyde and Middlemarch, roughly from west to east across NZ. I decided to start in Middlemarch, the eastern end, and the woman in the information centre in Ranfurly kindly organised it for me, being used to working with the bike hire companies. Kevin drove me to Middlemarch in time to pick the bike up, bang on 8am when the shop opened. My plan was to bike back to Ranfurly, Kevin and the caravan on the first day, and complete the final stretch to Clyde the next day. The first day and part of the second day would be uphill, then the rest of the second day downhill.

It was just over one week into March, and I was hopeful of the weather cooling off a little. But no such luck – imagine my horror when I read the news the night before and found my ride was going to coincide with a heatwave arriving from Australia. My body copes much better in cooler weather than warmer weather, so I crossed my fingers for luck and added a third full water bottle to my pack.

Cripes!

Me with my bike, outside the hire shop in Middlemarch. My ride today would be all uphill…though a very slight uphill.
This train and it’s duplicate sit at the start and finish of the Rail Trail, labelled with the distance to the other end of 150kms.
Irrigation ponds were dotted all the way along the Rail Trail and most of them had birds. I liked the stilt stalking along on it’s long bent legs.
The route runs along the Rock and Pillar Range and looking up I could see rocky schist tors on it. We are learning a few Celtic terms at the moment – a ‘tor’ is a sudden projection of ground or rock from the land around it. In Central Otago, it’s a lovely feature of the landscape that you see just about everywhere you go.
There were many shelters along the Trail. Most held information panels about the environment and were relevant for riders from both directions.
An original traln bridge – check out the brickwork!
Large snow tussocks gave me an idea of the altitude and weather conditions – these plants can stand up to a lot of heat and cold.
More brickwork – this one is a tunnel for a stream beneath the bridge to run through. After climbing down through steep prickly grass to see the brickwork a few times, my socks and shoes were full of seed heads and itching my feet like crazy. It was nice to sit on one of the bridges to bang them out. The oldtimers worked long hours using hand tools, and in all weather extremes, to get this railroad built, and this was a good moment to start thinking about the work they had done!
This is the exact point of the Hyde Train Crash that happened in 1943 where 21 people were killed. It shocked the nation back then, being the worst rail disaster to date. It was deemed the fault of the train driver who headed into the cutting at a too-high speed.
The cutting itself was a great example of the way the engineers/labourers who built the initial railway made sure the track would be level, using bridges, embankments, or digging the ground out as with this cutting (and all of it done by hand).

There were plenty of other riders coming from the other direction; I passed group after group.
Another of the bridges put in to cross a stream flowing off the Rock and Pillar Ranges.
At one point, I lay the bike in the grass and walked onto DoC land – I think – to see this small ruin built of schist. There were just two beehives in front, so I wondered where they would find nectar around here? – perhaps the introduced fruit trees that typically grow along the Rail Trail.
I had been thinking about sarsen stones – or silcrete – so was delighted to come across this – though I wasn’t completely sure it was a sarsen stone, never having actually seen one before…it also looked a bit like a ventifact or even a lump of mining slag. Sarsen stones are a feature of geological Otago – they are sedimentary, but are hard because they were saturated in silica-rich groundwater while being pressed and formed about 20 million years ago.
This bank is typical of material that was once removed to build the railway track. I assume this was taken for the more recent Rail Trail as material taken for the railway would have grown in over in grass or tussock long ago – I saw signs of those in places too!
This gate has railway tracks supporting it on either side. After having this pointed out by one of the information boards, I saw these again and again on various trips around Central Otago, not only as fence supports but also as edging for carparks.
Cores of apples, pears, plums and various other fruit were once tossed out of train windows by passengers, and at least some of them took root and have now grown into mature fruit trees that dot the whole of the Rail Trail.
I stopped to eat most of this one – it was tart and juicy – I love them like that, yummo! Of course, I threw the core to the side of the Trail so that it might eventually grow another one. I would come to deeply appreciate the shade these trees gave by the end of the day…
These bricks show old work from the building of the original railway – supporting the bank from falling away.
There were sometimes water pipes over the Trail – I wondered if these were for household water or for irrigation.
I reached Hyde, and stopped to look at the trains and old station.
I stopped at the self serve in Hyde and bought two bottles of lemon, lime and bitters, having already finished off my biggest bottle of water. I drank one straight away and saved the other one in my pack for later. There were comfortable-looking couches on the deck, but I didn’t stop for long enough to try them out.
This was the only tunnel I rode through today, but tomorrow there will be two more. This one was about 150 metres long, so I rode slowly through without needing a torch.
The tunnel wasn’t really this light – it’s all due to the camera flash! It’s typical of the tunnels that they were built of stones at the bottom and brick at the top.
Through the tunnel, I climbed a short bank to see the Taieri River flowing through the hills. I met two women from my hometown of Nelson, just down for a week to bike the Rail Trail. They were doing the Trail slowly, taking five days, stopping to see everything the Trail had to offer. It sounded great!
Just past the tunnel came this big viaduct across the Taieri River.
Coming out of the Taieri Hills, I crossed an original bridge with the railway tracks intact as an example of how it used to be.
You can see that my hire bike had a speedometer attached – this was great for checking my speed and how far I had to go.
Another of the little sheds; this one had no information boards but was there anyway – they are dotted very regularly so people can rest up I guess in the heat, wind or cold. And sleep in them perhaps – I met one rider who was doing just that!
I passed one of several small areas quarried in the early 1900’s for basalt blocks which were used to build Dunedin’s railway station. Otherwise the Rock and Pillar Ranges are all made from schist.
the Trail followed a stretch of rocky country before the plains began – magic! At this point, past Kokonga but before Waipiata, I was riding around the northern end of the Rock and Pillar Range and onto the flat Maniototo Plains with the Kakanui Mountains to my right and the Hawkdun Range ahead. At times I could see where Dansey’s Pass ran between the two ranges, which Kevin and I planned to drive in the coming days.
The Maniototo Plains used to have areas of forest interspersed with its open spaces. It was once populated by the large bird called moa which were eventually hunted to extinction, being a main food source for Maori after they arrived on NZ shores.

(Kokonga and Waipiata were in the national news two days after this as the tussock land between the two was struck by lightning and caught fire, and the Rail Trail closed. It didn’t last long – the local firefighters were onto it, and then it conveniently rained which helped dampen the ground some more.)
Saturn is in our skies! The Rail Trail has developed a whole series of planets to look out for, using Ranfurly as the central point – you can see all the planets on both sides as they rotate around Ranfurly. This is in tribute to South Canterbury and Otago providing some of the best night time viewing of stars and planets in the world, with the local lack of city lights and smog.
Hard to believe, but this area was once a natural lake, known by Maori as Taneheketaka. Early Europeans called it Lake Taieri, and used it to irriagate farmland. In addition, goldmining in the Naseby area sent silt from the tailings downstream to the lake, building up and up until it was 3 metres deep. So, it didn’t take long before it wasn’t a lake any more and became farmland, which is still what it’s used for.
Hey little person, nice to see you…standing on a piece of basalt column!
I had a long talk here with a woman using an e-bike. We’ve been hearing a lot about e-bikes lately and I at least am convinced…Kevin slightly less so! When our year of travel is over we will seriously think about getting one each – they will make biking more accessible to us both, and will be a help if it gets too hot, or a strong head wind develops. Maybe even for biking in snow! You need access to a power source, but that seems to work out fine for everyone we’ve talked with.
I was getting unbearably hot by now and looking back, was probably suffering the early stages of heat exhaustion. I couldn’t even ride one kilometre before having to stop and drink water and try to cool down, either under a bridge or more commonly a fruit tree. I was getting worried about running out of water. At every water source, which suddenly seemed few and far between, I submerged my feet and shoes and even my head and shoulders, despite the water running through farmland.
I was so relieved to reach Waipiata where I drank another lemon, lime and bitters and filled my water bottles, and felt happier about continuing on for the final seven kilometres of my day. I told one of the staff I was finding it hot, and he said as a local he’d never got used to it either. Funny.
I had been leapfrogging with two other sets of riders going the same way as me. One was a man on his own, who stopped here in Waipiata until the pub closed then camped for the night, and the other was a couple who rode up to Waipiata just as I was leaving. They didn’t pass me again, so they must have stopped too. For the rest of my day, I passed nobody and nobody passed me. It seemed that everyone except me knew to not be on the Rail Trail at this time of day!
A road crossed above the Rail Trail. It became hotter and hotter – I later learned that it reached 31degC today, which for a cooler-climate-loving person like myself was unbearable, especially on an uphill bike ride.
Another irrigation pond – this one has sheep drinking from it. I absolutely rated my chance of a dip, but decided against this one!
Shading my hot self under one of the fruit trees – it was difficult to climb under some of them as the branches grew so low to the ground – but desperation got me round that problem!
I checked this one out as a swimming hole – no good, it was actually pretty empty of any real water.
About two minutes before reaching my destination of Ranfurly I stopped to rest yet again and drink water under some pine trees. I sat for half an hour, then biked on to the Ranfurly railway station and across the main road to the caravan park. I was so relieved to finish the ride!
I worried that night about the next day’s heat and thought about giving up. But at least I would be able to start early and get the uphill out of the way well before the heat set in – that saved the trip for me in the end.
I started out before dawn, and reached Wedderburn and the highest point of the Rail Trail not long after the sun rose. Phew.
By the size of that smile you’d think this moment spelled life’s greatest achievement lol. Trust me, it was due to pure relief…
With the downhill, the biking became fast and the kilometres whizzed by.
I had an added issue today – my backside was so sore after yesterday that I folded up my sweatshirt and used it to pad the seat. This meant that when I was on the bike, my legs couldn’t reach the ground, so there had to be a bank, or a rock, or a wooden seat by one of the sheds to allow me to stop. As these were few and far between it became difficult, and after falling off while dismounting once I didn’t try to stop again unless it was a sure footing!
I really wanted to stop at Ida Dam as it looked so beautiful. It was flat as a mirror and the reflections of the hills, hut and clouds were clear and sharply outlined in the water. But there was nowhere to put my foot down so photos had to be taken while biking along.

This dam freezes over in winter and is used for ice skating and curling.
The annual Brass Monkey is held somewhere around here too, where motorbiking enthusiasts come together for a few days of camping at the coldest time of year; several degrees celcius below zero I believe!
Farming beauty while biking along…a woman I said hi to as we passed each other by said one of the tunnels had been really scary. Hmm, we all have our different fears…darkness and tunnels aren’t one of mine.
I enjoyed the smell of thyme in places – this plant was introduced by goldminers and quickly spread all over Central Otago. I wonder how long before it’s labelled a native plant?
The Blackstone Hills on my right
…and the North Rough Ridge in the distance on my left.
The viaduct and two train tunnels that lie in a valley between the Blackstone Hills and the Raggedy Range are a highlight of the Rail Trail. I came to rest on the viaduct using the side railing, and left the bike there to walk and look around.
The valley on the western side of the viaduct…
…and on the eastern side.
The two tunnels were fun to go through, and over far too quickly. I biked slowly through the shorter of the two – another 150 metre one like yesterday. The second and last tunnel was 250 metres long and I needed to get my torch out and walk through this one. It had a bend in the middle so I couldn’t see the light at the end as I could with the other two. The brickwork was the same impressive work as all the other structures on this Trail.
Crossing the Manuherikia River…
…and heading down to Lauder, then Omakau and my lunch stop. The person who served me in the cafe said she sometimes saw exhausted riders, especially young children biking with their families. She tends to ask them why they are biking in the heat of the day, and said they would often reply that they were on holiday so having later starts to their mornings.
The rider who was camping came along and we ate lunch together which was interesting as he had just come back from several years living overseas and was finding his ‘NZ legs’ again. I didn’t see him again after this; he was very fit and aiming to make Cromwell before the worst of the heat.
Just two kilometres away from Omakau is the farming village of Ophir – this valley traps some really cold temperatures in winter and holds the record for NZ’s lowest recorded temperature ever, minus 21degC. I didn’t bike in to see it, but Kevin and I will try and visit later.
There was another long stretch of farming land in the Manuherkia Valley, with the Dunstan Mountains on my right
It was refreshing to cross the occasional small side stream – this one looked enticing but I resisted!
The Trail left the flat Manuherikia Valley and headed into the hilly country and more rocky schist tors. It wasn’t far to Alexandra from here, and I found this a slightly disconcerting piece of trail as there seemed to be an optical illusion. It looked as though I was heading downhill, but when I stopped peddling to coast for a bit my wheels quickly stopped turning and the bike came to a stop. I tried it a few times just to see what would happen, but it was always the same, so, not wanting to fall off again I kept peddling.
Crossing this bridge on the Rail Trail takes you on a bypass around Alexandra – of course, it’s not hard to get off and visit the town. But I didn’t – I sat under some trees just past the bridge, feeling hot like yesterday.
The final stretch of the Rail Trail lay between Alexandra and Clyde was attractive with the ongoing views of the ruggedly lovely Old Man Range ahead of me. Although the temperature only reached 29degC today it started to feel really hot again, so, a stretch that would normally take a few minutes to ride on a cooler day took me an hour or more, resting again in all the shade I came across. Just like yesterday, I passed no other riders in the heat, not a single one!
The Train at the other end! I told the man in the hire shop about the heat – he said it’s just a matter of getting used to it, and spending more time biking in it. Hmm…
I didn’t have to wait long before Kevin arrived to pick me up and we headed back to our home, still parked up in Ranfurly.
There’s a lot to see on the Rail Trail if you take more days and give yourself time to stop at all the sights. It’s a good idea to be finished each day by 2pm before the worst heat – and with the long days of summer this is very achievable.

Kevin and I decided to do some of the sights of the Rail Trail together as most could be reached in a vehicle, such as Hyde Engineering, Golden Progress Mine, Sutton Salt Lake and the villages of St Bathans, Ophir and Naseby. I’ll try and reflect some of these in the next blog or two.

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