Set across the ditch in central Otago, the former Otago Central Railway is now a popular off-road cycle and walking trail. It’s a fantastic route which passes through old historic gold-mining villages and country pubs that offer classic Kiwi hospitality. Aiming to see another side of the country most of my family have called home at some point in their lives, a group of us decided to cycle from Clyde to Middlemarch on a truly memorable family holiday.
Day 1 – Clyde to Ophir // 39km
We departed Clyde before lunch, eager to get riding on what would be our longest day in the saddle. For the first part of the day, the path is flat and straight. There’s plenty of room to ride two or three across, and barely any other traffic coming the other way, so it’s easy to chat with your fellow riders as you oil out those rusty legs.
Towards the end of the day you’ll reach the steepest part of the trail, Tiger Hill, which stretches from Chatto Creek to Omakau. The gradient of this incline isn’t so much an issue, but the distance. The highest point of the trail doesn’t come until day 3, but Tiger Hill is the most obvious incline you’ll face, so take comfort in knowing your burning quads are justified and Ophir is less than 15km away.
Day 2 – Ophir to Oturehua // 33km
Blue skies greeted us in all directions today, making it easy to jump back on the bike for another day of gravel grinding. After the first tunnel, the trail follows along a deep gully that’s filled with the type of flowing water that makes you wish you’d brought a packraft. Nonetheless, continuing through the classic Kiwi countryside toward Oturehua is equally rewarding.
Passing through Lauder you might feel as though you’re breathing a little easier, that the sky is a little bluer, and you wouldn’t be wrong! It’s actually a base for climate research, with the clear skies and geographical location making it an ideal location for studying atmospheric radiation and chemistry. If you’re intending on freedom camping the rail trail, this would be one of the places I’d camp at as without any light pollution, the star gazing’s got to be good.
Once at Poolburn Gorge, you’ll ride 17km through Ida Valley to Oturehua. The Hawkdun Mountains make an epic backdrop for this section, particularly if they’ve had a sprinkling of snow. When you reach Oturehua, don’t forget to check out Gilchrists General Store for a range of old school lollies, classic Kiwi foods and throwback memorabilia.
Day 3 – Oturehua to Ranfurley // 25.5km
Day 3 brought rain and wind, but nothing that a crew of 12 with Team Timbuktu rain jackets couldn’t handle. This section of the trail is rather notorious for high winds and rain, as it crosses the latitude 45 degree south. If you’re lucky, the side wind that hits you in the open clearings will turn into a tail wind, but best not to count on it. After 12km you’ll reach Wedderburn, the highest point on the trail at 618m above sea level. From there it’s all downhill, making it easy to reach Ranfurly for a late lunch and restful afternoon.
Having a shorter day was great for our party, ensuring any niggling injuries could be rested and providing an opportunity for other towns in the area to be explored, but if you are reasonably fit it would not be too hard to skip this stop and push on to Hyde for a 4-day journey. As one of our family members put it, ‘25km’s is too short. You can only sing 30 songs in that time and I want to sing more!’.
Day 4 – Ranfurly to Hyde // 32.5km
The dropping elevation in this section might fool you enough to believe it’s ‘leisurely biking’, but there’s still a few undulating sections that’ll get your heart rate up. You’ll pass through the towns of Waipiata, Kokonga and Daisybank before reaching Tiroiti, which I think is one of the most scenic sections of the entire trail. It’s marked by a red gangers’ shed, which has some historic information on the rail trail and is nice to seek shelter in.
A short but steep walking track leading down to the river lies just before Prices Creek Tunnel. Years ago, Chinese gold miners cut a tunnel into the rock on the mountainside and consequently diverted the water to create a pretty badass section of white water rafting in the process. Worth jumping off the bike to see before pushing on passed white clay cliffs to Hyde. If you’re lucky enough to stay at the Otago Central Hotel in Hyde, say hi to Jan and Dean from us (the motley crew of 12 wearing matching shirts), and enjoy a home cooked meal and a cold glass of the good stuff to celebrate your last night on tour.
Day 5 – Hyde to Middlemarch // 22km
Some bikes couldn’t stand up today because they were two tyred … but seriously, after riding the past four days there was a sense of ‘destination fever’ amongst some members of the group. After the first 2km you’ll reach Hyde Station and then it’s onto endless fields of rolling green hills. There’s plenty of sheep in NZ, and I think 1/3 of them must reside along this section of the rail trail.
Being all downhill, it took our group less than two hours to reach Middlemarch. If I’m being honest, the end of the trail is a little disappointing. It’s a roadside sign 400 metres out of Middlemarch, but once you see it, it’s hard not to feel a sense of gratitude and achievement for the past 152km of kiwi countryside cycling.
This trail is great, but what really makes it worth doing are the people you meet along the way, the towns you visit and the food on offer. It wouldn’t be the same to simply drive through these towns - you can’t appreciate this rugged land and its people the same way in doing so - and that’s why it’s so worth doing if you want to experience the heart of Aotearoa.
- Bike + helmet (there are rail trail companies who can provide these items if you’re travelling from overseas or don’t have an appropriate bike for the trail)
- Rain gear (ponchos are a bit difficult to ride in, so I’d recommend wearing a shorter rain jacket)
- Thermals (summer in Aotearoa is a bit like Melbourne, so best come prepared for anything)
Non – Essential Gear
The youngest member of our party was 8 years old, whilst the oldest was 81 years old! With the accessibility of e-bikes these days, I’d say this trail is pretty much possible for anyone to complete. A typical three to four day journey will have you cycling 35-40km a day, so just make sure your base fitness is strong enough for that.
Distance Covered / Elevation Gain / Duration
The Otago Central Rail Trail is 152km over however many days you’d like! We met some people training for Tour Aotearoa doing the whole thing in a single day, but most cyclists allow three to five days to really enjoy the experience. The elevation gain is about 400m at a 2% rise (i.e., you won’t even feel it if you’re an experienced cyclist). The trail was originally built for a steam train, so if something that bulky can make it to up the incline, I’m almost certain you’ll be able to too.
Words and pictures by Jessie McRae