Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Otago Rail Trail

Last month my friend and I decided to get ourselves into gear and cycle the Otago Rail Trail. We'd been talking about it for ages and with work taking me down to the South Island it seemed like the perfect opportunity!

Thursday I arrived in Queenstown, a town that's outrageously beautiful and incredibly full of drunken backpackers. I'd asked around for a place to stay before catching the coach to the start of the trail early the next morning and had been told The Base was a good bet. The smell of toilet bleach as soon as I walked through the doors didn't seem to bear that out, so I dumped my gear and decided to find something to do for a few hours. Turns out there's nothing to do in Queenstown of an evening in the shoulder season that doesn't involve booze, so after a really nice dinner at the "locals" Indian restaurant (venison curry! Chocolate naan bread!) I retired to bed with a book about hiking in NZ and the last of the chocolate naan, and managed to get an early one.

This proved pretty useful as at 3am that morning I was woken up by the sound of water being poured out. Turns out it was the very drunken young man in the bunk across from mine pouring out his bladder. All over his bunk. Fifteen minutes later I'm woken up by him sitting on my bed shining his phone into my eyes, demanding to know what had happened to his bed and why was it all wet? After a short, less-than-polite response I hunkered down and tried to sleep in a bunk that smelled like an unwashed jockstrap while the poor confused and pee-stained idiot woke up everyone else in the dorn to try to find out why his bed was wet. An auspicious start.

The rail trail begins!
Friday morning was made better by a bacon and egg roll the size of my head and a decent coffee as I waited for the coach. Despite weather warnings of the dire variety the weather was looking absolutely stunning as we pulled into Clyde where I'd meet my friend Fi and our rep from Shebikeshebikes, the company who'd put together our trip. Steve was very friendly and got us set up and ready to go on our incredibly comfortable bikes.

The first leg from Clyde to Chatto was glorious. Beautiful sunshine, gentle countryside and only the occasional strong gust of wind (better than the promised/threatened gale force winds and torrential rain). We started our coffee odyssey in the Chatto Creek Tavern, one of the local businesses that has blossomed with the trail and made us feel incredibly welcome and fed us delicious blue cod and chips. 

Nice, eh?

The second leg out towards Lauder saw some rain blow in as the incline cranked up. Full of cod and chips and coffee it made for slow going, but eventually we got through the rain cloud and that made the incline easier to deal with. The rain held off until we were just outside of Lauder, where we were spending the night, when the sky went from threatening to ominous to deluge. Thankfully, the Lauder School House was absolutely wonderful, and we were ushered in to hot tea, biscuits and a good chat with the owner. The Lauder Tavern was closed for meals but the White Horse in Becks about 9km away was open and had a free taxi service! It turned out the White Horse was where I'd had lunch with my parents when they were visiting in 2011 for the RWC, and where I'd first got the idea to do the trail, so it was nice to return to it and have more delicious kai (you will not starve on the rail trail). After half a bottle of pinot gris and a steak sandwich we were in bed by half nine.

The wonders of Edwardian engineering

Saturday morning we were up early and out into the very cold morning. A storm had blown through in the night and there was fresh snow on the hills, giving us a chance to use our thermals. As soon as we left Lauder we entered absolutely stunning countryside. Viaducts, tunnels, and soaring back country gave us the finest views of the trail.

Fine views, freezing fingers.

Unfortunately, with wild country comes wildlife and the local magpies had decided that of all the cyclists on the trail I was the biggest threat to their nests. We got attacked a few times and I was actually hit twice (wear helmets, kids). We took to yelling and waving at magpies when we saw them swooping at us which must have made us look a bit hysterical to other trail users (not that there were many!). There were fewer as we dropped into the Ida Valley, a long, (false) flat stretch that led slowly towards Wedderburn and the highest point of the trail. It was a bit of a grind, though not as much as it must have been for the cyclists going the other way into a headwind. We stopped at the quirky Hayes Engineering Works, where they leisurely served us some delicious pumpkin soup and we got to have a poke about some old engineering sheds. From there, the tailwind helped get us up to Wedderburn and the top of the trail. We celebrated by the sign saying "It's all downhill from here!" with some giant jellybeans before heading on down to Waipiata and our second bed and breakfast.

Top of the trail, ma!

We had had to contact the Waipiata Hotel two weeks before we arrived to book our dinner, something of a record as far as I'm concerned as far as booking food goes. Waipiata was the quintessential central Otago farming hamlet. Gravel roads, utes, and a frankly concerning sign painted on a farm building as we walked to the hotel. However, the food was delicious, cooked on a barbecue outside by the owner in almost Scottish weather as we enjoyed a good glass of wine and some pretty, uh, quirky service. We walked back to our B&B a bit tipsy to the sound of frogs looking for other frogs, something I've never heard anywhere else in the country.

Haere mai!
We had to be the end of the trail in Middlemarch by two so that Fi could get her bus so we decided to get up and away early. We had 53km to cover but thankfully it was all downhill in beautiful weather and we made short work of the run to Hyde and coffee, then on to Middlemarch. It was a brilliant end to a fantastic few days, and the town is set up brilliantly for people coming off the trail. We ended our trip with a great lunch (really, so much awesome food) a hot shower, and some great stories from Dave (Cycle Surgery) on the journey to the Pukerangi train and Dunedin.

It was a fantastic few days and at about 50km a day really not a challenging physical workout. I've been busy telling everyone to do it and if you live in NZ there's really no excuse for taking a few days out and visiting this absolutely stunning part of the south island. Shebikeshebikes were absolutely rad as well, organising everything flawlessly and even phoning ahead to Chatto Creek on the first day to check that we were OK after the weather warning. I'd highly recommend them if you're looking for someone to make the organisation easy!

Go. Just go. It's rad. Really.

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