Riding the Otago Central Rail Trail



At 8am our Tuatara Tours bus eased out of Christchurch, heading south towards Geraldine. In our party of ten I could see the eager beavers rearing to go, dressed and ready in their cycling gear while the rest of us lingered in our casual clothes. The large bike trailer rattled behind us, and I was glad all those machines were securely tied on as their combined worth could buy a small house.

The actual rail trail starts at Clyde and runs, offroad, on flat, gravelled terrain for 152kms to Middlemarch (close to Dunedin) with a maximum gradient of 2%. Our first stop however was Tekapo. After two hours in the bus and lots of talking, laughing and comparing biking experiences, we were ready to start peddling. Cycling along the blue waters of Lake Pukaki was really a little leg stretcher on our way down through the Mackenzie country to the start of the trail. We were stopped in our tracks by a stunningly clear view of Mt Cook, before taking a light lunch on the banks of the lake. We then whipped the bikes back onto the trailer and hopped on the bus to cross the Lindis Pass, descending past Cromwell and alongside the scenic river gorge to Clyde.

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Between Clyde and Alexandra on the first day


Our first night was at the delightfully restored Dunstan Hotel in Clyde, where the entertaining owners treated us to samples of Otago gold dust, and pointed out features such as the trap door in the dining room from which dancing girls used to pop out.

On day two – the start of the trail – we set off on a cold, misty morning, cycling down the cobbled streets of Clyde and crossing the flat rural countryside while silhouettes of sheep emerged in the morning sun. The trail was wide enough to take two cyclists side by side – presenting a great chance to chat with the other cyclists in between stops. Most of our group brought their own bikes, but we opted to hire ours.

We stopped at Chatto Creek for lunch and coffee, before a gentle rise to Omakau and a small diversion to the quaint village of Ophir – where the buildings are so old and in such good nick we weren’t sure if they were museums or actually open for business.

In the afternoon we were treated to a side trip (in the bus) to the Blue Lake of St Bathans, and a mandatory glass of Central Otago Pinot at the Vulcan Hotel. After soaking up the history of curling clubs and gold mining, a late afternoon cycle took us onto our second night’s stop – the converted Lauder Store.

My previous training sessions had consisted of cycling 10 kilometre bursts to good cafés, and as we had now clocked up 70kms by the end of this long day, I was feeling very grateful to have had a bike with a soft gel seat cover.

On the third day we needed torches to cycle through two very dark tunnels. We emerged into the scenic Idaburn valley and stopped at Hayes Engineering Works – a Mad Max Workshop of water-powered machines, wind mills, foundries and all manner of spinning belts and wheels – before enjoying a downhill descent into the Art Deco township of Ranfurly.

The day ended with a drive to Naseby and a game of curling – imagine lawn bowls on ice but throw in ten competitive cyclists! It all turned into a nail-biting match with the final curl of the stone deciding the outcome.

We continued out to historic Dansey’s Pass Inn, with its copper water pipes and open log fire for dinner and bed.

After breakfast, instead of mounting our bikes, we drove off to the Real Dog Equipment Company to see and interact with their Antarctic huskies and Alaskan malamutes. These animals are the closest relatives to wolves and are powerful, smelly and full of character. They were introduced to us one at a time, leaping up onto their tables to be stroked, while the rest of the pack barked and howled in the background.

Later, we jumped on our bikes and followed the trail towards the Taieri Gorge, crossing the vast Maniototo Plains and following the Taieri River as it snakes around the Rock and Pillar Range. We rode over the stone bridge at Cap Burn, cycled over the 32 metre high Price’s Viaduct – without looking down – and whipped out the torch again for another 152 metre long tunnel.

The last night’s accommodation was at the historic Hyde School. This converted school, with its old metal bell and former play grounds, is run by a  couple of Auckland escapees, who, as a token of appreciation to us South Islanders, cooked a meal of such incredible  taste and nourishment, it astounded us – and we did have a few critics on the trip!

As we were cycling during the Anzac weekend, we passed several war memorials each day and always found them beautifully maintained with fresh wreaths and flowers at their base. And as we cast our eyes down the list of names, we could only think of all the young men taken from every surrounding valley and village.

On our final day we cycled past the Hyde Railway Disaster Memorial, where a speeding train full of passengers slipped its tracks in 1943. We were feeling fitter now and enjoyed the drop down into the Taieri Plain which took us to the end of the trail at Middlemarch, a small farming town well known for its Easter Singles Ball.

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At the finish – Middlemarch


On our way back to Christchurch we dozed in the bus, compared stories and exchanged contact details. There’s already a reunion meal planned as we had all become great friends.

This is a fantastic trip, particularly for those who only want to cycle four hours a day while meeting some great people and experiencing the wonderful scenery of Central Otago.

Images Des Bailey


New Zealand’s first Rail Trail and original Great Ride opened in 2000. The 152km Trail follows the former route of the Otago Central Railway and last year was the winner of NZ’s Favourite Place to Cycle – a competition run by the NZ Transport Authority which is about getting Kiwis to identify, share and celebrate their favourite places to ride throughout the country.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) bought the corridor for a recreational reserve in 1993 and the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust was formed in 1994 to partner the Department, helping raise funds to initially open the Trail. This included the removal of ballast, decking the bridges, improving the culverts and adding handrails.

  • Central Otago is one of the few places in New Zealand with four truly distinct seasons. The Trail is open all year round, so you can pick your favourite season for your trip.
  • The trail runs in an arc through the valleys between Middlemarch and Clyde; you can traverse it in either direction, or just do part of the trail.  
  • The Trail is suitable for any age as long as you are reasonably fit. You can do half day trips through to 5 or more days.
  • It’s all off-road, no traffic, just Central Otago’s big skies and distinctive landscape to enjoy.
  • The compacted gravel pathway is easy to cycle or walk on – as it was made for a train there are no really steep hills and it is wide enough for cyclists to pass each other comfortably.
  • It is free to ride the Trail itself. The costs to you will be in accommodation and meals.
  • A good selection of accommodation options are available at varying prices, or you may prefer to camp.
  • You can arrange your own trip or there are helpful independent Trail operators who can organise a trip that will suit you.

 It is highly recommended that you plan your trip and book accommodation well in advance. 

 Visit www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz for more information.