Long having wanted to ride the Old Dunstan Trail, my plan for the day at the outset of this trip had become ambitious. A hundred or so kilometres of gravel on the trail, leaving it to slog up a 4WD track onto and along the Rock and Pillar Range, a steep plunge off the side to Middlemarch and then another sixty kilometres of gravelly hills to the coast and home. All up around two hundred kilometres with perhaps four thousand metres of climbing on mostly gravel and some more rugged, steep off-road sections. What could go wrong?
But plans on trips like these are fluid at best and I was happy to scale this one back as I had company! With less bike time in Adele’s legs than mine, the plan was modified to stay the night in one of the huts on the Rock and Pillars and ride home the following morning. This was made keeping in mind that the weather was due to pack it in that night, but there were contingencies. With Adele arriving late after work Friday night and her bike still needing to be loaded that night, I was happy with a six-thirty start on a lightly overcast day.
An easy start on the Rail Trail ended after half an hour and we began climbing over the Raggedy Range (mentioned mostly because I like the name). Leaving the valley floor, things very quickly got dry, brown and dusty. The odd vehicle kicking up a fair cloud, but they were few and far behind.
Speaking of fair clouds, the clouds were kind to us that day – providing light cover and no rain.
A good warm-up for the day, taking about ninety minutes, during which I could look back over the hills I’d climbed and traveled over the previous days.
Dropping a little to the upper Ida Valley (I’d crossed further down two days before) things flattened for a short stretch before we turned south on the Old Dunstan Road. The road loosely follows the trail that was used by gold miners traipsing from Dunedin to Dunstan (now Clyde) in the 1860s. This was the most direct route back then, but only passable in fair weather.
The most colourful thing we saw all day; unfortunately we missed all of the tours. We would shortly climb to Poolburn Reservoir, or Rohan Village as some may know it.
That’s a fair summary.
All smiles after the lovely valley floor riding – the Ida Valley behind. The climbing began again at that cattle stop.
Some careless child of the giants left their Tonka toy just sitting there. Young folks these days.
Weaving our way through countless scattered, jagged rocks kept the interest level up as plenty of holiday traffic passed us on the road. By which I mean about ten or twenty cars – basically rush hour.
The climb was steady and it took us about two hours before the reservoir was revealed. Dotted around it were a variety of small huts, all permanent-enough looking – but none of which you’d go so far to call a house, or even a bach. We saw signs posted that further “resurrection” was prohibited. The water was there due to a dam being built in the 1930s to provide irrigation water for the valley below. With trout released it’s a popular fishing spot – although one would go slow in a boat as there are so many rocks around. It looks a wonderful spot to simply explore the many rocks and land around. An extremely quiet area to escape to, Adele was eyeing it up for future breaks.
For a time we rode through a small gorge, the red tussock grasses were abundant. Watching the clock tick over far faster than the odometer, I began to reassess the goals for the day. We needn’t go up onto the Rock and Pillars, rather complete the trail to the highway and ride to Middlemarch for dinner and sleep. But further thought could wait until the day developed a bit; for now, there was a big downhill to enjoy!
We’d cross that smaller, greener ridge before then climbing the hills behind that.
The trail diverged from the road near the bottom of the downhill, we found the correct gate and put ourselves on farm track trying to follow the path of those miners long ago. Somehow departing from the trail-proper for the last little bit, that didn’t matter – we ended up on the correct road and then had to look for the next turn off the road. This one was harder to find, but with a route description and a couple of maps we found it.
It was time to climb again and climb we did. The trail was just discernible; the hill was easily recognisable as the sun beat down on us and the gradient stuck to around fifteen percent. There may have been some hike-a-bike – good training for the madness that is Godzone. The schist was ever present and we began to notice tall, skinny slabs of it filling the role of fence posts – and looking like they’d done so for scores of harsh Central Otago years.
More fenceposts provided handy bike stands at the top of that hour-long climb.
Crowding in for a not-really-a-summit selfie, and trying to get the bikes in too.
The rock and pillars of the Rock and Pillar. Looking over the valley below and at the clouds encroaching, they were looking a bit too far away to be that evening’s goal.
Downhill across open farmland is never as fast as one hopes as one deals with all the bumps and divots on a loaded bike; this was no exception, but it was nice not to be pedaling for a bit.
Back on road again, a brief section of relative pace.
The Upper Tairei River is just around the corner, behind that sign.
Reconciling the maps with the view above left us with the pill to swallow that we were going up that hill. We hid behind the trees for a bit of refueling (a lot more soft brie) before making our assault on the steepest section of the Old Dunstan Road. The nor-wester, while warm did at least help us up the hill.
I restarted my playlist of favourites in the hope it would reduce the suffering, or just distract us from it. There may have been more walking as we climbed at ten percent for an hour or so before it leveled off. Plenty of breaks provided ample rewards with the view across Central getting better with every metre claimed from gravity.
We came from the left of shot, from over those ridges, to intersect with the gravel road
Finally we were up on the plateau, but it still provided enough stream crossings, a strengthening wind and many ups and downs to keep our pace down. Only averaging ten kilometres an hour by now, Middlemarch went out the window and the aim was to get to Clarks Junction before the pub closed. Nary a soul about, I was wary of getting stuck up here in the incoming weather – although I did have sufficient pork scratchings to see us through.
The 4WD track turn-off passed by without mention as we pushed on, trying to ascertain just when the road would turn away from Loganburn Reservoir. It was before the approaching ridge, huzzah.
With the wind at our backs and views like this, it was rather pleasant.
Losing a few hundred metres in a hurry, things flattened out through a sheep station. Dropping to Deep Stream, there was but one more ten percent climb left – this time on the seal. We were going to get to the kitchen before it closed! With only one turn to go and armed with Adele’s dinner order, I waited no longer and got to the pub and placed our orders as the gloom settled.
We made it! I’d finally biked the Old Dunstan Trail and it was fantastic. Some great climbing and wide open views, with very interesting geology and flora to boot. The Clarks Junction pub still had the same proprietor as when I visited three years before (I think if I’d visited twenty years earlier that would have still held), and it was still for sale. We also slept in the same playground as that time. Finally, I got to try out the bivy bag I’d been carrying for this trip – it rained all night. With the help of the trees we hid behind, I was dry – albeit very warm. I’m sold on bivy bags now and will soon have my own to further lessen my bikepacking load on certain trips.
The rain really set in, so Sunday morning we finished by riding in the rain mostly down, but at times noticeably up, to the outskirts of Dunedin where Dad picked us up and we went for a well-deserved cooked breakfast.
I must spend more time in Central Otago, the bikepacking opportunities are immense – my family may also be close by. Also, writing this I’m still most keen to have a go at my original plan. A little unfinished business there.