Otago Central Rail Trail bikepacking

The Otago Central Rail Trail is the original long distance cycle trail in New Zealand – it’s been around since about the turn of the century, the railway having closed about ten years before that. It’s hardly thrilling mountain-biking, but at a shade over 150 km and passing through spectacular Central Otago landscapes, I was determined to ride it this summer as a training ride.

Initially I thought I’d drive to Ranfurly (a little east of the halfway point) and do two days of out & back rides to cover the whole trail in both directions – not really the pace the trail is intended to be ridden, but good long days on the bike that are necessary two weeks before the Kiwi Brevet. But on my little bikepacking trip just after Christmas I realised I could easily ride to the trailhead from home in just over four hours.

With Linda, of the Grandview ride a few weeks ago, house-sitting near the other end of the trail I planned a six-day bike trip – two days on the rail trail there, the weekend biking around Alexandra & two days riding back the way I came. So Thursday afternoon I set off & rode to the end of Ramrock Road again. It was even more overcast this time & there was a strong wind blowing out of the north. Thankfully, I was generally going west so the wind was manageable the few times I had to go directly into it. A bit fitter and stronger than three weeks prior, I made reasonable time with few stops – & there was much less stock to frighten off the road this time.

Down in the Nenthorn Valley, I remembered to snap a few pictures.

Back up on the ridge again before the gravel road ends for the big descent down into Middlemarch.

I decided it was too early for dinner in Middlemarch, so started on the trail to get dinner at Hyde. The trail didn’t get off to a very interesting start – with its longest straight, 6.5 km, dragging on & on as I started to do battle with the wind that would plague me for days. The straight finished & things got more interesting as the trail curved gently around the foot of the Rock & Pillars; all along the trail there are numerous gangers’ (railway workers of yesteryear) huts that have been spruced up and adorned with information boards. I took to stopping at most of these as the history was interesting and they provided a respite from the wind.

To my dismay, I found in Hyde that the only eating establishment had changed its hours and the kitchen was only open in the evening to pre-booked guests at the adjoining accommodation. A sure trap for novices like me. As I filled my water bottles and tried to decide whether to go much past my intended campsite to Ranfurly for dinner or just to camp where I had planned & have porridge for dinner (neither were appealing options), I spotted the kitchen-hand eating his dinner out front. He & the manager were most gracious and opened up the cafe for me (I assume it is open standard day-time hours) – I felt obliged to order a lot of food, but I hardly need much encouragement.

I hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail at all, being early evening, but as it happened a group of three rode up from the direction I was heading looking for some food too. So I wasn’t the only one whose lack of planning had let them down. They were very chatty and asked all sorts of intelligent questions of my bikepacking set-up and we worked out that they had shortly before swum  in the river next to where I meant to camp – apparently it was beautiful. They were heading back the way they came & I soon caught them up.

There are a couple of tunnels just north of Hyde – I’m told that you can just ride through them with a degree of confidence as the light fades around the bends in the tunnels; I wasn’t so keen on that, so flicked on my bike-light. After more chatting about bikes & adventuring at the rudimentary campsite (there is a toilet and a picnic table – and a river), I let them get on their way as I explored & set up my home for the night.

And very peaceful it was too with the Taieri River slowly flowing past.

The clouds later tried valiantly to break the drought, but not much came of that. But the wind did change in the night to a NWer – with my tent buffeted strongly by that, I didn’t sleep much.

Things seemed a little calmer as I packed up and got back up to the trail – as you can see it’s very well graded and easy riding, or so I thought.

Soon I was out of the shelter of the gorge and very quickly finding out just how strong the NW gale was. The NWer in this part of the world is a very dry &, in summer, hot wind – but this was so strong it had some cooling effect on a clear, sunny day. Away from the hills, there was little shelter out on the plains and for about forty kilometres I battled into the NWer. It was ridiculous – my speed was cut by up to half for the best part of four hours. It was mad that perhaps the easiest, flattest and best-graded trail I’d ever ridden for such distance was one of the hardest rides I’ve done – the hills of the previous day, & even crossing the Alps, were easier! Ranfurly was a good excuse for an early lunch #1 (although at ten-thirty, it may well have been brunch) and a bit of respite.

Understandably, the most popular direction of travel was the opposite one – there were plenty of tourists out on what seems to be the standard hire bike for the Rail Trail, one with two small rear panniers. Finally, I started to catch up to and pass the odd small group heading the same direction I was – always with a brief pause to discuss/slate the headwind. The scenery was beautiful looking out across the plains towards the various ranges that I’m becoming more familiar with – but I wasn’t much in the mood for taking photos, so I have few.

Even after reaching the highest point on the trail & then the most northerly & turning SWW things didn’t get much easier due to battling just to stay on the bike in what was now a fierce crosswind. On more than a few occasions I was suddenly blown almost off the edge of the trail; it was with some relief I could stop and have second-lunch.  Struggling through the next section, I finally thought I should stop and take some pictures of the surrounds – it was very nice after all, I was just a bit preoccupied.

The Poolburn Viaduct is the highest on the trail and the following Poolburn Gorge with its two tunnels make it one of the most interesting parts of the trail.

Finally after eight hours of slog, the trail turned sufficiently south that I had a tailwind for the best part of hour. And there was much rejoicing. Nearing Alexandra, I could glimpse part of the quite-recently expanded network of trails that is making the small town a MTB destination. These will have to wait until I have more time, energy & a more suitable bike.

From there it was only a easy ten kilometres north-west (the wind seemed to have changed) to the end of the trail in Clyde – perfectly timed, I found Linda just starting to ride down the trail to meet me. A beer was in order to celebrate surviving such a hard day. Even at my slow pace on a loaded bike, the whole trail is doable in a day (although, that’s not really the point – there is much to see & explore) – but I do recommend choosing a day with more suitable conditions. That NWer sure sucks the moisture out of you – I drunk so much that day, & only when I stopped did I realise how much I was sweating, such was the rate of evaporation.

The wind had one last cruel trick for me – as we rode home, I found it had changed in that particular area to a southerly. It was a long eight kilometres back to the house – I was exhausted. Strangely, although I was hungry, I didn’t have much of an appetite – can’t really explain that. Despite that, I slept very well that night.

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