Cycle Touring: Otago Rail Trail as Credit Card Tourists

The Otago Central Railway – from 1879 – 1990 named “One of the Great Train Trips in the World” and the railway that opened up Central Otago. Following the decommissioning of railway over road transport, in 1993 the Department of Conservation (DOC) bought the corridor for a recreational reserve. The Otago Central Rail Trail Trust was formed in 1994 to partner with the Department, helping raise funds to initially open the Trail. The Rail Trail officially opened in 2000.

The Otago Rail Trail is NZ’s first rail trail and today is well setup for the large numbers. 2018/2019 saw 15,029 riders complete the trail. Graded for beginners one is able to complete the trail at your own pace. 3 days is average but some do it in 1 or even 4-5 days taking detours to more off the beaten attractions along the way. Discover old historic gold-mining villages, country pubs, rugged scenery and some of the most dramatic landscapes New Zealand has to offer. Don’t forget the hospitality. Southerners pride themselves on their great southern hospitality.

The great thing about cycle touring in New Zealand is the ways you can choose to ride the trails (see From fully self contained to as much luxury you desire, whether that comes from a nice place to stay at the end of each day or someone carrying your bags, that’s entirely up to you. We rode the Otago Rail Trail over 3 days as partial “credit card tourists”. Meaning we carried all our clothing but booked accommodation and meals along the trail. 

We started the ride in Clyde, leaving the car in the carpark at the beginning of the trail where we would pick it up upon our return via shuttle from Middlemarch.

Central Otago’s big skies and distinctive landscape.

Day 1 would be our biggest day covering 44km with a moderate climb up Tiger hill to Lauder.  After around 35km we stopped for a coffee and a famous homemade pie on Omakau with a quick detour to Ophir to browse the antique stores. Too bad we didn’t bring a bike trailer with us. 

With so much to discover on and around the trail a simple 44km ride quickly turns into 6 hour bike ride. Our accommodation in Lauder, fitting in perfectly with the quintessentially of the trail was an old school turned B&B. Bruce and Esme were very welcoming with drinks and biscuits on arrival. After a typical hot and dry Otago day we were ready for a good ol’ pint of Speights so after a quick clean up and short walk around the township we checked in for a beautiful meal at the Lauder Hotel.

Lauder Hotel originally the Railway Hotel now serves delicious hearty meals.

Day 2 again was hot and dry. A gentle climb would bring us through the Ida Valley. Crossing the Ida Dam bridge was both breathtaking and thrilling at the same time. Gilchrists General Store is still operating in the township of Oturehua, the next town en-route. Almost unchanged in appearance since 1899 – the products on the display shelves behind the long counters will bring back nostalgic memories for many. Wedderbun marks the highest point with the original station still standing. From there it’s all downhill arriving swiftly into Ranfurly; pure heaven for all the art deco lovers. Don’t miss the Centennial Milk Bar!

The Centennial Milkbar, a community owned, classic building of modernist design, now houses the only Art Deco Museum in the Southern Hemisphere, the Rural Art Deco Gallery.

Day 3 the final day of the trail was, you guessed it, blistering hot and extremely exposed which turned the 60km downhill journey into another hot and thirsty ride. If you are familar with Otago weather you know what we mean. Lucky Ranfurly had several options for a good coffee before departure.

The scenery changes several times on the journey so take some extra time to enjoy as well as to appreciate the handiwork of the countless hard-working men who hacked out cuttings, filled in culverts, blasted tunnels, chiseled stone for bridge abutments – all to level the track for the train – and now cyclists.

We arrived into our final stop of Middlemarch sweaty and a little burnt – dying for a swim. Our lovely host at Annandale B&B greeted us with some juicy home-grown fruit and icy-cold water before offering us the key to the local school pool to cool off.

Keep your eyes peeled for local quirks along the trail.

One of the great things about cycle touring through areas less travelled by the commoner is the history that still remains untouched and undeveloped. Country pubs and hotels are one of our favourite things to visit as often as possible as each is so different in character and offering, telling so much about the people and the township. It really is a fascinating experience. The Strath Taieri Hotel, the last remaining pub in Middlemarch with its distinctive Otago schist stone facade was our last stop on our Central Rail Trail Journey. A friendly place to unwind and reminisce about our 3 day adventure and which trail to complete next!

We each took two hardtail bikes with a double pannier. The trail is predominantly compacted gravel and a few small hills so a Hybrid or MTB is the best. Mountain bikes, electric bikes, panniers and bike racks can be rented from us from $55 a day. 

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