The Central Otago Rail Trail is 150kms in length, located between the small towns of Middlemarch and Clyde in New Zealand’s South Island. With its wide gravel path and gentle 1:50 gradient, the trail has become popular with walkers, cyclist and horse riders with approximately 12-15,000 users per year. The trails route was originally the Otago Central Railway that was used to open up Central Otago, following the gold rush of the 1860’s, and to help the local farmers and fruit growers reach their markets.
In 1990 however, what was once referred to as “One of the Great Train Trips", was finally closed and the line ripped up. Don't despair though as you can still experience a scenic section of the railway by travelling on the Taieri Gorge Railway along the 64km of remaining line between Dunedin and Middlemarch. This really is a 'must do' at the end (or beginning) of any Rail Trail experience.
Along the way you’ll journey across some of the most isolated and spectacular parts of Central Otago, along the mountainous Rock and Pillar range, dry rocky landscapes, productive valley floor farmland of the Ida Valley, the impressive Poolburn River gorge, pass through the former train tunnels (bring a headlamp!!), quaint rural towns, cross the original wooden viaducts, marvel at the historic old stone dwellings and preserved gold mining settlements – aged by the passage of time and the extremes of the continental climate unique in New Zealand to Central Otago.
It not just a journey across stunning Central Otago, in a way, it's a journey back in town to the romantic age of the railway, rural New Zealand and the early days of the gold rush. I had never visited Central Otago, so when I heard of the Railtrail while I was cycling through the South Island, I jumped at the idea of riding along the 150km former railway line taking in all the cliché Speights/Mainland Cheese scenes along the way. You can start your Rail Trail journey from either the Clyde or Middlemarch end; there is even transport running between the two towns to relocate riders back to their starting point.
I start my intrepid journey along the Rail Trail from the lovely little town of Clyde. There’s no entry fee to use the trail and considering I had a tent with me I didn’t need to make any accommodation bookings as I just found a couple of spots along the way once my days riding was complete. I recommend staying alongside the Poolburn Viaduct, although arriving later in the day is best so others have finished using the trail as I’m not sure it’s strictly allowed; even though you aren’t hurting anyone in doing so.
Riding along at cycling pace really gave you the time to take in the beauty of the ever changing landscapes, amid the transforming light. I really enjoyed riding through this big-sky farmland country, speaking with friendly locals and travellers enroute. However, because of the relative slow paced mode of travel it’s definitely best if the intrepid experience can be shared with a cycling partner. I gave myself 3 days to get to Middlemarch, covering about 50km a day which I thought was a good pace to allow stops enroute to explore attractions and side roads. I cycled the Rail Trail and despite what you may have been told, it’s not too hot and just before the busy season as I was told February to April (as the trees leaves change colour) is the busiest period with local accommodation and cafes doing a roaring trade; which is great for these isolated small communities. For more information visit the Central Otago site.