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Saddle up for New Zealand’s original great ride – the Otago Central Rail Trail – featuring pioneering history and bucket-list scenery.
The gentle-gradient ride takes you through farmland, past character-rich towns, along a deserted railway track and through dark tunnels. As you pedal across fabled bucket-list scenery, you’re reminded of the region’s bling days and the pioneering spirit of the people who followed the gold rush train to South Island’s rustic interior in the 1860s.
Today that spirit lives on in locals who love a great ‘yarn’ (tale) and are legendary for their hospitality – seriously, you have to visit the country pubs in the area to believe us.
Before you embark on the Central Otago Rail Trail, enjoy vintage of another kind. Central Otago is the world’s southern-most wine growing region, and New Zealand’s youngest. Take the scenic grade 3 Gibbston River Trail, following the Kawarau River and spend the better part of today tasting award-winning wines from the Gibbston region. It is a fantastic way to get acquainted with your bike while savouring the best of this region.
There are a number of transfer options available from Queenstown to Clyde, a small country town and the starting point for the Central Otago Rail Trail.
The first few kilometres of pedalling through orchards and vineyards, punctuated by corrugated huts, are the ideal way to get used to your saddle and the trail’s features. From Alexandra, the trail crosses the narrow bridge over Manuherikia River, past Tucker Hill to Chatto Creek. Take a pit stop at Chatto Creek Tavern, which opened its doors in 1886, before the climb up Tiger Hill for amazing views of the Dunstan Range.
Omakau is another reminder of the glory days of gold mining this region has seen. Just 2km away, Ophir is worth a visit. Much older than Omakau, this single-street home was bypassed by the railway to save a bridge across the Manuherikia. It is also home to New Zealand’s oldest post office.
This is perhaps the most fascinating section of the trail. You’ll be rewarded with impressive bridge crossings (including the longest one – the 110m Manuherikia No.1 Bridge), tunnels and stunning panoramic views of the Ida Valley, one of the locations for The Lord of the Rings. Another mustn’t miss sight of the trail, located on this section, is the Hayes Engineering Works (book ahead for a tour). Oturehua is an unassuming country town where you’ll find New Zealand’s longest-running store, Gilchrists, which has been trading since 1898.
From Oterehua a gentle climb takes you to the trail summit, before coming down to Wedderburn, a small village with the trail’s trademark rustic tavern and the original station building. Ranfurly is the largest town in the Maniototo Plains, with many accommodation options, a few shops and some art deco buildings. Consider going off-trail to the nearby Naseby to try indoor curling.
This last section of the trail has a slight downhill gradient most of the way to Middlemarch. As you hop of the bike here, you can count on experiencing a sense of elation at completing the trail. A part of you may also feel the pang of an epic journey coming to an end.
There is a twice weekly train service from Middlemarch to Dunedin – the Taieri Gorge Railway, known as one of the world’s great train trips. Transfers can also be arranged back to Queenstown or to Alexandra for your next cycling adventure – the Roxburgh Gorge Trail and the Clutha Gold Trail.