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Encompassed by beauty, tranquillity, serenity; enveloped by history and Southern hospitality. The magical memories I have etched in my mind of the Otago Rail Trail are images of stunning scenery, wholesome food and friendly people.
On an early autumn morning in March, we were greeted by our friendly chauffer at Queenstown International Airport. His name was Sam: a kind, humorous, knowledgeable chap who was born and raised in Ranfurly. Any nerves of anticipation soon dissipated after the warm and laid back meeting of this fellow. Onto Clyde where we met our host Nick who extended a similarly warm welcome and quickly gave a heads up on how the trip would run.
Divvying us a bike each, there were many amidst our group who felt that anxious pang come flying back into their gut at the thought of spending four days on a hard seat. Although some had done a token amount of training, those bike bums weren’t yet hardened to endure more than a few hours. Not to worry, Nick had that sorted with a supply of super padded bike seats. A unanimous ‘phew’ could be heard as the many women in the group let out a sigh of relief in unison.
We started on our first leg from Clyde to Alexandra, a flat 8km cruise through orchards and a semi-rural landscape. Many who had in their minds that this trip would be tough had gleaming smiles as before you knew it, we had succeeded in arriving at Alexandra. After a quick regroup, some water and a dose of banter, we set off to Chatto Creek which was 17km in the distance. This leg is marked by the typical Central Otago schist rock and wild thyme landscape whichever way we looked.
The Otago Rail Trail is aptly named: the railway was originally constructed to link Dunedin and the Central Otago towns of Alexandra and Clyde. As trains were incapable of climbing hills very well, the present day cycling trail follows the old railway having a moderate incline. At its steepest point the grade is 1 to 50 meaning that for every 1 metre in elevation climbed, 50 metres are travelled along the trail. Consequently, the climbs are barely noticeable with the ‘steep’ sections being completely manageable for all.
We had chosen to base ourselves in Ranfurly each night with Sam picking us up from our final destination each evening, and dropping us back at that point in the morning where we would continue on our merry way. This worked well for us as we could set ourselves up in the one centralised location and not have to bother about packing up our gear each morning.
Our group was divided, some staying in a quaint little cottage with the most amazing feather and down pillows making slumber feel like bliss. The other half of our group stayed at the old hospital which has been converted into a dormitory type setting. Judy, the sister of Sam was their host with a similarly warm, welcoming, happy demeanour. It must run in the family.
After each day of riding, we’d stop at the prearranged destination where we’d be greeted by Sam, who was patiently awaiting our arrival. He’d often remark “You’ve made good time”, making us feel like Olympic athletes.
Being on the trail gave us the allusion of being away from the hustle and bustle of normality, with the omnipresent beauty of the landscape absorbing us into its flanks. That being said, as we passed through each small town steeped in history, our basic modern needs were always catered for: hearty food a gourmand would relish, a cold beer to quench that thirsty palate, flushing toilets with a mirror to boof up that helmet hair, cell phone reception to touch base with those in the big smoke.
We chose to bike the Rail Trail over four days, split either side of a day off in the middle. On this rest day, Sam took us on a wine-tasting tour of the local vineyards. We took this task as seriously as we did our biking, frequenting five vineyards in total. To Naseby for dinner, it wasn’t the right time of year to try our hand at curling on the outdoor ice rink so indoors it was.
On reflection, the trail wasn’t too strenuous at all. We picked the perfect season: not too hot, not too cold. In addition to the amazing beauty that the landscape treated our eyes to, and friendly people we met along the way, thinking back I have happy thoughts of delicious country food that only your Granny could make coupled with exquisite coffee made better than most barista’s you’ll find in the city.
This is one experience that I can genuinely recommend to anybody no matter what age, ability or level of fitness. A journey along the Otago Rail Trail welcomes all.
Cycle the historic Otago Rail Trail in comfort. Fully-supported cycling/biking adventure in Central Otago featuring great bikes, heritage accommodation, all transport and sightseeing options with local driver/guides. A range of tours are available.
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