Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, South Island, New Zealand

edventuremama's picture
15 years
12 years
10 years
2013-05-11 to 2013-05-13

We’ve been in New Zealand for about three months now, and we’ve done some cool things, but I have to say that riding the Otago Central Rail Trail was the best thing we’ve done thus far. We’ve got a bit of a history with bicycles, having spent a year, 2008-2009, cycling Europe and N. Africa slowly, so we were excited about the opportunity to ride New Zealand’s original and most famous bikeway. 

Kids on the trailThe Otago Central Rail Trail is iconic in New Zealand. It’s the classic cycle trail, and the one that inspired the national project to connect cycle trails across both islands. There are lots of ways to ride it, from bringing your own bike to several rental agencies that service travelers who want to make the ride part of their journeys. The Rail Trail is the result of a trust and the ongoing efforts of an army of business people and volunteers that has converted the old rail line from Middlemarch to Clyde into a grade one (meaning it’s easy) cycle path that wends its way through valleys, over gorges and through tunnels where the old steam trains used to run.

Shebikeshebikes is one of the smaller companies, and it’s family run. They have a fleet of only 100 bikes and Steve Goodlass runs the show. Steve inspires me because he was a software developer for years, but hated it. So, he and his wife took a big leap of faith, moved out to Omakau from a busy town down on the coast, transplanted their four kids into a two room school on the central plain, and traded a career in the tech industry for their passion: a family business focused on health and building the local economy. Stepping out of the fast lane, recreating a career and pursuing your dreams takes a lot of guts. Steve and his wife also stepped out on a limb and bought the Omakau post office, turned it into a holiday home, and it’s quite possibly the premiere accommodation on the trail.

Day 1: Oterehua to Omakau

Steve had our bikes all ready to go, adjusted properly and a selection of panniers and helmets in the back of his van when he picked up up in the morning. It felt luxurious to be driven to Oterehua and dropped off while our overnight bag and the ubiquitous guitar were ferried on to the Omakau Bedpost. We’ve never cycled without carrying all of our own gear on our bikes. Somehow a supported tour felt like cheating… we liked it!

It would be easy to visit Oterehua and miss the Hayes Engineering Works, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

End of the trailWe have a thing for historical working farms and this one is different from any we’ve ever visited. The impressive part is the fantastic machine shop built by the Hayes family and restored as a museum. They’re famous for their wire strainer engineering, designs that are still in use today and won awards in the 1980s, years after their inventor was dead and gone. Their homestead was generating electricity, first by wind and then by water, more than thirty years before there were any wires run into the valley. The entire shop is driven by leather belts with metal shearing, punches, drills, a lathe and more. Their ingenuity was breath-taking. It’s one of those places where, the longer you stand and look, the more you see and the more there is to learn.

We spent the afternoon cycling through a postcard.

To say the scenery is breathtaking would be to sell it far short. Enormous mountains blanketed in glistening white snow gave way to golden hillsides and emerald riverbeds carved out of serpentine valleys lined with yellow beech trees, clinging for all they were worth to their last few leaves.

We paused on the top of a bluff to watch a modern shepherd separate a herd of black cattle from a few dozen white sheep with a dog and his four wheeler. “It’s like the dog works magic!” Hannah mentioned, “He just peeled those black cows right out of the sheep.” And so he did.

Hannah sang the dwarf song from the new Hobbit movie as we pushed our bikes through the inky black tunnels, just inches wider than a train car.

Elisha, snapping his helmet in place, announced, “There are three teams, Mama! You’re the parent team. The boys are the tortoise team and Hannah and I are the hare team!”

“Slow and steady wins the race!” Gabe reminded him. Gabe gets the gold star for the day for taking it upon himself to ride with Ezra and teach him how to properly manage the gearing, as this is the first multi-day ride the younger boys have made on their own bicycles!

Day 2: Omakau to Clyde

I must mention how much I miss my bike shorts and gloves.

I noticed immediately this morning, when I positioned my (no longer trail hardened) bottom back in the saddle and pushed off down the trail. My breath created big puffs of frosty white in the air in front of me, fogging up my glasses; “This is going to hurt,” I muttered under my breath. Tony heard me and chuckled, “No kidding.” And while I’m whining, can I just say, that I miss my Ergo seat as well? I’ll spare you the details, I can assure you that, while the outside of me has recovered tolerably well, after four babies, not everything is where I left it. And also: I am out of shape. Bicycling shape is different from backpacking and hiking shape; I’ll leave it at that.

Through a train tunnel5 km in, my muscles settled into a, once familiar, routine and my mind expanded into our surroundings instead of whinging over the residuals of yesterday’s ride.

Jack Frost ran ahead of us painting every grass blade and nodding seed head with hoary frost; a reflection of the majestic white giants looming against an ice blue morning sky. We cycled through sheep fields and past herds of deer who looked up with mouthfuls of what was left of the green to chew and wonder what we were about. We swept down the broad S of Tiger Hill, the steepest section of the Otago Central Rail Trail and out onto the gradual decline. Sheep pulled their woolens up around their ears and I adjusted my hat beneath my helmet. Stone giants knelt beside navy pools reflecting white gossamer clouds and performed their morning ablutions, as stiff and sore looking as I felt.

Ezra rode with me the second day.

When he was tiny and would sit on his trail-a-bike behind me he considered it his job to sing to keep me going. Evidently he has not forgotten. He insisted we make up a song:

“Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’… wow my buns are swollen… rollin’ rollin’ rollin’… rawhide!

Wow my buns are freezing, and my lungs are wheezing, hoping for some warm for my ride!”

We sang lustily. He kept trying for a second verse, but it never quite came together.

He stopped to take off a layer. I hollered, “See ya in Clyde!” As I whisked on down the path ahead of him, thinking and enjoying the morning.

I stopped a mile or so on and looked back, sipping my tea, one foot leaning on my bike tube. When I saw the sheep fleeing up the hillside I knew Ez was fine and rolling, so I pedaled on at a slow, maternal speed, letting him think he was lapping me. A key point in fostering adventurers and keeping them alive seems to be letting them think they’re sheets to the wind with no net, while actually monitoring the condition of the creatures around them to ascertain their viability and status.

“You alright, Mom?” he asked as he whipped past on the left, and surged into the foreground.

I was better than alright.

I laughed so loud Tony thought I was crying when I swept around the corner and looked up to see Gabriel and Elisha gesticulating like Olympian gold medalists from their perch on top of a cliff. Apparently they got so far ahead they thought they’d stop and have a climb while they waited. My sore muscles couldn’t imagine bounding up the rocks, but they’re boys, after all, and they live to be King of the hill.

We rolled into Clyde, victorious. Clare, from the Rail Trust, and Steve, from Shebikeshebikes, were there waiting for us; smiling from ear to ear. They were as glad as we were for the good weather and the beautiful ride. We miss cycling, and this ride has reminded us just what a fantastic way it is to travel. Tony and I found ourselves talking about “how we’d do it” now, which bike upgrades and changes we’d make to our existing gear and what it would be like to travel with big kids instead of little ones.

The ride was spectacular. If you find yourself in NZ, make the time, and don’t miss it. Contact Steve if you need to rent a bike. He’ll make sure your properly fitted and take good care of you. He and his wife can arrange the bikes, your accommodation and move your bags ahead of you so that you don’t have to worry about a thing. Be sure you tell him we sent you! Of all of the things we’ve done in New Zealand, I have to say, this is the very best yet!

Hayes Engineering Works
Otago Central Rail Trail
End of the trail
Omakau Bed Post Accommodations
Kids on the trail
Cycling the trail
Through a train tunnel
Otago Central Rail Trail
Train Tunnel
Article Type: 
In-Person Impressions


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