Otago Central Rail Trail
We love cycling and have put many miles on our road bikes here in Northern California. When we started planning our trip to New Zealand, we knew we wanted to do some bike touring but weren’t sure where to start. After some research, we found the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 152km (94.4 mile) path that cuts across the Otago region in the South Island.
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After our wine tasting adventure from Queenstown, our tour guide dropped us off in the tiny town of Clyde, at one end of the trail. The trail was developed in partnership with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust to help revitalize the region that was devastated after the Otago Central Rail line was dismantled and torn out in the late 80s and 90s.
The railroad was started during the heyday of the Central Otago gold rush in 1879 and at one point the region had multiple trains a day hauling passengers up and down the region and connecting to the rest of New Zealand. The train kept going for years but as the gold rush faded and trucking slowly took over railroad shipping, it was no longer economically feasible and the last part of the line was ripped out in 1990. All the quaint little towns faded and were in danger of becoming totally isolated and extinct.
The Trust raised the funds and worked with the Department of Conservation to build out the bike trail on the same route as the original rail lines, removing the debris, decking the bridges and adding services along the way to accommodate riders. The trail opened in 2000 and Central Otago has reinvented itself as a tourist destination with quaint cafes, bed and breakfast inns and plenty of history to explore along the way.
As experienced cyclists, we probably could have ridden the trail in two to three days, but we decided to take our time and do it in five days, with four nights along the way in different towns. We booked our trip with SheBikesHeBikes, one of the major outfitters in the area, and they helped us plan our entire trip from the US, with one of the most flexible and detailed itineraries we have ever seen. We rented two hybrid mountain bikes with comfy seats and small packs to carry some daily supplies and SheBikesHeBikes booked all of our hotel rooms (plus our wine trip in Queenstown to start).
We started our adventure at the Dunstan House in Clyde, a historic old inn with lovely rooms, a gracious hostess and a delicious breakfast. Since we were in the New Zealand springtime in October, we were a bit early for the tourist season, so we had the Dunstan House to ourselves. This trend continued for the rest of our trip.
Day 1 – Clyde to Ophir
The next morning in Clyde we met our SheBikesHeBikes host at the train station, where we got our bikes and tagged our luggage for the next four nights of travel along the trail. We had repacked our luggage, sending one bag ahead to the end and packing the rest so we’d have all the gear we needed for our four-night journey. SheBikesHeBikes took care of our stuff – dropping it off at our accommodation every afternoon and picking it up the next morning, so all we had to worry about was what we carried on our backs and in our small packs – just our wallets, extra layers and a camera.
The trail is soft gravel and our bikes were well suited for it with big tires, but it took us a bit of time to get used to riding mountain bikes instead of road bikes. The first bit of the trail goes through the two biggest towns in the area, Clyde and Alexandria, but once you leave Alexandria you pretty much head straight in the middle of nowhere.
Our SheBikesHeBikes hosts provided a detailed plan for every day, including best places to eat lunch, stop for coffee, buy snacks, fill up our water bottles and empty our bladders. This was so helpful and important because outside of the little towns, you are alone on the trail with nothing around but sheep and the occasional cottage. We really appreciated the information, especially as we pulled into our first lunch stop at the Chatto Creek Tavern just as it started to rain.
The Chatto Creek Tavern, established in 1886, was our first taste of the hospitality of the trail. It’s a rustic stone building with a sprawling, shaded garden and a surprisingly upscale menu including fresh fish and rib eye steaks. The garden looked lovely and we sat at a table for about two minutes before the rain started, softly at first then pretty steady. We enjoyed our delicious lunch in the warmth of the tavern until we finally had to get back on our bikes.
After lunch, the rain stopped just briefly enough for us to get on our way. The rail trail follows the old railroad route, and most railroads max out at about a three percent grade, but that first day had the steepest uphill route and that afternoon was the most miserable part of our ride. We climbed up Tiger Hill in driving rain and sleet (well, maybe it was snow) which left us questioning our choices. Luckily we were able to huddle in a small roadside rest shelter and warm up for the ride into Pitches Store in the town of Ophir. That first day was the longest at about 37km (23 miles).
We drug ourselves into the Pitches Store late in the afternoon, cold and wet, and were welcomed warmly by the owners, Colleen and David, and reunited with our bags. We were escorted to our room, a brand new, modern place with a little patio and a really comfortable bed in the historic late 19th century building. We felt like old friends as we were welcome to use the washer and dryer and grab a snack from the kitchen before dinner.
Pitches Store was one of the most luxurious places we stayed at on the trail, and unlike others, had its own gourmet restaurant. Because it’s relatively close to Queenstown by car, they get a lot of people coming for dinner and staying over after they indulge themselves in the delicious food and local wines. We celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary there and couldn’t have picked a nicer spot. We shared one of the bottles of Pinot we bought at Desert Heart the previous day.
Day 2 – Ophir to Oturehua
The next morning we re-packed our bags and left them for pickup, and continued on to our next stop: Oturehua and the Marchburn Country Lodge. The weather straightened out for our next day’s ride, still brisk, we definitely needed long pants and jackets, but not raining or sleeting. It turned out to be perfect touring weather for another day’s adventure. Day two continued uphill as we kept climbing the trail, taking in the wide open spaces and scenery, until we arrived at our destination, Marchburn, this time right off the trail with spectacular views of the mountain ranges all around.
Our host, Graeme, welcomed us into his home/guest house and got us settled in. It was still chilly when we arrived in the afternoon and Graeme had a fire roaring in his living room, just what we needed after a long day. Marchburn Country Lodge is a brand new house with two en-suite guest rooms plus a separate living area for Graeme separated by the kitchen. Graeme loves to talk and pretty soon we were warm by the fire and old friends.
Oturehua itself is a tiny town with only a few small shops and restaurants, and at this point in the season only one was open – so luckily we had a reservation. Graeme dropped us off at the Oturehua Railway Hotel, where we met another Grahame and his wife Liz, who run the small bar and hotel and treat their guests to Liz’s amazing home cooked meals. We sat at the bar and enjoyed our local lamb shanks with more delicious Pinot Noir and chatted with Grahame for a couple of hours, learning so much more about the area and the culture. We were happy to find out that we had already booked Grahame and Liz’s favorite hotel in Dunedin, and they recommended an Italian restaurant we needed to visit during our upcoming stay there.
While we were at dinner, the first Graeme actually took care of our laundry, and when we got home we enjoyed some lovely port and hung out for a while in front of the fire. Graeme is a software guy who had ridden the trail himself a few years before and fallen in love with it, and he and his wife built Marchburn Lodge for themselves and only open for the cycle season. Graeme’s wife is a flight attendant for Air New Zealand, and while she is away he manages the place and entertains the guests. We had so much fun talking to him and the next morning, after he made us a great breakfast, we kept chatting well after our bags had been picked up and we probably could have stayed all day.
Day 3 – Oturehua to Ranfurly
Once we got on our bikes, we realized that we were really in no rush. Not too long after we left, we hit the midpoint (and the highest point at 618 meters) of the trail and then it was downhill. Our snack stop that day was in Wedderburn, a village with a smattering of rental cottages, and the stamp stop had a honor bar, with a bunch of snacks, sodas, water, etc that you could buy by swiping your own credit card or leaving cash. We couldn’t imagine such a place in the states – it would probably be cleaned out, including the credit card machine.
We stopped along the way to get stamps in our official trail passport – to make sure we hit all the different spots on the trail itself. This was a great way to get us to stop and learn more about every spot and there was usually a rest area or a place to fill your water bottle nearby.
After Wedderburn we coasted almost all the way to our next stop, the small town of Ranfurly. We arrived earlier than usual, around one in the afternoon, so we grabbed some lunch, parked our bikes at the train station/visitors center, and explored the little town. Ranfurly has a great museum that tells the history of the trail with exhibits and a short movie. We spent a couple hours wandering around while our bikes and gear all stayed unlocked but safe.
It took us a while to find our accommodations in Ranfurly since our guest house, the Maniototo Lodge, was one of the newest in town. Caroline was another big city transplant who moved to the country to start a B&B. Her house was a beautiful old mansion and this time, we ate the gourmet dinner she prepared for us in her gorgeous dining room. We were her only guests that night and we had a lovely time. Her place was a bit chilly, so we spent most of the evening huddled up in front of the wood-burning fireplace, which we didn’t mind at all.
Day 4 – Ranfurly to Hyde
After Ranfurly, we had one final stop in the last town before the end of the trail. At this point, we were riding almost all downhill and hardly had to pedal our bikes. We reached the tiny town of Hyde early in the afternoon. We were warned ahead of time that Hyde had virtually no services, and our guides were right. It was early in the season, but I’m not sure Hyde has much even in high season.
We stayed at the Otago Central Hotel Hyde, a historic old hotel run by a really nice couple, Jan and Dean. It was probably the oldest place we stayed, with a lot of antique furniture and artifacts from the gold rush and the heyday of the train. They cooked us a great, generous dinner and since we were the only guests (again) it felt like we were old friends visiting instead of invited guests.
We enjoyed our night in Hyde and getting to know Jan and Dean, but if we were to do it again we would probably skip it. We would have had no problem riding the whole way to Middlemarch from Ranfurly, especially since it was all downhill. But since we were not in a rush, spending the extra night was great.
Day 5 – Hyde to Middlemarch
Hyde was the scene of a terrible train accident in 1943 when 21 people died and 47 were injured. Not too far from our hotel along the trail there was a monument all by itself remembering all the people who died, a solemn stop just off the path.
We left around 9 a.m. and made it to Middlemarch in time for lunch. At the end of the trail, Middlemarch had a lot more shops and restaurants, including shops for all the major bike outfitters. We dropped off our bikes, were able to take a shower and freshen up at the SheBikesHeBikes depot, then we had a lovely lunch at one of the little cafes in town. We relaxed for a few hours before we made our way to our next destination, Dunedin.
On the Trail
In between towns we had the trail mostly to ourselves. Every now and then we saw a cyclist or two, most coming from the other direction but other than that our only trail companions were sheep, cows and the occasional annoying magpie.
Since we were riding during the spring, Australian magpies were breeding and nesting in the area. We had never encountered them before, so we disregarded the warnings until we had our first encounter. We were crossing a longish bridge when a pair of magpies started circling and dive-bombing us, making it really difficult to keep riding. I was really not interested in falling off my bike, so I wound up getting off and pushing it across. One magpie did nick my helmet but I survived. After that we kept watch but never did get dive-bombed again.
Besides getting our Trail passport stamps (we didn’t miss any!), we were also able to explore the solar system via the Interplanetary Cycle Trail. Some smart folks came up with a scale model of all of the planets, shrunk by a factor of one hundred million to one and mapped it to the trail itself. The sun is roughly in the center, in Ranfurly, and all the other planets are located on the trail based on their average distance from the sun. We didn’t know about this before we left so as we were riding along, we saw a roundish metal sculpture on the side of the trail and stopped to take a look. That was Neptune. After we saw Uranus, we figured out there must be a pattern. The only one we missed was Pluto, which was close to Alexandra at the beginning of the trail.
The landscape was a remarkable change after the lush area around Milford Sound. Central Otago is a high desert, with rolling hills covered with brush, not unlike the Sierra Nevada. The original railway took almost 41 years to complete as the builders had to build long trestle bridges and carve tunnels to create a track that could accommodate the train, climbing at a slow, steady grade. The slight grade made for an easy ride and we loved crossing the bridges and going through the historic tunnels.
Our Otago Central Rail Trail Experts
SheBikeHeBikes provided outstanding guidance and service throughout our trip and we were so glad we chose them for our trip. They gave us all the information and complete flexibility to make all of our choices along the way, with lots of different options for accommodation, bikes, and transportation at the beginning and end of our journey. We never had to worry about our luggage since it was picked up every morning, usually after we left, and was always there waiting for us when we arrived at our accommodation.
The only thing we had to take care of ourselves were our individual dinner reservations along the trail. Since these towns are so small and we were early in the season, we needed to make sure that there were no surprises along the way, otherwise we would have gone to bed without dinner.
Everyday we had very detailed descriptions with advice where to stop for provisions, where we could get water and use the restroom, and the interesting historical sites and other distractions we could visit along the trail. We are normally road bikers so we were not confident at first with the mountain bikes, but they were well-built and maintained Specialized bikes and we adapted quickly. After the first day our tires were a bit soft but we were able to stop at one of the SheBikesHeBikes depots and quickly pump them up.
We would highly recommend the Otago Central Rail trail. It was an unforgettable adventure being out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheep, mountains and vast expanses of desert. In between, we got to experience amazing hospitality and have great conversations with New Zealanders from all different backgrounds. The trail was easy and flat, and if you don’t want to work that hard, you can choose an e-bike. But even if you are in great shape, you should spend at least three nights on the trail to really get the full experience.