Solace and Solitude on the Central Otago Rail Trail:
26-12-14 to 29-12.14
Kevin P Clements
After hurtling around the world in November and December with trips to China, Japan, the UK and Norway I returned to a tranquil family Christmas in Dunedin followed by a cycle trip on the Otago Central Rail trail. So on Boxing day; instead of eating the unfinished turkey, Christmas cake and chocolates from the day before we drove to Clyde and the start of the Otago Central rail trail.
The trail goes from Clyde to Middlemarch which is a distance of 150 kilometres. The cycleway follows the line of a railroad that was built from 1879 to about 1900. The construction was done largely by Irish workers ( navvies) who cut the trail out of schist and a variety of volcanic rocks. They didn’t have any modern road making equipment , and made the whole railroad over a 16 year period using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and horse drawn wagons.
Central Otago is a region of great weather extremes, very hot in summer and very cold in winter so on top of all the back breaking work of cutting the line inch by inch they had to endure icy winters and extraordinarily hot summers. As I rode along the trail I said prayers and gave thanks for all who spent their labour on the construction of this railroad. It took 16 years to construct and one year to rip up all the track in 1990.
We eased ourselves into the trail with an 8 kilometre ride to Alexandra –the fitter members of the team, Stephen Clements, Dave Armstrong and Jago Armstrong took a 16 k ride along the Clutha river. Alexandra developed during the old gold rush and is now a centre of horticulture, vineyards and a retirement centre because of its predictable climate. En route to Alexandra.
From Alexandra we ro detowards Chatto Creek, a 17 kilometre stretch of trail. We were riding alongside the Manuherikia river , past Galloway station, the Olrig Gangers shed towards Chatto Creek. I began to notice the kilometres on this stretch and was very relieved to get to the Chatto Creek Tavern for coffee/beer and some chips. I started getting saddle sore at this stage of tha trail ! Until Chatto Creek, the trail was rather flat but from Chatto Creek to Omakau we had to climb to the highest point on the trail which is Tiger Hill. Since I had not been on a bike for a while this turned into a bit of a slog but it passes through some stunningly beautiful countryside –there are some tiger shaped rocks on the way and tigery colours in the schist. Every step of the trail I kept on imagining what all the construction workers thought about the rocks, the hills, the winds and the rivers. What a contrast with the tranquil Irish countryside. The good thing about reaching the highest point of the trail was that it was all downhill to Omakau our next destination. That night we got to stay in an art deco Hotel Blacks Hotel at Ophir one of New Zealand’s most authentic gold mining town.
Blacks Hotel had a lovely couple running it. They spontaneously offered to collect the last members of our group and gave us a lovely meal…See photographs at the end of the text of other parts of the trail. Refreshed we rode from Omakau to Lauder which is one of the clearest air localities in the world and is the home to NIWA’s atmospheric measuring station. It was a place to recharge and get some sandwiches for the ride to Auripo through the Poolburn Gorge. This took us through the beautiful Ida Valley enroute to Oturehua which was another great watering hole and the historic Gilchrist’s store which remains pretty much as it was 90 years ago.
The next bit of the trail took us over the 45th parallel (twice) to Wedderburn which is where we had our second night at a lovely old Lodge. We had an excellent meal of venison pies and fish and chips at the Wedderburn tavern.
This is the station made famous by Grahame Sydney’s wonderful painting.
Day three we rode from Wedderburn to Ranfurly which took us across the Maniototo and stunning views of the Kakanui mountains. Ranfurly also has a lot of art deco buildings. We stopped for sandwiches and lunch at Waipiata before heading off to Kokonga and Hyde which is where we had our third night staying in the old Hyde School. Once again we had wonderful hosts and wonderful food.
On the last day we rode from Hyde to the Rock and Pillar range and then downhill all the way to Middlemarch. It was sobering riding past the site of the Hyde Railway disaster of 1943 which until Tangiwai was New Zealand’s worst railway accident. The train was going twice the acceptable speed and jackknifed going around a bend. It was another reminder of the precarity of all life. Middlemarch is a lovely village at the end of the trail- we had a lovely lunch at the Kissing Cafe, a swim and a bus back to Dunedin. In the end we rode about 176 kilometres .
Riding the rail trail gave me a deeper appreciation of the beauty and challenges of Central Otago which is one of the most aesthetically exciting parts of New Zealand. Before going I read The Art of Grahame Sydney and when I arrived in Central I discovered many of the sources of his inspiration. Not just the Wedderburn station but the loneliness and isolation of all the small stops on the way, the challenge of landscapes that seem to have no human habitation at all, roads and railways that no longer lead anywhere. But most of all a quite magical light and skies that are constantly changing . Its hard to describe the clouds, the skies are either full or empty and solar searingly hot. It’s a part of the country that seems incredibly sad to me. I kept on thinking of all the people that cut out the rail trail by hand and wondered what they were thinking as they did so. I wondered what they thought about the land they were taming or trying to tame. I wondered what theytalked about at night time… I wondered what the Hanrahans, the O’Reilly’s , and all the other Irish men working on the trail told their families back home. And I wondered what they would have thought about the decision to close the railway and rip up the fruit of their labour in one short year. It’s a ride that’s worth doing. There is a wonderful solitude/isolation that takes over when cycling between the different destinations. I stopped , listened and wondered about my place in the cosmic order of things . In the absence of human beings I shared my thoughts with animals that I passed by. The landscape imprints itself deeply on one’s psyche reminding us of our cosmic insignificance ; it reminds us of our frailties and fragility and of the value of kindness and hospitality at all the watering holes along the way . Its like life isn’t it…. In the face of all the challenges of life what is important in the end is a warm welcome,food, drink goodness and hospitality.