NZ South Island # 5: Dunedin – Bannockburn via Otago Central Rail Trail (4 days, 291 km)

After these 3 days of coastal ride, it is time to head back West to the mountains! This can be achieved by cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, NZ’s original “Great Ride” that crosses Central Otago from Middlemarch to Clyde. This cycle track actually re-uses the layout of an old railway built in the late 19th century in order to connect Dunedin with the hinterland (Clyde and Cromwell). A that time, Central Otago was booming because of the gold rushes. Thousands of adventurous young men arrived from the whole world (mainly Europe and China) to seek alluvial gold in the rocky valleys and streams of Central Otago, braving the harsh climate and isolation of the region. At that time, road transport was not as cheap and common as it is today, so a railway was the best option to service and vitalise the region. It took 42 years before New Zealand’s longest branch railway line reached its final destination at Cromwell in 1921. Construction workers used pick, shovel and wheelbarrow, with a bit of dynamite, often in extreme weather, to build culverts, viaducts and tunnels through rocky gorges. They also had to deal with economic depressions, conditions that were much harder than expected and, on top of that, a world war, so progress was slow.Over time, road transport eventually became more viable and the railway more uneconomic. The Cromwell-Clyde track was removed in 1980, making way for the construction of the Clyde Dam and flooding by Lake Dunstan. The track from Clyde to Middlemarch was ripped up in 1991. A few year laters, people imagined to re-use the track as a cycle, hiking and horse riding path. The Otago Central Rail Trail was born!

My route since Omarama. When bike touring or in life in general, the shortest way is rarely the best… 😉

Day 1: Dunedin – Mosgiel (21 km): false start, but nice ending

My plan for today was to cycle the 85 km from Dunedin to Middlemarch, the beginning of the Otago Central Rail Trail. Although 85 km seems a rather short distance for one day, this ride has to be taken seriously because of the many long and steep climbs on the way. Despite being aware of this, I decided to stay “a bit longer” in Dunedin to further explore the Botanic Garden that seemed so nice two days ago. The gardens were indeed nice, so nice that I ended up spending three hours walking in there, admiring the Lebanese cedars, the aviary, the South-African gardens, the rose garden, …

Dunedin Botanic Garden

Coming out of the supermarket, I ran into Carmen, who had just completed the ride I did two days ago. We were both happy to see each other again and had lunch together in the Botanic Garden I had just left half an hour ago. Carmen had decided to also bike the Otago Rail Trail, but wanted ro stay in Dunedin for the night. She told me that she was thinking about taking the scenic train between Dunedin and Middlemarch. Although quite expensive, this journey is said to offer spectacular views on the Taieri Gorge. Besides, this would allow us to meet again in Middlemarch around noon the next day and bike together the Rail Trail. We agreed that she would warn me in the evening in case she decided to take the train so that I would wait for her in Middlemarch.

All in all, I left Dunedin at 14:30. For sure, I had to produce another miracle ride in order to get there before dawn. After less than 2 km, I already realised that this time, it would be really complicated to make the miracle happen. The road out of Dunedin was crazy steep, and starting the day with such a climb is always tricky. Then, instead of following the signposted road, I decided to be “subtle” and take a “shortcut” suggested by Google Maps. It turned out that Google played me the same trick than in Hobart: the shortcut was an even steeper walking track, so steep that I had to get off and push the bike twice. Close to the end of the trail, an even worse surprise was expecting me: the trail was closed because a landslide had destroyed it partially. I noticed that some walkers had bypassed the fences, so i decided to do the same. Going backwards after so much climb was just out of the question. Bypassing the fence with the bike costed me a lot of time and energy. For some reason, instead of going back to the main road, I decided to go on following the Google Maps itinerary, not learning at all from my mistakes. I was badly punished for it: while going down, the track became more and more rocky, loose and bumpy. It was just a nightmare, I could feel the panniers and the backpack moving in all directions! At 17:00, after more than 2,5 hours, I arrived in a town called Mosgiel. Middlemarch was still 66 hilly kilometres away, and there was basically no campground on the road after Mosgiel. I had to admit it: I had completely screwed up today, and after this false start I had to stop here for the night. I went to the local supermarket to drown my vexation in a big pot of yoghurt.

I was eating my yoghurt in front of the supermarket, when a lady who had attached her lovely dog to the bench I was sitting on kindly proposed me to host me at her place for the night. Finally, this “I am a dumb-ass” day ended in the best way: Vivienne and I had a very enjoyable evening together. One of her two sons, Andrew, has done bike touring trips in South East Asia and the US. Vivienne had travelled to many places in the world, and it was really nice to share our travel experiences. Oh, and I also learn how to prepare toasted muesli by myself! Thanks again Vivienne, you saved my day! 🤗

Before going to bed yesterday, I noticed that I had lost the nut I had just replaced a few days ago. Given yesterday’s bumpy ride, that wasn’t that much of a surprise. I also got a mail from Carmen, telling me that she would arrive at Middlemarch by train at noon tomorrow. For sure, I will have to get up early tomorrow and do a loooong day on the bike!

 

Day 2: Mosgiel – Middlemarch – Waipiata (119 km): double day, double fun

I woke up at 6:00 AM in order to see Vivienne who had to go to work early in the morning. She left me alone in her house, and I quickly ate my breakfast (yoghurt with her delicious home-made muesli), replaced the missing nut and started to bike at about 8:15 AM. I could warm me up on the first ten flat kilometres, before dealing with a very hilly road to Middlemarch. After a few minutes in the climb, I was caught up by a cyclist from Dunedin on his Specialized Roubaix road bike. We started talking together in this steep climb, and eventually biked together the next 35 km. His bike being easily 25 kg lighter than mine, he had to wait for me of course. On my side, I biked a bit faster than I would have done on my own without really noticing it, because the conversation was really enjoyable (well in fact I noticed it because it was difficult to talk in such a climb). Approaching Middlemarch I discovered typical Central Otago landscapes: impressive schist rock towers emerging from gold plains and hills, and that special feeling of remoteness.

Typical Central Otago landscape

I managed to reach Middlemarch by 12:20. Carmen had just arrived a few minutes ago, we had lunch together and started to bike on the rail trail. 

Let’s go for another Great Ride!!

Fortunately I was still in good shape after my hilly morning ride, and the rail trail was a much easier ride. The weather was perfect, no wind at all. Biking on the rail trail offers broad views on this golden plains and rocky hills. There was definitely a “Far West” feeling in this ride, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a herd of bisons chased by Amerindians coming from behind a hill. It is also impressive to see how much effort and ingenuity was put in the building of this railway, without any mechanised tools at that time. 



After our first tunnel, we biked along the beautiful Tiroiti Gorge, and finally set camp in Waipiata, after 119km on the bike for me!

Tiroiti Gorge, with Taieri River and the willows on its banks

There, we enjoyed a magnificent sunset! Central Otago is an excellent place to watch the stars because of the absence of light pollution.

Fantastic sunset in Waipiata

Day 3: Waipiata – Omakau (68 km): sun, apples & wind

Today we experienced how an easy and flat ride can become painful when the wind is against you. Otago is very exposed to strong winds, and despite the fact that we made kind of a 180° turn during the day, we had headwinds basically the whole day long. In these conditions, biking these long straight lines in a rather uniform landscape seems endless. Who the hell pressed the slow motion button? 😋

This is how it looked like 80 years ago!

These difficult conditions made both of us a bit nervous, but fortunately we found plenty of free apples on the side of the trail and had a nice late lunch, which made us kind of relaxed again. 

Yessss, free apples! Apfelkompott incoming!

We made a little side trip to look at the ruins of the Golden Progress Mine. This mine was active between 1968 and 1936. Nowadays, we could still see the ruins of some miners’ houses, the poppet head and the steam engine that was used to drive the lift in the mine shaft. 

Golden Progress Mine

After some more bridges and tunnels, we decided to stop in Omakau. Initially, we had hoped to complete the 100 remaining kilometres of the track today, but the wind had decided otherwise. Of course, we spent our evening preparing another apfelkompott 😃

Bridge over Ida Burn
 
Day 4: Omakau – Bannockburn (83 km): another farewell, another adventure awaiting

Today the wind had dropped but it was much cloudier and colder than yesterday. After a short side trip to the old mining town of Ophir, we continued the rail trail until Alexandra. 

Ophir


For Carmen and I, it was funny to see so many people visibly biking for the first time since a long while on this track. The rail trail is indeed a very popular ride, offering scenic views while being really easy to tackle as long as the wind does not mess it up. The trail is recommended in the Lonely Planet tourist guide, and you can definitely feel it!

Alexandra was the place were our paths would diverge for a second time: Carmen planned to continue South down the Clutha valley, while I was heading North to Cromwell and Queenstown. After a last lunch together, we had a bit of an abrupt goodbye. I biked my way further to Clyde on a really nice trail along the Clutha river. This river had been massively searched for alluvial gold, firstly using shovels, buckets and sieves, then dredges operating on the river, powered by the water stream, then steam, and finally electricity.

A dredge on the Clutha River
Nowadays no more dredges, but some children practicing for slalom on their kayaks!

After climbing to the top of Clyde Dam, I joined the main road to Cromwell, enjoying fantastic lights on Lake Dunstan. 

Lake Dunstan

Once at Cromwell, I had basically 2 follow-ups to reach Queenstown: either take the main road, which according to what I had heard was very narrow and busy, either go for a long, tough and adventurous detour on the Nevis Road. When I enquired about this road at the local tourism office, the lady told me: “Sorry darling, I have never been there and don’t know anything about it”. When I heard that, I thought: “Jackpot! Finally something tough, and out off the beaten track!” Since the weather forecast was good for the coming days and I felt in excellent shape, I decided to bike the last 10 km to a little village called Bannockburn in order to start this Nevis Road the next day…

Some historic buildings of the old Cromwell, that had been submersed by Lake Dunstan after the construction of Clyde dam
The Clutha river near Cromwell
Let’s go for a new adventure in the heart of the desert!

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6 thoughts on “NZ South Island # 5: Dunedin – Bannockburn via Otago Central Rail Trail (4 days, 291 km)

  1. Quel beau post , Billy ! ton blog doit te demander autant d’efforts que !tes montées à vélo ! Je me réjouis en tous cas que tu trouves du réconfort dans le yaourt 😉 Bonne route !

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    1. Merci! C’est vrai que ça demande pas mal d’efforts et que c’est pas toujours facile à combiner avec la journée de vélo, mais ça vaut la peine de le faire! Pour le yaourt, je suis facilement capable d’en manger 1kg en une journée! 😃

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  2. C’est en effet l’histoire du Far West en Nouvelle-Zélande la création du Otago Central Rail Trail !
    Même les villages semblent tout droit sortis d’un film sur le farwest.

    Quel superbe jardin botanique je peux comprendre que, comme pour l’appel des sirènes, tu y sois resté plus longtemps que prévu.

    Comme quoi quand tout va mal, il semble qu’il y ait toujours un ange (prénommé Vivienne) qui vienne à ta rescousse, la chance des bikers ??!!

    Quels beaux paysages désertiques !

    Tu nous laisses sur notre faim : on attend avec impatience ton récit de la « traversée du désert » !!

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  3. Great blog and good luck with the rest of the trip Bernard. Meredith and I (John) were two cyclists who talked to you at the Caravan Park at Dunedin.

    Take care!

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