Playing a spot of catch-up: Back in summer we went to Queenstown for a long weekend. As I recall the reason may have been that Mike wanted to go mountain biking but my memory is a bit shite to be honest and in any case, you would never have to twist my arm to go to my favourite part of NZ. Read more
Posts from the ‘South Island’ Category
With less than a day before we had to return home (sigh) it was a case of ripping around just a few places in Dunedin. A tricky ask, since it was my first proper visit to the city. Fast and furious is often our style though, so we set off…
We stayed in the coastal suburb of St Clair and since it was already early evening, we made a beeline to the beach for a walk.
First priority the next day was a 40 or so minute drive along the northern edge of Otago Habour to Aramoana.
A small settlement with only a couple hundred or so permanent residents, this nevertheless is a very well known place in NZ – for a very sad reason.
Aramoana (‘pathway to the sea’) was established to aid navigation into Otago Harbour. Later a breakwater over 1km long was constructed to stop sand encroachment. Its isolated coastal position made it a candidate site for an aluminium smelter but fortunately this 1970s project did not get a green light.
Today the place has a natural beauty about it, though on this day it felt a bit desolate. The weather and absence of other people were mainly attributable and the resulting mood fitted the main idea of Aramoana that we were familiar with.
In 1990 a local man shot and killed 13 people and left three more wounded. The Aramoana massacre stands as NZ’s most deadly criminal shooting. May that record never be beaten.
Mike and I had seen the excellent movie depicting this event, Out of the Blue, and felt compelled to pay a brief visit on this trip.
By now refreshments were needed and duly procured at Careys Bay Hotel, in a quiet and historic bay not far from Port Chalmers.
We stopped for a walkabout at Port Chalmers, home to Port Otago.
Interesting facts: NZ’s first ever export shipment left from here in 1882, and Robert Falcon Scott stopped by here on his last fateful trip to Antarctica.
When it comes to heights I’m a wuss. You’ll not find bungy jumping or sky diving anywhere on my to do list. Nevertheless we were intrigued to go and find the world’s steepest residential street.
The photos are rubbish as I was not the most relaxed person in the world for this activity, the drizzly weather not helping matters. The photos also don’t give a true indication of the gradient, which at its maximum is 35% or 19 degrees.
Cue visions of little rental car losing traction… slipping out of control backwards down the hill… crashing… fireball…
But we made it.
We also took a drive out to Tairoa Head, as seen from Aramoana earlier in the day, though we didn’t have enough time to visit the Royal Albatross Centre. It is of great interest – as well as large birds, there’s also a fort to look through – so it will be a priority on our next trip.
The central city also received a quick visit from us, too quick for photos maybe as strangely it doesn’t look like I took any.
So there’s unfinished business in Dunedin, and plenty not yet discovered. Not sure when we’ll get back but we have to at some point.
And there we are – a great end to an excellent week.
We farewelled Elizabeth and boarded the train which would whisk us through the Taieri Gorge to Dunedin.
Did you spot the trick word? If you’re familiar with NZ rail journeys you’ll know that ‘whisk’ is the opposite of how quickly you get to your destination – especially on a heritage service like this.
(Hence my first visit to the UK blew my little mind – seeing the regional trains blow past and experiencing the Eurostar to Paris.)
Our relatively slow trains are OK by me though. The key word is ‘journey’; I love getting from A to B by rail for the opportunity it provides to sit back and take in the landscapes (and take 183 photos or so).
The Taieri Gorge train travels the full distance through to Middlemarch only a couple of times a week. As a round trip it’s six hours with stops, and our one-way 77km journey would see us in Dunedin in 2.5 hours.
So long, Middlemarch!
We had looked forward to this but unfortunately we were a bit disappointed. Enough time has lapsed for specifics to be lacking, but I have vague memories that clear open views were infrequent (possibly a slightly blonde comment; it is after all a gorge!) and window viewing slightly constrained (they are after all oldish carriages).
The tour commentary was useful as we chugged by points of interest and I was able to seize Kodak moments on a few occasions when valleys opened out and curved approaches permitted views of viaducts and tunnels. The train made a planned stop in the gorge and we were able to step outside for a few minutes.
Beyond the superficial outward experience though is the appreciation that this is an historic railway. NZ is very fortunate that it is still running, the Dunedin City Council and community having saved the Dunedin-Middlemarch leg after the Central Otago line was closed in 1990.
We rolled into Dunedin Railway Station – a stunning building, something I didn’t really realise until standing in front of it. The sky and light were a bit unusual as a result of the horrendous bush fires over in Australia. We couldn’t linger for more than a quick photo as a rental car was waiting for us somewhere.
I’d only ever driven though the outskirts of Dunedin before. A 24-hour stay this time would still be very fleeting, but at least a step up from that.
From here we were taking the train to Dunedin. This service runs only a couple of times a week and so we would need to stay overnight in Middlemarch.
After finishing the Rail Trail and dropping off our bikes we were looking forward to getting out to our accommodation. Not only had our first impressions of the town left us feeling a bit flat, but the b&b is historically significant in Mike’s family. We were keen to go have a nosey.
We hung out in the cafe until the owner, actually Mike’s second cousin once removed (or some such), could pick us up. Though related, this was the first time he and Elizabeth had met.
She drove us to the property, 10 minutes out of town. Unlike the theme of our past few days of pedalling, Gladbrook Station is a farm not a railway facility. It was bought 141 years ago by Mike’s great grandfather, a wool merchant from Scotland.
He never actually lived here, opting instead for Dunedin which these days is only an hour’s drive away. Gladbrook has managed to stay in the family for five generations and this has helped retain a lot of its historical grandeur (it’s marketed as a luxury b&b). Old buildings dot the property and we happily took up the offer of a tour.
Having no other food sources at our disposal, we pragmatically sucked up the additional cost for evening dining which meant we could enjoy some lovely home cooking and local wines. I also have a fond recollection of cake…
The train didn’t depart until the following afternoon, so the next morning Elizabeth suggested we go take a look at Sutton Salt Lake.
Salt lake? Turns out NZ’s only inland salt lake was just a couple of k’s away. I would love to visit the big ones of Utah or Bolivia one day but for now I was intrigued to experience a salt lake for the first time here, if on a much smaller scale.
It was time to get ready to take the historic Taieri Gorge Railway through to Dunedin. We were really looking forward to this – though in hindsight we shouldn’t have had such high expectations!
It was chilly and overcast when we set off for our final day on the trail, a 27km tootle through to Middlemarch. First order of business was a side trip down to the cemetery. Just for a look, as you do.
Pointing back south, it was a couple of kilometres before we reached Hyde station.
The station was always this distance away from the town as there was no closer flat land. It’s in private ownership now but the owners have permitted Rail Trail access and they have kept a fairly authentic looking site. Buildings, wagons, sections of track, all in a happily run down state.
A few kms beyond Hyde station is the site of New Zealand’s second worst rail accident. In 1943 a locomotive carrying passengers to Dunedin derailed going round a curve. Excessive speed was blamed and 21 deaths resulted from the crash.
A couple of weeks before I prepared this post, around the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, an excellent documentary screened on TV. The second best/worst/biggest etc ‘things’ are often forgotten by the general population and the programme gave an appropriate and sensitive remembrance to this horrible event.
We pedalled on, next stopping at Ngapuna station.
A final straight-line dash took us to our finishing line in Middlemarch.
Our arrival in Middlemarch was, well, an anticlimax. It’s a small town and very quiet. We rode around a block or two, thinking “surely there’s more!”.
We did end up enjoying our time there but how that came to be I’ll carry over to another post or two.
So that was the end of the Rail Trail. It was a brilliant experience and one I often rave about. I would love to ride it again some time, probably in the reverse direction for something different – and because I think you could celebrate its completion better at the other end.
I might choose another season too. The publican back at the Lauder Hotel on day one said he thought May was the best time to ride the trail. A bit cooler, autumnal colours, maybe even a dusting of snow on the ranges… yes I could see the appeal.
Final day done. Station stamps collected from: Hyde, Rock & Pillar, Ngapuna, Middlemarch.
In more overcast weather we set off on the 44km jaunt to Hyde. I really liked simple photogenic little Wedderburn and vowed to come back and stay another time.
First station stop of the day was Ranfurly where we had a quick poke around the station buildings. The town was originally known as Eweburn, which given the Wedderburn thing made you wonder if the Chief Surveyor back in the day set out on a theme he would feel compelled to maintain. Surely we wouldn’t come across a Hoggetburn or Lamburn?
Ranfurly is the largest town in the Maniototo district. Maniototo is Maori for ‘plains of blood’ – hopefully not the blood of Rail Trail cyclists.
We approached the Rock and Pillar Range which we’d then hug the base of for the rest of the day.
The vast land around here was subdivided after WW1 as part of the rehabilitation scheme for returning servicemen. Further back in time this was a forested area inhabited by the now long-extinct moa.
After the challenge of strong cross winds in the last sector, and after what was probably the last tunnel of the Trail, we arrived in Hyde. The old mining town lives on though today is sustained moreso (in part anyway) by Rail Trail tourism than small shiny particles.
This would be our stop for the night. We had booked with the Otago Central Hotel but as the hotel part was full of Rotarians, we were put in a separate house a short distance away.
As was our pattern, there was time left in the day to both explore and kick back.
Day three done. Station stamps collected from: Ranfurly, Waipiata, Kokonga, Tiroiti. In the morning we would collect the Hyde stamp and also find the site of Hyde’s unfortunate main claim to fame: NZ’s second-worst rail disaster.
We set off on day 2 in sunshine with a leisurely 35km on the cards.
In our very near future was one of the fabulous Central Otago mountain ranges, the Raggedy Range. Thanks to tunnels, this was traversed with relative ease.
Never far from your thoughts is the Rail Trail’s former life. Isolation, challenging terrain and climate would have made construction a feat of endurance. Remains of camps and work sites can be seen here and there and the more enduring structural legacies along the trail leave you at times in lengthy contemplation.
Such as when you’re navigating long dark tunnels.
And gawping at big viaducts.
Down in the Ida Valley we stopped at the Idaburn Dam for an explore. This water reservoir (used for irrigation) was in a fairly dry state on our visit but is famous for hosting winter sports and a winter motorcycle rally – brrr. I love its historical touches including the shed containing racks of old skates. A couple of years later we stopped by here in winter.
A few kms on we reached the highest point on the trail and passed (twice) 45 degrees south latitude. Then it was downhill to our stop for the night: Wedderburn.
This very small place is great. Cute cottages, historic station buildings, and a pub – all you need for a short stay.
Wedderburn is a good example of the Northumbrian place names in Otago. In case you were wondering, Wedder means castrated sheep.
Station stamps collected from: Ida Valley, Auripo, Oturehua, Wedderburn. Two days down, two to go.
A fine day greeted us as we walked over to the bike shop to pick up our transportation for the next few days. We had engaged the services of a company through which we could rent bikes, book accommodation, and also get our bags forwarded. Brilliant.
Our bikes were customised for the Rail Trail; practical steeds equipped with bike stands and frames for attaching panniers. With all my dismounting for photos along the way I actually grew very fond of the bike stand, though Mike said I’d be riding by myself if I got one back in Wellington. Perhaps not the coolest accessory then.
Neither was my camera bag which I attached to the front of my bike with a bungee cord. But for me the convenience factor far outweighed any concern about looking like a dork.
We acquainted ourselves with the bikes on the short ride over to the railhead at Clyde Station – ‘km 0’.
One excellent component of the Rail Trail experience is the passport. You can buy these little booklets for $10 and collect a stamp from each station along the way. Most of the proceeds from each passport goes toward the upkeep of the trail.
We collected our first stamp and got going. Today we would be cycling 44km through to Lauder.
Our next stamp from nearby Alexandra wasn’t as straightforward thanks to the removal of the stamp from its wee box by local idiots. We detoured into town to the visitor centre where a stamp could be acquired and also collected lunch supplies.
Off we went again with station stops at Galloway, Chatto Creek and Omakau.
The leg to Omakau is the steepest part of the trail but at 1m incline for every 50m it wasn’t too bad. Omakau made a great lunch stop with a shady patch just off the trail and station building and cemetery to have a poke around in.
From Omakau you can make a recommended and fairly short detour into Ophir and we did just that. We’ve been there before but when you travel by bike it gives you a different perspective and more time to notice details.
The last few kms were not very speedy and we arrived in Lauder mid-afternoon tired but having loved our first day as Rail Trailers!
When I met Mike a few years ago it seemed that I would need to reacquaint myself with pedal power, something that had been absent from my life for, oh, a couple of decades give or take.
I was only luke-warm on the idea so quite some time passed and I was still bikeless.
Then after a visit down south we jumped on a great idea: that we should cycle the Central Otago Rail Trail. We had heard great things about it and knew it would be a perfect activity given we both have a big soft spot for that part of the country. The 150km ride was eminently doable thanks to the very gradual gradients and the many options for splitting it across several days. After all, why would you want to hurry through the absolutely stunning landscapes of Central Otago?
The Rail Trail has been a huge success. Since opening in 2000 it has inspired the development of many other trails. And having done it I’m adamant that it’s one of the best activities you can do in this country.
So with that decision I bought a bike and we set about acquiring some saddle fitness. A week in Feb of ’09 was organised and an order for fine weather placed.
A couple of nights here kicked things off.
Catching up with friends, picnics, shopping – all great stuff. One activity we may not have done with the infinite wisdom of hindsight is a walk from lakeside up to the top of Queenstown Hill. Steeper and longer than we realised, this walk (while rewarding) killed our legs and we knew they’d be sore for the next few days. Probably not the smartest preparation just prior to a four-day bike ride.
From Queenstown we caught a shuttle bus over to Clyde, a small town an hour away where the Rail Trail starts. (Or ends, depending on your inclination.)
Like many towns in these parts, Clyde came about because of the gold rush. The 1860s saw tens of thousands of miners descend on the area, gagging to find glimmering particles in the banks of the Molyneux (now Clutha) River.
The Clyde Dam’s very controversial introduction in the 1970s-80s changed the town forever and transformed the rugged Cromwell Gorge into Lake Dunstan. The railway from Cromwell to Clyde disappeared under water and the branch through to Middlemarch closed a few years later.
Very gradually those tracks were pulled up and in due course the land re-emerged as a walking and biking trail, punctuated with old station buildings and other such reminders of its former life.
Our two-wheel journey was to begin the next day. In the meantime we coaxed sore muscles on a walk around Clyde – with its colourful history, there was a bit to see.