Australian Mountain Bike - - Between The Tape - WORDS: MATT NAUTHE PHOTOS: MIKE BLEWITT

New Zealand. What can be said that hasn’t been said al­ready? In­stead of a long mono­logue of travel brochure pro­por­tions be­low is the abridged ver­sion of why we flock here on mass: AMAZ­ING SCENERY WORLD-CLASS RID­ING FRIENDLY PEO­PLE NO DAN­GER­OUS AN­I­MALS EASY AC­CESS ACROSS THE DITCH THEY SPEAK ENGLISH

As if that isn’t enough, the New Zealand Tourism Board has made that de­ci­sion even eas­ier by map­ping out and grad­ing their ‘23 Great Rides’ around the coun­try.

This is­sue we are tak­ing it back to the roots of the 23 Great Rides ini­tia­tive - back to where it all be­gan. An un­used rail cor­ri­dor that stretches from Clyde to Mid­dle­march has be­come the per­fect 152km play­ground for cy­clists. Packed with scenery and laid-back charm that only NZ can pro­vide, this trail at­tracts peo­ple from around the world. From hum­ble be­gin­nings, the Otago Cen­tral Rail Trail has grown to the point that 15,000+ rid­ers tackle its length ev­ery year. Add to this the par­tial uses and the num­ber gets up to around 60,000 - not bad for a dis­used rail line.

This ride is all about the scenery, peo­ple, cof­fee and beer. Aptly nick­named the ‘Ale Trail’ – a re­fresh­ment stop is never far from hand. This is the trail to give the less ex­pe­ri­enced and more timid a chance to taste the free­dom that comes from rid­ing your bike with­out the fear of rough trails, big climbs and hav­ing to share the ex­pe­ri­ence with cars. With­out fur­ther ado I present to you the Otago Cen­tral Rail Trail.


Lo­cated in the heart of the scenic South Is­land, the vast Cen­tral Otago re­gion lies be­tween coastal Dunedin and the iconic South­ern Alps.

With the dis­cov­ery of gold in the mid 1800s, the re­gion ex­ploded in ac­tiv­ity with peo­ple com­ing from all over the world to stake their claim. Rough, rugged ter­rain made get­ting sup­plies in and out an ar­du­ous and tax­ing af­fair - with both the roads and ve­hi­cles de­grad­ing quickly un­der heavy use. A more re­li­able link be­tween the coast and the gold­fields was needed; the rail­way was born from this ne­ces­sity. 15 years in the mak­ing, brains and brawn cut the rail­way through the land­scape with mul­ti­ple tun­nels and viaducts, greatly im­prov­ing the time and cost in­volved in get­ting things to where they needed to go. The end of the gold rush, cou­pled with bet­ter roads and ve­hi­cles over the next cen­tury, saw the of­fi­cial clo­sure of the rail­way in 1990.

The cor­ri­dor was re­pur­posed for use by cy­clists, walk­ers and horse rid­ers. In a strange twist of fate it’s once again bring­ing peo­ple to the re­gion. Like a phoenix from the ashes, the re­gion finds it­self back in pros­per­ity - this time through tourism rather than gold.


Lo­gis­ti­cally, rid­ing this trail is a breeze to or­ga­nize. With plenty of in­for­ma­tion and re­sources avail­able it is easy to plan the trip from abroad. Dis­cussing our op­tions with lo­cal op­er­a­tor Bike It Now, a two-day itin­er­ary was set­tled on - giv­ing us time to get a snap shot of life in the re­gion, to sam­ple a few of many cafes and other fine es­tab­lish­ments along the route. Enough time to wet the whis­tle, but not enough to fill the boots, you could say. The su­per-fit could knock it off in one long day, but two or three days is prob­a­bly best. More if you’re es­cort­ing some­one new to rid­ing.

Wa­ter bot­tles filled and map in pocket we rolled out from Clyde bound for Wed­der­burn some 79km away. With an early start, we took ad­van­tage of the milder con­di­tions be­fore what was fore­cast to

be a scorcher of a day. Tack­ling the trail in an east­erly di­rec­tion, we were lucky enough to have the pre­vail­ing wind at our backs for the en­tire time, a real bonus as the ma­jor­ity of the day was on a slight, barely no­tice­able in­cline. Rock­et­ing along, our faster-than-ex­pected progress meant our breaks be­came more fre­quent and leisurely al­low­ing us to re­ally get into the rail trail flow. We were us­ing the trip to give our legs a rest from the past few days hard rid­ing in the hills above Cromwell and Alexan­dra – so it was awe­some to just roll along and swap sto­ries.

There are just so many great food and bev­er­age choices along the way it was hard to pass any of them up. Need­less to say we were suf­fi­ciently hy­drated and caf­feinated for the en­tire day. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence is so so­cial. The wide groomed trail al­lows you to ride two abreast, to chat and take in the sur­round­ings. You can hear and see ev­ery­thing and chance con­ver­sa­tions are plen­ti­ful as you pass lo­cals go­ing about their daily busi­ness, and other like-minded rid­ers. There is a bril­liant buzz about the trail and you re­ally feel a part of what is go­ing on.

Many re­fresh­ments later we ar­rived at our ac­com­mo­da­tion for the night at Wed­der­burn Cot­tages, only me­tres off the trail where our bags were al­ready wait­ing for us thanks to Bike it Now. These su­per comfy, self­con­tained units were all built for the birth of the rail trail to ser­vice the users. The own­ers, fourth-gen­er­a­tion farm­ers, took a punt on hous­ing a few smelly cy­clists – and it has turned into an in­te­gral part of their fam­ily farm. Only a short stroll to the lo­cal tavern, happy hour and a pub meal beck­oned. In true rail trail fash­ion whis­tles were wet­ted.

With all the climb­ing of the trip al­ready com­plete, day two was a 73km down­hill af­fair with a con­sis­tent run all the way to the end in Mid­dle­march. Af­ter a late brekky and an ex­tra cof­fee, we were primed for our easy coast to the end. Once on the trail the re­al­ity sunk in that the free ride that we had hoped for would never ma­te­ri­alise, and that the shal­low rail trail gra­di­ents mean pedalling is still re­quired for the downs. While the kilo­me­tres ticked by con­sis­tently, ef­fort is re­quired to get the full down­hill ex­pe­ri­ence. This leg of the trail has its own dis­tinct char­ac­ter. The first day was all about the cui­sine and bev­er­ages, while day two was dom­i­nated by the dra­matic scenery and his­tory sur­round­ing the gold min­ing roots of the re­gion. The hills are scat­tered with relics of that era, the sheer amount of it giv­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of just how large the gold rush was and how bustling these val­leys would have been all those years ago. While there are still plenty of cafes and other fine es­tab­lish­ments on route, the dis­tance be­tween fully ser­viced towns is a lit­tle fur­ther - so al­ways plan ahead and keep the wa­ter bot­tles full. It’s worth­while to note that all ser­vices can be closed de­pen­dent on the time of year so check in ad­vance.

Fin­ish­ing up in Mid­dle­march, 152km later, it feels as if we have par­tic­i­pated in some­thing more than just a bike ride. On a so­cial level it has been a great way to spend time with mates and chew the fat.

But it has also been a great snapshot into life in the Cen­tral Otago re­gion and maybe even greater than that. It has shown the pos­i­tive im­pact that cycling has had on a com­mu­nity in terms of jobs and pros­per­ity – ex­actly what the rail line did orig­i­nally.


This is the gate­way ride to get you (and your part­ner) hooked on cycling abroad. The Otago Cen­tral Rail Trail shows that cool trail ex­pe­ri­ences ex­ist for begin­ner level rid­ers. This is the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the joys of multi-day point-to-point rid­ing with­out hav­ing to lug around the kitchen sink. Thanks to bag­gage portage ser­vices, all you have to do is ride your bike.

100 per cent hard packed trail, cou­pled with friendly gra­di­ents, the trail is rated as “eas­i­est” on the scale and is suit­able for all com­ers, kids in­cluded. Most com­plete the route in two to five days. With easy ac­cess to mul­ti­ple parts of the trail it is easy to tai­lor your own trip. The rail trail has an abun­dance of choice for ev­ery as­pect of your next ad­ven­ture.

Get a real taste of Cen­tral Otago by ditch­ing the car and see the re­gion un­der pedal power – but you will never be that far away from a good cof­fee, food and a com­fort­able night’s sleep.

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