Off the rails, on the trail

Andrew Bain joins the 'new gold rush' in Central Otago on a 150-kilometre cycle trip between country pubs.

New Zealand's Clutha River once literally ran with gold. Nuggets washed up on its beaches and, during an 1860s gold rush, it was said to be the richest gold-bearing river in the world. More than 40,000 miners crammed its banks as well as the front bars of the 42 pubs and three opium dens in the riverside town of Clyde. In the pub at Dunstan House, girls coloured like peacocks would dance on the tables.

On an autumn morning 150 years later, the scene inside Dunstan House remains just as bright, except that now the colours are on lycra instead of sequins.

More than a dozen cyclists tuck into breakfast at the converted bed-and-breakfast, preparing to set out on the Otago Rail Trail, a gravel cycleway that will take them 150 kilometres through a chain of valleys to the town of Middlemarch, a short distance inland from Dunedin.

These cyclists are the region's new gold rush, a modern resource for an area that had, until the past decade, been all but forgotten by tourism.

The Otago Rail Trail is New Zealand's first dedicated long-distance cycleway, following part of the course of a former railway into Central Otago from Dunedin. Opened in 2000, it is used by about 20,000 cyclists a year. Such has been its success, the New Zealand government last year announced plans to create a series of dedicated cycleways across the country. Construction on the first seven routes began last summer.

The rail trail's impact in Central Otago is obvious. Despite initial indifference and some opposition to the trail's creation, the towns along the route are dominated by its presence. Almost every bed-and-breakfast, hotel and restaurant is adorned with cycling mementoes, pubs spruik menu items such as the Big Bike Burger and the trail head at Clyde can seem as crowded as the long-gone goldfields.

On the morning we begin, the skies above Clyde are wintry but the lands are autumnal, covered in yellowing poplars, willows and grapevines. Around us, the weather gods are in a fury - just 50 kilometres away, Queenstown is being sandbagged against floods and trampers on the Milford Track are being evacuated - yet the rains don't reach this rain-shadowed valley.

"If it rains it will be only the second day I've seen rain on the trail," says our guide, Louise, who has cycled across the rail trail more than 30 times. What lies ahead for the next three days is a simple cycling equation: the first half of the trail climbs gradually; the second half descends just as steadily. No thigh-tearing ascents, no head-down-bum- up downhills. It's a trail for any cyclist, as evidenced by our group. Sandra and Rex are on their first cycle tour, more than a year in the planning. Rae has never changed gears on her bike and her sister, Rona, has never cycled more than 25 kilometres. By contrast, Adrian is training for a cycle tour through the highest passes of the Italian Alps.

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The trail's stiffest climb comes on the first morning, past Alexandra (the largest town on the trail) and beyond a barren, spaghetti-western landscape serrated with schist rock. From our first stop at Chatto Creek Tavern the trail coils up Tiger Hill, the trail's steepest ascent, though it has less growl than the name suggests. With just a 2 per cent gradient, it's an I-think-I-can hill with an I-know-I-can slope. Later, I'd overhear somebody rechristen it as Pussycat Hill. Even Rae has no need to change old habits, pushing through the climb without changing gears.

Past Tiger Hill the land opens out into a broad, bucolic valley, the trail cruising along at the foot of the suitably named Raggedy Range, its hills spiked with rock. From the town of Omakau we detour briefly into the forgotten gold-rush settlement of Ophir, which has the secondary honour of having recorded New Zealand's lowest temperature: minus 21.6 degrees. Little wonder Sandra is still riding in her down jacket.

Our first night's stop is just a few kilometres past Omakau, in tiny Lauder, which consists of a pub, a schoolhouse-turned-bed-and-breakfast and nothing else. It's a small place but has the essentials of cycle touring - bed, beer and a big feed - within a 50-metre radius.

Country pubs such as the Lauder Hotel are a crucial part of the rail-trail experience. Along the trail's 150-kilometre course there are about a dozen pubs, dotting the route seemingly every few kilometres.

Often, as at Lauder, the towns have crumbled around them but the pubs survive. Among them are a few of New Zealand's iconic bush pubs, such as the Omakau Commercial Hotel and, just off the route, the Vulcan Hotel at St Bathans, both brought to fame by beer commercials.

If Central Otago is known throughout New Zealand for its pubs, it's also renowned for the laconic, wry nature of its residents. It's an appealing trait, except when the weather is on the turn. "Gale-force winds forecast," the guesthouse manager says between a smile and a whistle as we emerge for breakfast the following morning.

"Enjoy the gales," she calls again as we ride out into a minor maelstrom. Within a couple of hundred metres we've all been blown off our bikes and there's talk of abandoning the day's cycling, except that we know the trail's most spectacular section is just ahead. We wobble on.

Instead of following the Raggedy Range, today we cut through it, balancing atop the banks of Poolburn Gorge across a series of viaducts and two rail tunnels. The tunnels curl through the rock and are pitch black in the middle, turning day into sudden night. Perhaps inevitably they are the scene of our first accident, when Adrian rides into a tunnel wall in the darkness.

We have been shielded from the wind inside Poolburn Gorge, though it returns as we pop out into the gorgeous Ida Valley, its green fields striped yellow with willows. Soon, blessedly, we will turn with the wind, twice crossing the 45th parallel - the halfway line between the equator and South Pole - as we swing south and climb towards the highest point on the trail. The wind is now at our backs, blowing so strongly it's possible to freewheel even on some uphill stretches.

At almost exactly the trail's midway mark, we cross its highest point - 618 metres above sea level - a sign at the top promising that "it's all downhill from here". Propelled by the wind, we roar down on to the Maniototo Plains and our day ends in the art deco town of Ranfurly.

In the morning the wind continues to blow and there's the promise of another gorge. Across the tedious Maniototo Plains - sheep and tussocks, wool and wind - the trail funnels into the Upper Taieri Gorge, following New Zealand's fourth-longest river as it writhes through the hills.

The trail clings to its banks through another line of viaducts - there are 68 bridge crossings on the rail trail - and the momentary night of Prices Creek Tunnel, before exiting to a ruler-straight and ice-flat finish into Middlemarch.

As we exit from between the gorge's dramatic rock walls, the weather is making an equally dramatic shift, with dark clouds massing around the top of the Rock and Pillar Range. The winter skies have returned but at the base of the gorge, autumn persists. The yellow willows glisten in stray beams of sunlight, making it look as though there's gold still washing up in the valleys of Central Otago.

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Adventure South and Pacific Blue.

FAST FACTS
Getting there
Pacific Blue flies non-stop to Christchurch from Melbourne (3hr 20min) and Sydney (3hr) for about $324 return including tax. Air New Zealand and Jetstar also fly non-stop.

Cycling there Adventure South, a new division of World Expeditions, has a five-day Otago Rail Trail tour for $NZ1250 ($992), which includes guides, accommodation, most meals, Taieri Gorge train to Dunedin, transport by coach, helmet, cycle bags and park fees. There are weekly departures from Christchurch or Clyde between November and April. Hire of a 27-speed hybrid bike is $NZ130. Phone 1800 107 060, see adventuresouthnz.com.au.

Curly detour
If Central Otago has one passion to rival cycling, it's the winter sport of curling. Of the 35 curling teams in New Zealand, 27 are said to come from this region, while the town of Naseby, about 15 kilometres from the rail trail, has the southern hemisphere's only dedicated curling rink where visitors can play. Before hitting the ice, newcomers watch an instructional DVD, narrated by local curling star Sean Becker, a silver medallist at this year's world championship. On the ice, they get to deliver stones and sweep in this icy version of lawn bowls. Hiring a sheet costs $15 a person an hour. See curling.co.nz.

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