On and Off the Rails

Once I had this idea, this really big thing in my head. How about touring New Zealand on a bike… Step 1 – get the inspiration up and flowing by volunteering at a huge MTB race. Step 2 – take the crappy hostel bike all over trails where it was hardly supposed to go. Step 3 – start planning and realize that much of NZ is only accessible on busy (well, NZ style busy) highways. What else? There are those Great Rides. Like the Great Walks, multi day trails through some of the most inspiring landscapes.

Once there was a railway line. Crossing through one of the more remote, dry yet stunning landscapes it  connected the small gold mining towns. Across bridge after bridge, through tunnels and slowly winding though the plains and canyons alike, it was no longer needed in the late 20th century. Lucky enough for us passionate cyclists, there were visionaries to turn the railway into a trail. Twenty some years on, it was our time to get onto that bike, chasing the dream of real free travel. A month of planning lay behind as Daniel and I hit the trail, 150km plus detours over three days.

Into the Desert

Leaving Oamaru, our first stop was Dunedin for a warm-up of some sort: surfing on a beautiful warm day at St Clair beach. Right from the start it promised to be a good travel companionship, sharing stories, laughs and a passion for food…

Day 1 of cycling started early as we caught the bus to Middlemarch. Middle of nowhere, good place to start with a coffee. This day of riding would be most remote; we passed by deserted railway stations, isolated farms and dead gold mining towns. Our quarters for the night were a lovely farm in the middle of the plain, supposed to be close to the river. Well, that took us another hour to find, but we were rewarded with a refreshing bath at the secluded stream.

Plain to Canyon

On Day Two the plain lay covered in morning dew as we set off for another 60-something kilometres. The first actual town – hardly more than 500 people probably – seemed like real civilization. Leaving the Rock and Pillar Mountains behind we crossed the Maniototo Flat. Far stretched the horizon and my mind was set drifting; this must be ultimate freedom. Around noon we reached the highest point on the mostly very flat trail, having gained just about 200m in two days. From there our average speed kept increasing as we raced down the gentle slopes. 27km/h, 30km/h, suddenly pedalling life’s a breeze .

Dubbed the natural highlight of the trail, the Poolburn Gorge didn’t fail to impress us. Across a mighty viaduct, through a long dark tunnel and another one, the trail was cut into the rock face along a stunning canyon. Vast rocky walls and a creek deep below let us wonder about the heroic efforts it took to establish the track 150 years ago.

Cruising home

We would spend the second night at a comfy B&B in another tiny village, most impressing due to its fantastic cafe. The night sky revealed an abundance of stars that Central Otago is renowned for. Well rested, it was time to tackle the last stage, taking us over Tiger Hill, an easy downhill cruise. Approaching the town of Alexandra, we passed by inspiring basaltic formations and a promising maze of MTB trails. Finally the mighty turquoise  Clutha river came into sight, an excellent place to celebrate our journey with iced coffee and an icy foot bath.

Arriving in Clyde after 190km with all the detours left me wanting more. More cycling, more travel companionship. But now it was time to work again, gathering funds for the next trail that would surely come. Unlikely or not, our new hometown in the middle of dry and rocky mountains caught my heart in an instant. May it be for the bike trails, some actual summer weather or the ideal travel mate, ending up in Central Otago for agricultural work turned out far better than I had dared to hope.

Next: Money grows on vines and in apricots: The stories of working backpackers. (Central Otago)




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