Central Otago

Published on 15 December 2019 at 06:09


After three nights in Dunedin, we know that it is a pleasant town to live and to visit. It appears to be New Zealand's first city and also the first city with a university, celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Dunedin is a fairly large town with 130,000 inhabitants, but nevertheless still a "10 minutes city", which means that just about every corner within the city limits can be reached within 10 minutes, by car. Another car-friendliness: a day-long parking in the center costs four NZ dollars (just over two euros). As cyclists we may report that it's also a bicycle-friendly city with many cycle paths and also cyclists, because despite the fact that this town houses the steepest residential street in the world, the city is fairly flat and nice to cycle.


After Dunedin we'll cycle the Otago Central Rail Trail. This trail starts in Middlemarch, a town that is 80 kilometers away on a highway with a total of 1,300 meters of altitude, or it can be reached taking a nice tourist train and that through a beautiful river gorge. But the train to Middlemarch only rides twice a month, but twice a day the train runs to Pukarangi station, after which it is 20 kilometers by bike to Middlemarch with only 130 altimeters. The ticket price is not disappointing and on an early Friday morning we board a very pleasant train with a handful of tourists and a group of five cyclists from Canada. Punctuality is not a requirement: the train leaves a little later than planned, but stops again after 50 meters. The reason? Two late travelers are approaching. Hahaha, this is great!


During two hours we are provided with information, with a good dose of humor, by an employee who can be heard well thanks to the well-functioning speakers.  Of course, we did not come up with the 10-minute city ourselves, but we got it from this "conductor". The man draws our attention, among other things, to The Reefs, a very special and exclusive hotel that can only be reached by train; unique in the world. From the train we can only see the hotel very briefly, so we have to pay attention. A few minutes later everyone laughs loudly: it turns out to be an old hideout for embarking and dismounting miners, with indeed a sign “Reefs Hotel”.


Break spot halfway the Taieri Gorge Railway


The route of the train is incredibly beautiful and takes us through the gorge of the Taieri river for an hour and a half. From the train we see that the wind blows through the gorge. When we get out in Pukarangi, a friendly young lady tells us that we will have the wind in our favor. She cycled this morning but talked nonsense, because we have the wind against us, but the intended 52 kilometers to a nice free camping spot must still be possible. That is also true, at least the first five kilometers. The wind continues to improve, from strong to stormy, with strong gusts of wind on top. We cycle completely unprotected over gravel and are blown over and sandblasted during the gusts of wind. Although it goes slightly downhill, the speed is no higher than 6 km / h. We battle with the wind and regularly have to get off the pedals in order not to fall. We even have to walk some stretches. The last stretch to Middlemarch on asphalt is slightly better, although it is difficult to keep cycling on the edge of the road, but luckily it is very quiet in terms of traffic. When we finally reach Middlemarch after 18 kilometers, we are almost 2.5 hours further. We understand that we are not going to reach today's goal, a campspot at another 34 kilometers.


We look at the accommodation options in the village. We hear from the locals that the storm is exceptional, that this is the third day that it is racing and that it will probably take a few more days. The local caravan park is quite okay but offers no protection for the tent in the storm and therefore we rent a cabin at this park. Our confidence in the tent in this conditions has dropped considerably after previous storm damage such as crooked tent poles and wear spots. The plan is to leave at 6 am the next morning because the wind will only be stormy again after 12 noon. By noon we hope to reach the next town of Ranfurly at more than 60 kilometers. Ranfurly is pretty much the only town on the route until we reach the city of Alexandra almost 150 kilometers away. And more importantly, it houses the only real supermarket on the route.


Strong wind, but still do-able ...

... but then storm and no more do-able!


We indeed manage to leave even before 6 o'clock in the morning. It kept windy all night, but when we jump on the saddle it is windless. Within a few hundred meters we are on the Otago Central Rail Trail and cycle out of the town. After that it seems as if a higher power is slowly turning on a large volume knob, or better wind-force knob, and turning it ever harder. After five kilometers we shout to each other above the roar of the strong headwind that "they" can no longer take away the windless departure. We know that the wind will continue to increase and, according to the adjusted weather forecast, will already be stormy at 10 am. What follows is a real race / time trial to cover the 60 kilometers to Ranfurly. Everything behind us was relatively easy compared to what awaits us.



Under normal circumstances 60 km is "a breeze", but now with the sloping course and especially the headwind a real challenge. Halfway through, we cycle through a gap and come across the intended free camping spot that we wanted to cycle to yesterday. It is so beautiful, so quiet, so remote, that we curse the yesterday's wind. In this almost windless gorge we discuss the possibility of perhaps cycling further than Ranfurly (which is 30 km away). When we cycle out of the gorge again, it seems that the weather gods have overheard us and want to punish us for the idea of cycling further than 60 kilometers. The wind increases to stormy proportions while it is really not even 10 o'clock. Moreover, the clouds are gathering together and we are lucky that only a few drops fall out. After 6 hours of cycling we arrive in Ranfurly with "exploding" thighs and groaning knees. In a coffee shop we find shelter from the wind and look at the different options to spend the night here: tent or cabin at the local campsite, a hotel or a motel. We have already seen the campsite when we cycled into the town: it resembles a sports field and again offers no protection from the wind. So tent falls off. A cabin with only a bunk bed is not that expensive, but they are already booked. In the local hotel we cannot cook ourselves and is therefore a no-go. The motels remain and we choose the cheapest one.



But first a little trivial about coffee. Both Australia and New Zealand have a serious coffee culture with hip cafes and barista style coffees. Since the cold and rainy days around Melbourne we occasionally have a cappuccino break. Both in Australia and New Zealand it is common that you order and pay at the counter (sometimes you stand in line) and that afterwards the coffee is made and brought to the table that you have selected. We think this is great, especially because it can be quite busy in the coffee shops here. No idea if there are more people who find it annoying in the Dutch hospitality industry that in such a case you are completely dependent on service staff to get the coffee ordered and then want to get attention later for bringing the bill and that the latter always takes sooooo long. But that aside, as an introduction to more typical Dutch moan.



We are whining a lot about the injustice that the wind does to us, but our moan is dulled when we turn on the TV in the motel room and see the news. It is chaos elsewhere on the South Island. The highway along the west coast is largely closed. Part of a bridge has collapsed, parts of roads have been swept away and roads have been blocked by landslides. Fox Glacier will be unreachable for a few days and many tourists got stuck. The mayor of the nearby village jokes that he expects the supply of beer to go up quickly. The center of the tourist town of Wanaka, less than 100 km away, is under water, but shopkeepers are calling on tourists to keep coming. Queenstown is protected with sandbags from the rising water of the lake.


And we just moan about a bit of wind? Shame on us! Take the German Franc. We met him when we had just arrived at South. He had already booked all his overnight stays along the west coast to Wanaka. He's probably stuck somewhere now. But the North Island is also plagued by bad weather, worse than here in Ranfurly, and our virtual friends cycle there. The Dutch couple #Outdoorhunger is cycling the Tour Aotearoa on the north and the British couple #Goingincircles are now cycling the amazingly beautiful Timber Trail. That will be not that nice in the pouring rain and we hope that the weather gods are good for them.


We get up early the next day to stay ahead of the afternoon storm. This time it is not windless and there are threatening dark clouds in the northwest, the direction where we are going. That is perhaps to be expected so close to the awful weather conditions near Wanaka and Queenstown. We struggle into the cold wind for an hour and stop at a shelter to put on more clothes. Pfff, an hour by bike and only eight kilometers further and unfortunately the gravel path is only straight forward and therefore boring. The temperature has dropped considerably compared to previous days. It is raining lightly and that will not be long because the dark clouds of the format "disaster" glide over the mountain range opposite us and are rapidly approaching. Even with more clothes on, we don't get warm in the shelter and the motivation to go back outside is far away. With the exception of a few kilometers through the gorge of the intended campspot yesterday, the entire Otago Rail Trail has been rather boring so far. We weigh our options and feel most inclined to return to the cheap motel and so we do: with more than 30 km / h we fly back to Ranfurly in no time. A warm shower, the heater on, a cup of coffee and tea and the warmth slowly returns to the limbs and in the evening we make a suitable Dutch winter stew. It is delicious and gives us new energy: let that new day come with new opportunities!


Dark clouds come rushing towards us


That new day, it's December 9 (congratulations dear big sister Marijke), brings us a cold but quite nice day. Half cloudy and a decreasing wind up to around 20 km / h, turning west. Oh yes, that is the direction of today. The chances of rain in the evening will increase and the temperature will drop considerably, so we are looking for something with a roof over our heads and a heater. We find something attractively priced in the hamlet of Ophir near Omakau at a distance of approx 60 kilometers and cannot resist the temptation to book it in advance. In a good mood we start the day stage that first brings us to the highest point of the trail, at an altitude of 620 meters. Descending from there, but with a slope percentage of no more than 2% against the westerly wind, that does not want to go very smoothly. Anyway, we have nothing to complain about.... Huh??


The same boring piece of the Otago Central Rail Trail photographed just after Ranfurly on two different mornings


and the most spectacular part of the Otago Central Rail Trail



We certainly not complain about the booked accommodation, the Ophir Lodge. What a nice place to spend the night! Nice room and a cozy communal kitchen with all practical conveniences, nice decor, good wifi and ... Netflix !!! People regularly ask us what we miss the most during our trip around the world and sometimes we have to admit that this can at most be an ordinary Netflix afternoon and / or evening ... Anyway, after taking a shower and doing the daily laundry, we go there again sit back, scroll through the Netflix menu and find a movie. A relaxing evening can start.


The next day the last part of the Otago Trail is on the program, which ends (or for the most people starts) in Clyde. First we cycle out "historic Ophir" and see why this settlement also receives this predicate. Every town that was founded at the end of the 19th century is called a "Historic Town" in NZ and is indicated as such on road signs. Just like in Australia, a bit of chuckling is always needed, because when we cycle into such a town, there are at most a few "old" (just over 100 years) stone buildings to see and that is almost always the (former) post office, the (former) station building and also the local pub / hotel, which is often still used as such. And these buildings are not really old, at least from a European point-of-view, for example, Harry lived in Sittard in a house four times as old as the historic post office of Ophir.


Another straight line between Alexandra and Clyde and then we can apply a sticker


We cycle further on the still quite boring former train track via Alexandra to Clyde. At this end we "tag" the trail and apply our sticker on one of the many signs. While we enjoy a sandwich, two young guys come cycling. Their luggage shows that they cycle more and longer than just this trail. A fun and animated conversation follows with Mauro and Mathias, two boys from… Buenos Aires, Argentina! How nice, our next country; of course they give us many tips. We are immediately confronted with two basic values ​​of the average Argentinian: hospitality and bravado. For example, Mauro sends a message to his mother to see if we can celebrate New Year's Eve at her home (after two days we get a message that we are more than welcome). At the other hand he is relaxed and chats with us as if we have been cycling together for a few days. We have already met this bravado before, on other journeys where we met Argentinians. They naturally seem quite extroverted, express themselves easily and assert themselves in a group.


Mauro & Mathias from Buenos Aires, Argentina


From Clyde we cycle that day to Cromwell. So the trail has come to an end and we have to take the dangerous highway again, there are no other alternatives via back roads. Although this stretch of almost 30 kilometers is quite quiet, we are no longer relaxed on the bike after previous less pleasant experiences. Despite our focus on the mirror on our handlebar and the the traffic that overtakes us at great speed, we cannot fail to notice that we are cycling in a beautiful setting between two rough, rocky mountain flanks and along the Kawarau River that is not only wide here (because of the dam at Clyde), but also high state (due to the heavy rainfall). It doesn't take long before we cycle into Cromwell, "Fruitbowl of the South". Funny all those nicknames that the NZ cities give themselves. Tomorrow we will cycle from this fruit bowl to the "Adventure Capital of New Zealand", Queenstown and the next day the "most inland village of New Zealand" is on the program.


Nice quiet highway between Cromwell and Queenstown


We expected a less fun stage to Queenstown, but it becomes a very nice and varied cycling day. The first 30 kilometers we still cycle on the highway, the view around the mirror is very beautiful, with many rocks, a wild Kawarau river in an ever deeper gorge and gradually more and more vineyards. We can pick up a route from the Queenstown Trails earlier than expected. On the map it just seems to run parallel to the highway, but in reality it follows the river, where we regularly dive into the gorge. It is great beautiful cycling! After a bungee jump bridge (with waiting Chinese people who in all their innocence forget that they are in the middle of a bike path and do not hear bicycle bells) we turn left and follow the Twin River Trail. This trail is awesome and also great for cycling. Again we regularly dive into the gorge and cycle along the banks of the Kawarau and its various tributaries. We find it strange that we no longer meet cyclists here, but after a while we understand why. The rivers are much higher than normal, due to the heavy rainfall and so we cycle repeatedly through a knee-deep puddle until at some point the road disappears into a large body of water, a temporary lake. There is no other option than to "beat" a stretch through the water. However, we have an incredible amount of pleasure in it and when we leave this trail at the end and see a sign that it has been closed due to flooding, we are happy that people have forgotten to place the same sign on the other side we came from.


Start of the Queentown Trails at Gibbston

Suspension bridge over the Kawarau River, deep below us


Aahhaa, that's why we don't meet anyone anymore.


When we arrive in Queenstown, or actually its suburb Frankton, we receive an e-mail from Frank, the cycling German we met at the start of our cycling trip across the South Island. Fortunately Frank did not get stuck and cycled the highway along the west coast, which he calls "a real hell-ride" in his report: huge amounts of rain, storms, landslides, fallen trees, road closures and dangerous traffic characterized his journey. We are very happy that he has arrived safely at his final destination, Wanaka.


Yes, we have arrived at our destination too. In Queenstown that is. When we cycle to the supermarket, we pass the campervan rental office and see that it's packed with campers. We are going to re-locate one of them back to Auckland, but we have one week left and we can cycle the Around the Mountains Trail with “some of New Zealand's most secluded and rustic settings" in prospect, according to the tourist cycle guide. That sounds promising!


Lake Wakatipu with Queenstown on the righthand side