The Otago Central Rail Trail is a 150-kilometre cycling track in the South Island of New Zealand. A pioneering project for New Zealand, the trail runs in an arc between Clyde and Middlemarch, along the route of the former Otago Central Railway. The trail has become a popular destination, with 10,000-12,000 users per year.
The Otago Central Rail Trail is the most well established of the Great Rides in New Zealand. That makes it a great starter ride as there are plenty of pubs and accommodation options all along the trail.
I did it in two days, but I really felt rushed. This was the first ride I did in New Zealand and didn’t really know how many days I should take. If I did it again, I would take my time and do it over a minimum of four days.
The ride it is less about dramatic mountain vistas and crystal clear lakes, and more about small town hospitality, good food, beer and meeting new people along the way.
Day 1 — Clyde to Oturehua, 66.5k
I flew to New Zealand after traveling for a few weeks around Japan and Hawaii. With all the travel, I wanted to take some time to get settled in before setting out on the bike. Wanaka is my favorite town on the South Island, so I booked ten nights at an Airbnb in town. Wanaka is also where I had arranged (over email) to buy the Specialized Sequoia Elite bike that would be my primary transport for the next few months.
In the realm of bikepacking, this was a “beginner” trip. I was staying in motels and hostels, not camping out so I didn’t need to carry a ton of gear. I did buy a Specialized Burra Burra framepack and handlebar harness that combined with my Osprey Synchro 15 backpack, was the perfect setup.
I caught the morning Alpine ConneXions shuttle from Wanaka and arrived at the Trail Journeys depot in Clyde around 11AM. Trail Journeys can organize the full trip for you, but I just used them to arrange my transport and luggage transfer. Unless you are carrying everything on your bike, you will need to use a service like Trail Journeys to move your bag to the end of the trail. They can even move a bag nightly for you if you really want to travel light.
The couple sitting next to me on the flight into Queenstown suggested that I do the “alternate” start along the river as it was more scenic than the usual Clyde to Alexandra section. It would add about 10k to the ride, but I didn’t really think about it much and just dropped off my bag and headed out.
So this was it. I was finally starting what would end up being a six-week adventure riding around New Zealand. After two previous visits, it became almost an obsession for me to ride my bike around the country.
I was pretty nervous as this was the first time I’ve traveled for an extended period on my own. Combined with the fact that I was going into some pretty remote parts of New Zealand, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
The nervousness was soon replaced by hunger as I didn’t really have a proper breakfast. There are pubs all along the trail, so I stopped into the next one I came across. The Chatto Creek Tavern is located right next to the trail and has plenty of indoor & outdoor seating.
As I finished my flat white, I checked my watch and realized I wasn’t making good of time at all. It was 2pm and I still had 40k to go. I quickly got back on the bike and headed out.
Pretty much as soon as I left the tavern, the trail headed uphill and I began to get a bit concerned. I hadn’t really looked at the elevation profile of the track as I figured an old railroad line couldn’t have too much elevation gain.
There ended up being a fairly long, but gradual climb through a series of old rail tunnels and bridges. It wasn’t anything steep, but it was a bit of a grind that I didn’t expect. Combined with a headwind that never seemed to let up; I was getting tired, it was getting cold and the sun was going down.
At this point I realized that I might have been too aggressive thinking I could do the entire trail in two days.
A short time later I finally rolled into the Oturehua Tavern as the last light of the day faded behind the foothills. Cold and tired, I took off my cycling shoes and walked into the pub. I was immediately greeted by the owner Grahame and after some small talk he mentioned that he was starting to wonder if they were going to have to come look for me. In retrospect, after a long day on the trail alone, that comment really helped lift my spirits.
After getting cleaned up, I head back over and ordered the house specialty – Guinness & Steak pie. Sitting next to the fire and after a few glasses of wine, everything was right in the world and I slept through the night.
Day 2 — Oturehua to Middlemarch, 85.5k
I awoke to the wind howling outside and I was starting to dread the day ahead. Given a choice, I would rather ride in the rain than into a headwind all day; as I did the previous day.
It was hard to get out of bed with the electric blanket on, but I had to get to Middlemarch by 4pm to catch my shuttle to Dunedin. Middlemarch was 85k away, but Grahame had assured me that if I left by 9am I would get there in plenty of time.
Preparing for the worst I put on all the clothes I had and headed out. Sure enough I began to overheat immediately as the sun started to come out. So after spending 30 minutes getting geared up, I spent another 30 taking it all off.
About 15k later I hit the high point on the trail and smiled as I read the marker indicating “it’s all downhill from here”. The next hour was pretty much all downhill and after the previous day, I loved every moment. Old or young, the feeling of riding your bike downhill never changes.
The final 50k was pretty uneventful as I just put my head down and pedaled so that I would get to Middlemarch in time. Unfortunately this meant that I didn’t spend a lot of time looking around. As I indicated before I wished I had taken at least another day to really enjoy the trail.
I rolled into the Trail Journeys depot at 3pm, took a shower and got on the shuttle to Dunedin. After a few days in Dunedin to regroup, it was on to the Clutha Gold & Roxburgh Gorge.