The Rail Trail Adventure

Wednesday 7 April, 2010

I left Christchurch on the 4.05p.m. flight in sunshine, the sky blue with lots of cloud-grey underneath and gold on top a veritable artists dream. Flew above the cloud and looking down was like looking at a vast floor of a cotton wool factory. The nearer we got to Queenstown the more the cloud thinned and finally as the plane lost height we were skimming over rivers and lakes of molten gold under the sun, mountains bare and barren, devoid so far of their winter covering of snow. The plane landed 10 minutes early and I walked into the terminal building to a welcoming committee of 2. After a welcome drink the terminal building was shutting up shop for the day, the last flight had arrived we headed to the car park.

Thursday 8 April, 2010

We spent the morning driving up to the Matukituki Valley towards Mt. Aspiring – a shingle road littered with fords and cattle stops. Cattle appeared to be predominately bulls. The usual building with loos and notice boards telling you where you are and what you are looking at, plenty of people arriving and getting mentally organised with large packs and finally having got themselves sorted out started the long trek towards Mt Aspiring. The building at the head of the valley for a moment at least was quiet. The three of us also took to the track nice and easy at the beginning (they all are)-this one came with a long swing bridge over a pretty impressive river complete with views of Mt Aspiring. No keas in sight.

Friday 9 April 2010

THE day had come. We arrived at the head quarters of the Rail Trail in Clyde. Tony was supplied with a bike and after doing a bit of practice and the odd wheelie or two we all saddled up and took to the trail at 10.10a.m. Plenty of people on the trail, some going in the same direction as us (final destination Middlemarch), the other people coming from the other direction having started from Middlemarch and heading to Clyde. The morning had started with pretty cool temperatures but as the day progressed the sun shone from a blue sky and there was very little breeze. The landscape at this stage was one of contrasts one minute wide and flat with a horizon to match, turn a slight bend and there are large thick stones lying on top of each other like plates in a giant’s cupboard. This is schist rock and this landscape is the nearest thing to the original New Zealand we will see and here on the rail trail is the only place where we will see it. So reads the very informative pieces of history and/or information one will find along the length of the trail. Round the next bend and there are green, cultivated paddocks where clean woolly sheep can safely graze in sharp contrast to the majority of the land that is dry and yellow. Then there are paddocks that have small hills covered with round stones that stick out like boils on a face. There are distances where the landscape is undulating and unremarkable, then out of nowhere you will come across signs of old habitation and aging old apple trees complete with apples slow to ripen to become food for the birds. Lunch stop was at Chatto Creek where Neville had a Hot Pot (Coronation St style) and I had a thick whitebait fritter. One of the drivers of the buses that bring visitors to this caf for lunch showed us a picture of one of their passengers that had done the rail trail recently. It was of a lady that was confined to a mobility scooter and was not going to let her condition stop her from doing the trail. With that photo for inspiration we all leaped on our bikes with renewed vigour- eh right. Tony in the meantime, not wanting any lunch and not sure where the exact lunch stop was, had sailed past on his bike and we located him finally lying back like an eastern monarch on his bed in the Omakau hotel where most of the bikers were going to spend the night. It was a mighty relief as the pair of us were getting a little worried that he had not been sighted during the ride. After a good hot shower, a change of clothes and a hot dinner under our belts completed the day.

Saturday, 10 April 2010.

A lovely day of blue skies and sunshine, the only breeze being created was by the bikers themselves. Stopped for morning tea in the Lauder Rail School where some enterprising school girls were supplying fresh muffins with margarine and jam (if wanted) plus tea or coffee to raise funds for a sports trip they wanted to do. All these in return for a donation to help the idea along, as the pub was closed and would not open till 11a.m. and all bikers would be long gone by then. More interesting aspects of the ride today as we had 2 tunnels and a viaduct thrown in for good measure. Also plenty of information about the history behind what we were looking at which was really neat. Not such a long grind today and by mid afternoon we had arrived at Parkside Ida Valley, a high country sheep station our hosts being Kate and her husband. The house was well weathered with a large lounge adjoining the kitchen, a big fire burning in the lounge but as the door into the hall was closed the rest of the house proved to be cold. The atmosphere in the hall and bedrooms was cold and getting to sleep proved difficult for the 3 intrepid bikers. Must mention before dinner our talkative host James took us to the top of his property in his 4 wheel drive vehicle where Tony, who was sitting in the front, had to get out and open and close gates. It was so steep that in places the vehicle was at such an angle that you could not see the bonnet. Up here were fantastic rock formations fashioned over hundreds of years into eagles heads and a life like frog. He ran merinos, careless mothers that think nothing of dropping their lamb/s and walking off and because the land is so big and steep it is not possible to be everywhere at lambing time. At a high vantage point you had an aerial view of all the tourist sights, the lakes on the right hand and the mountains including Mt. Cook on the left. Must correct myself here vehicle was not a 4 wheel drive it was a gutsy ute with all the gears you would need to drive over this type of terrain. This is the real NZ and these farmers feel the real responsibility of looking after the land. As James said “you have a chance of correcting a mistake on a smaller block but no chance at all with the size property he and other farmers in the area look after”. Dinner was of cold meat and hot veges, dessert to follow was pavlova rolled in coconut which we demolished.

Sunday 11 April, 2010.

We set off under partly cloudy skies, the sun kicking in later in the morning. Must be getting into the rhythm of things better as I swing from moments of pure elation to feeling “what if ” scary. Must not cultivate those feelings have to stay positive. We experienced variations of wind changes beginning your jacket flapping like flags in the wind. With the slight turns in the trail the wind then shifted to behind us and with this back wind we were off. This was the scary bit, concentration had to be high to steer the bike over the least rougher parts if possible with Neville saying he had been doing 28-30kph. We spent Sunday night at the Ranfurly Hotel.

Monday 12 April 2010.

After a good night’s sleep the 3 musketeers set off in moochy rain that lasted all the morning gradually becoming steady rain by afternoon. Thankfully no wind that would have made things really miserable. Cannot complain though we have had glorious weather up till now. The last part of the trail was the best – it would have been even better had it been fine a long ride up a manageable slope with a long drop down on our left hand to a river winding its way through willow trees lining the banks overlooked by steep and stern looking cliffs. A wonderful picture if the willows had their autumns on but we were too early for the autumn colours. At the top of this slope was no. 3 tunnel, the only time of this day we had a bit of shelter, coming out the other side it was all down hill to Hyde. Stayed at a home stay, this place had obviously been the first home of these farmers but they had built another home and made a bit extra on the side putting up trail riders. A warm house with or without the wood burner which was made up once but the couple sitting the lounge did not bother making it up again so it went out even though there was plenty of chopped wood on the terrace.

Dinner was all prepared and sitting in the frig but it took a bit of figuring out how to turn the fancy oven on but eventually this hurdle was overcome and we sat down to a fancy dinner. The shower was good, the bed excellent so you cannot ask for much more. Must mention though, in one of the sheds was an old Essex up on piles, badly in need of a makeover like a dowager duchess in need of a face lift. According to the farmer owner who dropped in after dinner to meet us it belonged in the family, the original motor vehicle bought to do the farm work. He will restore it when he retires.

Tuesday 13 April 2010.

It had rained overnight and blown guns but we started out in glum but calm conditions. Had to keep up the pace, as we had to be in Middlemarch by 10-30am. This was the least likeable part of the track rougher than the rest of it the farms bordering the trail less prosperous and stonier. But it was downhill. We arrived with time to spare, our faithful steeds were handed over to the Rail Trail man at this Middlemarch depot a most impressive place equipped to cope with all comings, goings and anything in between. After about 15 minutes our immediate luggage (that had been on our backs) was consigned to the back of a bus and we were driven by a well informed lady to the Pukarangi Rail Station to board the yellow Taieri Gorge train (run by the Taieri Gorge Rail Society of ENTHUSIASTS). While we waited for the train we bought some honey being sold by a lady at the rail station. When the train arrived we hopped on board and off we went through the Taieri Gorge. This was pretty scenic and Tony hopped from one side of the carriage to the other taking pictures. About 20 minutes from Dunedin we stopped while the driver of the train rang to ask permission if he could use the track to drop his passengers at the Dunedin Rail Station. Permission given we were off and about 20 minutes later we got off at Dunedin with 3 hours to fill in before we could board the Connexions bus that would take us to Alexandra. Weather in Dunedin was cool to say the least and we were only too glad to board the bus at about 5.30p.m, arriving in Alexandra at about 8.30p.m. So we arrived back in Alexandra 5 days after we had left it. The circle had been completed.

We had done it. All the planning, bookings made and money collected itineries printed, revised and sent out, and all the details handled by Neville had been a pretty big job and both Tony and I take our hats off to him. For myself personally there was no big desire to celebrate. It would not matter how much practice you did, nothing would prepare you for the terrain you had to bike over. One had to draw on inner resources to cope, like most other things in life. I was out of my comfort zone, I did what I had set out to do without falling off and now I am hooked on bikes. I had the best 2 travelling companions anyone could ask for.

Footnote: Tony Baylis, our friend of several walking adventures joined us on this adventure after travelling from England. A group of farmers/ex Rugby players, relaxing at the lovingly restored Omakau Hotel were gob-smacked that someone would travel around the world just to see ‘their’ part of New Zealand. Tony wrote in a visitor book at one stage our combined ages “225 years”. There was everyone from babies, school children (it was in their holidays) and all ages and stages of adults participating. This epitomised the appeal to all of Central Otago Trail experience, and the most lasting memory was of the attitude of the local people who were all so friendly, welcoming and keen to meet and host their visitors. The trail and the people it has brought, has introduced a new and broader life to people who have been faced with many privations, but soldiered on with uneconomic farms, when the world could not pay a price for wool the natural fibre, and the meat they also produced.

Helen Wilson, Tony Baylis and Neville Boyce the intrepid 3.