January 10-15, 2005 From Invercargill we went by bus to Alexandra. This meant two bus trips of about two hours each. We left the rain behind in Invercargill and finally found warm summer weather. We got to Alexandra in the afternoon and headed out on the rail trail the next morning, January 11, 2005.
The Otago Central Rail Trail was opened in 2000. The original railroad was built in the early 1900s and abandoned in the 1950s. A few years ago a group of people began working to have the railroad preserved as a walking and cycling route. Although the plan initially met with scepticism—some locals could not understand why anyone would want to visit their part of the world, why didn’t they just return the land to farm land?—the project has been a success.
From a cycling point of view a rail trail is attractive because it has no steep climbs. The grade is never more than two percent, virtually imperceptible. Being on a trail also means no traffic, apart from the occasional cyclist or pedestrian.
We thoroughly enjoyed the rail trail. The weather was sunny and warm, the scenery beautiful and varied, the pace relaxing, and no hills.
The rock abutments (a rock called schist) are spectacular give the landscape a barren look. The area reminded us of the Okanagan in British Columbia. Like the Okanagan, it gets very hot here in the summer and quite cold in the winter.
The hotel in Lauder, where we spent our first night on the rail trail. Lauder has about 17 homes; the hotel is where everyone congregates at night.
We had a great dinner that evening, although we had to negotiate with the owner. She did advertise dinners, but when we asked her about having dinner she became flustered. Apparently a group of 18 cyclists would descend on Lauder that evening and they had arranged to have dinner at her hotel. Eighteen diners plus other walk-ins stretched the capacity of this place and its kitchen. However, the owner accommodated us the best she could. To simplify her planning and cooking, we made our dinner choice at 3 p.m. and promised to promptly be back for dinner at 6 p.m. The dinner was great and somehow she managed to serve everybody in town.
Having eighteen people stay in a town like Lauder also stretched the accommodation of the town, so every place was booked. The lady running the hotel was so busy in the kitchen, that she had to call her neighbor, who ran a B&B, to come in and look after the bar. Another person was called in to help clear tables and do dishes. Several locals came out as well for a beer and a game of pool, and guest pitched in as needed. The mood and atmosphere was great.
This is the B&B where we stayed, right across from the Lauder hotel. The building had once been a store and our room was the window in the middle, between the two green doors. The B&B wasn’t completely ready yet, so we got a deal on the price. The walls and a few other details were not finished, but it worked fine for us.
When we made the reservation, the directions we got said they were located in the “Lauder store”, across from the tavern. Initially we didn’t see “the store” and felt a silly–there were only a handful of buildings; spotting a store shouldn’t be too difficult– but since this was the building across from the tavern, we figured this must be it. Once we looked more closely, we noticed the, somewhat hidden, lettering on the front of the building.
The rail trail includes two long, dark tunnels. Torches were recommended, so we pulled out our headlamps. They didn’t do much good as the batteries were weak. Fortunately, the ground wasn’t too rough and we were able to make our way through the dark tunnels without incident.
January 13, 2005 One of the many Art Deco buildings in Ranfurly where we spent the second night on the trail. Throughout New Zealand you can find many buildings, even entire towns, built in the Art Deco style; Napier and Ranfurly are prime examples. Both were hit by catastrophic events in the 1930s and were rebuilt in the Art Deco style, which was in fashion at the time. Today the Art Deco architecture is a big tourist draw.
Enroute from Middlemarch, which is the official end of the rail trail, to Pukarangi, 18 kilometers further along, where we would catch the train to Dunedin. This part of the world is known for its unusual and striking cloud formations.
People had told us to stop in Middlemarch and have lunch there (which we did), and not rush to get to Pukarangi; “there’s nothing there but a shack” they said. And they were right. As we counted the eighteen kilometers from Middlemarch, we kept our eyes peeled for any sign of civilization, but it was hard to spot.
Finally, very close to the eighteen-kilometer mark, I spotted a small building in the distance. Remembering the advice we got, we tentatively followed a road down a hill. Sure enough, there it was: the Pukarangi station. We timed our arrival well and only had a short half hour wait for the daily train, which was plenty of time to explore this entire little station.
The Taieri Gorge Railway runs daily and is a popular daytrip out of Dunedin. The cars are original from the early 20th century. The trip takes about two hours (one way) and it made a nice transition from the remote Otago Trail back to city living. The gorge was beautiful and we spent most of the trip standing outside on a small viewing platform at the end of our rail car.