The Otago Central Rail Trail in Two Days

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.

Summary

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. If I did it again, I would take my time and do it over four days. This ride it is less about dramatic mountain vistas and crystal clear rivers, and more about small town hospitality and enjoying good food and drink along the way.

Want to learn more about the Otago Central Rail Trail or just cycling in New Zealand? Join my next live stream

Day 1 — Clyde to Oturehua, 66.5k

After spending ten days in Wanaka getting settled in and picking up the Specialized Sequoia I bought over email, it was time to set out on my first bikepacking trip. In the realm of bikepacking, this was definitely a beginner trip. I was staying in hotels, not camping so I didn’t need to carry a ton of gear. I did pick-up a Specialized Burra Burra framepack and handlebar harness. Combined with my Osprey Synchro 15, it was a perfect setup.

Wanaka is a great place to get settled before starting your trip. It’s a lot less crowded than Queenstown, but has the same vibe. Scott at Outside Sports is your guy for anything bike related. He took his time getting my fit dialed and explaining everything on the bike.
Specialized Sequoia Elite
My Specialized Sequoia Elite with Lake Wanaka in the Background

I caught the 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 on the trail.

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 headed out.

Otago Rail Trail Alternate Start
Starting the Otago Rail Trail

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 to NZ, 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 NZ, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.

fullsizeoutput_ef9

The nervousness was soon replaced by hunger as I didn’t really have a proper breakfast. So I stopped into the Chatto Creek Tavern located right next to the trail for a quick bite. As I finished my flat white I checked my watch and realized I wasn’t making as good of time as expected. 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 little concerned. I hadn’t really done any research on the terrain. I figured as an old railroad line, there couldn’t be 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 crazy, but it was a bit of a grind. Combined with a headwind that never seemed to let up, I was getting tired.

As it got closer to sunset, 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 walked into the pub and was greeted by the owner Grahame. He stated that he was starting to get worried about if I was going to show up.

Most accommodation along the trail will start to look for you if you haven’t arrived by 5pm. Check with your host though.
Pretty much every small town in NZ has a pub like this that primarily offers food and drink, but also has a few rooms available for travelers to stay the night.
All I wanted at this point is a hot shower. However, looking at the beer taps, a beer sounded good. Before I can even ask, Grahame offers me a pint for the 20 meter walk to my room out back and says we can just settle up the tab later. So shower and beer it was.

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 the 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.

Maybe it’s just not that common in the states, but every place I stayed in NZ had an electric blanket on the bed.

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.

fullsizeoutput_f00
The weather improved shortly after leaving Oturehua

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.

End of the Otago Rail Trail
Yes, plenty of sheep along the way
  • Plan 
  • Eat 
  • Stay 
Trail Journeys offers bike hire, free itinerary planning of your cycling holiday, transport to & from the Otago Rail Trail, bag transfer & free accommodation booking service.

The Chatto Creek Tavern is a good spot for lunch on your first day. Experience genuine southern hospitality with great food, drink and ample accommodation.

The historic Oturehua Railway Hotel a Coaching Inn built in the late 1800′s situated in the picturesque Ida Valley. Whether you are riding or walking the Central Otago Rail Trail or driving through the Ida Valley stop for a while and enjoy the stunning views of Rough Ridge and the Hawkdun Ranges from our large family beer garden or alternatively warm up by our cosy fire on our comfortable couches.  〉Email Liz to reserve a room.

Other New Zealand Rides

Want to learn more about the Otago Central Rail Trail or just cycling in New Zealand? Join my next live stream

About Rob Auston

After graduating from the University of Michigan, I started my career at Accenture in Washington, DC. I later packed up my car and headed West to Denver, CO. The plan was to stay a few months, but ten years later it is still home. During this time I worked in technology at Exclusive Resorts and Vail Resorts. In 2014, I took the plunge and started my first company and have since founded two more that have also failed. I write about my three passions: the outdoors, travel & technology. Let's connect on Twitter.