Central Otago Rail Trail

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End of the Ride

Below, the view of the Clutha River with the bridge in to Alexandra in the background. Above, Justin riding through the fall trees. Photo by Casey Hatfield-Chiotti.


Here’s what I knew for certain about today’s ride: There were going to be some serious climbs up a very narrow trail built in to the cliffs of the Roxburgh Gorge and that I was, without doubt, the weakest rider in our group. The last thing I wanted was for everyone to get back to the meeting point in Alexandra and then have to sit around for half an hour or longer waiting for me to show up.

So I figured I needed to come up with a riding strategy. Which was this: Go like hell early and for as long as I could, hoping I could get a big enough lead on the rest of the pack that they wouldn’t catch me until about half way through the ride, thus cutting down on the wait time at the end of the trail.

So bam, I flew. Which in a way was kind of pathetic because the scenery riding along the Clutha River, particularly when you did a thousand feet of switch-backs to get to the top, was spectacular. Normally I’d be stopping every ten minutes to take some photos (and I assumed, rightly, that the rest of the pack behind me would be doing the same), but today I just kept moving at as quick of a pace as I could.

As Nev said, it was kind of a hairy trail. There were spots when I had to get off my bike and walk it over a sheer-drop trail, no more than two feet wide, while hugging the rock wall. But every time I summited, I’d look back down at the switch-backs, expecting to see the pack advancing on me, but they were nowhere in sight. In fact, the only rider to eventually catch me was Nev, who was in a hurry for his own reasons: he had a slow leak in his back tire and was trying to race ahead before it gave out on him. He almost made it. The tire finally went completely flat just as we were both approaching the Alexandra bridge.

“I’ll walk it in,” he said. “Why don’t you go ahead. We’ll see you back at the van.” So I did the final mile or so of the trail back to Alexandra and then sat on the edge of the river watching as the others slowly cycled over the bridge. Our ride over the Central Otago Rail Trail was over. But what an experience.

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Left, a gold miner’s rock shelter as seen from the river; right, Casey contemplates going inside one of the ghostly abodes. Photos by David Lansing.

We take our time moving up the Clutha River with Laurence zig-zagging from one side of the river to the other to point out the primitive rock shelters built in to the schist cliffs of the Roxburgh Gorge. This is where Chinese and Scottish miners lived in the 1880s as they tried to make their fortunes panning for gold.

As cold as we are—wearing our polartec jackets and gloves and woolen caps—it’s stunning to think how difficult life must have been for the men who, with few supplies, spent their winters living in rocks caves with little food and nothing to sleep on but a small cot with a few blankets. And the thing is, there aren’t just one or two of these rock shelters along the river—they’re everywhere. We see a new one every few minutes. And so you begin to get the idea of the desperate nature of these people, living by themselves in the most primitive of conditions, no doubt suspicious and guarded of their neighbor down the river who may or may not cut their throat at night to claim their turf.

At one point Laurence runs the boat up on shore and we hike up the gorge a short distance to have a closer look at one of the shacks. There’s not much to see. A single room, maybe eight by eight feet, with a small fireplace for cooking and heat and a rock shelf built in to one of the wall where a miner would carefully stack everything he owned—matches, a tin cup and a plate, maybe a knife and fork.

One by one we enter the shelter, have a quick look around, and leave. There’s a spookiness to the place, and a sadness, that makes you want to quickly get back out in to the daylight.

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The group in front of Pitches Store in Ophir: Justin, me, Casey, Paul, Michael, and Adriena. Photo by Casey Hatfield-Chiotti.

It’s late afternoon before we reach Pitches Store in Ophir. Pealing myself off my bike, I check the bikes odometer: 49.7km.—which doesn’t seem like a terrible lot until you realize that none of it was on asphalt roads but rather rock and gravel and dirt. But we’ve made it, and with nary a flat or breakdown of any kind.

Colleen Hurd who, with her husband David, owns Pitches, shows us to our rooms. I am conflicted: Do I want to run a hot bath and just soak for an hour before dinner or get a cold beer from the little bar and sit outside basking in the last of the day’s sunshine? Justin decides the issue for me by banging on my door. “Let’s go have a beer!” he says.

Justin steals a couple of homemade ginger cookies from the breakfast room and Colleen brings us frosty Emerson pale ales and we spread out on the wooden table in front of Pitches, talking over the day and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, the first we’ve seen in three days.

I’ll tell you what: a cold beer late in the afternoon always tastes good but when you’ve started the day in damn near freezing temperatures and biked 50km over an old rail trail and now you’re with friends sorting out the day, retelling stories of who did what where, it’s as fine an end to the day as I can imagine. So memorable in fact that, just before the sun sets behind the trees on the other side of the road, I suggest to Casey that we use her tripod to set up a group shot. Something informal, I suggest. Just have everyone stand wherever they want.

We look ridiculous, I suppose. Still in our sweaty cycling clothes for the most part: Casey in her gray leggings and orange shoes, Justin with his sweat pants pulled up almost to his knees, and me in my blue cycling shirt and flip-flops. We set the timer and lean or sprawl, happy but exhausted, against the front of the old store. Later that evening when I look at the shot on my computer, it makes me smile. It’s a simple photo of an afternoon, a day, a place in time (“Pitches Store, Ophir, May 2014”) that we’ll all fondly remember.


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The Rough Ridge hills are the backdrop to our ride through Central Otago. Photo by David Lansing.

There’s six of us cycling. We travel mostly in pairs though truth be known, I prefer keeping my own company, which usually means I’m far behind the rest. Every half hour or so one or another of the riders—usually Justin—will circle back to make sure I’m okay. Which I am. Just not in a hurry.

It’s something seeing the countryside this way. The lime green pastures split by long rows of yellow and orange trees following the winding river and in the distance the bruised humps of the Rough Ridge, the oddly-named range of hills up ahead.

There are sheep and cows and every few miles a farm, and that’s about it. Never see or hear an airplane, seldom spot a car. Even other cyclists are few and far between. I might easily ride for half an hour or longer before seeing someone coming in the other direction. We nod at each other, no words spoken, as if both parties agree it would be an injustice to break this cold morning silence.

At one point I’ve stopped to take a picture of a ram’s skull on a fence post and Justin rides back to tell me that there’s a little town—Oturehua—nearby and we’re stopping there for coffee. Oturehua is typical of the townships around here. A hundred years ago there was a post and telegraph office, a general store, school, hotel, flour mill, and several taverns. Now only the general store and Oturehua Tavern remain, as well as the Ida Valley Kitchen, where we order our flat whites and long blacks and an assortment of baked goods—chewy muffins and sweet rolls and the like.

We take our time. We sip our flat whites and pick at our muffins and watch as a young boy, no more than 10 or 11, stacks bales of hay in the shed across the street. Time slows down in a town like Oturehua. Which is just fine.

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Foul Weather


Central Otago Rail Trail

The Central Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand. Photo by David Lansing.

Tuesday morning, all damp and cloudy and it looks like rain, which would not be a good thing since we’re cycling to Ophir today, about 50km away. The thing is, there’s no way I can cycle with the gear I have, which is no gear at all. I’m depending on Nev to set me right. “I’ll have a man bring you gear straight off in the morning,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”

Well, it’s morning and I don’t have any wet weather gear and there’s no way I’m cycling 50km over the Wedderburn pass in just my cycling shirt and a light weight sweater. Foolish I’m not.

Then about an hour past dawn, as we’re gathering in front of the red barn, adjusting seats and saddle bags and whatnot, a silver van pulls up. A sleepy middle-aged man, looking like he’s just rolled out of bed and slipped on a jersey ten minutes ago, pops out of the van and holding a twine-tied package over his head says, “Someone here need foul weather gear?”

Nev has come through with a well-used rain jacket, heavy and warm, wool hat, gloves, waterproof pants. Zipping up, I look ridiculous. Like a fisherman braving the waves off the coast of Alaska. But I won’t be wet today. And that’s good enough.

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