Central Otago Rail Trail
In the week before Easter my wife and I travelled to the South Island to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail. Trail Journeys in Clyde organised the four day trip which included bikes, accommodation and meals, as well as end of day excursions to nearby places of interest associated with the history of the old Central Otago Railway.
The Otago Central Rail Trail has become number sixteen on the top 100 things New Zealanders most want to do in their own country. It took sixteen hash winters and sixteen scorching summers from 1891 to 1907 to build the rail line from Middlemarch to Clyde in Central Otago in the South Island of New Zealand. Following the completion of the Clyde hydro-electric dam in 1990 the line was closed as deregulation of road transport made it no longer viable as a rail link. The line was originally built to service the gold fields of Central Otago but, like other similar rail lines throughout the world, it was completed just as the gold rush was ending. It continued to service the rural and farming communities until the mid 1980s. The Clyde Dam project extended its life a little longer to allow building materials to be delivered to the site from Dunedin. The only remaining part of the original Dunedin to Cromwell line still in use is the Taieri Gorge Railway that brings day trippers and cyclists from Dunedin to Middlemarch on tourist excursions.
The following extract from the official Otago Central Rail Trail website explains how the modern rail trail came about:
“Rather than seeing the remaining railway corridor from Middlemarch to Clyde become incorporated into farms, the Department of Conservation in Otago, with the backing of business and community figures who formed the Otago Central Railway Trust, proposed it become a cycling and walking trail. Supported by the success of Rail Trails overseas, and despite some negative comment from locals, the concept met with central government approval.
In 1993 the rail corridor was purchased as recreational reserve by the Department of Conservation. This was done on the condition it did not divert funds from other priority conservation work. It fell on the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust to seek funding support. Between 1994 and 2000 the Otago Central Railway was transformed into the Otago Central Rail Trail. All 68 bridges were re-decked and equipped with handrails and the surface made more suitable for cyclists and walkers.
Although the trail officially opened in February 2000, development and enhancement of the experience has not stopped. In 2006 the Trust secured significant funding for major re-surfacing of large sections of the trail. In the same year the Trust launched the Otago Central Rail Trail Passport as a self-stamping souvenir of achievement. A total of 10 new gangers’ sheds to provide shelter from the elements were constructed and positioned along the trail early in 2007. In the new sheds, and two of the originals, are colourful information panels describing what can be seen from each shed, what to expect to see up and down the line, how far to destinations and photos and information about such off-trail attractions as Macraes Flat, Patearoa, Naseby, St Bathans, Ophir and more.
The impact of the Otago Central Rail Trail on the economy of the region has been enormous. Townships once dying are alive with vitality.”