All on board! (Clyde – Dunedin)

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otago rail trail new zealandNew wheel, meeting new friends for a guided tour on less-travelled tracks. Being gob-smacked by the service from bus companies down here. Warming up from frozen in a B&B next to a log fire. Friendly people in the local hotel/bar.

Day One : 02/11/10

With the help of Paul and Penny, aka The Two Ps (the friendly Kiwis we met a few days ago), we figured out that since we were heading towards Clyde to start the Otago Rail Trail it would be best to get to a bike shop in Alexandra to get my wheel fixed. The Two Ps recommended an LBS there.

Then the journey to Clyde by bus began. We did it to save time as cycling would have taken at least four to five days. Though as the bus companies don’t really have an integrated system, it was pretty lucky that two of them linked up in Queenstown. Again we experienced New Zealand’s hospitality and warm welcome, which really makes you want to come back even before you’ve left. We had booked a bus from Te Anau to Queenstown at the local i-Site site (information), where we were asked if we would like a pick-up from where we were staying. We looked at each other, not really knowing if we heard this right and said erm, yes, go on then.

bike fence in AtholOn the dot a mini coach with trailer for the bicycles arrived at the campsite, and the ever so nice driver helped us with our bikes and panniers. We had a great chat and received great information on our journey to Queenstown, with a quick ice cream and loo stop en route.

In Queenstown we spotted the bus company that would take us on to Clyde. I went over to check if it did and was told that it would take off in and hour and a half. So we had our lunch in the park near the lake in Queenstown. Upon arriving back we were greeted by the bus driver with a “Sorry, but I’ve told you the wrong time” and he was genuinely sorry. He then called and made sure that the next bus driver knew there’d be two touring bicycles to take to Clyde. So we had an other hour to kill before our bus. The bus arrived with so much space that we loaded our bicycles plus panniers into the back and set off for Clyde. In Cromwell we had to change buses and again were greeted by a friendly bus driver who loaded us and bikes onto the bus, they were stored in the actual aisle of the bus this time, with a “No worries!” and a smile.

bike fence in AtholWe got chatting to a British fella (Mike, if I recall correctly) who lives in Sydney on what his wife called his “mid life crisis” journey on the Rail Trail, more about Mike later on.

In Clyde the bus driver helped us off the bus and directed us to the campsite in town, a DoC – Domain site, and wished us a good trip. We found the campsite and while we were pitching up we got the surprise of our lives: the bus driver had returned, driving his bus across the bumpy grass towards our tent, brandishing my cap out of the window! It was my fancy solar-powered Solar Light Cap, which must have fallen under a seat while I was chatting. Having picked up more passengers in Alexandra he’d detoured past the campsite to reunite cap and owner. I think his passengers must have wondered what the heck was going on as they hurtled across the campsite! This made our day big time and for hours afterwards I still could not believe what had happened. Thank you so much, dear Mr Bus Driver from the company ‘Connexions’.

Day two : 03/11/10

the two pPaul of the Two Ps offered to carry my two rear panniers to save my rear wheel. It was also a learning curve for him as he was not used to ride with that much extra weight. Again the Two Ps took us on a stunning ride for 12Km ride along the river to Alexandra, they really should start up a little cycle guiding company, with cake stops dotted en route. :)

In Alexandra we went to the Henderson Cycle & Mower Centre, you don’t see that combination often anymore. The shop had a basic rear touring wheel that should easily see us back to the UK. The mechanic took my Hope hub off the rim for me to take and fitted the cassette and tyre to the new wheel, while we chatted to the Two Ps over a yummy lunch, plus beer and cake.

Henderson Cycle & Mower CentreThe bike was ready to ride when we returned, at the cost of the wheel and NZ$15 labour, a well good price. We also asked him to have a look at Peli’s seat post since for some reason it had “become family” with the frame and I could not for the life of me budge it. He tried with my support to move it with a spanner at first, then added more leverage with a four foot pipe. When that didn’t work we turned it upside down in a vice, with him jumping up unto the workbench to pull the bicycle off the seat post: success, finally!

We stocked up on inner tubes and oil for our dry chains, and then we were off on our Otago Rail journey with a great light tail wind and the late afternoon sun at our back.

True to form the track is a great place to ride: stunning scenery away from the Stuart Highway. Since it is low season we only saw a few other cyclists on the track, though at high season I’m sure this will be buzzing with people on two wheels.

otago rail trail fenceWe struggled up the fearsome Tiger Hill which climbed up to over 224 metres at 1 in 50 gradient! Kidding aside, it was quite hard work due to the very loose gravel surface dotted with large stones, and a gradient which was relentless: not something we’re that used to. In hilly terrain you get the odd break to rest the legs and change position. On this track you’re using the same muscles for mile after mile. Harder than we’d imagined.

We arrived in Omakau and found a Domain campsite with a fantastically clean, modern kitchen just before 6pm. Just enough time for dinner (lots of yummy vegetables tonight with our pasta and pesto), rest and curling up with our books.

Day three : 04/11/10

In Oturehua we, well I, had my first ale of the ride. After all, Otago Rail Trail is also known as the “Ale Trail”. Peli had a yummy Mango smoothie. We could see that this route is busy in the summer as there was plenty of bike parking outside, sadly only wheel benders, though.
otago rail trail
Just before Wedderburn we came to the highest point on the trail at 618 metres, and then it is pretty much downhill from there all the way to Middlemarch. Yes, there was a tavern there that had to be sampled, too. :)

Since it was downhill and we now had the wind at our back we were rolling along at 13-15mph, enjoying the views. That is, if you dared to take your eyes off the track, sometimes there was loose gravel or rocks that you had to work hard on a heavy tourer to avoid, pretty tough going.

A mile south from Waipiata we found an “informal campsite”, where the only question along with where to pitch our tent was, are cycling shorts classed as “informal”?

We enjoyed our dinner in the warmth of the setting sun before crawling into bed to escape the sandflies who were starting to make their presence known. Again, we curled up with our books until the light went entirely. Bliss.

Day four : 05/11/10

hiding in a tunnel on the otago rail trailWe woke up to a grey sky that looked ominously like rain. We packed up and had just started to eat our porridge when the rain started in earnest. So, we donned our wet weather gear and set off into the rainy, cold and at times very strong wind.

At first this was OK, we were on a downhill stretch, so we thought we could endure it. But it just kept coming down and down, pretty much as a wall of water, and the windchill was making for incredibly painful fingers. Peli’s hands were cramping up with the cold, and she could barely steer, let alone brake! At Tiroti we spotted Mike (the Brit from the bus) shivering in a shelter along with another few Rail Trail-lers; he had passed us earlier when we were still dozing in our tent. We pushed on as there was only 6Km to go to cake in Hyde, a good recommendation we got from the Two Ps.

We had just done a kilometre or so when I pulled up next to Peli and shouted (which I had to since the wind was so strong) “OK, B&B tonight?” To which I got a simple “Yes!”
central otago hotel b&b hydeWe arrived in Hyde and fell into the Otago Central Hotel feeling well tired, soaked to the skin, and shivering with cold. By the sounds of it we got one of the very last rooms for the night, one of the more expensive places we’ve stayed at 65 dollars each, but worth it to get into the warm, get a bite to eat and wash and dry our clothes! Such pleasures are great to cycle tourers. We had only done 14 or so miles in two and a half hours, but it really felt like a full-on work-out.

While we were moving our stuff into our bedroom we spotted Mike rolling in, still looking worse for wear. We’re not sure where he got to as when we came out of our hot showers he was gone, good luck to him as his target for the day was Middlemarch, at the end of the trail.

We are now sitting next a roaring fire having demolished a plate of hot food warming up, looking out at the still rather miserable weather and reading our books. Not a bad way to spend a day on your holiday.

Day five : 6/11/10

stamping the passport on otago rail trailWe got up from our warm bed (Peli’s side even had an electric blanket – luxury!) and filled up on the delicious – though rather early – B&B breakfast. We peered at the weather, which hadn’t really listened to the weather girl of the night before. So, it was rather cold and never properly cleared up as the day progressed. The last part of the Otago Rail Trail was hard as they were redoing the surface, and we rode into the wind. And honestly the last 6.5Km into Middlemarch is the most boring part of the ride – it’s just flat, long and straight – though we were entertained by the attacking magpies. They are persistent buggers. They got Peli again (both with and without helmet) but she was ready for them. They also got pretty close to me and I could feel their wings swishing on my head. In Middlemarch we had some tea, yummy chocolate mud cake and my last Ale of the ride at a well-named cafe called ‘Quench’, while chatting to the other cyclists who had also finished the ride but were, luckily, magpie-attack-free.

middlemarch otago rail trailWe asked if there was a place to camp between Middlemarch and Dunedin, since there wasn’t much between them, other than distance and some lumpy bits. The helpful lady in the Quench cafe told us that at the Clarke’s Junction Hotel we could be lucky to get a place to pitch our tent for the night.

We plodded along and got a surprise that woke our legs up well and good. The last three days we had endured “hills” (at 1:50) and strong wind that really didn’t take it out of us. But the two little nasties we had to climb before Clarke’s Junction did hurt and sapped the juice from our legs. It’s pretty surprising how fast one can get used to really flat terrain. :)

We rocked up to the hotel in Clarke’s Junction just as a boisterous stag do spilled out; Peli was asked if she wanted to join the bus-load of rowdy blokes, but politely declined. I staggered into the warm pub, on very tired legs, and asked for a cold beer and a place to camp for the night. The owner said, while pulling me a cold beer, “Ah! We knew you were coming” (news runs fast down there) and that it would be no problem to pitch up in the pub playground next to the swings for the night.

clarks junctionWhile we were pitching up we decided that we should enjoy the warmth and food at the Hotel while relaxing for the evening. Good food was had and by the look on Peli’s face I take it that the huuuge pot of tea was spot on. Peli was kindly offered a shower by the landlord (I declined as I was cosy and warm, and ready for bed) and she just managed to sneak into the tent as the stag do arrived back en route home from their bus pub crawl. (We later learned that they got themselves into the taxi driver’s bad books by attempting to drive his bus away, and as far as we know they were dumped miles from home that night…)

Day six : 07/11/10

top 10 camping dunedinWe got up with the sun and enjoyed our breakfast outside the pub as the clouds closed in. The pub owner and his wife departed to do some shopping in Dunedin, with a cheery farewell, and refused to take any payment for our stay. Thank you! We endured a few hills and flats on our way to Dunedin, nothing much to recount. In Mosgiel, just outside Dunedin, the option was the Stuart Highway (motorway) or the cycle route into Dunedin. We picked the cycle route and true to all cycle route sign-age the route wasn’t terribly easy to follow. The GPS did give me some idea of where we should go, though it didn’t like it when we went (on a cycle path) the wrong way up the access ramp to the motorway. :) We experienced some rather nasty lumps: from what I read no matter which way you go into Dunedin you have to do some climbing.

It was Sunday so the roads were very empty and Dunedin did look a bit ghostly, quiet and dull. We found the local i-Site office and yet again had great help from the staff behind the counters. Other countries could learn from this!

We found our campsite on the coast and settled in for the night with a laugh, as the kitchen/lounge area had jokes peppered here and there, painted on the walls.

Day seven : 08/11/10

world steepest hill dunedinAccording to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s steepest street is in Dunedin, so it would be rude not to have a go. :) It climbs at 1 in 3.41 on average and is, at its steepest, 1 in 2.86. Since we’ve already managed a 1 in 4 fully loaded, we were sure that we had a good chance unloaded. Just looking at Baldwin Street you can see that there is something to the claim, as it just goes up.

We even had a group of people crossing their fingers for us and they waited at the bottom to see how far we could make it. The first part was dead easy, then it started to climb in earnest. We did well on this stretch in our granny gears, but then the street just kicks sharply upwards and it is all you can do to keep the front wheel on the ground. That’s not even the steepest part. This came after another 50 metres, which we never made it to.

I was thinking about getting the bicycle to the steepest part and starting there for a laugh, only to figure out that I would fall flat on my face if I tried. Just walking up the thing was mighty hard and you really had to push and watch where you were putting your feet – in cleats it was even harder (Peli had to climb it on tippy-toes).

We had a rest at the top and enjoyed the view, before we jumped on our bicycles to roll down, carefully braking all the way down (much to the amusement of the other tourists present). We didn’t just let them run free as that would have been past 50mph in seconds. Not a speed I fancied to do on a hill that steep and on such a rough surface.

Then we had a little ride through town, through the lovely sunny Botanic Gardens and the University of Otago Campus followed by the rather boring harbour out to the Otago Peninsula. This drained me a bit as it was into a very hard wind even though it was flat. So we cut the distance down a bit, even though it was very beautiful and despite having refuelled on ice cream in Macandrew Bay. TipTops ice cream is to be highly recommended if you ever get the chance – yum.

view from new zelandSince my legs didn’t have it in them we went straight (and fairly UPwards) to the only castle in New Zealand, Larnach Castle, which is more a big stately home than a castle. This is where visiting New Zealand is nice, the price for visiting the gardens was just NZ$12.50 (around £6). In the UK the 12.50 would surely have been the price in GPB. We had a light lunch there and then a wander around the beautiful gardens, admiring stunning views of the bay area around Dunedin and surrounding hills. You can tell why the politician and businessman William Larnach ordered the place to be built up there in 1871 (even if he went on to shoot himself in the head having discovered his son was having an affair with his wife. Ouch).

The ride home on the Highcliff Road was well worth the nearly 400 metres hard climb up to it. As it snaked it way along the top of the Otago Peninsula with stunning views, we met a number of other cyclists pootling their way in the other direction. It’s clearly a popular late afternoon ride for the locals.

Click here to see all the photo : All on board!

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