Spread along the southern parts of the New Zealand's South Isalnd, Otago has a bit of everything: Glaciers, flat lands and great open skies
Central Otago’s ‘Sky Country’ unfurls like the optimism of a spotless mind. Under me, the cycle track is as grating as a tween’s sass. There is a realisation about the importance of padded cycling shorts. Beside me, Neville Grubb, a grandfather, is pedalling as he multi-chats, with me and with joggers and other cyclists. With such a small population—around 4 million—the Kiwis are a verbose lot.
Otago spreads along the southern parts of the Southern Island of New Zealand. Geographically, its got everything: glacier that melts into lakes, flat lands that become ideal grazing ground for sheep and cattle, and the great open skies of that give it the nickname Sky Country. The gold rush of the 1860s gave birth to small towns in the region, but now stag-, cattle- and sheep-farming is what fills the lives of people here. More recently, it has evolved into a wine-growing region, well known for its Pinot Noir and Riesling.
The Otago Central Rail Trail, which gently snakes through hills, was built between 1891 and 1907 and connects the towns that prospered in the gold rush. Within a decade the rush died, and the activity of such towns as Chatto Creek and Waipiata dimmed. When the trains stopped, it was proposed that the track land be turned over for agriculture. A parallel proposition was to yank off the sleepers and turn the route into a recreational track.
Eventually, the part of the railway that meanders through Taieri Gorge up to Middlemarch was left as it was. You could take a trip from Dunedin to Middlemarch on the Taieri Gorge Railway, which will take you through some spectacular sceneries along the Taieri River, and through numerous tunnels and viaducts.
Or, you could opt to walk, cycle or horse-ride (no motorised vehicles are allowed) the 150-km track land from Middlemarch to Clyde, which allows travellers an eyeful of Otago’s blue skies.
Day One Instead of riding the whole 150 km, I’ve taken the cheat’s way out with a truncated two-day backward version from Wedderburn to Alexandra: 43 km on Day 1 to Ophir, and 39 km on Day 2 to Clyde. Only the first half-an-hour from Wedderburn is a climb; gentle enough to make you wonder if it exists. After that, you roll with the hills for miles and miles of meadows, with sheep and venison farms on either side.
Image: Mitali Parekh Johnny Chapman, proprietor of Como Villa, has turned the winery into an education in pioneer living
Wedderburn maintains its original 1928 red-brick homestead where breakfast is served to cyclists, and independent cottages are available for those who want to stay the night. The property is owned by the fourth generation of the Duncan family, and on the property also stands the original Wedderburn Goods Shed, filled with old photographs, memorabilia and bite-sized pieces of local history.
All this—the cabins, the Shed and the local pub—sits squat on the Maniototo plain; there is no human habitation for about 15 km. There are sheep all about, even peeking through your bathroom window.
I have bicycled around Puducherry, Siem Reap, Tel Aviv and my hometown, Navi Mumbai. At home, cycling is an extreme sport, a game of dare between you and that guy who always jumps the signal.
But Otago lulls me into a rhythm: The hills roll past sleepily, the sky is wide and there is no traffic to look out for. Thrill is rolling downhill and sulking uphill, for millimetres. Hello sheep. Hello sheepdog. Hello stag. But most of the time, hello gravel!
Meals are downhill at the local pub, the Wedderburn Tavern, run by Cheryl and Steve Cormack. While you would do well to have the fresh salmon or the sirloin with a Riesling, there’s also butter chicken served with ‘naan bread’, if you are homesick.
If you are on your honeymoon and yearn for something fancier, book their private inner room, which requires a dress code.
Neville, who’s cycling alongside me, used to own a cycle shop in Cylde and, 10 years ago, started a cycle rental business because everyone kept asking him where to rent cycles for the trail. His son-in-law now takes care of the business, leaving Neville free to cycle with the clients. It’s great because Neville knows everyone on every stop on the trail. Retirement age in New Zealand is 65 and because of its population constraint, much of the workforce is made of ‘seniors’.
Image: Mitali Parekh
At Wedderburn, start early so you can see the sky change colours
Our coffee stop is at the town of Oturehua (Maori for The Summer Star Stands Still) in the Ida Valley at the Gilchrists’s Convenience Store. And that is where we bump into Brian Turner: Poet, celebrity, friend of artist Grahame Sydney (whose work is a mirror of Central Otago’s austere landscape), brother of cricketer Glenn Turner, brother-in-law to Dame Sukhinder ‘Sukhi’ Kaur (mayor of nearby Dunedin from 1995 to 2004), and an all-round village eccentric.
Turner is taking advantage of the beautiful summer’s day (12°C with wind, thank you) by cycling around in hand-me-down cycling gear from some contest (one of the sponsor logos stamped on it is that of Tata Consultancy Services). His white beard is flowing around him in the wind. And since everyone knows everyone in this 40-person town, it’s natural that he stops to shoot the breeze for a while with a stranger.
Oturehua is typical of the towns that sprung up during the gold rush: There is a convenience store, a post office, a town hall no bigger than the ticketing hall at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai, and a family-run café. KFCs, McDs and Burger Kings do not mar the landscape, and local activists fight to keep it that way. Our lunch stop is at one such cafe in Lauder, where the greens come from the garden in the backyard.
The joy of this journey lies in the historic accommodations en route. It’s a national retirement hobby to buy an old grocery store or home, remodel it and run it as a bed-and-breakfast. The Kiwis take their home improvement very seriously: The Block, an Australian reality television show in which couples compete to remodel a home and auction it, rakes in one of the highest viewerships.
Gilchrists’s has stood there since 1898, and a part of the store is preserved in a time warp. There are politically incorrect dolls, a display of old advertisements, tobacco and snuff boxes and the day-to-day requirements of a farming life.
Further down is the historic Hayes Engineering, which was instrumental in the development of the rural economy. The Hayes family built and invented many engineering tools at this site, such as the wire strainer used to maintain tension on the barbed-wire that fenced farms. The original homestead, the engineering workshop and a cafe now stand on the site of Hayes Engineering, with some of the agriculture tools and mechanisms dating to 1895.
Human industry is not the only point of interest: Most of the trail is through areas without any roads, so it’s absolutely silent, and rural. As we meander among hills, Neville keeps his eyes on the clouds, and is able to predict from their shape the kind of wind we can expect around the next bend.
There are two tunnels to go through, and just before the second is a nesting falcon. Neville has been watching these guys and points out two adult males as they fight mid-air for the favour of the female.
Image: Colin Monteath / Getty Images The hills of Otago roll past, and there is no traffic to look out for, except sheep The day ends at The Pitches Store in Ophir. Ophir was originally named Black’s, and an art deco hotel still uses the name. Like many others, it’s a one-street town that prospered when gold was found in the region in 1863, and was named after one of King Solomon’s mines. Now, it’s just another retirement haven.
Some historic stores, like the Drapery, the Peace Memorial Hall built in 1926 and the post and telegraph office still line the road. The Pitches Store, a B&B, used to be a butchery and grocery store in 1876, and now has rooms named after members of the original family.
The street is punctuated by Honesty Stalls in which people leave local produce and expect buyers to tender exact change in the collection box. The system survives on faith and common sense; the carts are close enough to a house or farm for people to keep an eye.
The Pitches Store is abuzz with groups of cyclists. At dinner, I’m placed between two tables of couples; one is local—a physician and his school teacher wife—while the other are Aussies on holiday. Luckily, both are a chatty lot and we’re soon talking across tables.
Image: Andrew Bain / Getty Images
The downhill ride is soured only by the guilt of seeing cyclists struggling on their way up
Turns out that Kiwi children join school on their individual fifth birthdays, as opposed to a fixed day of the year. This means there is a slow trickle of students throughout the year and the teacher is able to give them specialised attention and iron out learning disabilities. On the flip side, not everyone in class is at the same learning level.
The tragedy of the route I have taken is that I missed the major activity of the trail: Cuddling cute animals. And I find out about this only in Ophir. The Real Dog Equipment Company sells equipment for dogs and provides lodging and boarding for them when the owners are on vacation.
But the real draw is the fact that you can visit just to cuddle and play with the Canadian Eskimo dogs and the Alaskan Malamutes, and enjoy a dog sled ride.
As I unwind over a cup of blood orange infusion and a lemon-and-thyme shortbread cookie, other cyclists stream in. They have had a day of mostly uphill riding that has challenged their muscles as well as their spirits. Since everyone is pedalling through the same landscape, we exchange notes about the weather and elevation that lies in store for us. They are much relieved to know that the next day will be easier.
To end the day, we are welcome to choose between the Pitches Store Jacuzzi and the town’s community swimming pool. But although the spirit is willing, the body says ‘shut up’ and I go to bed.
Day 2: Putting the B the B&B Breakfasts need special attention. Since I am aiming to cycle 39 km, I take the time to take mine in courses. The first one is the delicious Chelan cherries from neighbouring farms. Otago grows most of the country’s stone fruits—cherries, nectarines, apricots, peaches and plums. Then come the powering carbs in the form of muesli with curd and croissants, before we get to the proteins.
Rise early. Make time for this. You will cherish it when you are 30 minutes into your ride.
Day 2 also starts uphill until you get out of town, and then there’s a slow glide all the way. It’s a thrilling downhill soured only by the guilt you feel when you see cyclists huffing and puffing on their way up. Kiwi etiquette demands you make small talk with everyone you see. “Hi, nice day for cycling, huh?” “The decline is just around the corner.” “Hello! Where you going for the day?”
The scenery remains comforting similar, and if you only do one day of the trail you won’t be missing much. But it’s not just nature that is fulfilling; it is also about the people you meet on the way.
The second day warrants a stop at Como Villa Vineyard and Museum just before Clyde. The winery produces award-winning Pinot Noir but, most entertainingly, has artefacts from the time of its inception, 1865. Its first work truck, a 1923 Dodge, still stands there and the window panes are lined with newspapers from 1869.
The day ends at Olivers Lodge and Stables in Clyde, another historic B&B in a one-horse town. Since all of these are the result of the owner’s love and imagination, they are filled with memorable details. In the kitchen hangs a letter written by a little girl who lived in the house in 1894, describing her summer there. The proprietors, David and Andrea Ritchie, discovered it online.
The patio of my room is enclosed to make a luxurious bathroom. The blinds filter the long daylight—the summer sun sets at 9.45 pm—and, through the backdoor, a flowering shrub fights to get in. The door leads to a private sit-out mottled with poppies, hollyhox and roses.
Next morning, I sit out there with a bowl of ginormous cherries and a sombre dog named Sky. There is a stillness in central Otago that stays with you long after the landscape has receded. It also takes a while for the rhythm of the pedal to leave you.
Cycling may be an intimate way to know a country, but there is something to be said for sitting still too.
The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand and all the activities were arranged by them in partnership with local businesses