Sarah and Nick made it to Middlemarch | Nick Lambrechtsen
When I checked out in Middlemarch and asked the staff: “who is the oldest person who did the rail trail?”, they answered: “we don’t know”. So when I told them that I was 86, they said “you have to write an article for our magazine”. This is my story.
My daughter Sarah had been planning to make this trip before Covid-19 hit us. We finally arrived in Queenstown on 14 November 2020, and got going on the next day. With the assistance of the staff at Trail Journeys, Sarah had arranged a five-day trip with lots of excursions that such a leisurely pace allows. But we still did 175 km in total.
Sarah was confident that I could do the trip, because I was born in the Netherlands, and thus “born on a bike” as some people claim. I keep myself in reasonable shape by trying to go the gym twice a week [I don’t always succeed], and my wife makes sure that we eat healthy meals. In Clyde, we stayed at the historical Dunstan House and had a magnificent dinner at Oliver’s. The next day, we got our bikes in Clyde: Sarah on an ordinary bike, and me on an electric one. I had ridden one in Wellington a few times along the waterfront, but I don’t own one, so I was shown the ropes.
Arriving in Alexandra, we had the first example of generous southern hospitality: the manager of Asure Avenue Motel lent us a car so that we did not have to leave our bikes at the boat ramp there. We were concerned that they might get stolen. The jet boat cruise on Lake Roxburgh with Laurence van der Eb was fantastic and we saw real Chinese bivouacs from goldmining days. Those men did it hard. Once back on terra firma, we drove the car back to Clyde to see the booking office and little museum, next to Dunstan House, where Laurence’s wife treated us to some gold bars made of soap.
From Alexandra we cycled to Omakau in the rain. We stopped at Chatto Creek to have lunch and see its post office which was in a tiny hut but obviously well used in its hey days. When we got to Omakau, we met up with some old friends and the sun had come out so that we could dry everything very smartly. We were taken to Black’s Hotel at Ophir for an enjoyable pub meal with friendly locals. The next day, we went back to Ophir to see not only the suspension bridge but of course, the famous post office which is the longest continuously in operation post office in NZ. And you can get the local stamp on your postcards, done by your own fair hand under careful supervision of its manager Val.
The trip from Ophir to Oturehua goes through impressive rock formations, and through the two Poolburn Gorge tunnels. The first one is quite long so we walked through it, using our headlights. But the second one was shorter and you could see the other end, so I thought I could cycle through it. That was a big mistake because halfway through, it got very dark. I panicked and slammed on the brakes so that I fell, and hurt my right elbow. No elbow pads!! Fortunately, I was wearing long sleeves and trousers which limited the damage. Of course, we stopped at the Hayes Engineering Works which is a testament to NZ ingenuity, especially for farmers, but the workshop would not meet OSH requirements these days with its belt-driven equipment and dirt floors. We spent so long looking through the works and the Hayes homestead that we were too late for the cafeteria. We were amused to learn that the power supply for the works also supplied the homestead, and that when the works stopped for the day, the power to the house was also switched off. Evenings by candlelight? That day was a long and tiring day, not helped by a fairly strong Nor-Wester. But the accommodation at Inverlair Lodge was magnificent, so that we could rest our weary bones.
While in Oturehua, we visited the Gilchrist Store of course which is 2/3 museum and 1/3 real country store. There we ran into one of the trustees of the rail trail who talked us into getting the “Passport” which enables you to record all the stops on the way. Having passed several stops already, we were assured that we could get the missing stamps at Wedderburn, and so it happened. The Passport also provides additional information on what to see along the trail. On the trip from Oturehua to Ranfurly, we came past the highest point and were told that it was downhill from then on. But thanks to a southerly wind, it was no freewheeling. At Wedderburn, we enjoyed seeing the historical videos, all 6 of them. When we got to Ranfurly, we saw the Sun, having seen the planets of the solar system at the right distance from the sun along the trail. This wonderful initiative, called the Otago Central Interplanetary Cycle Trail, was developed with assistance from Associate Prof Antoni Moore, University of Otago. We were taken to the historic township `Naseby to go curling at the internationally famous Indoor Curling Rink. It was a great experience and a lot of fun. We had a delicious dinner at the Royal Hotel of rabbit pie which helped to bring the rabbit population down a little bit. Rabbits are again a big problem in Central Otago, and the highly skilled rabbiters seem to be in short supply.
The next day we visited Kyeburn Diggings by 4-wheel drive of Off Trail Tours, and had a great discussion on the proper management of the high-country tussock grasslands which are now under DoC control. Most runholders think that DoC is allowing the build-up of a huge fire risk which it won’t be able to control if a fire were to break out. Time will tell but the recent Ohau fire does not augur well. The Kyeburn Diggings are impressive white quartz gold tailings which are being ruined by hoons in 4-wheel drive vehicles, much to the dismay of our driver George.
From Ranfurly we cycled to Waipiata where we had a very generous lunch at the hotel. Then through the Taieri Gorge. Walked over the bridges because they can shake you up badly with the uneven decking, and through the Prices Creek Tunnel. Overnighted at the Hyde Lodge and Cottage where we had the Lodge to ourselves. A very elaborate dinner was waiting for us. The wind had been from the south, so still no free-wheeling!
The final day from Hyde to Middlemarch went through the Taieri River valley with the Rock and Pillar Range on one side and the Taieri Ridge on the other side. By this stage my back side was getting quite sore in spite of the gel seat covers that were provided. Moreover, I kept sliding forward on the seat which was annoying; did not manage to adjust the tilt of the seat. But it was again impressive countryside to cycle through. Although there was a bit of a Nor-wester, we did not see the famous Taieri Pet cloud formation.
At Middlemarch, we were lucky that the Strath Taieri Museum was open, being a Friday. Although the museum has an amazing collection of local history, I was even more lucky to speak with one of the volunteers who happened to be one of NZ’s prominent Merino breeders, Rod Jones. So we had another great yarn about how the high country should be managed. I have a special affinity for the high country since I worked there as a scientist in the 1960’s. This was a fitting end to a great trip which I would not have been able to make without the careful support of my daughter Sarah.
After 175 km, we handed in our bikes at the Trail Journeys office, and were taken back to Dunedin, after promising to write this story. Dr Nick Lambrechtsen QSM, Wellington.