Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail: A quick history

Otago Central Rail Trail Start | Lachlan Gardiner
Otago Central Rail Trail Start | Lachlan Gardiner
What is the relationship between gold and cycling in the South Island? They have both been economic lifeblood’s to various regions however their history is closer aligned than you might think.

In 1861, gold was discovered in the Central Otago region, bringing men from all over to try their chances to strike it rich quick. The influx of people saw the region flourish, and a railway line built between Clyde and Middlemarch to help transport the yellow metal to market.

By the time the boom ended in the 1930s, local roads had also improved and with alternate freight options available the need for the railway line diminished considerably. By the 1990s, the line between Clyde and Middlemarch had been closed and the tracks removed.

While it was gold that brought people to the Central Otago region in 1861, today it's this legacy from gold rush period that has revitalised a region with people on bicycles eager to spend money in remote communities that otherwise may not have had a steady income stream.
Matakanui General Store |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i> Matakanui General Store |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i> Historic Hayes Engineering |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i> Historic Hayes Engineering |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i> Wedderburn Cottages |  <i>Lachlan Gardiner</i>

Recognising the potential of turning the disused trail into a new cycling Rail Trail the, the Department of Conservation liaised with local farmers and the community to propose their ‘crazy idea’. It was based on similiar Rail Trails in Europe, and while many were initially against it, they’ve certainly embraced it now that it has become a New Zealand tourism success story.

In the year 2000, the Otago Central Rail Trail was opened and soon businesses like Kayak & Outdoor in Alexandria, owned by Neville Grubb and Ritchie Bailey, soon turned their sights towards servicing this new lycra army. Neville and Ritchie initially sold and serviced mowers, cycles, saws and kayaks but changed the name to “Trail Journeys” soon after shifting to Clyde in 2003 after seeing a business opportunity to rent bikes for those wanting to cycle the new trail. 

Having been built on an old railway line, the gradient is steady and the trail is also vehicle free, making the Otago Central Rail Trail an attractive cycling option for cyclists of various abilities. E-bikes have opened the market up even further.

Since it opened, the Otago Central Rail Trail has been rated by Lonely Planet as one of NZ’s ‘must-do’ adventures, and the NZ Government, looking to revitalize other communities across New Zealand, launched the Nga Haerenga project, rolling out $50 million to build a series of world class cycling trails across the North and South Islands to attract even more tourists keen to experience New Zealand in an active way. 

Their plan worked. Today New Zealand has become a cycling Mecca thanks to its excellent infrastructure of cycling trails snaking their way through our spectacular landscapes. And it all started with the gold rush of 1861.

Otago Rail Trail

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