The fame of the Otago Central Rail Trail has well and
truly spread, to the extent that it has become a model for
tourism industry development. Here Phil
Taylor, of the New Zealand Herald, gives a northern
perspective on the phenomenon as he searches for lessons for
John Key's great New Zealand Bike Trail.
The Poolburn Tunnel on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo
from ODT files.
Not so long ago the Maniototo really was the back of beyond.
Despite the endeavours of Grahame Sydney's paintbrush and
Peter Jackson's camera, the beauty of the herb-scented,
bronze, iron and purple-hued landscape remained a secret
shared by a fortunate few.
The Pigroot, from Palmerston through Ranfurly, Omakau and on
to Alexandra was the road less travelled - the alternative
way to Queenstown.
The rail trail changed that, bringing bikes and dollars and
transforming adjacent towns that grew long ago on gold and
the railway but had withered in recent decades.
I witnessed the rejuvenation, thanks to regular visits to a
family bach in the Ida Valley, a stone's throw from the
trail. After the tracks were lifted in 1991, young family
members would scour for bolts, railway relics they would
hoard like treasure.
Work began on the 150km trail in 1994, and it was officially
open in 2000. In its early days you could walk the trail for
an hour and not see a soul. Now, it is a rarity for a cyclist
not to be in view.
Bed and breakfast establishments sprang up in places where
once you couldn't buy a cup of tea. Neglected buildings -
pieces of rural history - were restored and purpose-built
lodges appeared in places such as Oturehua (one has a heated
indoor pool), once known only for its curling and the
motorcyclists' midwinter Brass Monkey Rally.
The trail is like a chain, dependent on each link. Cyclists
want to stop every few hours for food, drink and to explore
places of interest. If there are no facilities in one place,
the trail staggers.
Take Hyde. Fifteen years ago, sun-beaten and dry as a husk on
a cycling trip with a few hardy friends, we were mildly
alarmed that there appeared to be no shop or place to get
water in the town of Hyde.
There was a shop, as it turned out, but not as we city folk
knew it. A young boy playing beside the road informed us that
his mother ran a small store, literally from her kitchen
We bought soft drinks but she wouldn't let us pay for the
bottomless cups of tea and biscuits she plied us with as we
sat round the kitchen table, or for the telephone call (it
was pre-cellphone coverage) one of us needed to make.
They were country people, the sort of New Zealanders it is
heartening to reacquaint yourself with, the kind you can
still find along the rail trail.
Hyde has become an important link in the trail, not because a
politician deemed that a trail was a good idea but because
enough people saw potential and took a punt.
That's happened up and down the trail but in Hyde, that
person was Ngaire Sutherland.
Sutherland borrowed to restore the town's forgotten Otago
Central Hotel, a gem that serves great coffee and meals,
provides a lounge of memorabilia and deep armchairs along
with accommodation ranging from a boutique cottage, rooms
with en suites, to a backpacker dorm and tent sites.
But the trail was not an instant success or a concept
New Zealand Rail's tracks were on Crown land and when the
railways were sold the Central Otago line was abandoned as