Making tracks: Following the rail trail's lead

The Poolburn Tunnel on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo from ODT files.
The Poolburn Tunnel on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Photo from ODT files.
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.

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 fridge.

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 immediately embraced.

New Zealand Rail's tracks were on Crown land and when the railways were sold the Central Otago line was abandoned as uneconomic.