Exploring the Strath Taieri by bike

Keep those legs pumping. John Fridd cycles through the rock-studded hinterland of Dunedin, enjoying the friendships, the picnics and the remoteness.


So you bought a bike (perhaps your partner in life did, too), trained furiously and knocked off the rail trail. Now what?

The risk is that the bike might now gather cobwebs in the garage, playing second fiddle to other sporting or recreational pastimes - or perhaps the couch and Sky TV.

There is another option. With a little planning, it's easy to put together any number of interesting weekend bike trips from Dunedin.

I ride regularly with one of the AOK Social Riders groups, which head out somewhere in the greater Dunedin area on recreational, social mountain-bike rides each Saturday.

We occasionally organise longer trips to explore new territory and have fun in the process.

Two such trips have involved heading up to the Strath Taieri, using a resource many people don't think about when considering a rail trail adventure.

The Otago Central railway starts near Mosgiel, not Middlemarch, and the 64km of track still in place on the spectacular section in between still functions as a working railway.

The Taieri Gorge Railway runs daily and sometimes twice-daily trips up towards Middlemarch, providing an ideal way for Dunedin cyclists to get well into Central Otago with little effort and enjoy some wonderful scenery on the way.

Or if you are feeling more energetic, you can - as we did last year - start by tackling part of undulating George King Memorial Dr, which heads from Outram towards Middlemarch, roughly following the railway for a time.

It's a good idea to arrange for a non-riding partner or friend to tag along in a car to carry your baggage - otherwise you'll have to carry backpacks or buy panniers, which can be a hassle. Assuming you are turning these into weekend rides, it's a good idea to arrange for someone with a bike rack or trailer to pick you up at the end.

Ride 1
If you're reasonably fit, allow two hours to ride the 33km from Mosgiel to Hindon station to catch the train (in the summer, on Saturdays the first train of the day reaches Hindon about 10.30am, then 3.30pm for the afternoon train, but double-check with the Taieri Gorge Railway on the trains running the day you want to ride).

Depart from Mosgiel (or Dunedin) on your bike and ride south from Mosgiel along the Silver Stream track to the Gladfield Rd ford. Cross the ford and ride out to SH87 on Gladfield Rd, School Rd and Riverside Rd.

Turn left on to the highway, cross the Taieri River bridge then turn hard right and take George King Memorial Dr towards Hindon. This heads up into the rolling hills so includes some stiff hillclimbs in places, but you can always walk.

Enjoy the nice views back over the Taieri Plain as you pause to catch your breath on the first hillclimb on this sealed road.

The 200m plunge into Lee Stream is exciting, but of course you then have to climb out. There's another nice downhill to Hindon station and you will see the railway stretching out in the gorge below. This is a good place to eat the packed lunch you brought along.

Soon, the gorge train will hove into sight and you can throw your bike in the back carriage and settle back for a coffee and muffin and enjoy the amazing scenery on what is the best part of the Taieri Gorge trip.

Too soon, you'll reach Pukerangi, where the train usually turns around. It's your cue to leave the train and remount your bike for the easy 20km ride, mainly downhill, to Middlemarch. The road winds through farmland studded with fantastically shaped rocks and you really start to feel as though you're in Central, with the majestic Rock and Pillar Range filling the sky to the left.

Soon, you're back on SH87 and cruising up to Middlemarch, your overnight stopover point. There are good options here for accommodation and food, from Blind Billy's camp to various B&Bs, and Kate Wilson's Kissing Gate Cafe offers scrummy food.

On day two, you're off to pedal through what will be uncharted territory for many. Head out of Middlemarch on the Macraes back road (signposted Moonlight Rd), after picking up something portable for lunch from the Middlemarch store.

About 19km up the road, take Nenthorn Rd, which heads east, then Ramrock Rd, which will take you to the historic Nenthorn gold-mining precinct, 28.5km from Middlemarch and a good lunch stop.

Little remains now of an area once touted by over-enthusiastic speculators as having the potential to be Otago's largest inland town, but it's worth a fossick.

Back on Ramrock Rd, keep heading east on this undulating, seldom-travelled unsealed road, enjoying the solitude of a truly remote area.

Eventually, you will be confronted by two big "up and downs" which will test your legs. One passes Buckleys Crossing, a popular swimming spot. You're now close to Cherry Farm and SH1, and it's a quick pedal over to Karitane and the blue Pacific Ocean.

By the time you get to Karitane, you've knocked off 68km, which is probably enough for one day for many riders, so this is a good place to arrange a pick-up to take you and your bike back to Dunedin or Mosgiel. However, the coast road to Evansdale, via Seacliff and Warrington, beckons if you want more and two of our party biked all the way back to Dunedin.

Ride 2
The first part of this ride is much more leisurely than the start of Ride 1.

Catch the Saturday 9.30am Taieri Gorge train at Dunedin Railway Station, slinging your bike in the back, and ride all the way to Pukerangi, enjoying the stunning Taieri Gorge scenery.

You'll be on your bike by 11.30am and should be able to ride the 20km to Middlemarch in an hour or so, arriving in good time for lunch.

Then pop on to the rail trail for the pleasant 30km ride up to Hyde. This is one of the straighter parts of the trail but includes a memorial to the 1943 rail disaster when the Dunedin-bound train crashed, killing 21 people, and the cute Hyde Railway Station, which is still intact along with a short length of railway track and the odd carriage.

The ride from Middlemarch to Hyde should take only two hours or so, so you will get to Hyde in good time after pedalling about 50km for the day. You might even opt to have a quick cold drink then hop back on your bike and ride further up the rail trail to inspect the first of the trail's tunnels.

The only place to stay at Hyde is the revitalised Otago Central Hotel, which now operates more as a B&B with attached cafe. It can provide evening meals. However, this is a very popular place over the warmer months and you must book well ahead.

The next morning, after a cooked or continental breakfast, remount your steed and head back down SH87 towards Middlemarch for a few kilometres before turning left to take the road to Macraes.

You now embark on a stiff 280m climb, but the views back over the Strath Taieri are worth it.

After about two hours of pedalling you should have knocked off the 20km ride to Macraes and if you arrive by 10am, you'll be in time for the morning mine tour - check with Macraes mine that this is still operating.

It's well worth taking the chance to view aspects of this huge gold-mining project you won't see from the road.

Stanleys Hotel at Macraes is the obvious place to have lunch, then you're back on the bike for the final push down to Palmerston.

Head north on the main road for 3km, then turn right on to Golden Bar Rd and you will soon be riding through some remote sheep and cattle country.

When you reach Stoneburn Rd, turn right and just 1.5km down the road turn left on to Taieri Peak Rd and follow this road all the way to Palmerston.

There are some exhilarating downhills on the way, as you lose altitude all the way to the coast.

The ride from Macraes to Palmerston is 34.5km, bringing the day's total ride from Hyde to 55km. There are good options in Palmerston for a coffee and muffin over which you can discuss your big weekend adventure - and plan the next one.

If you haven't got someone with a car accompanying you, this is a good place to arrange a pick-up for bikes and riders back to Dunedin.

Another way of getting back home is catching one of the shuttle buses that also take bikes - check with the Taieri Gorge booking office on this. AOK Social Riders outings are listed in the ODT sports draws, under mountain biking, or email jfridd@xtra.co.nz .

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