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.

Warren Cooper, a former government minister and Queenstown mayor, proposed giving the land beneath the tracks to adjacent landowners.

At the same time an idea developed in the Department of Conservation that it be transformed into a trail as had been done in the United States.

"I have to say there were as many against it as there were for, both among the staff and the community," says Les Cleveland, who was chairman of the Otago Conservation Board and the inaugural chairman of the trust (Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust) set up to support the trail.

"It was a bit of a battle. `This is our country, not yours. If you think people are going to start walking over old railway lines or ride along it on bikes, well why don't you go back to the moon where you belong'. These were the sort of comments," says Cleveland, the trust's patron.

The "womenfolk, farmer's wives" were first to catch on to possibilities, asking questions about the potential of such a trail.

Cleveland related how in America they had rejuvenated hamlets that suffered after the railway went. The parallel with Central towns is plain.

"Waipiata, there's a good one," enthuses Cleveland.

"There was a school, shops, a hotel, a post office and all that was left was a pub and that was struggling. Now, it's booming."

"Wedderburn is another. All that was left after the closure of the school, the post office, the garage was the struggling pub. Since the trail, they are up hundreds of percent."

Ranfurly, under the drive of livewire Edna McAtamney, refurbished its railway station, set up a radio station and museums on the promise of the trail and has become a busy rural Art Deco centre with an annual festival.

A new motel was recently built. A far cry from a decade or so ago when one resident sold a property in the town for a few dollars just to get rid of the rates burden.

The people of Middlemarch planted trees and daffodils and laid a lawn where the railyards once were, creating a picnic spot and carpark at the Dunedin end of the trail.

As much as money, the trail brought pride.

"There's nothing better than going down to the pub and meeting someone who appreciates where you live," says Stuart Duncan, fourth-generation Wedderburn farmer and trail entrepreneur.

"Farmers are always whingeing about the meat companies or about something. To meet positive people makes a massive difference. It builds a bit of respect for where you are."

A Duncan ancestor was the second white man to forage these schist-strewn hills for gold.

After the gold his family was the first to turn a sod up on Rough Ridge, the land that became Penvose Farm, the land that Stuart, wife Lorraine, and his parents still work.

With the highest point of the trail (618m above sea level) nearby, Wedderburn is a natural stopover and the town now boasts 100 tourist beds, with the Duncans one of the biggest operators on the trail.

The family leapt at the whiff of opportunity the trail brought. Stuart Duncan had already built a rustic nine-hole golf course on a piece of his farm across the road from the pub (which doubles as the clubhouse).

Next they did up the empty brick farmhouse, now the "The Lodge", which sleeps 10.

With the impetus of the rail trail, they have built 14 cottages, each with television and en suite. The pub, which was once lucky to see more than half a dozen people on a winter day provides meals for 70 during peak trail months, January through to March.

"To us it's been a great diversification. Where else do you get the mother, father, son and daughter-in-law all working together from home?

"The farm and tourism provide full-time work for the family and part-time work for at least five others - a far cry from when Stuart returned from England in 1992, when it provided work for just him and his father.

"You have to get people visiting the country again for what it has to offer. That's what puts people in the cafés, in the shops selling ice creams. I get a bit excited about some of these things.

"When we as a family said we were going to do all this, people laughed - another crazy idea" Not now.

The Duncans have hosted 4000 people in the past seven months, including a record 888 in March.

Though the trail has worked in Central Otago, Duncan points out the area had all the necessary ingredients; scenery, history, a ready-made trail and settlements to service tourists.

That cyclists keen on the road less travelled found their way there well before the trail was born was an early indication of interest in the area.

The towns that sprang up to feed miners and railway workers and as hitching posts for wagons were spaced a handy distance apart.

"Every stop was about at a distance that a horse could walk in two hours."

Enough pubs survived to provide well-spaced stops for trail users.

Even so, it was a struggle.

Red tape and local resistance (some still mourn the lost isolation) were significant hurdles, says Duncan.

"You had to have a thick skin because the opposition was great. It was only when someone made a success of it that people started swinging around."

His advice for a national trail is that each section needs a natural start and end, with food and accommodation at each and cafés and pubs dotted along the route.

Great scenery and a bit of history helps.

"It needs to be like a wine tour in Australia. It needs a certain amount of romance.

"There will be pockets of New Zealand where it will work really well, but I'm not sure that government people are the right ones to drive it. Go to the local authorities: they know where the old trails are."

And it will take time.

The Rail Trail grew under its own steam and took years to reach its current success.

"We need to be thoughtful about what we are doing. If we can replicate [what made the Rail Trail a success] and build up a network piece by piece, that's the way to do it rather than get a bulldozer and say `see you in Bluff'.

"We need to pick up those bits where people are really going to want to do it and, eventually, you link them together."

Prime Minister John Key, who rode a bike growing up in Christchurch, but has done little cycling since (the Rail Trail is on the Key family's to-do list) says his enthusiasm for a national trail is growing.

The vision remains to eventually have a New Zealand Cycle Way from Cape to Bluff, but Mr Key says rolling out a new trail from end to end was not the best way to do it and won't happen.

It will be done as a patchwork, using established tracks, building new trails and ultimately linking them.

"It's sensible to do it as a network, as a patchwork of trails being established at one time."

Two officials in Mr Key's Tourism Ministry are working on the concept full-time, liaising with the keepers of the conservation estate and the railways and with other interested parties such as Bike New Zealand.

There are many disused rail lines and, says Mr Key, Ontrack isn't opposed to putting a bike corridor next to existing rail lines where that makes sense, such as the Napier to Gisborne line.

"My first thought was that it was quite a good idea, something people might look back on and think is cool, but the more I have got into it, the more I think it's really good.

"It will be a significant drawcard for tourists, domestic and international, and will build its own brand."

"Even though you get smacked around by the Opposition, I reckon in years to come people will say `it took a bit of vision but they did it. It was a good idea'."

Build it and they will come? John Key as Kevin Costner? The wheels are turning.

The rail trail

• 552 full-time and part-time staff; 29.7% said the trail was very important in their decision to buy or start a business.

• Half the businesses along the trail get 20% of their revenue from trail tourists.

• Conservative estimate of 12,000 ride the trail each year. 30% on the trail are from overseas, mainly Australia, Europe, Canada and the US. The average rider is middle-aged and of average fitness.

• Distance of 150km, steepest gradient 1 in 50. $1.3 million spent redecking bridges, on toilets, signage, and resurfacing the hard-packed metal trail.

• Cycle tourists stay on average 49.2 nights in New Zealand, twice the average, and spend 1.6 times as much.

Sources: 2008 Otago Central Rail Trail Economic Impact and Trends Survey; From Steam Trains to Pedal Power, The Story of the Otago Central Rail Trail, Ministry of Tourism.


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