Athol and back or bust

A ‘‘Golden Gate’’ suspension bridge.
A ‘‘Golden Gate’’ suspension bridge.
Eleanor Hughes takes a ride from Kingston to Athol and discovers the area’s rich history.

The rain stopped belting down as I arrived in Kingston ... which was good. My afternoon plan was to cycle the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail to Athol and back, a distance of 60km. By the time I got going, it was already 2.30pm. Thankfully, I had an e-bike. But would I make it there and back before dark?

Riding downhill in Kent St from Kingston Top 10 Holiday Park, white-capped Lake Wakatipu came into view; low cloud covered much of the snow-tipped Remarkables beyond. Crossing railway lines, I spotted, to the left, a black locomotive behind several green carriages, a green water tower perched above them. The locomotive was numbered 795. I wondered if it was the Kingston Flyer that I had caught back in 1974 when it was running as a tourist attraction to Fairlight. Following the road around to the right past the creamy-painted Flyer Cafe, once the Kingston Railway Station, I noticed an old timetable for the Flyer still on display. Further along, passing a few green freight carriages near the lakefront, I found another silent black locomotive, number 778, protected under a roof. Maybe, it was this one.

I read about the Kingston Flyer and Kingston’s history back on a board near the cafe. The town was once named St John, after Irish policeman St John Branigan, who wielded a lot of power in the area in the mid-1800s. It was renamed Kingston in 1864 to mirror Queenstown across the lake.

Back on my bike, I followed signage to the trail head and after a short zigzag climb was soon cycling a straight path of fine gravel leaving Kingston behind. On my right, huge rock boulders, sheared from Eyre Mountains cliffs, lay covered in vegetation at their base; to the left, farmland, brown tussock and yellow-flowered gorse.

Garston welcomes.
Garston welcomes.
Among tussock, the remains of the corner of a rock wall came into sight. An information board revealed it was settler and pastoralist William Trotter’s homestead, which was built around the 1860s. Facing the Remarkables, it had a picturesque view. But the Trotters must have had an isolated, harsh life.

Train lines appear across the flat land, then the trail cuts between green pastures. Sheep and cows stare, lambs bounce, heavily pregnant ewes graze. An occasional ploughed, rich brown field pungent with fertiliser breaks the greenness. Deer in another field run as gravel crunches underneath my wheels. Bright green trees contrast with dark pine, rolling, lush green hills are backed by dry-looking, brown crumpled mountains. Somewhere along the way, I cross the Otago boundary into Southland.

An old, deserted railway station stands at Fairlight, once the end of the line for the Kingston Flyer excursion.

I don’t remember it, and discover that’s because it has only been here since 1996 — having been once situated in Otautau. I read of Fairlight Station, a Southland high-country property, and of Dog Box Hut, the smallest hut in New Zealand, located up Eyre Creek. The trail there is rideable, but sadly I haven’t got time.

The pale blue Mataura River looks chilly as I ride the suspension bridge over it. Fly-fishing access points are marked; a vintage concrete farm roller lies abandoned; flat pasture rises to dark menacing rock cliffs. I read about Nevis Rd, only driveable from October to the end of May, which traverses a saddle, gorge and tussock ridge before reaching Bannockburn in Central Otago.

Getting close to Kingston as the sun goes down.
Getting close to Kingston as the sun goes down.
One and a-quarter hours after leaving Kingston, I reach Garston. Across the road, State Highway 6, the silver Coffee Bomb food truck is serving Roar coffee, roasted in Lumsden. They also offer burgers, muffins, croissants, whitebait fritters ... and Southland cheese rolls. Yet to try one, I place an order. The cheese is runny, there’s a hint of onion ... delicious.

I take a quick look in Garston Stables, which sells items such as antique chests of drawers, trunks, art and lights. The deer antler chandelier is certainly different ... Adjacent, The Hunny Shop sells clover and manuka honeys — thyme-flavoured manuka sounds interesting — plus health and beauty products derived from honey. I’ll have to come back once I have four wheels.

Information panels on the roadside detail Garston’s history, the discovery of gold in the area in the 1860s and of a 1930s ski club. Opposite, the Art Deco-style Garston Hotel is closed, up for sale.

A few turns of the pedals bring me to a seat made of railway sleepers dedicated to Russell Glendinning, who drove the Kingston Flyer from 1971 to 2002. A panel tells of Russell’s, and the Kingston Flyer’s, history. The white Presbyterian church, a tiny porch out front and three windows on either side, stands tucked behind pine trees. It’s only good luck that I spot a quirky collection of miniature houses, and toy and china rabbits with a sign reading Peter Rabbit’s House, beneath the branches of a huge old pine tree just past it.

Hidden below a pine tree in Garston.
Hidden below a pine tree in Garston.
Athol is 12km away ... I risk it. The trail runs parallel to the road; cars zipping past miss what I see. The unpainted grey weatherboard shed with the remains of red paint on its corrugated roof; the wooden remains of Nokomai railway siding. Offering accommodation, distant Naylor House, a schist stone cottage built about 1880 for farmer Fredrick Naylor, stands surrounded by towering oak trees. Sheep watch as I pass a fireplace and chimney, with what perhaps was a wood-burning stove alongside, standing in a fenced paddock where daffodils bloom. Further on, grass grows up around an old metal farm implement, maybe a tiller.

Resembling a mini Golden Gate Bridge, two suspension bridges cross the Mataura River. Between them, I read of a near disastrous carriage crossing in 1875 when the river was deeper than thought.

I arrive in Athol about 4.45pm. Athol Gallery has beautiful landscape paintings in its lit window and a sculpture of a deer made from branches stands out front. The Red Barn with intricate, white fretwork, resembles a playhouse — a sheep is half the height of its door. I ride as far as the Brown Trout Cafe, passing cute colonial cottages, where an information board opposite shares local stories. There’s not a soul around.

Rain sets in as I leave. It stings my eyes. The temperature plummets. I struggle, even in turbo-mode, riding into a headwind. As I near Kingston, heading towards the V between mountain ridges where Lake Wakatipu lies, the setting sun bursts through. It glances off the snow-tipped Remarkables and makes silhouettes of the Eyre Mountains, turns brown hills golden and green fields more vivid. Stunning.

The day runs out of light. The bike runs out of power. But that’s OK ... an hour and three-quarters from Athol, the camping ground is only 200m away. I did it ... and it was well worth it!


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