Melody Teh

Domestic Travel

Why you need to visit the spectacular Otago Central Rail Trail

Why you need to visit the spectacular Otago Central Rail Trail

Geoff Gabites, a young 64-year-old, discovered cycling in his 40s and quickly turned the sport into an occupation. Adventure South was established in 1992 and is now the leading cycle tour company in New Zealand. 

Named after the old railway line, built back at the turn of the 20th century, the Otago Central Rail Trail is a must ride. That’s because the initial draw card still remains – stunning vast natural landscapes, beautiful skies, friendly locals and 150 kilometres of flat riding. The trip isn’t just about cycling, there are a number of small historic towns to explore along the way, a legacy of the railway heritage. There are also a number of new accommodation, coffee and dining options that have emerged to cater to the increasing number of tourist visiting. The support structure is now sophisticated with cycle hire of all shapes and forms, luggage transfers, accommodation booking websites and support shuttle options available, as well as guided options for the ultimate carefree experience.

The history 

After government help to develop a walkway and cycleway on the line, the trail was finally opened in 2000. The core market at that time was young backpackers and independent riders. Accommodation, where it existed, was largely dormitory based, with many riders opting to camp along the route, often down by quiet flowing rivers and shady willows. The trail surface was rough as some of the ballast surface still remained and the food offerings along the trail usually consisted of the local pub fare. The coffee was Gregs or Nescafe – instant! Dining out options were extremely limited!

Despite this, numbers gradually grew as the Otago Central Railway Trust. The backpacker network spread the news of the quiet locations, the huge skies and the landscapes made famous by Graeme Sydney paintings. By around 2004 there was a steady trickle of riders and the businesses set up to deal with the market were feeling happy with the niche market. But word soon spread northwards as well as outward, about the stunning landscapes and the shoulder to shoulder local interaction down at the pub. This was the genuine New Zealand and the backpacker market loved it!

Enter the middle-aged Kiwi female and her friends. Around 2006, I visited a few of our accommodation locations we infrequently used on various tours in the area. Of these locations, all of them were keen to talk about their plans for next season to cater for the growing demand of these “middle aged baby boomers who were starting to turn up with their friends and having a hellava great time”. The word had spread northwards and the floodgates were about to open.

By 2008, Adventure South were running guided trips on the Otago Central Rail Trail and by 2010, these had become weekly departures. My insight into this market came when I talked to one group of organiser and the conversation went something like this:

“Hi Margaret, it’s great to finally meet you after our various emails.  Your group of 6six are already for their trip?  How is your cycle fitness – and where are your partners?”

Margaret’s response was enlightening: “Hell, we’re not big cyclists, but we do get together every Saturday and ride about 20 kilometres – just as a social thing. Mary’s neighbour rode the Otago Central Rail Trail last summer and we saw her photos and she loved it, so here we are!”

“And what about your husbands and partners…?”

“Huh, they were always too busy to join us, had rugby to watch, work to do, and all sorts of excuses, so bugger them, we’re here to have a good time!”

The guide’s code of ethics ensures what went on tour, stayed on tour.

Interestingly enough, within two years, the trickle became a flood, and sure enough, the males were there believing it was all their idea. The casual Saturday cycle ride had now swelled to become a social phenomenon with lycra to the fore, training regimes the norm, and wide gel seats the norm.  The age bracket continued to grow and is now well into the 70s.

It has become a favourite of the over60 set and I recommend everyone give it a go.

Have you ridden the Otago Central Rail before? Share your experience with us in the comments below.

To find more information about cycling in New Zealand, visit Cycle Journeys site here. 

Image credits: Adventure South NZ  

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