Introduction

New Zealand's original great ride. It is one of a network of special cycle trails throughout New Zealand. Walkers, cyclists and horse riders can follow the former Otago Central Branch railway line for 150 kilometres from Middlemarch to Clyde.

Track overview

Walking and tramping

Easy: Walking track

Mountain biking

Easy: Grade 2

Other activities

  • Horse riding

Dog access

Dogs on a leash only

About this track

Description

NZ Cycle Trail logo.

The Otago Central Rail Trail is a unique recreational facility, following the former Otago Central Branch Railway for 150 km from Middlemarch to Clyde.

Walkers at the Poolburn viaduct. Photo: J Gordon.
A trail for all ages; a family crossing the Poolburn Viaduct

The rail trail has been developed by DOC in partnership with the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust as a recreational facility for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

Since the closure of the railway in 1990, more than 60 bridges have been redecked and have had hand rails added to make them safe for trail users. The crushed rock ballast of the railway foundation has also been removed and replaced with gravel to improve the surface.

Today you can cycle or walk over the many bridges on the trail.
Today you can cycle or walk over the many bridges on the trail

The rail trail has become very popular and is used annually by many thousands of cyclists and walkers from around the globe. Most cyclists cover the 150 km over 3-4 days and walkers can take up to a week. Many people, though, just do several sections over a period of time.

Poolburn Tunnel No.2. Photo: J Gordon.
Poolburn Tunnel No.2

The Otago Rail Trail joined the New Zealand Cycle Trail Nga Haerenga in March 2012.

Riding or walking the trail

The rail trail is similar to riding or walking on a reasonably level gravel road or track, as the gradient rarely exceeds 1 in 50, but it isn't an asphalt pathway. Work on improving the surface is continuing; trail users should expect some bumps and loose material.

Would-be trailists should be aware that the trail is 150 km, which is a long way and means 4-5 hours a day on a bike. For this reason pre-trip training on rougher ground is a good idea, enabling you to have a much more enjoyable experience when you do the trail.

Average walking speed is 4-6 km/hr and for cyclists it's 10-12 km/hr.

Where to stay

On the trail there are two basic camping areas with toilets. One is between Daisybank and Tiroiti, the second is between Waipiata and Kokonga.

Non-DOC camping grounds are located in Middlemarch, Ranfurly, Omakau, Alexandra, and Clyde.

Other accommodation (hotels, backpackers) is available in Middlemarch, Waipiata, Ranfurly, Wedderburn, Lauder, Omakau, Ophir, Alexandra, and Clyde.

The Otago Central Rail Trail website has a list of accommodation options.

Things to see

  • Superb examples of the stonemason's art on even the smallest bridges and culverts.
  • Prices Creek tunnel and viaduct between Hyde and Tiroiti.
  • Winding through the beautiful Taieri Gorge with great views of the river and, in autumn, the colours of the leaves as they turn.
  • The art deco buildings and restored railway station at Ranfurly.
  • The Golden Progress mine, poppet head and other gold mining relics, a short bike ride off the trail near Oturehua.
  • The schist bluffs, tunnels and viaduct of the Poolburn Gorge.
  • The remnants of the historic workers' camp in the Poolburn Gorge.
  • Country pubs in trailside towns: Waipiata, Lauder, Wedderburn and Chatto Creek.
  • The wild thyme and schist landscape around Alexandra.
  • Extensive views of Central Otago's 'Big Sky' landscape. Tor-studded ranges and hills and expansive upland basins, made famous through the paintings of Grahame Sydney the poetry of Brian Turner and the photography of Gilbert van Reenan.

History

Farming and gold

The first European settlers in Central Otago came to the district in the 1850s as sheep farmers. People flocked to the area after the discovery of gold in 1861 at Gabriells Gully. The region prospered and in 1891 work began on a railway that linked would link Dunedin, then the country’s largest city, to the goldfields. 

The ‘mile a year’ railway

A train crossing the Manuherikia bridge, 1936.
Crossing the Manuherikia bridge, 1936

It took dozens of labourers, stonemasons, blacksmiths and engineers 16 long years to build the 150km of railway from Middlemarch to Clyde. The railway linked economic and cultural life throughout Central Otago, bringing essential supplies to one of the countries most isolated regions.

Original economic benefit

The railway had a huge impact on the local economy and towns such as Ranfurly sprung up along the line. While Ranfurly thrived, Naseby, which had been the major Maniototo township, declined. This was the fate of several towns further away from the railway route.

A return to farming

Manuherikia bridge. Photo: J Edginton.
Today you can cycle or walk over the many bridges on the trail

Eventually gold production declined and farming was once again the region's main industry.

New Zealand’s first rail trail

In 1990 the 150 km stretch of railway from Middlemarch to Clyde closed and the line was pulled up. In 2000 this section of the line was officially reopened as New Zealand’s first rail trail. 

Since opening, the rail trail has attracted thousands of visitors to the area each year, providing job opportunities and revitalising the regions economy.

Residents curling at Oturehua in the 1930s with a train rolling by in the background.
'Curling' remains a popular winter pastime beside the trail at Oturehua

Historical highlights

Viaducts, stonework, bridges and some of the old railway stations have been maintained, preserving the heritage of the old railway line and making this New Zealand’s most popular rail heritage experience.

Highlights along the rail trail include: Tunnellers Camp, the art deco town of Ranfurly, the Poolburn Gorge, and the iconic Wedderburn Station made famous by Graham Sydney.

DOC's work

DOC has a strong partnership with the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust. The Trust has been instrumental in the success of the rail trail, raising over 1.3 million dollars towards upgrades, and contributing many hours of voluntary labour. 

Wedderburn Station goods shed. Photo: P Mahoney.
Wedderburn Station goods shed has been returned to its original site

Upgrade work has included re-decking bridges, and installing signage, interpretation panels, toilets and shelter sheds along the track. A particular challenge has been experimenting with methods to improve the rough surface of the old railway to give cyclists a smooth ride.

Together the Trust and DOC have worked with local communities to bring back and preserve railway heritage, such as the iconic Wedderburn Station goods shed. The community rallied together to get the shed, which was made famous in the Grahame Sydney painting 'July on the Maniototo', returned to its original site. More recently the accompanying station building was also returned to the site and restored.

The rail trail has revitalised the region’s economy by bringing a huge number of people to the area and providing employment opportunities in local communities.

Poolburn Viaduct. Photo: P Mahoney.
Poolburn Viaduct: one of the many bridges along the trail that requires maintenance

Maintaining the trail requires major annual work including weed control, clearing of hundreds of culverts, and bridge maintenance. 

The Trust and local communities work closely with DOC to contribute to the upkeep and enhancement of the trail.Opportunities exist for companies or organisations wanting to be involved in conservation to help DOC undertake this work.

Further reading

Graham, Owen (2004) From steam trains to pedal power: the story of the Otago Central Rail Trail (Otago Central Rail Trail Trust).

This popular guide is produced by the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust. It is available for purchase from their website. You can also download the offical leaflet, a map, and other information.

Dangerfield, JA & Emerson, GW. (1995) Over the garden wall: the story of the Otago Central Railway (Otago Railway & Locomotive Society

Cyclists on the rail trail. Photo: J Edginton.
Enjoy the beautiful scenery

The following publications were commissioned by DOC.

Hamel, J. (1996) Archaeological assessment of the Otago Central rail trail: the line today. Conservation Advisory Science Notes no.137 (Department of Conservation, Wellington).

Hamel, J. (2001) The archaeology of Otago (Department of Conservation, Wellington).

Hamel, J. (1994) Otago central rail trail: an archaeological assessment. Conservation Advisory Science Notes no.97 (Department of Conservation, Wellington). 


Related links

Contacts

Kā Moana Haehae / Alexandra Office
Phone:      +64 3 440 2040
Email:   alexandra@doc.govt.nz
Full office details
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