Last week I spent 8 days walking the Otago Central Rail Trail and it was an amazing, active and relaxing trip. The trail is a former railway line that stretches 152km from Clyde to Middlemarch. Although nowadays you can cycle, walk or even ride a horse along the trail but you cannot catch a train.
The trail weaves through productive farmland and is scattered with stunning river gorges, lengthy tunnels, impressive viaducts, old gold mining settlements, historic mud-brick buildings and a handful of welcoming country pubs. It is nestled amongst rugged tor-studded lands with vast open spaces that are dwarfed by the immense, blue Central Otago sky. Set back from the road bordering the length of the path are ochre-toned hills capped with a smattering of snow or perhaps drenched in snow, depending on what time of the year you are there. Make sure you go outside at night and check out the sky too. With no light pollution it is a glittering jewel of countless stars.
The Central Otago Railway was originally built to help farmers and orchardists in the region transport their products to Dunedin. Existing roads were not up to scratch so the railway opened up Central Otago to the rest of the country from 1879 to 1990. The railway line took 32 years to build (from Dunedin to Cromwell) and the construction workers were often subjected to the extreme weather that the region is known for. Reaching their goal through the use of shovels and picks with a bit of dynamite. Considering the length of the tunnels and the viaducts that still exist today the workmanship is quite impressive!
The roads significantly improved their teeth-shaking quality over time and eventually it became more economical and convenient for farmers to transport their product by road. So in 1980 the Cromwell to Clyde section was removed and the track from Clyde to Middlemarch followed the same fate in 1990.
This left a corridor across the heartland of Central Otago that was luckily recognised as a valuable resource for cyclists, walkers and horse riders. The Department of Conservation (DOC) in partnership with the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust (OCRT) went on to develop the Otago Central Rail Trail for the public’s enjoyment.
The large majority of people cycle the trail and this takes 3-4 days. However, with some careful planning the trail can be walked and this takes 6-9 days. The trail is wide enough for two cyclists or walkers to travel side by side comfortably. It is also ridiculously FLAT! The steepest gradient on the trail is 2 degrees so walking the Otago Centrail Rail trail is suitable for everyone with a reasonably level of fitness and the willpower to go the distance.
I wanted to walk the trail in Spring and for me this was an ideal time. Yes, we experienced both extremes with a couple of scorching hot days and a couple of days where there was snow down to 350m. But overall the weather was perfect walking weather and we were able to see countless baby animals. We even saw a lamb that must have been born just seconds before! The season is considered to be from November to May with the busiest time being March/April.
You can still experience the last 64km of the original Otago Central Railway by travelling on the Taieri Gorge Railway from Dunedin to Middlemarch. There is some amazing scenery on this trip and the train only leaves from Middlemarch on Fridays and Sundays. It is reputedly one of the best train trips in the world.
Overall, the scenery on the trail was rugged and spectacular but what really made the trail enjoyable for me was the locals we met along the way. The accommodation hosts and the pub owners truly were salt of the earth personalities with a keen understanding of southern hospitality and genuine care. I would love to see this trail become more popular with walkers as it is completely doable and totally enjoyable!
Other important notes:
- Sections: The legs we broke the trail up into can be found here.
- Accommodation: There were several accommodation options that I would like to mention on the Rail Trail as they were full of character and I’d totally stay there again. Please see here for these recommendations.
- Internet and phones: The trail is more isolated than I thought. There are very few areas/locations where wifi is available and significant portions of the trail lack mobile phone coverage.
- ATMs: There are very few ATMs along the trail and credit cards are not always accepted. Take cash and your debit card.
- Passport: Collect an Otago Rail Trail passport from local i-sites and bike shops near the beginning. This can be used to collect stamps at various points along the way to commemorate your trip.
Please visit the below websites for more information:
- Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust
- Otago Rail Trail
- Department of Conservation – Otago Central Rail Trail
- Taieri Gorge Railway
Recommended booklet to take on the trail
- Otago Centrail Rail Trail by Brian and Diane Miller – More info here
Would you prefer to cycle or walk the Otago Central Rail Trail?