Otago Central Rail Trail: Oterehua to Omakau

May 7, 2013 in blog, New Zealand, Oceania, Travelogue

The crackle of the wood stove is the only sound. The boys are sprawled out on the carpets, reading. They’ve almost recovered from the beating I gave them at Scrabble. Hannah is up to her neck in hot water, soaking away the day’s ride. “Home,” for the night, is the old post office at Omakau which Steve Glasson and his wife have converted into a lovely four bedroom bed and breakfast on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

The Rail Trail is the result of a trust and the ongoing efforts of an army of business people and volunteers that has converted the old rail line from Middlemarch to Clyde into a grade one (meaning it’s easy) cycle path that wends its way through valleys, over gorges and through tunnels where the old steam trains used to run.

Last month we rode the train through the Taeri Gorge, up from Dunedin. This is the same rail line, continued on across Otago into the center of the island.

It was fascinating to sit in the Bank Cafe, in Clyde and sip tea across the table from Daphne and Claire as they told us the story of the beginnings of the trail and the hard battle they fought with the farmers to convince them that cyclists riding between their fields and through their back yards would be a boon and not the bane of their idyllic pastoral existence. The project started in 1993 but wasn’t finished until 2000; since then it’s become the premiere cycle tour in New Zealand and was the impetus for the national project to connect cycleways from end to end of both islands. It has contributed to the economic regrowth of the communities along the railway that have languished over the years, to the tune of about 12 million dollars a year.

Steve, the owner of Shebikeshebikes, had our bikes all ready to go, adjusted properly and a selection of panniers and helmets in the back of his van. It felt luxurious to be driven to Oterehua and dropped off while our overnight bag and the ubiquitous guitar were ferried on to the Omakau Bedpost. We’ve never cycled without carrying all of our own gear on our bikes. Somehow a supported tour felt like cheating… we like it!

It would be easy to visit Oterehua and miss the Hayes Engineering Works, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

We have a thing for historical working farms and this one is different from any we’ve ever visited. The impressive part is the fantastic machine shop built by the Hayes family and restored as a museum. They’re famous for their wire strainer engineering, designs that are still in use today and won awards in the 1980s, years after their inventor was dead and gone. Their homestead was generating electricity, first by wind and then by water, more than thirty years before there were any wires run into the valley. The entire shop is driven by leather belts with metal shearing, punches, drills, a lathe and more. Their ingenuity was breath-taking. It’s one of those places where, the longer you stand and look, the more you see and the more there is to learn.

We spent the afternoon cycling through a postcard.

To say the scenery is breathtaking would be to sell it far short. Enormous mountains blanketed in glistening white snow gave way to golden hillsides and emerald valleys carved by serpentine valleys lined with yellow beech trees, clinging for all they were worth to their last few leaves.

We paused on the top of a bluff to watch a modern shepherd separate a herd of black cattle from a few dozen white sheep with a dog and his four wheeler. “It’s like the dog works magic!” Hannah mentioned, “He just peeled those black cows right out of the sheep.” And so he did.

Hannah sang the dwarf song from the new Hobbit movie as we pushed our bikes through the inky black tunnels, just inches wider than a train car.

Elisha, snapping his helmet in place, announced, “There are three teams, Mama! You’re the parent team. The boys are the tortoise team and Hannah and I are the hare team!”

“Slow and steady wins the race!” Gabe reminded him. Gabe gets the gold star for the day for taking it upon himself to ride with Ezra and teach him how to properly manage the gearing, as this is the first multi-day ride the younger boys have made on their own bicycles!

We felt, a bit, like we were squeezing this ride into this week, between our weekend with old friends and our need to be back in Christchurch by Thursday. It almost seemed like “too much.” I’m so glad we didn’t miss it.

We miss cycling, and this ride has reminded us just what a beautiful way it is to travel. Tony and I found ourselves talking about “how we’d do it” now, which bike upgrades and changes we’d make to our existing gear and what it would be like to travel with big kids instead of little ones.

Hannah is setting the table. Tony is making a pot of spaghetti and we’re wondering what ghosts must haunt this old post office as we bask in the glow of a perfect day and look forward to tomorrow, which is sure to be just as fantastic.

P.S. I know what you’re thinking… and don’t worry, the post office safe door has been removed and it’s been turned into a reading nook that Hannah has declared her music room for the evening. There’s no chance Ezra will get himself locked in twice in one week! ๐Ÿ˜‰

P.P.S. Today’s pictures brought to you by Hannah… Tony’s pictures will come soon!

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