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The Otago Central Rail Trail: What the guide books don't tell you

The Otago Central Rail Trail: What the guide books don't tell you

by's Steph Zakowski

It's hard to know where to start when writing about the Otago Central Rail Trail, so much literature and so many websites on the topic already exist.

Actually,I do know where to start - Clyde. You see, that's one of the useful tips many guides to the Rail Trail don't share.

Start in Clyde, because if you do so, the last two plus days of cycling are mostly downhill. Trust me, after several days in the saddle, you will want to be going downhill on the final stage of your trip.

If you want the official info on the Rail Trail, I found this website really useful and comprehensive  Or you could read my review of one of the latest guide books about the Trail.

If you want to know the bits that the guide books won't tell you - read on. This guide to the Rail Trail is going to take you off the beaten track if you'll pardon the pun.

And just to make it clear - this was one of the BEST holiday experiences I have EVER had. A real "bucket list" must-do, this holiday features in  101 Must-Do weekends for Kiwis.

So, a few of us at who have cycled the trail, have pooled our knowledge to bring you our trail blazing, butt saving tips.

1.The Bottom Line

Coping with the discomfort of being seated in a bike saddle for 3-5 days on the trail is not something I've seen much written about.

But this was THE hot topic amongst riders as we gathered in the pubs/cafes at the end of the day. It's one of the few times you can call out "How's your bum?" to someone you don't know from Adam, and not be looked upon with suspicion or horror.

Here are our suggestions (gleaned from practical experience) of how to protect your rear end from the incessant jolting and jostling on the trail.

a) Make sure you have a gel seat on your bike
b) If this isn't possible you can buy padded neoprene zip-on seat covers at some bike shops along the way.
c) Definitely invest in a pair of bike shorts. Wear two.
d) Cover your bike seat in bubble wrap.
e) Wrap your bike seat in foam padding.
f) Buy the thickest maternity/sanitary pads you can find and line your bike shorts with them. This method got my vote and was super cheap and super comfy.
The only downside was that I looked like J-Lo from behind (sadly - not from the front).

2) Magpies will swoop

Magpies will dive bomb you on open parts of the trail. (To be fair Gerald Cunningham does mention this in his guide book.)

One minute you're riding along peacefully, soaking in the quiet countryside and BAM! Caw! Caw! - a rush of air past the ear and you're under attack from a black and white terrorist.

It's actually really disconcerting to be swooped upon, and freaked out one of my daughters. I wondered if our shiny silver helmets were attracting them, but visitor book comments all along the trail attested to similarly unnerving experiences.

Gerald says it happens due to them protecting their nesting areas. Freaky none-the-less.

3) It's rough out there

Much of the Otago Central Rail Trail surface is really rough, gravely and rocky.

If you think you will be cycling a track with smooth surfaces, you would be wrong.

Bike traffic has worn two small grooves through the trail - one narrow furrow going one way, one narrow furrow going the opposite way. 

It takes concentration to keep within the grooves. When my husband came a cropper on the gravel, the jagged rocks which broke his fall chewed through his thermals and into his knee.

Riding through parts of the trail was like traversing a mouth full of broken teeth.

4) Animals everywhere

The trail isn't just for humans, it's for horses and riders, plus the occasional lamb/sheep/cow which wanders over to join you from the adjoining paddocks.

Naturally you will also share the track with their droppings. Poo on the trail is something no guide book or website I've looked at has mentioned.

So - try and avoid cycling through it, and don't cycle behind someone who has just gone through it, because it can flick up and get you in the eye... or mouth. Enough said.

5) Lord of the Rings country

Sorry Central Otago, this is the part where I'm about to offend you. Parts of the trail are.... long and boring.

I know that 90 percent of you is stunning, majestic and mind-blowing in a Lord Of The Rings kind of way - BUT 10 percent of you is dusty, straight, unrelenting and arduous.

Those last 5 k's from Hyde to Middlemarch are enough to make you wish really hard for a bus stop just off the side of the trail.

6) Clyde or Middlemarch?

I've mentioned the "start in Clyde" bit. Trail guides tell you that you can start in Clyde and end at Middlemarch, or start in Middlemarch and end in Clyde.

There are about 155 kilometres of trail between the towns.

Most "tour organisers" will try to convince you to start in Middlemarch as it is easily accessible from Dunedin. Getting to Clyde takes more planning as it is buried deep within Otago's heart, but it's worth making the effort to start here.

The prevailing winds favour the Clyde-Middlemarch direction, plus I've mentioned the easier downhill leg which will be your reward at the end.

7) Uphill battle  

Most guides to the Trail will also tell you that anyone of "moderate fitness" can handle this trail.

Take "moderate" to mean that you should have actually cycled or walked to build up a reasonable fitness before you tackle the trail. One stretch of this trail (Tiger Hill!!) was about 8 km's of slow, winding gradient UP a hill.

My moderately fit family survived this on a diet of water, Toblerone and frequent oxygen stops. (This was where the famous "knee" incident also happened.)