Rail was once meant to be the backbone of the New Zealand economy.
In the late 1800s, the Premier, Sir Julius Vogel, imagined we would one day see every farm, mill and mine within easy reach of a railhead and branch lines feeding the North and South Island Main Trunk lines.
True to this plan, the sheep runs of Central Otago once fed their produce out to the export ports of the coast via the 152km Central Otago line, which connected with a service via the Taieri Gorge to Dunedin.
There were passenger services too, particularly during the construction of the Clyde hydroelectric dam in the 1980s. Once this project was completed, however, and with restrictions on the movements of farm produce by road abolished, the line was closed in 1990.
Happily, though, the route still serves sightseers. You can enjoy a spectacular day-trip by train up the Taieri Gorge, courtesy of the Otago Excursion Train Trust. Or you can use the Taieri Gorge Railway to transport you to the start of your traverse of the Central Otago Rail Trail.
You board the Taieri Gorge excursion trains at Dunedin’s fabulously blowsy railway station. Opened in 1906, it’s not hard to see why this elaborate piece of Renaissance architecture earned for its designer the nickname ‘Gingerbread’.
The railway follows the coast for a few kilometres then strikes inland up the rugged, rocky course of the Taieri River. The climb to Central Otago takes you across stone and wrought-iron bridges, and past little iron railwaymen’s huts – all testament to the sheer physical hardship endured by those who drove the steel rails through.
Middlemarch marks the end of the line. From here, the tracks have been lifted and the route re-graded with crushed rock, suitable for cyclists, pedestrians and horsemen. It’s 150 kilometres: a long way to pedal, you might think, when you haven’t been on a bike for years. But it can be tackled in three or four leisurely days, and your overnight, lunch and comfort stops can all be scheduled to take place at the region’s legendary little pubs. There’s nothing like an ice-cold Speights or two to take your mind off the chafing and the saddle-soreness.
And then there’s the scenery. When you look around you, it seems it can’t possibly have existed before Graeme Sydney painted it.
There’s a desolate grandeur to this countryside, whether it’s under snow or the tussock is dressed in its summer and autumn golds, and it’s all presided over by the biggest sky in New Zealand.