Central Otago Rail Trail: a comedy in three acts

The last time I rode a bike was in New York City four years ago.  I would ride across northern Brooklyn from Williamsburg to Greenpoint to my job working on the Black Donnelly’s at Broadway Stages.  Then, one day, my bike was gone.  We saw the whole thing happen on the apartment building’s surveillance camera, which everyone had previous thought was a fake.  I used to make funny faces and unsavory gestures at that camera until the day I realized it was real – the day my bike was stolen.

After that, I swore that I saw my bike all over New York City.  But, with a lingering bitterness towards bikes and bike robbers, I had remained a staunch walker ever since – that is until I decided to go on a three day bike trip.  I speak for my quads, prostate, and lower buttocks when I say that taking on such a feat after years of apathy and ill feelings towards everything two-wheeled was ill advised.

Yet, how could I resist the call of the New Zealand countryside?  In an odd series of events I had quit my job, adamantly refused offers to change my mind, and then pleaded for it back all in the course of one week’s time.  This left me with several days off of work and itchy feet.  Having heard of an old railroad line through central Otago that was stripped of it’s tracks and left for bikers, I rounded up a team of marginally-employed individuals (Felipe and myself), scrounged up two bikes, some tools we didn’t really know how to use, and headed one hour east of Queenstown to the trail’s start in Clyde.

Being semi-unemployed, Felipe and I carried all of our food, clothes, and a rattling tin of dominos on our backs as we set out through the orchards and vineyards between Clyde and Alexandra.  Feeling the invincibility one feels only on the first day of such a journey, we took a detour to the “southernmost winery and vineyard in the world” so I could taste and purchase a bottle of Otago Gold to really way down my back.

As we biked through Alexandra, the largest town on the trip, we bisected a collection of netball courts in full use on a Saturday morning.  The girls were twisting in the stunted, stress-inducing way required in the sport as eager dads yelled on the periphery.  This was the real New Zealand I was seeking, out in the country, away from the attractions.  Netball to the left, cows to the right, a tractor crossing the road, the faint smell of manure.  Here it was, beyond the glossy veneer!

When our path crossed with a clan of freshly sheered sheep, I missed that glossy finish.  Their patchy hairdos, beady, pleading eyes, and splashes of crimson red looked nothing like the children’s commercials I’d seen on TV for sheep-sheering shows.  Luckily, I caught up with a group their bushy-haired brethren a few kilometers later who were eager to lift my spirits.

Most of the names I will mention on this trip you will not be able to pronounce.  I would add pronunciation marks, but I would be fooling myself if I thought I could say them any better.  So, after cycling along the Manuherikia River, our first night was spent in Omakau and we took a side trip to “Historic Ophir” before settling in.

The one street town of Ophir was the commercial capital of the region back in its day and is currently home to the oldest continuously working Post Office in New Zealand.  The well-preserved street also contained a one-room church, a memorial hall, and an honesty stall where you could leave two dollars for bag of either sheep or horse manure.

We spent the night at the Omakau Holiday Park, but when I say Holiday Park envision a trailer park.  This was the only accommodation we had booked ahead, and I was glad we could use a bit more discretion the next day.  When I came out of the shower before heading to bed, a Maori transvestite was fixing her hair and drinking a $5.00 Champagne called “pop” straight from the bottle.  Her birthday party ensued.  This was night one.

The Central Otago Railway was the economic lifeline of this region for 83 years and sent it’s last roaring engine down these lines just two decades ago.  In 1990, the tracks were stripped by 2000 the Rail Trail was opened by the Department of Conservation.  As the information states, “because this was once a railway line there are no steep climbs, but the gravel surface makes a degree of fitness desirable.”  When you are biking in New York on a straightaway, your wheels spin long after your last pedal.  If I may interpret the above quote, this is not so on gravel.  So while the trail remains relatively flat, constant pedaling is required for constant motion.

On day two, it was not so much the peddling that troubled us, but the sitting.  A full day of riding had left us with bruised butts that burned with each bump.  I read somewhere that you could rent bikes for this trail with “comfort seats” and I distracted my mind with thoughts of what such a seat may have looked and felt like.

After doing some research the night before, I realized that we were going steadily uphill all of day one.  I had big plans for day two, our hump day.  I hoped to crest the top of the trail at Wedderburn by the afternoon and speed down the other side to Ranfurly by nightfall.

These were mere pipe dreams.

Day two would be another uphill day, but I felt better knowing that the speedy, spandex-clad bikers we had crossed paths with were clearly cheaters doing the trail the easy way.

The Rail Trail does not traverse any of New Zealand’s famed landmarks, but it does link a series of quaint, quirky and comically country southern towns.

There were two types of these towns along the rail – those with taverns, and those without.  Those without were merely a collection of five or six farms.  Those with a Tavern, as if by obligation, had Speights, “the southern man’s beer” signs out atop their rickety roofs. One six-room hotel (adjacent to the tavern) even had a sign boasting, “where Speights filmed their ‘Good on ya mate’ adverts.” Clearly, we were in Speights Country – a land of good-ole Kiwi blokes, the type Aucklanders chuckle about with slight contempt.  Each tavern’s heavy door opened to a jingling bell that alerted the locals of an outsider’s presence.  Oh, and they don’t sell bottles of water.  Speights doesn’t make water.

I was meant to call home to make a vocal appearance at my Mom’s family reunion, so I asked the only woman on the streets of Lauder if she knew of any place with Internet.

“Oh, you’ve got about 50k to go before you’ll find any Internet around here.”  How about coffee I asked?  “Maybe in Oturehua, I think they’ve got one of those push-button machines.”  Water?

She opened up the closed motel and filled our empty bottles before sending us on our way towards “the best part of the trail.”  Unsure if this was a cruel joke, I picked up my pace as we passed a sign warning, “Caution! Lauder Gun Club ahead.”

The next 20k were, without a doubt, the most stunning section of the journey.  We traversed bridges and tunnels along the Poolburn Gorge as we climbed Blackstone Hill.  Atop the hill we stopped for a glance across the quintessentially kiwi landscape of Ida Valley with its farms and rivers edging on the Dunstan Mountains.

At Oturehua we could go no further than Crow’s Nest Accommodation where it was agreed we would plant trees in exchange for a night’s stay.  After planting a line on the edge of the property Annette, the hostel’s owner, sat with us for tea and brought us homemade orange and apricot jams for breakfast the next morning.  At daybreak, I stopped by Gilchrist’s General Store, the oldest continually operating general store in New Zealand, for some push-button coffee.  The owner gave me a quick tour and said her husband was out delivering milk.  She explained how they still take orders for groceries from the local community.  “It’s real old-fashion country service,” she said with a wink.

I loved the old store, but what I liked even better about Oturehua and nearby Nasserby was the people’s fanaticism for curling.  When the Ida Burn Dam freezes over, hundreds of folk come out of the woodwork, brooms in hand, to sweep the ice.  Nasserby even has a year-round, indoor curling center who’s pamphlet argues, “Maniototo Curling International: Curling is fun!”

Sadly, we did not have the time or strength to make the side trip to Nasserby’s fun curling rink so we peddled onward on our last uphill stretch.  The bike and I had come to an understanding – a friendship even.  We were coordinating our movements well, making record speeds and by 10:00am we had crest the top of the trial, breezing downhill past a pasture of puppets into Wedderburn.

By this point I had become an avid stamp collector.  Each gangers’ shed and old station house provided a stamp to track the train’s journey.  With the giddiness of a five year old I sped up to each stamp box, lined the block over our current location, and pressed the ink onto my tattered map.

In my car, this land would have passed by unnoticed.  Yet, on my bike I had nothing but time to daze at the distant farmland.  After days of staring at (and occasionally talking to) the cows and sheep, the fields on Central Otago morphed into a surreal child’s drawing.  The sky glowed a baby blue, the clouds puffed like cotton-candy, and the flax in the field swirled into lollipops for the dancing moocows. High on manure and endorphins, the mills became castles and the tractors Tonka Trucks.  The ordinary became extraordinary.  Life here had a childlike simplicity.

I thought to myself, I have drawn this place before with my robin-egg blue, mustard-yellow, and forest-green crayola crayons.  Everything was circles, squares, and triangles.  It was simple, happy, and innocent.  It made me laugh and it made me smile.

Although the Rail-Trail stretches on for another 60k, our trip would end in Ranfurly, the quirkiest town of them all. Virtually destroyed in a series of suspicious fires in the early 1930s, locals opted to rebuild the town’s buildings cheaply with concrete and plaster and adorn them with moulded embellishments, decorations, and colors.  Now known as the Rural Art Deco Capital of New Zealand, this town in the middle of nowheresville New Zealand offers 44 art deco buildings and a museum dedicated to the style.

After embracing every gimmick this toybox Lego village had to offer, we sat on an art deco bench waiting for the bus back to Clyde.  My bike was out of site, but the lady at the old train station laughed when I asked her to watch it, implying it might get stolen.  “I’ve been robbed before,” I told her.  “I even saw it on camera.”

I sat in this ticky-tacky town and shook my head in bemused wonder as I slurped on my strawberry milkshake.  This was the South Island, off the beaten track – Maori transvestites, push-button coffees, and an art deco dental center.  It was a land of “good on ‘ya mates” where every field had a dancing cow and every storefront showcased a jam jar pyramid.

There ought to be more guidebooks for these kinds of places.  “You want to buy budget sheep manure and curl with New Zealand’s finest?  Well, have I got the place for you… ”  Who needs Milford, Auckland, and Abel Tasman… you want to see the real New Zealand? Buy a bottle of “pop” champagne, strap on that comfort seat, and follow me!

In Tony’s Time

Amidst the cuckoo clocks and china bowls he choreographed his memories.

The living room orbited around a picture on the corner table.  It sat above shelves of porcelain bowls where the golden frame glistened against the maroon walls.  Inside the frame, a woman stood smiling as the summer sun haloed her fuzzy hair.  In the other corner, the exposed edge of the kitchen fridge was smathered with news clippings about a man, a younger version of the one in front of me.  A basket of merino sat gathering dust on the piano bench whilst a small wiener dog lay wagging his tail underneath.

There used to be more dogs.  There used to be a woman here who collected bowls and painted watercolor landscapes.  Now, there were only relics of an aged man’s losses.

As if to fill a void, Tony opened up his house to wondering travelers in the mid 90’s and began a small retirement business on the far end of his former Central Otago farm.  When you enter Tony’s house you do not just enter your evening’s accommodation, you enter Tony’s world.  At 6:00 he put on tea and we gathered in front of the TV for the evening news.  This was no coincidence.  Upon arrival I was advised, “we will watch the news at 6:00 if you care to join.”  It seemed more a statement than an offer, so I sat on his coral-red recliner with my tea while the dog warmed my toes.

Tony was a shrewd man.  At first I figured him to be a quite type, but the evening news offered plenty of impetus for imparting his views.  When the news finished, Tony attended to the fire and positioned himself at the piano.  With his specs nestled slightly snootishly on his nose, he opened up a thick book of sheet music and plucked away in a detached fashion.  Around the corner, I prepared dinner to the stilted chords of familiar odes.  What passionate determination went into the piano seemed only to come out in a stale, haunting staccato.

Tony intrigued me in the way that people adhering to strict daily rituals always do – the morning paper with coffee, the evening news with tea, a pre-planed time to walk and ponder… It was obvious he had a thirst for knowledge and the homestay was a perfect outlet for bestowing his wisdom.

Tony could have been a professor.  He had the knack for relating complex ideas in a coherent, cohesive manner.  But, he was a farmer – and a proud one at that.  After listening to his passionate rant on Kiwi agriculture, I can’t imagine that his son had any other choice than to become a prize-winning, newspaper cover-story-worthy Central Otago farmer.

The New Zealand wool industry has maneuvered its way through a finicky world market in Tony’s time.  When he was a young child, the British stopped buying the country’s wool.  Then, Iran picked up the demand (but that found its end after the revolution).  The New Zealand Wool Boom of 1951 was the most surprising and greatest boom in the history of the country.  A direct result of US policy in the Korean War, the price of wool tripled over night as the United States bought large quantities to compete it’s strategic stockpiles.

The wool market crashed in the mid ’60s, but has made a gradual increase ever since.  At well over 47 million sheep in New Zealand, they outnumber humans 13 to 1.  Tony’s former farm, relinquished to his son, is home to a large merino population.  Wool’s bad reputation as an itchy, uncomfortable fabric lead many farmers like Tony to specialize in the merino sheep, whose wool is silky soft due to finer fibers and smaller scales.  It’s sold at a premium for high-end sweaters and performance athletic wear.  According to Tony, merino wool is not itchy, is excellent in providing warmth without overheating, wicks away sweat, regulates body temperature, and contains anti-bacterial properties that cause the fabric to resist body odor.

After the briefing on Kiwi agriculture, Tony tackled several other issues including the need to empower the Māori, New Zealand’s increasing crime rate, and the greatness of Prime Minister John Key (“he’s just like Obama”).  It was almost midnight, and I had barely said a thing in two hours as I sat listening to Tony on the kitchen stool.  My only words came in questions as I pried Tony for more of his astute insight into this country I had come to call home.

I excused myself and stepped outside to decompress.  Beyond the front porch, a gravel road led to the highway, bisecting fields of Tony’s bushy merino sheep.  The full moon spotlit the snow-capped foothills as they rolled north to Twizel.  To the south, Tony’s former farm stretched all the way to the nearest town of Omarma, a small Mecca for glider pilots and home to an extensive collection of Xena Warrior Princess memorabilia.

Rolling the sliding glass door shut behind me, I heard Tony back at the piano.  The cuckoo clocks rang a solitary note and I waved goodnight as I tiptoed past the assembled clutter upstairs towards my bed.  The hallways were lined with photos of Tony and three dogs, Tony and a wife, Tony and a boy.  I snuck downstairs to take my own photo: Tony and the piano, clanking the chords to the tempo of memory’s monsoon.