After the gold rush...the gentle bike ride

In the 1860s, prospectors flocked to the Central Otago region of New Zealand. Now treasure awaits visitors on two wheels. Christine Rush starts pedalling
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The Independent Travel

It was in 1861 that gold was discovered in Central Otago, the most inland part of the south island of New Zealand. For a few years thousands of colonists scrabbled around its hills for the elusive nuggets. But once the Australian goldfields took off, the region resumed life as a rural backwater, and that was it for about 150 years.

It was in 1861 that gold was discovered in Central Otago, the most inland part of the south island of New Zealand. For a few years thousands of colonists scrabbled around its hills for the elusive nuggets. But once the Australian goldfields took off, the region resumed life as a rural backwater, and that was it for about 150 years.

Now, at last, the region is re-awakening. There's the buzz from its renowned pinot noir vineyards; the cosmopolitanism of the main urban centre, Queenstown; and attractions that range from historic gold-mining towns, four-wheel-drive trails, fishing, cross-country skiing and mountain biking.

I'm here with my bike to tackle the Otago Central rail trail, based on a line that shut down in 1990. Just as disused railways have taken on a new life as cycle paths in the UK, so it is with the Otago Central rail trail, with the added advantage of providing some of the most spectacular views of one of the most spectacular countries on earth.

The small gradients make it ideal for cycling, particularly for family groups. Autumn is the ideal season: there are fewer people on the track, and the sun is kinder on pale northern hemisphere skins. Temperatures average around 20C.

Unlike the rest of the country, Central Otago has four distinct, rather harsh seasons - all of them dry. From November, the countryside erupts in wildflowers, with the soft purple of wild thyme covering the hills around the trail. In high summer, when I visited, blue borage, briar and Californian poppy are still abundant. The light can often lend a washed-out look to the landscape, but for our trip the sky was a pure, unpolluted blue, and the night sky a blaze of stars.

The first day is perhaps the most spectacular: a 23km ride west from Oturehua to Lauder. It sidles alongside the Manuherikia River, and I spy a New Zealand falcon perched nonchalantly on the rail. Disappearing habitats and pests have made sightings of the country's only native bird of prey rare indeed, but this is the best place for it. Unlike its slightly crazed-looking larger cousin, the harrier hawk, it is an attractive beast, and makes a graceful diversion as it swoops off.

A short stretch later is the first of the Poolburn tunnels: a blessed respite from the heat, which is now approaching 40C. Bikers are encouraged to dismount and bring torches for the tunnels, but simply removing my sunglasses and crunching carefully through cool gloom delivers me safely out on the other side.

We reach Lauder, then drive some 30km north to the goldmining town of St Bathans. Outside the Vulcan Hotel, in the company of a panting sheep dog, we sip iced coffee before heading down for a dip in Blue Lake. Once this was the 150m high Kildare Hill Claim, but all that remains is a 50m-deep hole filled with icy, mineral-blue water. The only other people there are a noisy gaggle of four-wheel-drivers from the North Island, and we soon have the pontoon to ourselves for a spot of sunbathing.

That night we adjourn to the rustic Waipiata Country Hotel (1899). Over gin and tonics, we chat with Delena Costello, a self-taught chef who has created an all-day menu that appeals to local palates as well as rail trail cyclists with more sophisticated tastes. Favourites are cold mutton and pickles and the seafood platter with shrimp cocktail. But it's her locally smoked lamb cutlets, pan-fried perfectly pink, and served with a toothsome local pinot noir, that win me over. "We really had problems with the supply of fresh vegetables, so I decided to grow my own in greenhouses out the back," Delena says.

Delena's mother, Edna McAtamney, is behind the conversion of Ranfurly from declining rural outpost to Art Deco-esque gem, and owner of our wonderful Art Deco guesthouse, Moyola. The next morning, she explains that the town's restoration only gathered pace in the 1990s, and even then sceptics petitioned the council against the scheme. "It's been a very difficult project because you're taking a very mature community outside of their square," says Edna. Now Ranfurly hosts an annual Art Deco celebration that draws visitors from all over the country. "The architecture itself is thin on the ground, but it was something we could jump on to save ourselves. We weren't ready to receive a rail trail. We were untidy, we were messy; now you can't buy a house here it's so popular." It is some time before Lorraine can drag me away from Edna's Deco store, but we eventually head out to Naseby Forest. Those keen mountain bikers frustrated by the rail trail may find their thrills amid the forest's steep, pine-clad hills; former New Zealand champion and Naseby resident Kila Hipa takes groups into the forest for lessons on technique. I could do with some myself, and after a few pathetic attempts at climbing what appears to be a wall of mud, I opt for the flat, peaceful path by a water race.

We drive to Danseys Pass Coach Inn (1862) for lunch and then we're back on the rail trail from Ranfurly just after 2pm, setting off at a blistering pace. The only other sign of life on the trail is a bunch of stray sheep, whose galloping, woolly bottoms we follow for some minutes before we work out how to get them back into a paddock. By the time we get to Daisybank, the crispy-dry headwind is making me pay for my earlier enthusiasm. It's the same wind whistling through the wires of the Prices Creek viaduct an hour later, then cooled to an icy chill in the ensuing tunnel. Dusty, dishevelled and starving, we finish the 32km leg in Hyde where Ngaire Sutherland, the owner of Otago Central Hotel, instantly repairs to the kitchen and fixes us a huge plate of sandwiches and tea.

The latest rabbit outbreak is apparent as we drive through high country the next morning, en route to a latter-day gold mine at Macraes Flat. Graham Wilson leads tours of the Oceana Gold site, which is mostly owned by Australian interests. Hills that have already been scarred by mining are being turned into a sculpture park, presumably in order to comply with New Zealand's strict laws on resource-management.

Soon, we resume cycling, and it's an easy hour-long downhill ride to the historic pub at Chatto Creek. A few garrulous bikers are downing jugs of beer outside, while an elderly chap is quietly passing the time of day with the owner at the bar. I assume he is a regular, but the owner, Lesley Middlemass, later puts me right. "Eric was working in the district before he got his call-up papers to go to Italy. He told me he put a half-crown above the door when he was here for final leave in 1942. He was passing through today and decided to see if it was still there." Renovations over the years foiled his homecoming, but it's something to consider on our final leg into Alexandra.

By 5pm it has hit 39C, and on arriving in the township I slide gratefully into the Clutha River, joining a group of mud-fighting school children, a couple of dogs and some retirees in the cool shallows. Then it's on to Rocky Range, a luxury bed and breakfast above the river. It is owned by the lovely Texan Lisa and her husband Colin. After a delectable beef supper, I can choose from telescopic star-gazing, DVDs, or a glass of champagne in the outdoor Jacuzzi. Just another day in paradise.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

The author travelled as a guest of the Central Otago Tourist Board (00 64 3 4450212; www.centralotagonz.com and Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnewzealand.co.uk). It flies to Christchurch via Los Angeles starting at £579 return, valid for travel until 15 June. The price includes stopover options in Los Angeles and Tahiti.

Where to stay

Moyola Art Deco Guest House (00 64 3 444 9010; www.ruralartdeco.co.nz) in Ranfurly has double rooms from NZ$130 (£50) per night with breakfast. Otago Central Hotel (00 64 3 444 4800) in Hyde has varied accommodation with a night in shared bunkrooms starting at NZ$15 (£5.60) per person. Rocky Range (00 64 3 448 6150; www.rockyrange.co.nz) in Alexandra has double rooms from NZ$350 (£140) per night with breakfast.

Further information

Trail Journeys (00 64 3 449 2150, www.trailjourneys.co.nz) in Clyde offers bike hire from NZ$25 (£9.40) a day. Tourism New Zealand (0906 601 3601, 60p per minute; www.newzealand.com)

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