Otago Rail Trail
Leaving St Bathans at dawn, the air is still and deathly quiet. There aren’t any trees as we are still on the high grounds. The vegetation is straw coloured as far as the eye can see, the green scorched out of every living thing. The sun beats down but the air feels cold. My shoes are still wet from the night before and squelch with every pedal stroke. The chill alpine air numbs my fingers and toes.
I roll down into Ranfurly and join the Otago Rail Trail part way through. It is so flat and smooth I am barreling along. My average speed shoots up to 30km/h. I am back into civilisation and humming through the small towns. It’s 9am and they are just starting to wake up as I shoot through, grimy and stinking with my ginger beard poking out in all directions. I am dust-covered from head to knee then a weird paste of suncream, dust and river water from the knee down.
For the first time in a long time I am sharing the trail with other cyclists. The flat and easy access of the Otago Rail Trail has brought out families and tourists in droves. I have to swerve around many a day dreaming rider. Parents try to herd unruly children into a discernible formation I smile at the pandemonium as they zigzag all over the trail.
They look up at my unruly appearance and probably wonder why I am going so fast? What’s the rush? No rush but now I am on the flat my legs roll fast and feel strong. Also, a shower and food await me in Cromwell at the end of the day. My friends Nicola and Alex have offered me a bed for the night. It draws me forward like a magnet.
After a huge lunch in Alexandra, where I hit the farmers market like a plague of locusts, I ride along Lake Dunstan. A beautiful blue lake shining in the meek autumn sun. The view is obscured by a thin trail of smoke from a nearby fire. The road is a little too narrow for comfort with the 100km/h speed limit but I look out at the lake and pedal hard. Pushing back up to my 30km/h average. The fastest days riding I have ever maintained.
My legs finally start to feel tired and my bum sore when I arrive at Alex and Nicola’s house, 70km/h of fast riding. They are absolute legends. It’s been literally years since I saw them last but they welcome me into there home when they heard I was cycling through. Their new born is napping when I arrive so me and Nicola talk quietly in the kitchen. I smell so bad that she decides to wake up the baby early so I can jump in the shower. The wrath of a screaming infant a worthy price to pay to get me smelling a bit more human.
The shower is so good I actually laugh out loud. A tide of baked on muck swills down the drain. Whirl pools of collected grime from a week on the saddle tie dyes my feet. I emerge looking pink and well-scrubbed and with some epic tan lines. Just in time for dinner.
Luckily for me, my hosts are pretty worn out too from their new family member so after food we head to bed pretty quick. I pass out, the kind of sleep where you wake up in the same position as you fell. The quiet, food coma and the comfy bed knocked me out.
My final mountain pass, the Nevis Road. And what a finale, the highest public road in New Zealand topping out at 1300m. A public road by name only, it barely resembles a road as opposed to a slightly more worn version of a 4×4 track. It looks similar to the Omarama Saddle but much steeper and a little wider. Even the road to access the Nevis is steep and in the early morning I am sweating quickly and breathing hard.
Once onto the actual Nevis Road, steep took on a whole new meaning. I was wiry and strong from weeks on the saddle but this road was killing me. I had to zig zag side to side to reduce the incline. Stopping over and over to try and catch my breath. My heart was blasting in my ears. It felt like my whole head was throbbing with exertion. Sweat poured off me and the handle bars shone with a milky white as my pores opened up. It took me one and a half hours to get up to the summit. I debated pushing but stayed in the saddle the whole way.
With the summit within sight I pulled over to have some food. My legs were shaking uncontrollably as I limped to a shaded rock. An Otago Harrier circled above, slowly lifted by thermals in the warm still air.
Up on the tops was an alien landscape. A desert scene, dotted with gnarled rocks and peppered with gravel and stubby bushes. The whole environment looked parched, the ground sandy and baked hard by the sun. As I rode, the dust lifted gently off the road and swirled around before falling lazily back into position.
Stopping at the summit I enjoy the view, Cromwell far below, again shrouded by low lying smoke from the fire. I take some pictures and am joined by some guys out on their motorbikes. I look at them enviously, they look at me with concern. My face is bright red and I am drenched in sweat. Thankfully my legs have stopped quivering.
The trail then winds gently over my last alpine plateau. It’s another harsh bleak environment, where hardy kiwis had tried to force a living. Hot dry summers and icy cold winters. The land reminds me of the prairies in America, the sky seems bigger and closer with no mountains around to pen it in. I ride slowly and cross the veins of small streams. The water is still icy cold and straight from the earth somewhere close. These trickles winding there way down into Lake Dunstan.
There is next to no traffic the whole day of riding, I am on the only road and I see just four vehicles. All 4x4s and looking well worn and dusty. Abandoned buildings litter the road and desolate looking farms stand off in the distance. All looking bleached and wind basted.
My next stop is Garston but I’m in no hurry. I camp up in the hills for the last night in the mountains. The end is near and I am happy to savour the peace and tranquility.
Watching the stars break out as I stretch outside of my tent. The only noise is the bubble of my stove and the occasional gust of wind flapping the tent. My camp is on the very edge of the foothills overlooking Garston.
My final mountain pass and what a killer to end on. I am proud of the achievement but saddened by the thoughts of finishing in a few days. Riding down onto the flats and straight lining my way to Bluff. This is the final few days and I’m not sure if I want it to end.