Monday, February 20, 2012

Riding to the end of the line: NZ Day 17

Today was our final day on the Otago Central Rail Trail, and it looked as though the area would finally live up to its reputation as "the driest part of New Zealand".  Maybe not exactly - it was overcast when we woke up, but at least it wasn't raining.  After a few days of being pretty relaxed on the trail, our preparations today were a little more serious, as we had a lot to do and a lot of ground to cover to arrive in Dunedin that evening.  After loading our bikes and gear, we shared breakfast with our host Gary at Maniototo Lodge B&B, and enjoyed a few cups of tea while we stood around chatting.  The weather station showed the outside temperature was a chilly 4 degrees celcius, and from the house we could already see a couple of brave souls riding along the trail.  I was reluctant to leave Maniototo Lodge and Ranfurly - I very much enjoyed my time and the company of Gary and Chris, and as we set off I resolved to come back and spend some more time on the Maniototo Plain.

It turned out that 4 degrees in real life feels a lot colder than 4 degrees on a weather station in the comfort of the Maniototo Lodge lounge room.  It was the coldest I'd been on the entire tour

Despite all the rain of the past couple of days, the trail surface was still firm and reasonably dry, with only the odd large puddle here and there

A little way south of Ranfurly we came across a flock of sheep on the trail, being herded over to the other side of the paddock by a farmer and a single energetic sheepdog.  After waiting patiently at a distance, we continued on past the flock, now safely behind a fence

We pushed on under foreboding skies, across an old steel girder bridge.  From memory this was the only one if its type on the trail

Break in the weather
We continued south, across more impossibly green pastoral land.  I was in a pretty strange frame of mind as we rode this section - I wasn't as ecstatic as I had been the past few days, and  was feeling kind of flat.  I think it was a combination of knowing our adventure was coming to an end today, and the gloomy weather that was hanging heavily over our heads, making it a little difficult for me to draw too much energy from my surroundings.  It was a Sunday morning, and we were noticing a few unladen mountain bikers on the trail - I assume locals out for a day ride.  After a while we caught up to a couple of riders, and rather than overtaking them, we decided to stop by the trail side and have a break for a few minutes.

For whatever reason, I was feeling a little gloomy in the gloomy weather.  The suddenly, we spied a patch of blue sky up ahead and our spirits lifted

Jer takes a break by the trail.  We hadn't ridden very far and weren't terribly hungry, but both needed a break.  We were both feeling a bit off, so taking a bit of time out to get centered was a smart move

We continued on the empty trail, rounded a bend, crossed a road, and suddenly entered a different world.  The sun came out, and the landscape exploded with yellow flowers.  We left the Manitoto Plain, and headed downhill through a long and rocky valley, once again through deep cuttings and over grand old bridges standing dozens of metres above the streams below.  We once again caught up to the couple out riding their mountain bikes - upon getting close to them it was apparent they were pretty serious about cycling.  I rode along with them for a while, and they told me they were from Middlemarch, out for a morning ride.  By my estimation that was about an 80km round trip for them, and they had nothing with them but bikes and bidons.

That orange dot down there is Jer shooting off down the sunlit valley.  I was blown away by this sudden change of landscape and weather, and had to stop and get off the bike and get some photos, and just soak it up.  Only about two minutes after I confidently accelerated away from the mountain bikers, they smilingly overtook me again

Looking back up the valley, this section of rail trail from Daisybank to Hyde is very much downhill

The Red Dwarf ganger's shed overlooking the Taieri River.  Yes, it really is called Red Dwarf

Jer makes his way through a deep cutting.  Something about this section was very different to the previous few days of riding on the trail - the Otago Central Rail Trail feels like a ride of two halves, and Ranfurly seems to be the point where the vibe changes

Crossing the Cap Burn bridge, where a little of the original rail line remains.  After days of having a big wide trail to ride on, we were a pair of wobbling dunces as we unsteadily made our way across the narrow bridge.  What made it even more embarrassing was that two old ladies out riding that watched us wobble over before they crossed the bridge straight and true

The landscape and trail seemed a little softer as we headed towards Middlemarch

Jer makes his way across Price's Creek viaduct.  It's funny how riding between two fences made us wobble like crazy, and the barriers aren't even that close

Covered in green grass and yellow flowers, the rocky ranges of Central Otago looked positively gentle

Jer contemplates when he'll be able to get another cup of coffee

The only tunnel of the day, carved through the rolling green hills

The brickwork in the Price's Creek tunnel was somewhat different to the tunnels we had ridden through near Lauder

Even though I was fresh from a rest day, and the riding was literally all downhill, I was starting to feel very tired as we neared the town of Hyde

Nowhere to Hyde
We hadn't seen any houses or towns for quite a while, and I was hungrily beginning to wonder if the township of Hyde was ever going to appear.  Suddenly the trail rounded a bend and headed into a little valley, where we crossed a curving rail bridge that landed us at the front door of the Otago Central Hotel.  The hotel was packed, which was surprising for a Sunday morning, although I will admit the crowd was comprised entirely of cyclists.  We sat there overlooking the trail eating sandwiches and drinking coffee, our energy levels once again rose, and we soon set off towards our final destination on the trail - the town of Middlemarch.

The couple we had ridden with earlier were also taking a break at the hotel coffee shop.  To my surprise, the gentleman was having a few cigarettes, yet he could clearly ride like greased lightning

Another day, another one of these wooden guys.  There must be hundreds of thousands of them around the South Island of New Zealand - at least this one has a good view overlooking the curved rail bridge at Hyde

Hyde railway station.  I kept on riding and Jer popped over for a look, only to discover the station is privately owned.  Apparently it's for sale - that would be a pretty sweet place to live!

Someone at Ranfurly is probably still waiting for their shipment of planks to arrive...

Rail fail
I was standing around on the trail taking photos of the old carriages, when Jer joined me and laughingly mentioned he'd stacked his bike.  Apparently he was riding through long grass and didn't realise he was riding in a remaining piece of railway line - when he turned the bike his front wheel rubbed up against the rail track and over he went.  As he was standing there picking grass and dirt out of his panniers and handlebars he pointed to the couple on the mountain bikes now riding past the station, and said "Lucky the didn't see me, that would have been embarrassing!"

Here the rail trail runs just adjacent to the original railway line, where Jer came unstuck

Check out that sweet abutment.  I stopped to read an information panel, and Jer kept riding, presumably to work out some of his soreness from falling off his bike

Jer was long gone, and I was standing around admiring the old bridge and reading the information panel, when the couple on the mountain bikes we'd been leapfrogging all day turned up and we had a chat

As the mountain bikers were having a drink and checking out the ganger's shed, I asked them if they'd seen Jer stack it.  They said they hadn't, and I explained the whole incident to them, adding "if you see him up the road, be sure to give him a bit of shit about falling over".  They enthusiastically agreed to this, and shot off down the gravel trail.

It turns out my ruse worked better than I could have imagined.  When I caught up to Jer, he said "those people saw me stack it.  When they rode up they asked if I had any road rash from crashing, and were cracking up laughing about it."  As he retold the story I nodded sympathetically, secretly impressed that these people had taken the ruse to the next level by not only teasing him for crashing, but also pretending they were eyewitnesses to the embarrassing incident.  It kept getting better - when we eventually caught up to them again, Jer refused to overtake, saying "can't do it man, it's too embarrassing after they saw my stupid crash".  When they stopped for a break at a scenic lookout and I wanted to stop at the same place, Jer said "nope.  What if they say something about my crash again?"  It was majestic - his confidence was totally shot and he was embarrassed and paranoid, and I obviously milked it for all it was worth.  What's even more awesome is that I have never told him that nobody had even witnessed his crash, and the whole thing was a wind up involving complete strangers on the trail.  The first he'll know about it is when he reads this.  Delicious.

Soon after leaving Hyde, the trail led out onto another agricultural plain.  The sun was blazing and a hot wind was starting to blow

The sun was scorching, and I wanted to stop at a monument to the Hyde railway disaster to have a drink and re-apply sunscreen.  As we were pulling up, Jer saw the mountain bikers he thought had seen him crash, and refused to stop there out of sheer embarrassment.  We ended up stopping in the relative privacy of the last cutting of the trail, before quickly moving on

The weather really came good on the final straight to the end of the trail at Middlemarch

It was only about 1km from the end of our ride that I realised I could use this camera angle from the bike - I wish I'd thought of it sooner

Making the final push across the plain into Middlemarch, towards lunch and coffee.  The weather was now the complete opposite of when we left cold and damp Ranfurly, just a few hours earlier

The end of the Otago Central Rail Trail and the town of Middlemarch in sight

 End of the line
We arrived at the railhead in Middlemarch a little before lunch.  Rolling into Middlemarch felt like a momentous occasion after leaving Christchurch by bike all those weeks earlier - I kind of expected some kind of welcoming committee to commemorate our achievement, but the entire town seemed strangely deserted.  There is nothing too remarkable at the end of the line, just a gate and an old rail service car, but we still felt compelled to sit around and take a quiet moment to celebrate our achievement.  I had dreamed of riding the rail trail for so long that now it was over, I didn't really know what to say or do.  The midday Otago sun was ferociously blazing down, so we quickly attended to whatever personal rituals and reflections we thought we had to make, and headed off in search of shelter.

My trusty Redline Conquest Classic carried me straight and true through yet another off road adventure.  I really don't talk enough about how much I love this bike, maybe one day it will be subject of a review

As we stood around aimlessly, an older guy walked over to us and offered to take our photo at the end of the trail.  As per usual we did a great job of not looking relaxed
I don't know how many countless thousands of lycra-clad cyclist bums have posed for a "hilarious" photo on this thing in the past, but I certainly wasn't going to let the chance go by to have my turn!

Jer takes of advantage of the state-of-the-art aerodynamic fairing on WW7617

With the Otago Central Rail Trail completed, only a short bit of riding remained on our tour of the South Island.  I had initially intended to ride straight to Dunedin, but my friend Ross had suggested we instead catch the Taieri Gorge Railway into Dunedin.  This sounded like a good idea to me, as the ride from Middlemarch to Dunedin is apparently contains some serious climbs, and some diabolical traffic at the end.  The tourist train departs from Middlemarch, although we were scheduled to catch the afternoon service from Pukerangi, about 20km away.  We had some time to kill, so we rolled into the centre of Middlemarch with a view to doing as little as possible for a few hours.

We pulled up out the front of Cycle Surgery, a business renting out bikes, running tours and catering to riders using the trail.  A couple of staff saw us standing around looking vague, and asked us how we were doing and how far we'd ridden.  I explained what we'd been up to for the past couple of weeks, and they guy said "looks like you've got the right bikes for it!"  This was this first time in the whole time I've owned a cyclocross bike that anyone had even known what it was, let alone what it was good for - complimenting someone on their choice of bike is always a good way to start off on the right foot.  I asked how long it would take to get to Pukerangi station to catch the afternoon train, and he recommended giving it about an hour and a half.  He suggested that in the meantime we chill out, wash our bikes and relax, adding "just make yourself at home guys".  I was impressed - we'd only just rocked up out of the blue that minute, and were generously being offered full use of the facilities.  We hung around for a couple of hours - I phoned home, ate some lunch, and had a few coffees before we reluctantly pressed our tired legs into action for the final ride through Central Otago to Pukerangi station.

Cycle Surgery at Middlemarch - a hospitable finish to our rail trail experience

Jer has a chocolate milk and chills it up while listening to Solid Gold FM.  Every radio station in South Island seems to be locked to this station, ensuring we had a constant soundtrack of Elton John, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney

The combination of hot sun, strong wind and tired legs made the ride out of Middlemarch much tougher than we anticipated.  It seemed fitting that it was ending as it began, with us slogging it out in a savage headwind across flat farmland

We were running well ahead of schedule to meet the train as we turned onto an empty dirt road leading to the station

The road continued along the side of the rail line, rolling along through increasingly rocky farmland.  I assumed it continued mostly flat by the trail line all the way to the station

This was something novel - the railway line and road converge to share the same single lane bridge

The final sting in the tail on the road to Pukerangi.  It doesn't look like much in the photo, but this hill is colossal

We pulled up at the bottom and the climb and I was about to launch into a whining procrastination session before the climb, when all of a sudden Jer took off like a shot up the hill - I think he too was keen to have it over with

Arriving at Pukerangi.  It's literally just a train station out on the middle of nowhere, and we were the only people around for miles

Riding this section of the rail trail to Dunedin is definitely not advisable

We arrived about an hour before the train was due, and were the only people around.  We quietly milled around, individually reflecting on our ride across Central Otago, and indeed across the South Island.  Although we had ridden together much of the way and done mostly the same things over the past few weeks, I think we individually had very different experiences.  For me, arriving at the end of the line bought on some strange emotions - I was neither happy nor sad, not melancholy nor delighted.  My reflections at the completion of my journey on the rail trail and through South Island were not really about anything to do with cycling.  At the age of 30 I was diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease, and was unsure if I'd even be able to walk, let alone ride a bike through New Zealand - for me, being at Pukerangi station represented not just the end of a long ride, but the end of a long chapter in a personal journey to wrest my life back from the bleak malaise of pain and disease.  The triumphs and tribulations of the past weeks, along with the singularity of life on a bike, had pushed my condition from the front of my mind to the back.  Although this particular adventure was ending, I felt it was just the start of many more to come.

This is my favourite photo from the trip - when I look at it I get instantly transported back to the reflections I had at that place

Our day on the bike had ended up a lot tougher than we had anticipated, and it was welcome relief to sit on the train, watching the scenery roll past with no effort on our behalf

The Taieri Gorge Railway is apparently rated as one of the great train trips of the world.  I can see why - it's breathtakingly scenic, and the the train even stops at a few spots along the way so passengers can hop out and take photos

Two tired guys on a train.  It was worth every cent just to not be riding our bikes through the suburbs of Dunedin - the scenic vistas all the way were just a bonus

Back in the big city

Arriving at Dunedin station
We unloaded our bikes and rode through the deserted Sunday afternoon street of Dunedin.  After being in the relative wilderness of Central Otago for a week, it felt odd to be back in a city - although the fact there was nobody around helped to ease our transition back into civilisation.  We pedalled to our nearby backpackers accommodation, where thanks to a mix up in bookings, we'd been booked a whole dorm room for just the two of us.  We headed upstairs and let our panniers explode everywhere, and sat around saying nothing for quite a while.  With great effort we wearily dragged ourselves back out to the bikes, and rode down to the local car wash, using the high pressure hoses to blast the Otago dirt out of the bikes.  The ride down to the car wash represented the last time we'd ride in New Zealand, and we both nominated to push our bikes back up to the accommodation.

We went for a short stroll around Dunedin, grabbed a feed at a fast food place, then retired to our rooms where we just lay around looking at photos and listening to the sounds of Solid Gold FM floating in through a window from somewhere.  It had been a long and exhausting few weeks, but we had worked together and had now successfully reached our destination.  I quickly drifted off into a night of deep sleep, to the sounds of Uncle Albert by Paul McCartney - which for some strange reason, seemed the perfect soundtrack to mark the completion of our journey by bicycle across the South Island of New Zealand.