Saturday, February 11, 2012

Maniototo meandering: NZ Day 16

The meteorological situation in the morning was no different to the night before, and when I awoke at 9:00am the rain was still very much pouring down on the Maniototo Plain.  However I wasn't too upset - today was a day set aside to explore Ranfurly and surrounds, so we wouldn't be facing a wet rail trail on the bikes.  I got out of bed and stumbled down the hallway, to find out hosts Gary and Chris patiently awaiting us with a magnificent cooked breakfast.  I felt a little bad for sleeping in so late, oblivious to the fact that they'd cooked up such a morning feast - but of course they were in high spirits.  We all ate breakfast together and continued on from where we left off last night, eating and being jolly.

Jer and I had no solid plans locked in for the day - the only scheduled activity was having a shot at curling in the nearby town of Naseby, leaving the rest of the day to do whatever we pleased.  Jer was feeling a little sick again, so we slowly ambled through the rain to the main street, to see what was happening around town and have a cup of coffee.

The Ranfurly Hotel was the venue for our first coffee, and it wouldn't be the last time we'd be there today

This chick was totally making eyes at Jer, but he was playing hard to get and trying not to blow his cool

Feeling a little more lively after a strong coffee, we wandered around to see what was happening in Ranfurly.  It was Saturday morning, with a lot of local people in town, having coffee, doing their shopping and generally running errands.  The vibe was very rural, with one notable exception - lots and lots of bikes.  All up and down the main street there were bikes whizzing past, everything from lone tourers to large groups riding hired bikes.  I generally go touring either by myself or with one other person, so I was a bit intrigued by all the large groups we saw on the trail.  A curious thing was that I'd seen these big groups either only on the trail itself, or only in the main street of towns - their approach seemed to be focused solely on riding the trail just for the sake of the trail, and not exploring the greater sights and history of Central Otago.  All along the way we'd see groups ride into a town, keep to themselves, then ride quickly out again, sticking only to their designated route and strict timetable.  It was all a bit perplexing to me - the best parts of our rail trail experience had been when we'd ventured off the trail and taken the time to dig a little deeper (mining pun semi-intended) into Central Otago.  We were trying to experience the Otago Central Rail Trail in the spirit that the original line was constructed over a century ago - back then the rail line wasn't a destination in its own right, but a conduit cut through the rugged terrain to open up the remote towns of Central Otago.

Kiwi kitchen
With the rain still falling, we headed back to Maniototo Lodge B&B, where Chris was in the kitchen cooking up yet more baked treats.  I must have looked a little on the emaciated side after being on the road for a few weeks - as soon as I set foot in the kitchen Chris said "I'll make you some some scones" and whipped up a batch of hearty date scones, seemingly from thin air.  Jer and I spent an hour or so chatting with the very affable and hilarious Chris - it turns out she used to be an English and history teacher, so Jer and I were making the most of this to get ourselves schooled not only in Otago history, but also the broader history of New Zealand.  It was enthralling to hear about the history of a nation only 3 hours flight from my home, yet about which I really knew very little.  All the while, local people were popping in to say hi to Gary and Chris as they went about their Saturday morning errands, with each new visitor necessitating a fresh cup of tea and more cake.  It was like being in an episode of Kiwi Kitchen meets A Country Practice, and an utterly charming experience of life on the Maniototo Plain.

I had to be quick to get a photo of Chris cooking - she was like some kind of cake ninja, brewing up sweet treats in the blink of an eye

After lunch Jer went for a sleep for a few hours, and I wandered back into Ranfurly for more of a look around.  Despite the dreary weather, I was happy to be indulging in one of my favourite pastimes - strolling about doing nothing in particular at all.

The road out of Ranfurly.  Maniototo Lodge is right on the edge of town in a quiet rural location, but still only a five minute stroll to the centre of town

The old railway crossing signs have been altered to reflect the new use of the rail trail - nothing seems to ever stand still in Central Otago, history is constantly being re-used and re-invented

Even on a Saturday morning out of tourist season, Ranfurly was packed with bikes.  Bikes at the cafe...

...bikes parked neatly at the pub...

...and bikes at the museum.  Ranfurly must really get pumping over the summer months, when thousands of people traverse the trail

I treated myself to a little walk along the trail, as a lot of locals seemed to be doing as well.  As with cycling through the Maniototo Plain, I reckon walking the trail would also be an entirely pleasant experience

Hidden away in the goods shed opposite Ranfurly station I found a display of restored tractors.  It didn't seem to be signposted, I just stuck my head in the door to see what was in the building, and was pleasantly surprised

Walking around the country lanes out of town, I stumbled upon this old mechanical grader

What the cabin lacked in creature comforts, it made up for in excess steering wheels

The view from the rail trail to Maniototo Lodge

This photo wasn't staged.  When I got back to the house Jer was lying in bed, fully clothed including hat, playing piano.  This meant he either felt better, or had gone wrong in the head, or possibly both

Curling o'clock
Later in the afternoon, Chris left to go to Dunedin for a few days, which left Jer, Gary and I back at the Lodge.  The decision was made to get up to some man stuff, and the first order of business was curling at nearby Naseby.  One recurring theme in Central Otago was the willingness of people to drive us around everywhere so we could sample places off the trail.  No matter where we wanted to go or at what time, someone was always quick to offer a lift or the use of their car for the journey. Today was no exception, and we all piled into Gary's car and set off for an afternoon of adventure.

After a short drive from Ranfurly to Naseby, we pulled up at a large inconspicuous looking shed on the edge of town.  Curling was something I've always been fascinated by, and always wanted to try, but now that it was actually about to happen I have to admit I felt pretty tense.  Jer was even more anxious than me, to the point he was really freaking out, saying "I'm just going to watch man, this is too hardcore" - it was the first time I'd ever seen him properly freak out and not want to do something.  Before we had too much of a chance to chicken out, we paid our money (only $20 for tuition and and an hour on the ice), and nervously watched an introductory video, our brains desperately scrambling to take in the various rules and conventions of curling.  Stepping out onto the ice was like stepping into a giant freezer - the ambient temperature is close to freezing, and as per usual we weren't at all dressed for the occasion.  We must have looked pretty awkward as we received our tuition and had a few test slides of the 20kg stones.  Learning time was soon over, and it was time for the main event - the biggest showdown the sport of curling has ever seen...

In a tiny country town in the middle of New Zealand there's an Olympic standard curling rink, apparently the only one of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.  Once again, Central Otago continued to dish up the baffling surprises

Jer receives some tuition in the ancient and noble sport of curling.  One theory is that it was started by bored bridge builders chucking rocks around between tasks - a theory that I don't necessarily believe, but choose to subscribe to anyway

Jer unleashes his mad curl for the first time - history in the making captured on film

Curler's eye view of the action.  This is the best sport you will EVER try

Back in Australia when I mentioned that we'd be curling in Naseby, people would say "oh yeah, that's like lawn bowls on ice" - the reality is that curling is nothing like lawn bowls at all.  The physics of sliding the huge stones around on the ice is quite bizarre, with a surprisingly delicate touch is required.  The game is also steeped in tradition, and even at this casual level we found ourselves being more formal, and swearing a lot less than we generally do.  The scoring system makes for a competitive game, and after an hour out on the ice, I prevailed with a score of five to three.  Curling is by far the most addictive and strange sport I've ever played - after we finished we couldn't stop smiling, and were both pretty much ready to throw our bikes in the bin and become full-time curling guys.

Instead of heading back to Ranfurly, Gary suggested that while we were out in the car we might as well go for a drive around, and set off for a magical mystery tour of the Maniototo Plain.

Climbing the hills high into the back country of the Maniototo

I'm not sure if these were outstations or abandoned houses, but the remote corners of the Maniototo were dotted with old buildings, mines and unused infrastructure dating back well over a century

It turned out that as well as being the consummate host, Gary was also quite the skilled tour guide, painting a vivid picture of the area's history laced with his dry humour, and building suspense as we climbed further up into the remote ranges overlooking the Maniototo.  I'm a guy who likes to know what's going on, and I think Gary saw this and was playing on it.  As we bounced across the hills I asked where we were going, to which he simply replied "over there".  I saw some houses and trees in the distance, and asked if it was a town, to which he replied "you'll see".  I'm often accused of being economical with the facts on a tour, particularly about distances and climbs - now I was getting a taste of my own medicine, and I must admit I was quite enjoying it.

After a while we ended up at a group of large austere buildings.  This place was once a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, out here in the middle of nowhere.  I got the vibe that it must have been a pretty joyless institution to be sent to

The old sanatorium was now owned by some kind of religious organisation.  The bleak institutional vibe was no less foreboding, as were the numerous signs warning people to keep out

We were driving through a long abandoned gold mining settlement called Hamiltons, past old buildings, sluicing pipes and mine workings.  The old mine sluicings were immense, with the landscape forever bearing the gruesome scars of this incredibly destructive mining technique.  Surprisingly, the original system of sluicing dams and pipes still appeared to be functional, with white fans of high pressure water jetting out of holes in the rusted pipes.  Continuing along an increasingly rugged and muddy trail through the hills, we eventually pulled up at a gate on the hillside.  Gary stopped the car and cryptically said "Go for a walk down there.  Y means years, M means months, D means days and H means hours".  We got out of the car in the freezing cold and rain and tentatively walked down the overgrown track.

Jer strolls down the path - towards the stone-walled Hamiltons cemetery

The cemetery was overgrown with golden grass, filled with crumbling headstones.  On such a bleak day, this place was very sombre

This is what Gary was cryptically referring to earlier - a plaque listing who is buried here, and how long they lived.  This really hit home how hard life was back in the olden days of Central Otago, with many people living only for a few hours, days or months, and nobody living to an old age.  As a parent with two young kids, I found this place very sobering and sad, and reflected on how thankful I am for the conveniences of modern society that not only make us comfortable, but also keep us and our children alive

A half-dead pine tree stands sentinel over the pioneer graves

After the cold of the cemetery, we hopped back into the warmth of the car and slowly made our way down the rough bush tracks, back towards Ranfurly.  What struck me most about the back country of the Maniototo Plain was the remoteness of it all.  It appears that much of the area is devoid of roads and settlement, and as such getting anywhere takes a long time, even by car.  If anything were to go wrong out here, help would be a long time coming - for example, if you were to break your leg in some kind of camping related mishap, your friend could be forgiven for simply going back to sleep until help arrived.  It's a big country.

Bouncing down a bush trail amongst the ruins of old buildings brought one of the most gloriously anachronistic moments of the tour.  Radio reception around the hills was patchy, and just as we stopped to take this photo, the radio suddenly sprang loudly into life - with Mr Boombastic by Shaggy

One of the original water sluicing cannons, powered only by static head.  For such a simple device, the destructive power of this thing is phenomenal, and the landscape all over Central Otago still bears the scars

The weather on the Maniototo Plain that week was bizarre - huge banks of cloud that just seemed to rattle around in the valley, unable to escape over the surrounding mountains.  It was entertaining to watch, but I was secretly hoping it would clear up by the morning

Ale trail
Returning to Ranfurly, we headed straight to the Ranfurly Hotel, to finish our day where we had started.  We'd visited the front bar that morning, which I assume is where the tourists riding the trail go - tonight we went to the back bar, and seemed to be the only out-of-towners in there.   Still, the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, and I finally had what I'd been craving since I'd arrived in New Zealand - a good old-fashioned pub meal.  Sitting in the local's bar we didn't want to embarrass our host, and were doing our best at drinking the enormous bottles of Speight's ale everyone else was having - but being a pair of lightweights, we were really struggling.  As we sat there chatting, a stream of people were stopping by the table to chat to Gary.  We met one local guy called Wilson, who looked like he had spent the day getting comprehensively "refreshed", to say the least.  When Gary told him we were riding to Middlemarch the following day, he turned to us, his face a picture of sincerity, and said earnestly "watch out for the bloody... bloody... gnomes!"  Gary said "what?", and Wilson replied "The gnomes.  The bloody... gnomes!" And with that Wilson just disappeared.  We sat there looking blankly at each other for a few seconds, until it finally clicked to Gary what Wilson had been on about - they were apparently filming The Hobbit in the town of Hyde, where we'd be cycling tomorrow.  As bizarre and confusing as he was, meeting Wilson was a highlight of the tour we still talk about, and something that just wouldn't have happened had we not taken the time to get involved with the engaging locals of the Maniototo.

I've heard the rail trail referred to as the "ale trail" based on the numerous pubs along the way.  Even I was getting into the spirit of things - in Central Otago I had a beer or two every night for five nights in a row, a feat I've not achieved since my university days

After a couple of beers we headed back to the Lodge and sat around chatting for ages - sampling one of the famous Central Otago Pinot Noir wines by a roaring fire.  I ended up going to bed much later than I expected, and the following morning we'd be getting back on the bikes to complete the rail trail, and indeed our whole tour of the South Island of New Zealand.  

When I was originally planning the rail trail section of our ride, I thought we'd blast through the trail in a couple of days, which I'm guessing is probably what most people do.  That all changed with the persuasion of my friend Ross from Cromwell, who had convinced me to leave the schedule to him.  It turns out that was the best decision we could have possibly made, and thanks to him we got to experience the very essence of Central Otago.  By scheduling some time to do nothing in particular, we'd had unexpected experiences and spent time with people that provided colossal insights into the region. Taking our time traversing the rail trail had certainly paid dividends so far, and I was determined to make my final day in Central Otago last as long as possible - and maybe it would even live up to it's title as "the driest part of New Zealand". Maybe...


  1. Loving the write up Leon. Hating the time it is taking you though!
    What month did you actually go? I have a largeish leave pass granted this year and I very much like the sound of how quiet the "off season" is over there. Like you, I hate crowds and am happy to go at a sub optimal time to enjoy the solitude.
    Keep the posts coming, please.

    1. Hi mate, glad you're enjoying the write up. I'm afraid the next chapter won't be this weekend, in a couple of hours I'm off camping up on Mt Nebo - take advantage of this rare good summer weather!

      We were over there late October / early November - definitely recommended to avoid the crowds and high prices, our average accomodation cost for the trip as something like NZ$19 per night.