Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A tale of three trails - NZ 2014 Part 7

SPOILER ALERT: This was the funnest day of riding I've ever had - cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, Roxburgh Gorge Trail and Clutha Gold Trail all on the same day.

Our day started before dawn - eating a hurried breakfast at the Omakau Commercial Hotel before heading out to pack up the bikes.  It had been raining overnight, however it looked as though the weather might be OK for at least a couple of hours.  With the sudden change in weather yesterday, today we wanted to get going as fast as we could should we encounter more unexpected precipitation.  Our first leg for the day was to ride the Otago Central Rail Trail to the town of Alexandra, where we were meeting someone for a coffee at 10am.  With the unusual circumstance of having to be somewhere at a particular time, we shot off down the trail towards Alexandra.

Loaded bike ready to go outside the old stables at the Omakau Commercial Hotel.

Quiet, damp and very cold out on the Otago Central Rail Trail.

Low cloud still hung on the ranges all around, making conditions on the ground a little bit like being in a fridge.

Chris makes a cleat adjustment in the hope of sorting out some of his ongoing knee problems.

Gunning it over the top of Tiger Hill, the only real "climb" on the rail trail.

On the fast descent towards Chatto Creek, Chris managed to lose his handlebar bag over one of the rough grids.  Another of our usual roadside dodgy repairs and we were back in action in no time.

Heading off Tiger Hill, not far from where I took the cover photo for my book.  It looks fairly different today though, almost unrecognisable as the same place.

Chris, myself, and some kid on a K-mart bike behind us.  Immediately after his photo the kid on the K-mart bike breezed past both of us like we were standing still.  It was highly embarrassing and we both agreed never to speak of it again.

The Otago Central Rail Trail component of the day concludes at Alexandra.  We were both exhausted by this stage, having ridden hard for a couple of hours with no break.

The famous Alexandra cross 'n' clock combination.  Apparently it's even illuminated at night.

Our coffee date spot - the Alexandra Courthouse Cafe.

We parked our bikes outside the Courthouse Cafe and wandered inside.  It was Antarctic outdoors, and I was glad that it wasn't just me feeling the cold - even the locals were all rugged up, wandering around in the gloom rubbing their hands together and breathing steam.  Inside the cafe we were meeting up with Ali from Tourism Central Otago, who had generously agreed to provide us with a wealth of knowledge about the trails we were just about to ride.  I had a moment of brief panic when I realised that I didn't know what Ali actually looked like, however she soon introduced herself to us, no doubt by searching for the two most dishevelled looking cyclists in the place.  Ali told us all about the Roxburgh Gorge and Clutha Gold trails that we were heading along later that day, furnishing us with maps and information that would see us through the next few days on the bikes.  With Ali's enthusiasm for the trails I was starting to get very excited about the terrain to come - plus it was great to personally meet someone who had been so instrumental in planning out the second half of our NZ adventure.

Chris looks down the barrel of a monumental French toast superfreakout.  The Courthouse Cafe in Alexandra certainly gets the full recommend from us.

I don't usually eat eggs Benedict, but I thought "what the hell, I'm on Hollandaise!" (sorry).

After a pleasant late breakfast with Ali, Chris and I said farewell, stepped back outside into the freezer, hopped on our bikes and headed over the bridge to the start of the Roxburgh Gorge Trail.  Quite simply, the Roxburgh Gorge Trail was spectacular - I've never ridden anything like it at all.  The riding itself is easy, thanks to careful track design and a high quality surface, but the scenery it cuts through is just mind boggling.  I won't go too crazy on the description here - even on a dark and rainy day the photos show what it's all about far better than I could ever hope to with words.  I will say this though - drop whatever you're doing and book a flight to go and ride this trail.  It truly is phenomenal.

The trail starts just next to old Alexandra bridge.

Heading down towards the Clutha River, with splashed of autumnal colour next to the smooth and solid trail.

For the first few kilometres, the Roxburgh Gorge trail alternates from leafy groves by the river...

...to exposed schist rock slopes.
Descending from the open slopes to the tree-lined river is handled by flawlessly designed and built switchbacks.

Ruins of an old schist miners hut by the trail.

Soon the trail climbed high up onto the gorge wall.  From this high vantage point we could see the rain closing in up ahead.  Note the boat down on the river - the only way to get along here other than the trail is by boat.

Getting my wet weather gear out in preparation for the imminent drenching.

Descending down a steep switchback to river level.  This one was actually a bit hairy - not a lot of margin for error!

In the shadowless gloom, parts of the scenery looked they were photographs of another planet taken by a robot lander.

One of the wider parts of the gorge.

Due to access issues the trail is cut into two parts.  Here I am awaiting a boat transfer from the northern section to the southern section.  Some people complain about this need for a boat transfer, however to be honest it broke up the day very nicely and added a whole new awesome dimension to proceedings.

I expected a pontoon craft of a punt of some description to rock up, but being in NZ it was obviously a V8 powered jet boat...

...complete with a bike rack.  This was definitely a hitherto unexperienced mode of bicycle transport for me.

Chris looking very much at home on the jet boat.  Being a Kiwi I'm sure he was probably taught jet boating at school or something - it's probably compulsory for all New Zealanders to learn how to do a 360 spin I imagine.

Checking out the numerous mining huts along the banks of the river.  The jet boat allowed a whole new perspective of the gorge.

An old original miner's house by the river.

Having a look around inside the old house.  I was amazed that things like the intact floorboards and even hessian wall panels were still largely intact after 100+ years and countless visitors.

Exploring safely with my helmet, life jacket and high-vis pants.

I'm not the only safety enthusiast either.  Even Chris wears his life jacket on dry land, should a strong gust of wind blow him into the drink or something.

The second part of the Roxburgh Gorge trail continued much the same as the first, albeit a lot higher up the cliff, and with a lot more switchbacks.

As we headed south the weather didn't let up, with light rain and wind the whole way.  Although it was a bit miserable out on the bike, the scenery and riding were so unbelievable that the crappy weather somehow added to the whole experience.

The photo doesn't really how just how high were were above the water at this point, but it was a long way up.  The trail continued around to the left, following the river.  With all the switchbacks and climbing, it ended up being a long way.

One of the switchback descents up ahead.  At about this point the trail changed from easy bike track to mild mountain bike track.  Still easily rideable on the touring bikes, but with a few twists and turns and elevation changes thrown in.  A supremely well designed track that is a hoot to ride.

The last switchback climb out of the gorge, up to the Roxburgh Dam trail head.

Chris approaching the top.

The view back down the final switchback climb.  The scene was almost like a NZ cycle-only dirt version of a Swiss alpine road.

After completing the Roxburgh Gorge trail, we descended down the blacktop and across the dam wall, where we picked up the Clutha Gold trail head.  Although the two trails technically join into each other and could probably be classed as just the one really long trail, the Clutha Gold trail definitely had a very different feel to the Roxburgh Gorge trail to the north.

On the Clutha Gold trail, the terrain became flatter and greener as the smooth trail past wound alongside the river.  By this stage the rain was quite heavy, although the high quality trail surface was holding up well, albeit flicking up a bit of muck into the drivetrain.

Ruins of an old gold dredge sunk under mysterious circumstances a very long time ago.  The fact it's still there says something about the cold weather and freshness of the water.

As the rain got heavier our riding became faster and faster along the grippy trail.  By the end of the day I was throwing my loaded touring bike into corners like I used to back in the MTB racing days.

At about afternoon tea time Chris and I rode into Roxburgh, pretty cold, wet and filthy from the trail.  We stopped at the first cafe we saw - the Rox Cafe - which turned out to be an awesome choice.  We thought we'd be frowned upon as we dripped all over the carpet and furnishings, but instead the awesome owner Matt made us feel super welcome.  It turned out he was a bit of a bike enthusiast himself, and even live tracked the Kiwi Brevet race when it happened earlier in the year.  After a pretty frazzling experience outrunning the rain all arvo, it was nice to be sitting inside having a friendly chat, so one coffee and cake turned into two while Matt chatted to us about Roxburgh and the trail.  We were introduced to some other guy who was involved in the trail building - it seemed like everyone we met was justifiably proud and excited about the trail.

After leaving the cafe we made our way to our accommodation, in someone's house that had been converted into a few backpacker rooms.  It was great to be warm and dry, and they even let us use their garage to clean up and service the bikes after a day of riding around in the grit.  From there we headed back uptown to an old country pub for a beer and a cheap feed, followed by dessert at the local Chinese takeaway.  This concept of getting deep fried sweet snacks from the takeaway shop was a new concept to me - one I welcomed as I sat back in our room chowing down on deep fried chocolate donuts and apple pies.

What a day it had been - we'd spent the entire day riding three iconic NZ trails.  It was such an action packed and diverse day that by the evening it felt like it was a week ago that we were at Alexandra having breakfast, and a year ago that we had departed Omakau just that morning.  In addition to the mind boggling scenery, the riding had been fun, fast and car-free - with a jet boat ride thrown in.  At the time I realised this three trail combination was the most fun I've ever had on a bike.  Not the most challenging or longest day, but without question the best time I've ever had out cycling.  Four months later and I'm still smiling about it.  And the best part was that we still had another two days to go exploring the Clutha Gold trail...

Airing wet gear in our room.

Nightfall at Roxburgh.

Pretty busy at the pub on Saturday night.  The only patrons were Chris and I.


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