A misty light drizzle fell in waves, swept around by a gentle breeze under a splotchy grey sky. It was a bit nippy but not uncomfortably so. In the distance, the sky seemed to be lightening up near the horizon and cast an eerie glow. But none of it dampened my mood. Even under an overcast sky, the Ida Valley in New Zealand’s Central Otago region was stunning: craggy rocks and clumps of bushes with bright yellow flowers gave way to lush meadows which stretched out till the eye could see. The rain-washed greenery was speckled with sheep, nonchalantly grazing. The whole valley was suffused with a mild aroma emanating from the masses of wild thyme in the area. There was not a soul in sight for miles around, no sounds, no vestiges of civilisation. Only serene silence. It also seemed vaguely familiar. And then it struck me: this was the setting for Rohan of Middle-Earth in The Lord of the Rings.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Simon Stevens, my guide and companion who patiently waited while I gaped at the scenery. The words were uttered almost under his breath, as if instinctively realising that talking loudly would be an outrage. We had just begun to cycle a tiny part of the Otago Central Rail Trail, a 152-km long trail between Clyde and Middlemarch. But so breathtaking was the scenery that I stopped every few minutes to just take in everything. In between, Simon filled me in on the history of the trail and of the accompanying pioneering spirit. Named after the railway line that was laid around the turn of the 20th century to connect Dunedin on the coast with Central Otago during the height of the gold rush, it fell into disuse once the rush was over and completely abandoned in the 1990s. That’s until someone hit upon the idea of ripping up the tracks and converting it into a cycling trail. And that’s what it has been since 2000.
Because it was a railway track, the path itself was fairly easy, without any sharp gradients, though it was gravelly in parts. The intermittent cyclist that I was, I wobbled a bit and skidded initially, but, soon, got the hang of it. But for much of the trail we had chosen, it hardly needed much pedalling and I was glad to let gravity do its work while a mild breeze blew through, caressing my face and bringing with it the smells of the wilderness, especially of the thyme. I imagined a steam engine chugging through the landscape, clouds of vapour rising into the blue sky, its horn piercing the thick silence of the area. All along the way, there were constant reminders of the antecedents of the path such as long, dark tunnels, remains of mining machinery, old stone bridges and viaducts, tiny stone and mud-brick houses and abandoned settlements.
Along the path there were a handful of tunnels, two of which passed through the Poolburn Gorge that also had a dramatic viaduct. The path curved a bit and we came upon the first tunnel with an arched entryway. Simon suggested we get off and I quickly realised why. Just a few feet in, the tunnel was pitch-dark and we had to use a torch to navigate our way out of it. The ground was fairly even but damp and squishy in parts and a faint musty smell hung in the air.
When we pushed our bikes out of the tunnel, which was just over 200 m, the weather had perceptibly changed. The rain had completely stopped and the skies had cleared up considerably, though the sun was still not out. All around me were small, green cliffs with beautiful flowers, the sides tumbling into the gorge below from where the muted sounds of a river could be heard. It was in direct contrast to the gloom of the tunnel. But more exciting was cycling on the viaduct which overlooked the deep gorge. Built of steel and stone, it had wooden slats, and the cycle bumped along rhythmically, mimicking the clackety-clack of a train; some of the more uneven joints jolted the bottom rather painfully but it was just over 100m long.
We soon came upon the second Poolburn Tunnel and it was even darker since it was not only longer (230 m) but also curved, thereby not allowing access to any direct line of sight. Inside, it felt just like the other tunnel, only longer and mustier. The light at the end was a welcome sight and I was glad to be out. By now, the sun was valiantly battling to be out and everything glistened under the diffused light. We had been on the trail for just over an hour and had managed about 10 km. But lunchtime was nearing, the rumbling tummy grew louder, so we decided to get off the trail to look for lunch.
The trail was dotted with over 20 townships, many of which had a shared history with the railway line and the gold rush. Ophir lay just a short distance from where we got off the trail. The Biblical reference to King Solomon and gold were unmistakable. The settlement, earlier called Blacks, was rechristened at the height of the gold rush when its population swelled to over a thousand and it became a social and cultural centre in the area. At present, there are hardly 50 residents though many of the original buildings still lined the main road. Inside a former general store and butcher shop was located the Pitches Store, a charming restaurant and boutique stay. I was happy to tuck into light-as-air almond dukkah encrusted salmon accompanied by a bowl of fresh seasonal vegetables, while Simon regaled me with cycling stories.
The weather had suddenly taken a turn for the worse when we stepped out of the restaurant. The sky was a gloomy grey and rain was bucketing down. It had also gotten uncomfortably cold and damp, so any more cycling was ruled out. I hurried into the comfort of a car to head back to Clyde, but glanced back fondly at the trail in the distance. I could faintly make out a trio of cyclists, kitted out in appropriate rain gear, cycling on as if the rain was no impediment. Not quite the pioneering spirit of the gold rush, but their gung-ho attitude seemed apt on the trail.