Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand

Posted 12/01/12 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Trail of the Month: December 2012

"Not all those who wander are lost." – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

This month, fans of the popular Lord of the Rings movies are eagerly anticipating the latest installment of the acclaimed series, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. For an experience in Middle Earth, adventurers both tall and small can take their own journey along the Otago Central Rail Trail, a well-kept gravel pathway running 150 kilometers (more than 90 miles) through the region where many of the film's sequences were shot. The gorgeous backdrop for the movies—wind-swept vistas, rugged mountains, lush green farm fields, and jaw-dropping river gorges—can all be found on this unique rail-trail on New Zealand's South Island.

"The Hobbit people were here for quite a while," says Kate Wilson, chair of the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust, a nonprofit group established in 1994 to raise funds for the trail and promote its use. "They were filming on Rock and Pillar, Taieri Ridge and around Queenstown."

Queenstown, known as a hub for skiing, whitewater rafting and other extreme sports, is not far from the rail-trail's western end at the town of Clyde. But even without the side trip, there is plenty to experience on the trail itself, named after the railway line built here in the early 20th century to transport produce from this rich agricultural heartland.

Perhaps one of the best embodiments of this early rural culture can be found at Hayes Engineering Works in Oturehua. It's the factory of Ernest Hayes—farmer, miller and inventor extraordinaire—who invented and produced many types of farming tools, some still in use today. His wife, Hannah, supported these endeavors by going door to door by bicycle to sell the unique products. Their 1895 homestead, as well as the original workshop, windmill and other structures, can be explored today in this fascinating living museum.

Before the railway, gold fever swept the area in the 1860s. In Oturehua you can visit the Golden Progress Mine, a short detour off the trail. Its tall winding tower straddles a shaft that was used to reach gold-bearing quartz deep in the ground. Many other relics of this gold-mining era can be found along the pathway, but perhaps none as unusual as the Platypus, New Zealand's first submarine, built in 1874 to dredge the river beds for gold. After an unsuccessful test run in Otago Harbor, the project was abandoned and its rusty hull is now on display at the Strath Taieri Museum in Middlemarch, the trail's eastern terminus.

After 85 years of rail service, road-based freight eventually replaced the Otago Central Railway and the line closed in 1990. In 1993, the federal Department of Conservation sought to turn the disused rail corridor into a recreational amenity. They found support in a small group of community volunteers who soon formed the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust to help sustain the project. The first section, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Clyde to Alexandra, opened in 1994. The trail continued to grow from both ends until it was finally completed in 2000.

"There was quite strong opposition in the beginning," says Daphne Hull, a founding member of the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust. "As soon as the rail went out, the fences went up. But it's 100 percent positive now. As a group, we went around to the communities and invited the neighbors to talk about the trail. Personal one-to-one contact is what convinced them. When the railway left, these little communities were dying and we showed them the possibilities that the trail could bring."

Now, thousands flock to the Otago Central Rail Trail each year, infusing the local economy with more than NZ$12 million a year (about US$9.9 million) from lodging, food and other tourist spending.

"I first moved to Middlemarch in 1992, just as the railway was closing," says Wilson. "Things were pretty dire. Some hotels and pubs were closing. It was a slow creep, but the trail made sure that hotels stayed open, and started the development of new businesses. Farmers could offer homestays and B&Bs. Middlemarch didn't have a café then, but now supports three, which is quite something for a population of 250."

The trail has proved so successful that it caught the attention of New Zealand's federal government and helped spur a recent nationwide trail initiative to generate economic, social and environmental benefits for communities along trails elsewhere. The New Zealand Cycle Trail, launched in 2009 and supported by an impressive NZ$50 million investment from the government, will be one trail to rule them all: an intertwined network of off-road pathways stretching more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) across the country.

"The Otago Central Rail Trail is a local economic success story and provided, in part, the inspiration for developing a national network of cycle trails," Prime Minister John Key stated in a press release earlier this year. "The idea was to build a nationwide network of cycle trails that would emulate the benefits of the Otago Central Rail Trail and promote New Zealand as an international cycling destination."

But one does not simply walk into Mordor…ahem, Otago. Amenities along the trail are somewhat rustic, so you will need to be prepared. Although public toilets are available at frequent intervals, they do not provide toilet paper. In such a dry climate, water is a precious resource and often untreated, so drinking commercially bottled water is best. A flashlight will come in handy, too, as the trail's three tunnels are unlit.

When deciding when to visit, keep in mind that New Zealand, being in the southern hemisphere, has seasons reversed from the U.S., and each as its own charms.

"The seasonal change from summer to autumn has the whole region in a vivid display of autumn color," says Michelle Ormsby, tourism manager for Tourism Central Otago. "Particularly the orchards, vineyards and deciduous trees that line the rail trail. Spring brings the vibrancy of new growth, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Summer is hot, dry and shimmery, with the days long and generally settled."

But one thing does not change no matter when you go. Small, friendly communities line the rail-trail every 10 miles or so, welcoming you at every step. "You'll be going through locations with some of the nicest people in the world," says Wilson.


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