Central Otago Tours & Wildflower Walks


The Department of Conservation developed and look after the rail trail with the Otago Central Rail Trail Charitable Trust providing funding support. There is no charge for its use although donations can be made to the OCRT Trust in the boxes provided

The Otago Central Rail Trail is a year-round recreational facility, designed for mountain bikers, for walkers and horse riders. It is a public reserve and can be ridden or walked in either direction of all of its 150kms or just sections of it.

The trail follows the former Otago Central Branch Railway Line from Middlemarch to Clyde. The line from Wingatui commenced 1879, reaching Midddlemarch 1891, Clyde 1907 and finally completed end of 1917 at the Cromwell terminal but was not officially opened until July 1921. In its early days, it took travellers two days to make the journey between Dunedin and Central Otago, and even longer for freight though at the time the rail provided a vital link between New Zealand's largest city and the country's major goldfields. For most of the 20th century, the railway brought a steady stream of commerce and activity to a number of towns and communities throughout Central Otago.

However, as roads improved, cars became faster and restrictions on distances trucks were permitted to carry goods were lifted, the railways use waned in the face of intense competition. The line Clyde to Cromwell through the Dunstan / Cromwell Gorge closed 1980 as a result of the construction of the high dam at Clyde with a new rail terminal end at Clyde. The line was now heavily dependent on the Clyde Dam construction. With the dam construction completed in 1988, closure was unavoidable.

The first 60km of the rail corridor track, 4km from the Wingatui Junction to Middlemarch was purchased from New Zealand Rail by the Dunedin City Council in July 1990 at a cost of M$1.2 which then sub-leased the track to the Otago Excursion Train Trust while the 150km stretch of the line from Middlemarch to Clyde was closed permanently as from 14 April 1990. The 150km of track was then shortly “ripped” up requiring just one year to demolish a section of railway that had taken 16 years to install.

In May 1993 a “rail corridor” – a strip of land 150km long, average width 20m (200 hectares in all) was offered to the Department of Conservation. The Department of Conservation saw the disused railway's potential for outdoor enthusiasts, and acquired the line in August1993. The Minister announcement on the completion of negotiations with a statement “ Intact, the corridor is potentially a unique asset. It will take walkers and cyclists through the striking Central Otago landscape, away from roads and traffic. There is nothing quite like it in New Zealand and it could well become a tourist and recreation attraction of considerable international interest”. So was born this tourist attraction that the Department of Conservation named “The Otago Central Rail Trail”.

Six years, and over $850,000 was then spent preparing and upgrading the closed railway for its current use, which involved redecking the trail's 68 bridges, several over 100m in length, and furnishing them with hand rails. All the railway's original sleepers, rails and crushed rock ballast have now been removed, and users now find a trail similar to a good gravel road.

The 150km Rail Trail was officially opened 21st February 2000.

The land where the Rail Trail travels through is steeped in a sense of history and remoteness, providing a chance to view scenery unable to be seen from the highway along with the ease of seeing Central Otago's tor landscape, wildlife and its many wild flowers – mostly introduced and colourful when in flower lining the old rail line track. It has also preserved, largely intact, an important part of Otago's heritage.

Much of that experience of being and completing the full length of the 150km Rail Trail comes from riders. Very few walkers have walked the entire length, though many walkers have walked sections of the Rail Trail. Though it can be a challenge for a cyclist to cover the 150km in one day, most cyclists do it in 3 or 4 days while it would take walkers about a week

However it's the walkers that experience the closeness to nature, to see the many different wild flowers over the length of the Rail Trail, the wildlife, the changing landscape, viewing / exploring the history along the 150km of the Rail Trail and the feeling of remoteness on most of its different sections.

Some two thirds of the Rail Trail goes through the rural territory of the Maniototo. The population of Central Otago from the 2006 census is 16,647 with 1035 in the Maniototo and another 711 in Ranfurly, the largest town in the Maniototo. The “terminal” end of the trail at Clyde has a population of 918 while Alexandra 8km from Clyde has 4824, the biggest town in Central Otago. Both Clyde and Alexandra can offer plenty of accommodation and shops, but accommodation and shops along the rest of the trail with the exception of Ranfurly, are scattered and advance bookings are essential.

The Rail Trail goes through some of the driest areas of New Zealand so take plenty of your own water as summer temperatures can reach 40 degrees Celsius. Weather can change day-by-day, as well as during the day, can be very windy and very seasonal – winter days can be down to 0 degrees with recorded night lows in the minus 20 degrees, so be prepared and plan accordingly. A passport can be purchased from most Otago Information Centres and can be self stamped at most of the former station sites along the Rail Trail.

Cyclists travelling from Clyde to Middlemarch that are averaging about 30-40kms a day then would have suggested overnight stops first at Omakau / Lauder, second night at Oturehua / Wedderburn, third night at Ranfurly, with the fourth night at Waipiata / Hyde. If you want to leave the Rail Trail to visit the many attractions that are away from the Rail Trail then add more days to your adventure. Cyclists can continue on to Dunedin, not by biking but by the Taieri Gorge Train. It would by wise to check the timetable – a summer and winter timetable, as normally the train goes only as far as Pukerangi, 19km further on past Middlemarch.

For walkers to walk the full length of the Rail Trail and allowing an average of 25km a day makes it a six-day walk from Clyde with suggested overnight stops at Chatto Creek, Lauder, Oturehua, Ranfurly, Hyde and a last night at Middlemarch if not being picked-up on the sixth day or else on day seven going on to Dunedin by the Taieri Gorge Train either departing from Middlemarch or Pukerangi. You will need to check either the summer or winter timetable.

The Rail Trail can be travelled in either direction. Walkers as well as cyclists can chose different sections of the trail and walk / ride it one way with a pick-up at the end or an out and back walk / ride. Entrance to and from all of the six main sections: Clyde to Chatto Creek, Chatto Creek to Lauder, Lauder to Oturehua, Oturehua to Ranfurly, Ranfurly to Hyde, Hyde to Middlemarch can be at any of the places where the Rail Trail intersects a public roadway.

There are different organisations that can arrange transport requirements and organise mountain bike group tours.

Safari Excursions – Wild Flower Walks can arrange walking itineraries and guided walks of half day, day or for those that want to walk the entire length of the Rail Trail.

Researched by John Douglas. For more information

John Douglas, Safari Excursions, 41 Glencarron Street 
Alexandra, Central Otago, New Zealand 
Phone 64 (int) 3 (area) 448 7474
Fax 64 3 448 8118

Free phone (within New Zealand): 0800 208 930
email: jdouglas.alx@xtra.co.nz