Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail: Part 1

Much anticipated events can have an edge to them. As much as you hope things turn out well, there's always the risk of disappointment or let down.

We first heard about the Otago Central Rail Trail about 8 years ago while we were based in Dunedin. Some Tassie friends were visiting, and we'd borrowed bikes and arm-twisted them into catching the Taeri Gorge train up to Middlemarch with us. The woman at the iSite in Dunedin had assured us we'd be able to ride a section of the trail from Middlemarch to Pukerangi, then catch the train back to Dunedin, bikes on board. 

The beauty of a rail trail - we assured our friends - is that it seldom rises or falls by more than 4 degrees, the kind of slope that trains, and wary cyclists, find easy to cope with. But on our arrival, the man on the platform at Middlemarch quickly informed us that the rail trail ran in the exact opposite direction from our intended ride. He then looked at his watch and suggested that if we wanted to catch the train back from Pukerangi, we'd better start riding now. Here he paused, pointed to the hills, and said "up that way", with some emphasis on the "up".

We survived that false start on the Otago Central Rail Trail (OCRT) - with some sweat and tears - though it turned the trail into unfinished business for us. And it provided us with another good reason to return to the South Island, if any was required. 

And so to October 2014. This time it would be a family trip, with my sister and her husband, and my brother and his wife joining us for the full, proper OCRT. The starting point for us would be Clyde, once the mining town of Dunstan, then the dam construction town of Clyde, and now as much sustained by the rail trail as any other enterprise. 

Clyde, as with everywhere in "Central", provided us with great hospitality: comfortable accommodation and hearty local food, with a few good stories thrown in. It seems we were staying in a place that once had a secret hidey-hole in its cellar. Colourfully-clad "dancing girls" hid there from police during the wild-west gold mining days. 

As we readied ourselves for our first day of riding, pulling on fluoro-coloured gear that would have done the dancing girls proud, only the weather gave us any pause for thought. Overnight a gale had hit the area, blowing limbs from trees, shaking our accommodation, and dropping some heavy showers. Although the wind had now dropped, showers persisted as we tried out the hired bikes. 

My sister had earlier made the decision not to ride as she'd fallen and broken her wrist six weeks prior. Instead she'd hired a car and designated herself as support crew, planning to meet us at regular intervals. For the first day my sister-in-law would join her in the car, partly to share the driving if the bandaged wrist caused trouble.

So four of us set off from Clyde, easing ourselves into the riding by agreeing to meet the others in Alexandra for morning coffee, a distance of just 8km. Why not start as you mean to continue?

After coffee we left the girls in Alexandra, agreeing to meet for lunch at the Chatto Creek pub. Re-fuelled or not, we still had 27km more to ride today. By Galloway, a remote former railway station near a back road, the coffee had prompted other urges. I stopped by the trail to relieve myself, but before I could finish the job, a car appeared on the nearby road. It was my sister and sister-in-law, laughing and waving a camera at me out of the window. Such a helpful support crew!

Another dubious support was my bike computer. It would be my friend/enemy over the coming days, Spock-like in its insistence that factors such as headwind or uphill slope would each knock X or Y km/h off my speed. We had both of these on our after-lunch climb of Tiger Hill. One minute I was tootling along at 20km/h, the next reduced by wind and hill to 8 or 9 km/h.

But what goes up must come down, and after the steep(ish) winding hill we had some faster free-wheeling sections on the way into our overnight stop at Omakau. My sister even managed to redeem herself by waving us off the trail into the town and showing us where we'd be staying. So that was Day 1 done. 35km, windy, showery, and somewhat uphill; cobwebs well and truly blown away.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

A Walk in the West: Part 2

Some photos from the west of Tassie - words to follow after a New Zealand interlude. Enjoy!

A Walk in the West: Part 1

[A welcome glow!] 

In a climate where it rains almost continually for nine months in the year, mere pack tracks through a boggy soil are not in the best of condition, almost every step taking you up to your ankles in mud, and repeatedly you sink down to your knees in the sludge.

So wrote a reporter in Melbourne’s Argus newspaper during an 1895 assignment to the mines of Tasmania’s Dundas area. Given the hype associated with mining in Tasmania’s west at the time – and the fortunes won and lost on mere rumour - you’d expect to take even weather and track reports with a grain of salt.

But the anonymous scribe’s descriptions proved accurate enough during our recent trip into the area. The forecast had been reasonable a week or so out, but the west coast had reverted to its default position by the time we reached Queenstown. Showers continued as we wound around the curvaceous roads north of Queenstown. We reached what had once been the mining town of Dundas in time for lunch.

The map had led us to imagine we’d see remains of at least a school and a recreation ground. The 1:25 000 Dundas map even had a “post and telegraph reserve” marked nearby. Instead we found not one single building or ruin, only unmarked roads and tracks, a disused gravel quarry, and a lot of rainforest. Rain started afresh as we got our gear out of the car.

[Tim and Jim: on the right track] 
Kitted up in full rain gear we crossed the Dundas River on a log and wire bridge and started our two hour ascent up old mining tracks. Our destination was Fraser Creek Hut. The hut seems to have begun life in the early 1920s as a temporary building supporting King Billy pine milling in the area. Miners used it in subsequent decades, but it was as a Scout hut that it most recently came into its own.

We were to be hosted by Terry Reid, retired park ranger and Scout leader, and an old colleague of mine and Tim’s. A Queenstown local for many years, Terry, along his brother Peter, was heavily involved in the hut’s restoration from the late 1970s onwards. They learned how to split King Billy palings, then passed on some of those skills to Venturer Scouts and other students. The palings were used to restore the hut’s walls and floorboards, and it became a base for those learning wilderness expedition skills.

[Fraser Creek Hut]
Our ascent towards the hut followed a steep 4WD mining track, which soon narrowed to become an even steeper walking track. Although the showers persisted, the ever-changing beauty of the rainforest did its best to distract us. A few routed signs assured us we were on the right track. One marked “Carbine Saddle” was accompanied by a helpful sign saying “Chocolate Stop”. Falling rain didn’t make obeying that a fully enjoyable task, but we did our token best.

[Anyone for chocolate?] 
After the saddle we hoped for, and were blessed with, a downhill track. It led to a creek crossing, helpfully sign-posted with names that would mean more to us in due course. We followed a track that had a remarkably symmetrical set of climbing “steps”, which we guessed were the foundations of a tramway used in mining and logging. Water flowed down the track, but at least there were no knee-deep bogs. Not long afterwards piles of cut logs stacked beside the track gave us the strong hope that we were nearing the hut. Smoke swirling through the sodden forest was the clincher. And we were just in time for afternoon tea!

Terry, Jess and Mel had come up a day ahead of us, and as we stumbled into the hut we were relieved to find the fire going and the kettle boiling. Once we’d got our (very) wet gear off, we relaxed by the fire, downing a cuppa or two as Terry introduced us to the hut.

[Tim and Terry chat inside the hut] 

If there is a timber as fine and versatile as Tasmania’s King Billy pine, I’d like to meet it. With the fire light flickering on the pine-lined walls, the hut exuded a honeyed warm glow. Once we had food and wine inside us, the memories of the sodden walk were banished. Talk flowed, the fire was stoked, and for now there was no better place to be in the world.