Sunday 16 November 2014

Otago Central Rail Trail: Part 5

Breakfast on our final day. It’s early, and we’ve not slept well. We wander in like Brown’s cows, each grazing at different times from the good spread laid out for us. But we do have one thing in common: we’re all anxious to know if the support car will start.

The plan is for my sister and sister-in-law to leave early, drive to Dunedin, then catch the Taieri Gorge train back up to meet us at Middlemarch; the end of our trail. The timing is tight, hence our anxiety about the car.

If our ploy is to start the car using fuss and worry, it works. Without any hesitation the little beast sputters into life, and we wave Jude and Di off on their windy way to Dunedin.

[Ready to roll out of Hyde] 
The rest of us then relax a little, taking our time to fit in a little more breakfast, before packing our gear and settling up with the host. Then it’s one final time into the saddle for the 27km ride to Middlemarch. According to some it will be one of the less interesting day’s ride. For us it’s one to savour, so we take our time at the start of the gradual downhill run.

Before the landscape opens out onto the Strath Taieri valley, we have some hills to wind through. Just out of Hyde the Rock and Pillar Range, which will accompany us all day, bends close by the trail. Largely treeless and studded with quartz-rich schist tors, this characterful range was a skifield for Dunedin in cooler times. Latterly it has been part of “Middle Earth”, being used in various scenes in Peter Jackson’s fantasy films.

[The trail nears the Rock & Pillar Range]
The land closer to the trail holds other stories, and today we want to mark the site of one particularly sad tale. It takes place in 1943. While World War Two drags on, a crowded passenger train is bringing 113 passengers from Cromwell to Dunedin on the Otago Central line. It enters these hills at a reckless speed, and in a tight cutting it derails disastrously. 21 people die and 46 others are injured.

[Pausing at the rail disaster site near Hyde]
We find the exact spot, which is marked by an interpretation panel, and pause to reflect on this terrible event. For the locals the disaster was made worse by the fact that the government seemed to quickly forget the event. Perhaps its own decisions, which led to staff shortages and overwork on the railways, in turn contributed to the crash. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until 1991 that a public memorial to those who died was erected at a roadside reserve near the crash site. We clamber over a stile to look at the pyramidal memorial, which includes a plaque with the names of the dead.

[Moody clouds over the Hyde memorial]
The weather has been overcast, and a dark cloud hangs above us. To our right the Rock and Pillar Range takes on the look of an elevated graveyard. As we push on the weather improves and the range starts to hang back a little, now taking on a bluer, more benign appearance.

Just after the tiny station of Rock and Pillar, the trail flattens out and makes a straight run – the longest of the whole trip - towards Middlemarch. We’ve never been good at predicting the exact line of the trail. Time and again we’ve been surprised, astounded even, by the skill of the rail engineers in picking a line through this rumpled terrain. But here there is no skill needed. A bullet straight line takes us the final 6.3km into the small town of Middlemarch.

In planning our day we’d hoped for a cool, overcast morning, but with sun and blue sky to welcome us into Middlemarch. That’s exactly how it pans out, so much so that we’re more than warm by the time we reach the trail end marker.

[The boys at trail's end]
But Lynne and I remember the delights of the Kissing Gate Café from previous visits. With an hour before the Taieri Gorge train is due, we indulge in both cool drinks and deep coffees in the shady grounds of the café. We stretch, chat, smile and relax, then make our way back to the train station. Our full celebration begins when the “support crew” arrives on the train. In a buoyant mood we return our bikes and collect our gear from shebikeshebikes, the fantastic folk we booked our trip through.

Then there’s just time to down our lunch before all six of us hop aboard the Taieri Gorge Railway for the trip into Dunedin. That’s where the idea for our trip had its genesis 8 years ago, so it’s apt that we should end our journey in that lovely southern city.

[... and then it's all aboard the Taieri Gorge Railway] 


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