From the hilly city of Dunedin to the popular Central Otago Rail Trail and into the heartland of Otago, this ride takes you over dirt roads and through some of New Zealand’s best landscapes.
Prepare yourself (and your camera) for golden fields, marvellous gorges and stunning lakes that shimmer an aqua blue against the backdrop of Mount Cook.
If you can only do one ride in New Zealand, this just might be it.
You finish in Geraldine, a bustling country town from where you can keep riding or catch a bus into the biggest South Island city, Christchurch.
Duration: 7-9 days
Terrain: Sometimes strenuous. Many hills and occasional dirt roads.
Accommodation: A good selection of all types but a tent will let you enjoy the beautiful nature to its fullest.
Highlights: The amazing scenery around Danseys Pass, Twizel and Tekapo. Curling in Naseby.
Lowlights: Not many. The rail trail can get crowded in high season. Book accommodation ahead of time if you’re coming during peak periods.
Be sure to bring: Sunscreen and plenty of water to cope with Otago’s hot, dry weather.
Section 1 – Dunedin to Middlemarch (80km)
Shops: Dunedin, Mosgiel, Middlemarch
Accommodation: Dunedin (all types), Mosgiel (all types), Middlemarch (backpackers, hotel, camping)
It’s a tough call as to whether you should cycle to Middlemarch or catch a lift.
The Taieri Gorge tourist train is an atmospheric way to go but it’s also fairly expensive at NZ$48 for an adult ticket, although bikes travel free. The train only goes to Middlemarch on Friday and Sunday mornings. The rest of the time it stops in Pukerangi, a middle-of-nowhere settlement about 20km from Middlemarch.
There’s also the Catch-A-Bus shuttle (24-hour booking line: 03 479 9960), which runs 6 days a week to Middlemarch, plus weekend trips to Clyde.
Both services must be booked ahead and if you take them, you’ll miss the challenging but beautiful landscape that evolves as you leave the sea behind in Dunedin and go over the hills into the dry plains of Otago.
The climb starts immediately as you leave Dunedin, rising up from the Octagon, up Stuart Street and towards 3 Mile Hill. It’s a good 6km out of the city before the road plummets down and into the flat farming fields around Mosgiel. This is the last town of any size so stock up before you carry on down Highway 87 towards Outram.
Despite its name, Highway 87 feels more like a back country road. There’s very little traffic and most of the day’s scenery is made up of sheep farms and green pastures set against a backdrop of mountains and rocky outcrops. It’s rugged and beautiful.
Stop for a drink in one of Outram’s quirky cafes before tackling the next stretch. From the edge of the village the road climbs steeply, setting the tone for the rest of the day. Several times you climb sharply only to fall back down to a river or stream and then start regaining the height.
This is slow and thirsty work on a hot day. Lee Stream School about 40km into the ride is a friendly place to refill your water bottles or get drinks and meals at the Clark’s Junction pub, the last stop before Middlemarch. By now the landscape is noticeably dry and the only source of water comes from the occasional streams that gurgle under the bridges.
The last 15km into Middlemarch are mercifully easy and the town is geared up to all things cycling for the crowds that come to ride the rail trail. It’s no problem to get your bike fixed here, relax in the Kissing Gate cafe or enjoy an ice cream from the general shop. There are a few options for staying the night, including Blind Billy’s Camping but if you have a tent we recommend just heading out on the trail and pitching it 10-15km down the line for free. Bring water or a filter to draw water from streams.
Section 2 – Middlemarch to Naseby (75km)
Shops: Middlemarch, Ranfurly
Accommodation: Middlemarch, 18km from Ranfurly (2Wheel backpackers), Waipiata (B&B), Ranfurly (all types), Naesby (camping, B&Bs)
Follow the crowds to the rail trail. In the few short years since it was created, this bike path has earned a justified reputation as one of New Zealand’s best bike rides. It’s incredibly popular with tour groups and independent cyclists so book accommodation ahead of time during high season, unless you’re tenting.
Take plenty of water too. Afternoons on the trail are hot with little shade and there are no taps on the trail, although you will find pubs in Hyde and Waipiata and occasionally there’s the chance to pull over and take a dip in the Taieri River.
Since the path follows a railway line, there are no strenuous hills to worry about but you will be slowed down by the bumpy surface and the gripping landscape, which runs along the foothills of the Rock and Pillar Range and demands at least a few photo stops. On average, expect to cover 10-12km an hour.
As you’re taking in the views, watch for mushrooms growing in the field. You might pick up a few for supper! They should be white or brown, growing in the open (not under a tree), easily peeled and with gills underneath.
The first tunnel of the rail trail is at Hyde. It’s just 150 meters long but the Prices Creek Tunnel is very dark in the middle so bring a torch. On both sides of the tunnel, there are spectacular views of the gorge and the Taieri River running through it far below your wheels.
Ranfurly appears around the 60km mark. It’s a reasonably large town with plenty of places to spend the night, two supermarkets, a tourist office and generally just about anything you need. It’s also the last decent-sized stop for a couple days.
With your shopping done, leave the rail trail and continue on the last 15km to Naesby by road. Naesby is a charming village, with plenty of historic buildings and – the big draw – the southern hemisphere’s only dedicated curling rink. Have a go at this unique sport (NZ$14/pp) and then treat yourself to a coffee and something sweet at the Black Forest Cafe.
Section 3 – Naseby to Danseys Pass (50km)
Accommodation: Naseby (B&Bs, camping), 16km from Naseby (hotel), 50km from Naseby (Danseys Pass Holiday Park, NZ$14/pp including free washing machines)
The dirt road that leads over Danseys Pass can be hard work on a bicycle but the stunning landscape of golden mountains and deep river gorges more than compensates for the challenging terrain. It’s a ride that’s absolutely worth doing.
From Naseby, the road rises steeply out of the town and then drops down to run alongside the Kye Burn River.
It’s not long before the mountain peaks appear on the horizon, getting ever closer as you slowly approach the 935 meter pass. The Danseys Pass Hotel is your last chance to grab a drink or snack before the real climb begins.
Don’t expect to progress very quickly on the loose and sometimes corrugated gravel surface but a slow pace is just fine for admiring the view. After about 27km, you’re greeted at the pass by a long view into the valley and then the road turns downhill past sheep farms and alongside the rocky gorge carved out by the Maerewhenua River.
The riding is easy for 10km from the top but then there’s a sting in the tail with a last bit of climbing before you can resume the descent and return to asphalt. The first campground is the Danseys Pass Holiday Park and it’s a gem of a spot, set beside the river and run by a very friendly family. Highly recommended!
Section 3 – Danseys Pass Holiday Park to Sailors Cutting (78km)
Shops: Kurow, Otematata
Accommodation: Duntroon (domain camping), Kurow (camping, B&B), Otematata (camping, backpackers, B&B), Sailors Cutting (council site, NZ$10/2 people)
The quiet and twisty road that brought you down from Danseys Pass continues a further 15km past the holiday park before you reach Highway 83 and the hamlet of Duntroon. Just beside the road and before the junction, you’ll see what’s left of some ancient Maori rock paintings. There are more a few kilometers past Duntroon.
Duntroon itself isn’t much to speak of. There’s a cafe, a museum with some fossil exhibits and a domain camping area. Another 20km down the road, Kurow has a lot more to offer with a supermarket, a bakery and a tourist information centre. There’s still not much to hold your attention for long though so you’re best off carrying on down the road, towards Otematata.
The road starts to rise a bit as you come out of Kurow and you’re climbing slightly for much of the way now, always with magnificent views of the lake to your right. For a scenic detour, turn off Highway 83 at Aviemore and take the small but sealed road that runs along the north side of Lake Aviemore. It’s popular with local cyclists, who also told us there would be some good wild camping potential through here.
You could also rest your weary head at one of the council-run campsites that start appearing on Highway 8. The first one is just before Otematata, the second one is in the village and a few more are placed along the road to Omarama. They’re basic, with just toilets and water, but great if you’re on a budget.
Otherwise, there are a few private campgrounds to choose from as you carry on the road to Omarama.
Section 4 – Sailors Cutting to Lake Tekapo (95km)
Shops: Omarama, Twizel, Lake Tekapo
Accommodation: Omarama (camping, B&Bs, backpackers), Twizel (all types), Lake Tekapo (all types, caravan park NZ$14/pp plus NZ$2/showers)
This is a fantastic day of riding. There’s a steady climb all day but hopefully the superb scenery will have you so distracted you’ll hardly notice.
Continuing towards Omarama on the main road, there’s really no need to go into the town since everything you require will be in Twizel, so watch for Prohibition Road to the right, just before the village. It cuts off a corner and plops you on Highway 8, the road to Twizel. If the day is sunny, it shouldn’t be long before you see Mount Cook gleaming in the distance.
Twizel is a town created in the 1960s for dam workers. It was meant to be abandoned but a few residents wanted to stay on and now it’s a bustling little spot, largely servicing the tourists that pass through on their way to Mount Cook. You’ll find a supermarket here as well as a few cafes, restaurants and a tourist information centre.
From Twizel, the road often runs alongside lakes and canals, all a stunning aqua colour. Get your camera out.
Once you come along the south side of Lake Pukaki, watch for a small side road on your right, with signs towards a salmon farm. This takes you on a quieter route along the canal for a few kilometers, eventually returning to Route 8. There’s also the Tekapo-Twizel trail (marked on some maps) but we found it very unsuitable for loaded touring. Sometimes the route is barely more than a track over rough hills and even when there’s a towpath it’s very bumpy with large rocks.
The quiet side road ends about 15km before Tekapo and you finish the journey on the main road. It’s mostly uphill but gently so even if you’re tired it should be manageable. You’ll see the caravan park on your right, down by the lake shore, as you come into town and the YHA is at the start of the same road. A nice treat, once you’ve sorted out a place to sleep, is to wander down to the hot pools, just past the caravan park (NZ$14/pp for a good soak).
Section 5 – Lake Tekapo to Geraldine (90km)
Shops: Lake Tekapo, Fairlie, Geraldine
Accommodation: Lake Tekapo (all types, caravan park NZ$14/pp plus NZ$2/showers), Burkes Pass (lodge), Fairlie (all types, Top 10 caravan park), Geraldine (all types)
After yesterday’s climb, you’re in for a treat with plenty of downhill runs today. There is an initial climb to Burkes Pass at 709 meters but it’s an easy ascent, since you did much of the hard work the day before! Soon you’re zipping down the other side and the landscape gets noticeably greener as you leave the dry landscape of Otago behind.
Before you leave Lake Tekapo though, stop in at Doughboys Bakery (on the main road out of town) and see if they have any day-old treats for the ride. We picked up bags of chocolate muffins and scones for just NZ$5/each. Yum!
The first stop of the day after Lake Tekapo is Fairlie and while there’s not much here to hold your attention, it makes a pleasant enough lunch stop with restaurants, a supermarket and picnic tables. Turn left in the town centre, following signs towards Geraldine.
A little bit out of Fairlie is the Fat Albert Smokehouse, selling smoked salmon, venison and chorizo sausages. Not long after Fat Albert’s there’s a short, sharp climb to a lookout point over Fairlie and the surrounding countryside, before a really fun descent, swinging around sharp corners and along rock faces.
From here it’s a reasonably easy run into Geraldine. Traffic can be a bit heavy on Sunday afternoon, when folks from Christchurch return to the city after a weekend away. In Geraldine you’ll find plenty of shops and services, including two campgrounds. One is right in the town centre, beside the domain, and the other is 5km out of town towards Christchurch.