Dunedin to Middlemarch
Dunedin to Middlemarch and the Rail Trail via Train
My first suggestion is that you take the train. The old Dunedin railway station is a gem of Victorian architecture and the tourist board runs a regular service out to the beginning of the Rail Trail in Middlemarch. The train has an historical commentary and stops en route so you can take photographs. Be warned, some days the train only goes as far as Pukerangi and leaves you in a bleak, if beautiful barren landscape and you have to cycle the remaining 25 or so kilometres to Middlemarch. But there is something isolating and memorable about being dropped off alongside an empty railway line in the middle of nowhere and seeing the road snake away over the small hills into the empty distance while the train chugs off back to civilisation...
The cycle purist will, however, take the high road to Middlemarch, and I mean the high road, for this highway is a long climb.
Prepare for an interesting day as the road climbs up out of the Octagon past Robert Burns on your right via Stuart Street. Dunedin is known for its hills and this is a great one to start the day. The main hill is called Three Mile Hill (380 metres) and drops you down into the town of Mosgiel (15ks out). The road is then fairly flat to the smaller town of Outram (another 10ks), but from here the road starts to climb. No shops after this point although the scenery is lovely. The old coach road can be spied off to the left in parts and you can glimpse the antique bridge and stables now on private property near Lee Stream.
The oasis in the offing is Clarks Junction (540 metres and about 54k from Dunedin) on the junction leading to the Old Dunstan road. There is a pub here, but drink deep because there is still one more climb to go. The road winds down through Deep Stream, a steep gorge that drops from around 550 to 400 metres and then climbs back up again. After this you coast down to Sutton where the old railway sleepers and tracks removed for the Rail Trail are still piled up on either side of the old Sutton railway station. The road from here to Middlemarch is flat and simple, providing there is no head wind.
By about now the beauty of this place starts to become apparent. Central Otago is a fascinating landscape of schist outcrops and long, hazy distances. A semi-desert that, on hot still days, carries a magic quality of its own. Artists, writers and poets find this country fascinating. Noted artist Graham Sydney bases much of his work on this area and lives in the north-west of Otago in what is left of the old gold town of Cambrians. In 1865 the area was overrun by gold-miners. They dug for gold, formed small shanty towns, and departed leaving most of the settlements to wax briefly and then fade gently into the wilderness. The sheep farmers lasted much longer and the occasional grand settler homestead among established trees still graces the roadside as you cycle past.
Middlemarch was once a bleak town on the Taieri Plain and at the mercy of the great winds that blow through this part of the world occasionally. I once camped hereabouts and listened to the wind grow in force in the early morning hours. The noise was like a jet engine and I lay in the darkness with my feet braced against the tent poles as the wind, tried to press the tent flat. I escaped with a bent tent pole. The more elaborate tent of the Belgians camped next to me split apart and their belongings were hurled into the darkness. The winds are rare however and in summer you have little to worry about.
Middlemarch has prospered because of the Rail Trail and has at least two good hostels, a camp ground and a swept-up coffee bar just out of town called 'The Kissing Gate Café' (Good coffee, good food). The town closes at five and the locals, including shepherds and local businessmen often gravitate to the pub.
The Taieri Tavern was one of the most reluctant in New Zealand to cede to the non-smoking ban that was legislated in 2004. The constable was one of the local patrons apparently. Today however, the tavern, like all pubs in New Zealand, is smoke-free. The place is noteworthy for the large and very fascinating narrative painting that graces the wall of the lounge bar. It was painted many years ago and includes sympathetic vaguely seventeenth century caricatures of then, local community members engaged in, unsurprisingly, drinking in a tavern. What is odd is that it is painted in a European style of uncertain origins that includes traces of Hogarth, Vermeer, and even a bit of Breughel the Elder. Fascinating in that its narrative is clearly significant for its local context, yet the details of its history is fast becoming lost as local memories fade.