152 kilometres on a bike with a baby

After a year of living in Copenhagen, BBB (Bilingual Backpack Baby) has become a natural impersonating Cleopatra in her Thule Cycle Chariot while being towed around the city. 

Wanting to ensure she didn’t get bored (or too comfortable) we thought it time to up the game and give her a greater cycling challenge by tackling the Otago Central Rail trail on our recent trip back to New Zealand.    It’s a 152km off road cycle trail in Central Otago which follows the former route of the Otago Central Railway line.  It’s been a huge tourism success story for New Zealand bringing back much needed life (that’s the polite way of saying cold hard cash) to an otherwise sleepy part of the country as they now pump through 15,000+ cyclists every year who take between 1 and 5 days to complete the trail.  

One of the few road crossings on the Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand.

One of the few road crossings on the Otago Central Rail Trail, New Zealand.

When you cycle the trail you really feel like the locals truly appreciate you visiting their area making it that bit extra special to bike.  The old disused railway line has now become ‘New Zealand’s original great ride’. 

There are of course other over achieving outdoor families who take their children on far more physically demanding and logistically challenging missions.  Such as cycling to the moon and back (or similar).  So we’re not out to claim a gold medal for our efforts on this adventure.  But never the less it is an adventure worthy of encouraging others (baby or no babies) to do also. 

Firstly however a clarification to satisfy my own self professed athlete status.  While the route is officially 152km - the Dane, BBB and I actually cycled 179.33km (yup, that’s Ironman distance my friends).  This included 30 ‘tiki tour’ kilometres of additional sightseeing off the main track as well as some additional miles to get to our accommodation each night.   If my bum had not taken 3 days to adjust to the saddle this distance would have likely been higher.

After staying with friends in Dunedin for the night we began our trip with a train ride from Dunedin to Middlemarch (population approx. 300).

Middlemarch, New Zealand.  The start of our Central Otago Rail Trail adventure.

Middlemarch, New Zealand.  The start of our Central Otago Rail Trail adventure.

At Middlemarch we collected our hired bikes and cycle trailer from one of the local cycle operators (shebikeshebikes).  As well as hiring bikes they also plan your itinerary and carry any additional gear for you along the trail.  You can of course take your own bike and book your own accommodation but we found the ease of someone else crossing the t’s and recommending where to stop each day to be a much more efficient use of our time.  It didn’t cost us anymore as they get their cut from the accommodation operators they book us with.

So after re-packing our gear for what we needed to take with us on the bikes we had a quick picnic lunch at Middlemarch before setting out at the less than ideal time of 2pm - the hottest part of the day at 28c with clear blue skies.  Additionally we soon discovered the cycle trailer for BBB better resembled a washing machine tossing her around, which made for a long and not ideal first 24 kms to Hyde.   

Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail in summer often means hot blue skies and minimal shade.

Cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail in summer often means hot blue skies and minimal shade.

To be fair there wasn’t much we could do about the time of the day we began cycling as the train only goes there once a day.  And the sun, well I’m not overly adapt at making that disappear either.  But the cycle trailer was something we should have perhaps thought about a bit more before setting out.  Being used to our cycle trailer in Copenhagen with a special baby insert that keeps BBB from doing 360’s in the trailer we didn’t think to check the functionality of the hired one before beginning riding.  Insert bad parents disclaimer here.   We did however make it (just) through the first day and to our first nights’ accommodation at Pete’s Farm.  A heritage farm homestead complete with original black floral wallpaper.  At which point the beauty of having organised our trip through a Cycle Tour company was realised.  After a couple of phone calls to them it was agreed they would find a car seat that we could tie into the cycle trailer for BBB which would better support her.  They’d drop this the next morning at an agreed place on the side of the road for us.  Literally, on the side of the road. Big ups to them for finding a solution and ensuring we could cycle the rest of the trail.  It would though be great to see some more baby specific cycle trailers available for hire from the various tour operators.  None of the ones I saw were baby specific.

The rectified cycle trailer with car seat inserted to ensure BBB was sufficiently supported.

The rectified cycle trailer with car seat inserted to ensure BBB was sufficiently supported.

Day 2 perhaps unsurprisingly, was a lot more enjoyable without BBB being tossed around like a salad in her trailer.  Over the next 4 days we fell into a nice pattern of early morning starts to miss the heat of the day cycling between 24 and 37kms per day with a coffee stop and/or pit stop (aka BBB nappy change) somewhere on the side of the track.  We typically arrived at our destination each day by midday.

The entire trail is supported by numerous business providing various services to cyclists from purpose built accommodation to information kiosks, cafes and country pubs who have been able to re-invent themselves attracting and welcoming cyclists with cycle racks, meat pies and lattes.  I look forward to the day that the pubs and cafes in cities in other parts of New Zealand follow this lead.

While the tracks gradient is described ‘easy’ and has no steep hills, don’t get too complacent and think you can do it without any cycle fitness.  It still requires effort (especially in temperatures exceeding 28c with little or no shade like we had) but it is manageable and you can choose your own pace.  E-bikes (the ones with a little motor on it) have also recently been allowed to be on the track which has opened it up for people of a wider range of abilities to now use the track.  It took me the first 2 days to realise that while the track looked flat, it was false flats.  I could not find my rhythm and struggled to understand why the cyclists coming in the opposite direction were effortlessly whizzing by while I was having to put effort into every pedal. 

Overall the elevation climbs from 200 m to 618 m with the peak near Wedderburn. 

Map credit: http://www.centralotagonz.com/

Map credit: http://www.centralotagonz.com/

You can cycle the track in either direction (Middlemarch to Clyde, or Clyde to Middlemarch) and while most seem to cycle it Clyde to Middlemarch I don’t think it really matters too much which way you go.  Either way they’ll be uphills for approximately half the trail, and if you’re lucky a breeze at your back.

Otago Central Rail Trail highest point.  Thank feck.

Otago Central Rail Trail highest point.  Thank feck.

Our itinerary

Day 1                 Middlemarch – Hyde (27 kms)

Accommodation:  Peters Farm Lodge http://www.petersfarm.co.nz/

Peters Farm Lodge, Waipiata, New Zealand

Peters Farm Lodge, Waipiata, New Zealand

A really unique and comfortable stay in a heritage farmhouse.  Highly recommend also paying the extra $25 for the BBQ meal.   Check out the reviews on TripAdvisor.  Although note it is not directly on the trail but Pete will lend you a car to get yourself from Hyde to his farmhouse (20km drive but don’t let that put you off). Or if you’re an over achiever you can also cycle all the way to his house.

Day 2                Hyde – Ranfurly (37 kms)

Accommodation: Hawkdun Lodge, Ranfurly http://www.hawkdunlodge.co.nz/

Hawkdun Lodge Motel, Ranfurly, New Zealand.

Hawkdun Lodge Motel, Ranfurly, New Zealand.

A really great modern motel.  Super clean and comfortable with a spa pool and a small communal lounge and kitchen area available for everyone to use.  We really appreciated the access to this extra space with BBB and the ability to cook on a proper stove.  Very welcoming & friendly staff.

Day 3                Ranfurly – Oturehua (26 kms)

Accommodation:  Inverlair Lodge http://www.inverlairlodge.co.nz/

Invelair Lodge (far building), Oturehua, New Zealand.

Invelair Lodge (far building), Oturehua, New Zealand.

We really enjoyed our nights accommodation at Inverlair Lodge.  See below for more on this highlight from our trip.

Day 4                Oturehua – Omakau (30 kms)

Accommodation:  Millfield Cottage http://www.millfieldcottage.co.nz/


Ophir is 2kms from Omakau and well worth a small detour to cycle to (you can do it in a loop off the cycle trail from Omakau).

Day 5               Omakau – Clyde (37 kms)

Accommodation:  Antique Lodge Motel http://www.antiquelodgemotel.co.nz/

Destination reached.  Clyde, New Zealand.

Destination reached.  Clyde, New Zealand.

After all the other great accommodation choices we’d stayed in on the trail that each had unique selling points, this was probably the least special on the route. That's not to say there was anything wrong with it, but just that it had nothing particularly memorable other than the additional $5 charge if we wanted a highchair.  Given you can buy a highchair for less than $40 it would have been awesome if the use of highchairs was complimentary.

Our overall highlight:

There are many highlights of the trail, the joy of most being that you don’t discover them until you’re on them and make your own memories.  Like the unassuming playground in Waipata we stopped for lunch on day 2 and the random conversations you’ll have with both locals and other cyclists on the way.  However the small town of Oturehua was our overall and unexpected highlight. 


At Oturehua we stayed at Inverlair Lodge (above picture is not Invelair Lodge....fyi) which was impressively designed so that while it is a shared lodge (which I was initially a bit dubious about with the potential for BBB to wake everyone up), we were still assured of privacy with 6 separate bedrooms with ensuites located at the rear of the Lodge. Quite separate from the communal spaces.  We also gave them bonus points for providing a highchair and port-a-cot complimentary.  We carried our own port-a-cot along the route but it was appreciated when we didn’t have to set it up and after 3 days of balancing BBB on our knees at meal times a high chair was a great treat also.  Overall everything in this lodge was incredibly well thought out and all for a very reasonable price.

At the front of the lodge you find big wide open common spaces of kitchen, dining and lounge to share with any other guests.  Complimentary muffins were also a nice touch.  The lodge is a stones throw from the local community pool which for $3 you can get the key from the local general store and enjoy a refreshing dip.  No bells and whistles at the pool.  Just a grateful opportunity to cool off from a days riding in 28c. 

While in Oturehua be sure to visit Gilchrists (the general store you can also get the key for the swimming pool from).  It is sold as ‘perhaps’ New Zealand's oldest continuously operating general store with shelves full of nostalgic 'Kiwiana' products.  Given there is only the Pub and the General Store to visit in Oturehua (excluding the community pool) I’m fairly confident you’ll find time to visit both whether you intend to or not.  The pub also serves great meals and has a very family friendly garden area which BBB enjoyed.

 Our recommendations for cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail:

-          Don’t put your child in a salad tosser.  Hire a cycle trailer fit for purpose.  The hire cycle trailers I saw were not designed specifically for 6-24 month old children.  Ask if the trailer has a baby insert if you are looking at hiring a trailer for your baby.  If that isn’t available use a carseat strapped into the trailer.  It worked fine for us and hopefully in the future a few of the cycle companies will get more baby specific trailers available to hire.  Also be mindful if using a trailer that there are a few cattlestops and gates along the way which you’ll have to navigate the trailer around.

-          Use one of the many cycle companies to design and book your trip.  It doesn’t cost you anymore and you won’t have to re-invent the wheel trying to work out logistics nor carry all of your gear.

-          Carry the food you need each day with you.  But be open to stopping and enjoying the hospitality at the various pubs and eateries along the way.  As we had BBB we couldn’t risk not finding food when we needed it so every day we packed our own lunch and morning tea but occasionally ‘upgraded’ and brought a coffee, scone or lunch along the way.

-          Keep an eye out for ‘Cheese Rolls’.  A local delicacy.

-          At Wedderburn you’ll find a little red hut right on the cycle trail where you can buy snacks and coffee from vending machines.  Take some cash/coins with you.  Additionally they also have an eftpos machine that you can ‘charge’ yourself for the goods taken.  Although that doesn’t help with paying for coffee as that is a vending machine so you’ll need coins for that.  We did a desperate search for coins to gain our coffee fix for the morning.

-          A tip for Ranfurly.  When in Ranfurly you’ll find two Four Squares (small supermarkets, not the social media platform) where you can replenish food stocks.  While they both sell food which you can’t go too wrong on, we preferred (and had also been recommended) the Four Square with the little café attached.  It’s across the road from the i-site on the corner.


If you want to find out more about the trail and how to begin planning your trip, head to http://www.otagocentralrailtrail.co.nz/  or contact us below if you have any additional questions.  You can find more photos from our trip on our Facebook page.

Many thanks to the various people, accommodation providers etc who helped us have a great time cycling 152km from Middlemarch to Clyde with BBB.  A little crazy to think that all those years ago when the idea of building the cycle trail was first raised that some resisted it.  It is now such a great asset for the Central Otago region and one for many other regions to be jealous of.

The Otago Central Rail Trail is, regardless of your physical ability, a journey which makes everyone feel like an adventurer upon completion.  Do it.