The most interesting route to the east coast from Alexandra is through the Maniototo, a generic name for the flat high country shared by three shallow valleys – the Manuherikia River, the Ida Burn and the Taieri River – and the low, craggy ranges that separate them. Despite easy road access, the Maniototo feels like a windswept and ambient world apart.
The region’s big draw is cycling the Otago Central Rail Trail, but former gold-mining communities such as St Bathans and Naseby are worth sampling for their calm seclusion and subtle reminders of how greed transforms the land. Much of the area’s pleasure is in even smaller places – the post office at Ophir or the old engineering works in the Ida Valley – and in the dozens of small cottages, many abandoned – a testimony to the harsh life in these parts.
Predictably, Europeans first came to the area in search of gold. They found it near Naseby, but returns swiftly declined and farming on the plains became more rewarding. This was especially true when railway developers looking for the easiest route from Dunedin to Alexandra chose a way up the Taieri Gorge and across the Maniototo. In 1898, the line arrived in Ranfurly, which soon took over from Naseby as the area’s main administrative centre. With the closure of the rail line in 1990 an already moribund area withered further until the Otago Central Rail Trail caught on. In recent years, environmentalists have battled to save the landscape from Project Hayes, what would have been New Zealand’s largest wind farm, a battle only won when the power company Meridian Energy backed down in early 2012.Read More
Otago Central Rail Trail
Otago Central Rail Trail
One of the finest ways to explore the Maniototo is on the Otago Central Rail Trail, a largely flat 150km route from Clyde to Middlemarch that passes through all the main towns except for St Bathans and Naseby. Open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders, it follows the trackbed of the former Otago Central Branch railway line and includes modified rail bridges and viaducts (several spanning over 100m), beautiful valleys and long agricultural plains.
Passenger trains ran through the Maniototo until 1990, a continuation of what is now the Taieri Gorge Railway, but it wasn’t until early 2000 that the trail opened, galvanizing a dying region. Most people cycle, and all sorts of accommodation has sprung up to cater to bikers’ needs. Pubs and cafés located where the trail crosses roads aren’t shy to advertise the opportunity to take a break.
The route is generally hard-packed earth and gravel, making it possible to ride most bikes, though fat tyres make for a more comfortable journey. Combining the ride with the Taieri Gorge Railway makes a great way to travel between Clyde and Dunedin. The trail takes most people three days.
If you’re just out to pick the highlights (or are walking and don’t fancy the whole thing) aim for a couple of 10km stretches, both with tunnels, viaducts and interesting rock formations: Lauder–Auripo in the northern section, and Daisybank–Hyde in the east. A torch is handy (though not essential) for the tunnels.
Many New Zealanders only know the Maniototo through the works of Dunedin-born realist painter Grahame Sydney (w grahamesydney.com), who spends much of his time in the region. His broad, big-sky landscapes of goods sheds amid parched fields and letterboxes at lonely crossroads are universally accessible, and instantly recognizable to anyone visiting the region.
Prints and postcards of his work are found throughout the Maniototo and beyond, and originals hang in most of the country’s major galleries. At first glance many of the works are unemotional renditions, but reflection reveals great poignancy. As he says, “I’m the long stare, not the quick glimpse”.