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We're Not There Yet

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Rail Trail Fail (Days 260-263) – Cromwell to Alexandra to Omakau to Oturehua and back again | We're Not There Yet

We were debating whether or not to do the Otago Rail Trail ride up until the moment when we were actually doing it. We had changed our route after meeting John in Ashburton and found ourselves in a position where we’d have to do an out-and-back in order to do the trail. From Twizel we made it to Cromwell, where we had to go to get to Queenstown anyhow, then made the turn towards Alexandra, almost without acknowledging it. We even goofed off for a few days in ‘Alex’ before actually starting the trail because the motivation just wasn’t there. When we started it the first morning, it felt like we were doing it just because it was there, not because we actually wanted to anymore.

An inocuous beginging: charmingly restored buildings can be found in the small towns along the Rail Trail

Why the bad attitude? Well, we had met a handful of touring cyclists who have done the Rail Trail and all said that it was pretty and that it was nice to ride without traffic, but words like ‘boring’ and phrases like ‘not worth going out of your way for’ and ‘wouldn’t do it again’ also came up. The thing is, everyone we met who was not a touring cyclist recommended it enthusiastically. I suppose we could have taken our cue from that, but we like to think that we are not jaded travelers and we don’t want to miss out on the highlights of the country since we’ve come all this way to see it. But our energy was definitely lagging when we got up this morning and it felt like we were talking less about the trail and more about what we’d do after we finished it. We might have set ourselves up for disappointment.

Local culture

The trail itself is peaceful and pretty, though riding on the loose gravel was a bit of a pain in the ass. It didn’t really change after that. We stopped for pictures, then for lunch, then stopped for the day when a cracking headwind started up. We figured that we’d make up for lost time the next morning, but we didn’t. It was more of the same.

Pretty but bumpy

Ok, really, really pretty

Call us Scrooges, but we hate the Rail Trail. Even before we landed in the country, on the flight in, we were told that we must, must, must ride on the Otago Rail Trail. Rail trails can be found all over the world; we have plenty in the US and we even rode one for 90km in Mexico, although they’re still working out the kinks:

Mexico City’s rail trail needs a little work

The idea is that old, disused railroad lines are being repurposed as hike/bike/walk trails and, in a grand scheme, one might even be able to cross an entire country on one of these rail systems. Great idea, right? Sure, but we hate it.

A tunnel breaks up the monotony

Into the teeth of the storm

It is all flat, exposed, unpaved tracks that wind through the countryside and connect small, restored towns to one another. Sure, it’s scenic, but at 10km an hour you get your fill of the scenery long before you have a chance to miss it. The only towns that you encounter are these tiny, precious old railway stops that have amenities like bed and breakfasts, wine bars, and shops that sell handmade soap in the shape of cupcakes, but you’d be hard pressed to buy a loaf of bread or bananas. So, you ride all day on an endless, dusty track, slip-sliding in the loose gravel, dodging chains of families on rented mountain bikes, just to arrive at an adorably restored post office that sells $25 plates of chicken and will let you camp out for $20 per person in their back yard.

Let me qualify all this by saying that I think it is a great idea to get more people out of the house and on bikes, being active, doing things as a family. I understand that an 8 year old may not handle the backdraft from a double-trailer going by at 100km like we do, and so that’s who should use these trails. We have been on these bikes for over 9 months now, in all kinds of conditions. The idea of riding without worrying about traffic is nice, but we are so accustomed to it that it doesn’t put us out too much and we’re so busy making sure that we don’t go down in a groove of deep gravel that we aren’t as relaxed as you’d think. We’re also on fully loaded touring bikes and it appears that these trails are really intended for people with fat tires and no load. Definitely not us.

Today was our second day on the trail and we have made less distance in these two days than we normally would by lunch. Weather has had a bit to do with it (we’ve had some ferocious headwinds and chilly temperatures), but mostly we just don’t have the drive to ride that we usually do. We’re going to quit tomorrow. Well, not quit, but turn around and go back the way we came. Actually, not even the way we came, since we’ll be taking the highway back.

I’m sure that there are plenty of people who would disagree with our unhesitating thumbs down of this whole Rail Trail thing. To them, I say, ‘More for you. We don’t want it.’ It’s not that we’re too good for the trail, because I do think that there is probably a time and a place, but that it was absolutely not the right move for us on this trip. I think we also judged it extra harshly because we had to go out of our way to do the trail and we are kind of cooling down on the whole bike thing. We are stoked to be riding in New Zealand, but we’ve been on these bicycles for a long time and seen a lot of beautiful sights.  I daresay that one can get a bit jaded doing this kind of trip. So maybe I should say ‘It’s not you, it’s me, Rail Trail.’ We are in our rhythm and don’t feel the need to go out of our way to do a scenic, sight-seeing trip when we still pass through some pretty amazing areas right on our route. We don’t like the gravel and the slow pace it forces. We don’t like feeling the pressure to ooh and ahh over the views from here when we’ve been genuinely blown away by some of the countryside we’ve passed through. And we don’t like feeling like Grinches because, while everyone else is cooing over what a great experience the Rail Trail is, all we want to do is find a supermarket, a free campsite, and ride at high speeds on roads free of children on mountain bikes, even if they are full, instead, of cattle trucks.