Monday, December 25, 2006

Back from Nature

At Lauder in Central Otago, less a town than the scattering of buildings around the old sheep station homestead, you can now get a pretty fine flat white coffee from a roadside trailer in the form of a locomotive engine. The coffee stand has been recently established by a cheerful local woman, and on days with less inhospitable weather than when we stopped, apparently does steady business.

At around 350 metres above sea level, Lauder is one of the landmarks on the Central Otago Rail Trail, a bike and walking track which runs along the route of the old railway line from Dunedin to Clyde. It's an example of a style of tourism in which New Zealand is a world leader - for want of better description, let's call it "bourgeois adventurism".

This combines two Kiwi traits. The wilderness-braving pioneer ruggedness that we once relied on and love to mythologise. And the recently-acquired obsession with the finer things in life that typifies our now highly urbanised consumer society. New Zealand's smallness and unique geography lends itself to this combination. Within minutes of slogging through a genuinely harsh and wild landscape, you can be served by someone with a cultured apprecation of how to treat a fine roast bean.

When I agreed to go on the trip, it was because I thought it would tend more to the bourgeois end. A rail trail, with lots of interesting plaques describing colonial history; it sounded distinctly gentle and middle-aged. Potentially, if you follow the advice, of the guide book to cycle the trail in "3 to 5 days", that's how it is.

Due to time constraints, however, we had to do it in two days. My two sisters are cycling enthusiasts; I hadn't been on a bicycle for about 2 years. So you can imagine what 180 km, off-road, within 48 hours, ended up doing to various parts of my anatomy.

Then there was the weather. Global warming or no, ever-fickle New Zealand is on track for its coldest ever December. In a region where in the last two summers temperatures have flirted with the 40 degree mark, for much of our ride it was in single figures - with a howling southerly to boot.

As we climbed from Alexandra into the high country, sheep shivered as grey woolly clouds slid down hills covered in snow. It looked and felt more like an October cold snap than a week out from New Year.

But on day two, after a brisk morning climb to the high point of the journey at 618 metres, and gradual progress through rocky river gorges into the Maniatoto Valley, we arrived at the settlement of Hyde.

There, we could warm up, apply moisturiser, text message, and enjoy muffins and more coffee, while we contemplated the relief map which seemed to show a gentle downhill 25km to the finish of the trail in Middlemarch.

We'd reckoned without the screaming wind. Along bumpy farm tracks, we crawled along at 10 km/h, no downhill incline perceptible. When we finally got to Middlemarch, it wasn't even the end; we'd planned to cycle another 20 km to meet up with the Taieri Gorge excursion train from Dunedin. Assuming that this would be tarseal all the way, we found that the last 12 km was off-road again, a series of rises and dips, and then a steep, curving uphill into a windswept badlands of eroded rock.

Non-cyclist that I am, I was at breaking point as I pumped the pedals in the lowest possible gear. Blood sugar levels collapsing and legs refusing, I dragged my bike up one last rise, desperately hoping we were finally at the train station.

There was a small wooden station house huddled on the plateau under some macrocapas, looking like a Rita Angus painting. We'd arrived just five minutes before the train.

Back in chilly Dunedin, we found a warm upstairs pizzeria with polished hardwood and a vaulted ceiling. A chatty girl from Northern England served us menus written in Italian while at the next table four anemic-looking French students discussed something intellectual or drole.

Scoffing my pizza and drinking Scicilian wine, I felt the swathes of sunburn on my legs, my windburnt face and chapped lips, and looked around sceptically at the comfort-loving townies. For a brief moment, I savoured being a rugged Southern man.

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