The best thing about the Otago Central Rail Trail is that it fills in a blank in the middle of Otago for riders wanting to link up the east coast with the spectacular Manuherikia and Clutha river areas of Central Otago. Or put differently, here's how to ride the trail from Dunedin without using transfers between Dunedin and the trailheads.
The main road between Dunedin and Middlemarch isn't recommended for bikes - it's fast, long sections have no verge, many tourist drivers don't seem to know what to do when they see a bike in front of them, and the locals are even worse. In parts of the North Island of NZ, driver education about cyclists has improved hugely in recent years, but Dodo's experience is that this change has yet to really take hold down south. I don't recommend this road, or the other main links in the South Island except for short stretches where there's no alternative. Happily though, it's perfectly possible to ride between Dunedin and both ends of the trail using a mix of quiet roads and dirt. These routes are not difficult, but require a little more fortitude than the rail trail itself does; there's a lot more climbing on both, and they have much longer distances between population centres. They're epic.
118km; 2,465m ascent. First section (coast) mainly tarmac; second section (hill traverse) 95% gravel
This stunning ride, while pretty tough, is a real NZ backcountry adventure. It goes north on backroads to Karitane on the Otago coast, then west, through and over the foothills of the Silverpeaks, to Middlemarch. If you're lugging camping gear and all the rest of the bikepacking kit, tackling it over two days is a good play, stopping at Karitane or Wakaouaiti.
A cycleway runs from Dunedin up the west side of Otago Harbour as far as St Leonards. From there you're on the road to Port Chalmers. Turn left into Borlases road before going up the hill into the town (unless you want a coffee at the excellent Union Co cafe on George Street), then take the second hairpin on the right onto Blueskin Road. This climbs steadily toward the Orokonui ecosanctuary visitor centre, with spectacular views to the north and east. The visitor centre has an excellent coffee shop equipped with a ferocious log burner; this is well placed since it's often freezing and raining here. Nourished, carry on over Blueskin road to the start of a screaming descent down to Waitati, a pleasant village on the bay. There's a shop, but it's the former gas station out on the state highway. Unfortunately you now need to do 2km on the highway before turning right onto Coast Road at Evansdale (signs for Warrington). Follow the undulating Coast road 15km through the pretty village of Karitane (well, the eastern side of it is pretty, anyway) back to the state highway. Turn right onto the highway for 3km to Wakaouaiti. That's the first section done.
Wakaouaiti is an unqualified dump, frustratingly so as the coast here is stunning; but no, it's horrible. Anyway, the motor camp is alright, at the far end of Beach Street. Don't miss a walk on Wakaouaiti's stunning beach; but don't be tempted by the pub just along the road - it's unspeakable. The one up on the state highway in the middle of town isn't much better, but has friendlier staff (from out of town).
So, round two: Wakaouaiti to Middlemarch, via Ramrock Road. Ramrock is well known among backcountry cyclists in NZ; it's basically a cocky road from the Otago coast to the Nenthorn valley, a former goldfield from the 1880s. Like many cocky roads it's lumpy and meandering, but it's surprisingly well maintained. So what you're left with is a tough, undulating slog over the hills starting with 4km to Buckland's Crossing, a famous wild camping and swimming spot.
The steep descent into the crossing and stiff climb out the other side is a harbinger of things to come - the gain and loss goes on until eventually the top is reached at Swampy Hill. From there a screamer descent leads down to Nenthorn, a deserted mining settlement, then the end of Ramrock Road - turn left into Nenthorn Valley Road (also gravel) and ride along to the end of the valley to the Lyndale farm, where the road angles up over Billy's Ridge and eventually meets Moonlight Road coming up from Macraes. Even here the climbing is not over, with two more killers before the last summit. From there, the downhill to Middlemarch is full on, on gravel then on tarmac all the way to the town limit sign. Middlemarch is a dump, but you'll never be as glad to see a sign with a name printed on it... any name.
There's a number of options here; you can ride the Roxburgh Gorge trail, which follows the Clutha river through some awesome canyons (but mainly meandering aimlessly around clifftop fields); you can chance your life on the main road (state highway 8), or you can just get a shuttle transfer. Full disclosure: Dodo did the latter, and here's why.
The Roxburgh Gorge trail isn't finished. There's a compulsory jet boat trip in the middle of it. Dodo doesn't like jet boats; all their pilots seem to be knuckleheads. Getting on one is a bit like tying yourself on the back of some tosser's motorbike, but with added water and cliffs. Sod that. And jet boat transfers may be rubbish, but they're expensive. For the price of one, Dodo got a land transfer to Roxburgh, a steak, and a beer. I don't like putting my bike in a van and going by road; but if you give me a steak, a beer, and the chance to avoid a jet boat ride, then yes: I'll do it, and call myself enlightened. And I also got the skinny, from the driver: plans are afoot to actually finish the trail (if not to straighten it out). So wait till then if you want to do this trail. Roxburgh's still a bit of a tip, but it does have a nice little cinema and it also has the Manhattan, which has excellent food. Accomodation options ... need work. If you've got your tent with you, use it.
Opened in 2013, the Clutha Gold Trail is a quietly stunning backcountry ride along the east bank of the Clutha Mata-au river to the Beaumont Gorge, then through Evans Flat to Lawrence. There's a little singletrack - which is mostly a fairly aimless meandering around the river bank - but the majority of the ride is on a newly created dirt road.
Laughably, in some sections (notably the lengthy stage through Craig flat) they've had to build a new dirt road right next to an existing - and identical - dirt road, because they were unable to stop coarse local fellows hooning around on the existing at a rate of knots likely to be fatal to any cyclists encountered; but not, sadly yet to themselves. You will see these hoonish individuals. You will also see the signage indicating which of the identical side-by-side dirt roads is yours, and which theirs. Occasionally, you will miss a sign and end up on the wrong one. The cost of building this new road instead of repurposing the existing one must have been huge; and all for the sake of a few boguns. Wouldn't some law and order have been cheaper? Or a sniper?
Anyway, this is a small consideration. The charm of the Clutha Gold Trail easily outweighs the lack of it in some of the locals, and Dodo heartily recommends the trail. It comes in at 68km from the centre of Roxburgh to Lawrence shops and makes a lovely day ride, taking in country that you can't see from the road. The highlight is the lovely section just north of the Beaumont, hoons aside. Close this road or gate it, and they'll have a peach.
The scenic main road from Lawrence to Dunedin runs along cycle-safe roads through the historic towns of Waitahuna and Milton before the charming spa resort of Waihola. I'm kidding: you take your life in your hands on this horrible highway, filled as it is with bogun wagons; the above mentioned towns are where they live. So: don't. Take this sublime alternative gravel road through the hills instead.
Lawrence is a town pulled back from the brink. It remains a truly bizarre shape, though, due to the sort of planning decisions taken between 1950 and 1980, when - you'd think, looking at the results - everybody was asleep at the wheel. On the most absurd-looking junction of all is Irvine Road; head up it, in a few hundred metres it becomes Waipori Road. Past the golf club turn right, then you've got a long double climb, mostly on gravel, through lovely hill country up to Lake Mahinerangi.
The lake is undeniably pretty, but from your first glance at it there's no doubt it's artificial - it's far too big, far too high up, it's the wrong colour, and most strikingly of all, it's absolutely the wrong shape. It looks like a flooded field (which it is). You arrive more or less at the western end; 12km to the east, the Victorians started building a dam across the Waipori River in 1923. It turned out be not nearly strong enough, and they had to start again in 1927, taking 4 years to build the thing - which isn't very big - and start generating electricity with it. Despite still looking extremely hand-built and homey, it still works. The dirt road runs well above the southern shore, but the lake is so big you still can't see all of it from any one place. Some care is also required as this gravel road is often busy with large vehicles (mainly logging trucks).
Once you've descended a short hill and crossed a bridge on the complex eastern section of the lake, the road swings south for the descent to Waipori Falls. Swing through this atmospheric, sodden place and stay on the road for the long but picturesque slog on almost level grades through the Berwick Forest. It's worth stopping to admire the stunning lower reservoir. You emerge eventually onto the Taieri Plain at Berwick. There's nothing much there, so turn left and take the 21km slog to Mosgiel on Maungatua Road. If you're happy with a ford, you can cut a corner off by heading south down Gladfield Road and splashing though the Silver Stream (usually rideable). Take Bush Road into the centre of Mosgiel.
So, Mosgiel to Dunedin. Soon, apparently, an old rail tunnel under the Chain Hills will be re-opened as a bike route. Until then, you can still ride over top of these hills between Mosgiel and Dunedin, via Wingatui. It's a fine ride avoiding the nasty highway, the narrow Three Mile Hill road, and a long detour via Taieri Mouth. You want Gladstone Road east out of Mosgiel, then Friends Hill road (not a road at all, a landrover track at best) all the way up till it turns into Halfway Bush Road. Follow that to the junction with Three Mile Hill Road, turn right and take a screaming descent into Dunedin (brief but stiff climb from Kaikorai Valley Road up to the top of Stuart Street).