My first suggestion is that you take the train. The old Dunedin railway
station is a gem of Victorian architecture and the tourist board runs a regular service out towards the beginning of
the Rail Trail in Middlemarch. The train has an historical commentary and stops en route so you can take
Be warned, some days the train only goes as far as Pukerangi or Hindon, leaving you in a bleak, if beautiful barren
landscape, and you have to cycle the remaining 25 or so kilometres to Middlemarch. But there is something
isolating and memorable about being dropped off alongside an empty railway line in the middle of nowhere and
seeing the road snake away over the small hills into the empty distance while the train chugs off back to
The cycle purist will, however, take the high road to Middlemarch, and I mean the high road, for this highway is
a long climb...
Prepare for an interesting day as the road climbs up out of the Octagon past Robert Burns on your right via
Stuart Street. Dunedin is known for its hills and this is a great one to start the day. The main hill is called
Three Mile Hill (380 metres) and drops you down into the town of Mosgiel (15 km out). The road is then fairly
flat to the smaller town of Outram (another 10 km), but from here the road starts to climb. No shops after this
point although the scenery is lovely. The old coach road can be spied off to the left in parts and you can
glimpse the antique bridge and stables now on private property near Lee Stream.
The oasis in the offing is Clarks Junction (about 50 km from Dunedin) on the junction leading to
the Old Dunstan road. There is a pub here, but drink deep because there is still one more climb to go. The road
winds down through Deep Stream, a steep gorge that drops from around 550 to 400 metres and then climbs back up
again. After this you coast down to Sutton where the old railway sleepers and tracks removed for the Rail Trail
are still piled up on either side of the old Sutton railway station. The road from here to Middlemarch is flat
and simple, providing there is no head wind.
By about now the beauty of this place starts to become apparent. Central Otago is a fascinating landscape of
schist outcrops and long, hazy distances. A semi-desert that, on hot still days, carries a magic quality of its
own. Artists, writers and poets find this country fascinating. Noted artist Graham Sydney bases much of his work
on this area and lives in the north-west of Otago in what is left of the old gold town of Cambrians. In 1865 the
area was overrun by gold-miners. They dug for gold, formed small shanty towns, and departed leaving most of the
settlements to wax briefly and then fade gently into the wilderness. The sheep farmers lasted much longer and
the occasional grand settler homestead among established trees still graces the roadside as you cycle past.
Middlemarch was once a bleak town on the Taieri Plain and at the mercy of the great winds that blow through this
part of the world occasionally. I once camped hereabouts and listened to the wind grow in force in the early
morning hours. The noise was like a jet engine and I lay in the darkness with my feet braced against the tent
poles as the wind, tried to press the tent flat. I escaped with a bent tent pole. The more elaborate tent of the
Belgians camped next to me split apart and their belongings were hurled into the darkness. The winds are rare
however and in summer you have little to worry about.
Middlemarch has prospered because of the Rail Trail and has at least two good hostels, a campground and a
swept-up coffee bar just out of town called 'The Kissing Gate Café' (Good coffee, good food). The town
closes at five and the locals, including shepherds and local businessmen often gravitate to the pub.
The Taieri Tavern was one of the most reluctant in New Zealand to cede to the non-smoking ban that was
legislated in 2004. The constable was one of the local patrons apparently. Today however, the tavern, like all
pubs in New Zealand, is smoke-free. The place is noteworthy for the large and very fascinating narrative
painting that graces the wall of the lounge bar. It was painted many years ago and includes sympathetic vaguely
seventeenth century caricatures of then, local community members engaged in, unsurprisingly, drinking in a
tavern. What is odd is that it is painted in a European style of uncertain origins that includes traces of
Hogarth, Vermeer, and even a bit of Breughel the Elder. Fascinating in that its narrative is clearly significant
for its local context, yet the details of its history is fast becoming lost as local memories fade.