In the late 19th century the central Otago area of New Zealand's South Island experienced a gold rush and the Central Otago railway line was built between 1891 and 1907, its coal-fired steam trains servicing the gold towns that sprung up along the route. I've used this railway line to cycle west from Dunedin as today trains no longer run on the route ... or do they?
I joined the Otago Central Rail Trail in the sleepy village of Middlemarch where, in the absence of a campground, I pitched my tent on the rugby field! The rail trail carries walkers and cyclists along what was once the bed of the old railway line and loops north across the Maniototo Plains, hot and dusty high country, before turning south to the lively, rural town of Alexandra. On the way it passes through the spectacular Poolburn Gorge where the trail is a single track cut into the ledge above the rocky valley, crosses the 37-metre high Poolburn Viaduct and dips into some cute little towns that have a lingering atmosphere of the gold rush days. When I joined the rail trail I really felt like I'd stepped back in time - it was so peaceful with just the crunch of gravel under my tires and the wind whistling through gentle, rolling hills bathed in soft morning sunshine. It was a million miles away from the noisy bustle of busy roads and the city.
There are several tunnels to pass through on the trail and the longest is so long and dark that you need a torch to find your way. As I made my way through the light at the start of the tunnel gradually faded and went out, leaving me in an eerie, ghostly gloom. The air was chilled and the walls of the tunnel closed in around me. After a few minutes in the blackness, I popped out on the other side and left the trail to pop into the bushes, as you do. When I scrambled back up onto the trail, I noticed I was covered with a black dust which I am sure was fresh coal soot. So maybe trains still run on the line afterall!