Thursday 13 August 2015

Ida Valley & the Cheat’s Rail Trail- Part 1

Another brilliant sunny blue sky day; winter down south isn’t so bad after all…..well at least I think so, David has a slightly differing opinion. Yes, there are heavy frosts, occasional snow and often a bone chilling wind blowing but most days are clear and sunny.  I have worked out what the key is, to surviving the extra cold days, it’s getting up late! By the time we step outside, the frost has mostly gone and there’s a hint of warmth from the sun, if we stick to the valley floors we miss most of the wind, and arrive home before the sun disappears you’d very nearly think it was a summer’s day. Very nearly.

We are always toasty warm in the van and in fact too warm sometimes, it’s very well insulated and the diesel heaters have certainly earnt their keep. We mostly only run one of them at a time as it gets too hot, and very rarely run them overnight unless the prediction is a -11 degree frost as it was the other night in Ranfurly.

We’ve been criss-crossing the Otago Rail Trail often since we arrived in Central Otago and have been visiting many of the points of interest along the trail while exploring. We’re doing the cheat’s rail trail; no aching muscles, no sore butts, no weather worries, no time frame, no crowds, and home-cooked meals and a comfy bed each night. We’re not cycling the150km route but we’ll see many of the stops and attractions along the way, in fact we’ll see a little more than the cyclists as we explore further afield.

Before we left to explore the Ida Valley one morning, I walked across to the Omakau Rail Goods Shed to take a photo and as luck would have it two cyclists appeared. They were from Wellington and were doing the trail in the off season to miss the crowds (and it was the only time they had off work). They had stayed the night at Blacks Hotel in Ophir and were about to head off on the next leg.

But first they had to stop and stamp their Rail Trail ‘passports’ and they were keen for me to take their photos stamping their books. I wished them well and they cycled off up the trail, disappearing into the bright sun which sits low on the horizon at this time of the year.

We headed off, back over the Raggedy Range and into the vast & isolated Ida Valley. Instead of turning south at the old Poolburn hotel we turned left and headed north up the edge of the valley on another very long, straight and narrow gravel road, passing a number of large farms with old homesteads, stone cottages and farm buildings along the way. We were headed for the Poolburn Viaduct, part of the Rail Trail and close to the road for those that are cheating.

I caught a glimpse of the viaduct through a rocky gorge as we approached and we parked beside a cattle stop close by. I thought we’d be able to walk up to the top of the ridge and along the trail to the viaduct. As I got out of the ute, I heard a whole lot of baa-ing coming from across the stillness of the valley and when I turned around I could see dozens of sheep running across the paddock towards us.

And they kept on coming, running and baa-ing from over the rises and from all corners of the paddock. More sheep that think we have food for them, the poor things. The initial ones had set off a chain reaction and now they were coming through the gate from the paddock next door, I kept telling David to ‘hurry up’ so we could get going before it turned into a riot.

We quickly headed off up the hill and the sheep headed off along the fence line towards the other paddock, perhaps there was food on offer in there, now that they had expended all that energy in racing over to this side of the paddock.

We climbed to the top of the hill and then found our way barred by a deep creek and rocky bluffs so we returned to the ute (quietly, so as not to alert the remaining sheep) and drove up the road another kilometre or so until we were on the right side of the creek.

We then climbed up to the trail and headed towards the viaduct passing the old Ida Valley Gangers’ Shed along the way, with it’s tin chimney at the back, this is where railway repair workers would have boiled the billy for their lunch or afternoon tea. Many of the old gangers sheds along the trail have been restored and can be used by cyclists for shelter on rainy days.

The view out over the Ida Valley is magnificent, this is just a small section of what is a vast open plain with endless blue skies and a huge expanse of grazing land with a hint of green, promising that the grass will soon grow even if only slightly, before it’s burnt to a tinder again in the relentless summer heat.

That’s the ‘road’ we’ve travelled up cutting across the centre, the valley continues on over the rise to Rough Ridge behind.

After a kilometre or so we round a corner and there is the Poolburn Viaduct ahead of us.

At 37 metres high it’s quite an impressive bridge for the tiny river below.

We cross over and continue on to the first of the two Poolburn tunnels, this one is 201 metres and it’s recommended you take a torch. It doesn’t appear to be too dark and you can see for most of the way through although I can see why cyclists and horse riders need to dismount, there could be quite a dust-up meeting someone else speeding through from the other direction (speaking of horse riders- now that is the way I’d love to do the Rail Trail).

As we headed back towards the viaduct I heard some chatter coming from the tunnel which surprised me as other than farmers going about their business, we haven’t seen a single person while exploring the back roads. Then out of the dark, who should appear? The two guys from Omakau this morning! The look of surprise on their faces was priceless, as I called out to them “What took you so long!”  It’s 18kms from Omakau to the viaduct via a route that follows the range along on the otherside before cutting through the Poolburn Gorge to the Ida valley here.

We made our way back to the middle of the valley and a tarseal road for a change. Ahead of us the Hawkdun Range (made famous by artist Graham Sydney), forms a lovely backdrop to the valley.

Suddenly a body of water appears to our right when we least expect it, it has a road side high fence & a couple of old buildings on the edge. We’re past before I realise that this is the famed Idaburn Dam. The dam that appears in a number of TV ads and is often shown when there’s a hoar frost. It’s also the home of the Roaring Game, that ancient Scottish sport of curling and is famous for the Bonspiel, the grand tournament which occurs when (and only when) the ice reaches 14cm thickness. That’s when the Ice Masters put out the call to curlers nationwide to come and play within 48hrs.

We screech to a halt (the story of David’s life- ‘Stop! Church!’ or ‘Stop! Old Woolshed…bridge…cottage…beautiful scenery…etc, etc’ He is a very patient man) and we return to the entrance. The Rail Trail also crosses the road at this point and I’m half expecting to see my guys again although they had a good 8kms to cycle before reaching here. This’ll be a good spot to have our lunch we decide, the gate isn’t locked but does have a warning.

The dam is mostly frozen, and somebody has been skating on it recently going by all the marks down in front of us but the edges are liquid, they’ll be no curling happening here for awhile. We walk around the edge heading for a larger building we can see around the corner. We pass an old hut and David has a look through the dusty window (no, he’s not going shopping- the bag he’s carrying has our lunch in it). Inside, hanging from every available vantage point, are dozens of old ice skates; I'm not sure, but some look like they’ve been in recent use.

The next weather beaten building looks to be the Clubhouse come Timer/Announcer/Music headquarters- it looks very much like the building that was at the head of the Marine Parade roller skating rink in Napier where I used to skate, albeit alot more rough around the edges. David sets up lunch on a wobbly bench and the hot soup is a welcome sight as that cool wind is blowing once again. You can see the edge of the ice below David, the stairway ends in water so there’s no stepping off onto the ice today. Just past the building the dam is back to water and apparently that end rarely freezes.

To be continued....Part 2 here


  1. I hope you let David have a look through Hayes Engineering Works while you were in the area. Great place to stay also and it has coffee as well.


    1. You'll have to wait until Part 2 appears to find out that answer Robin! :)

  2. Your sheep story (I know could have some "ramifications")
    Moving massive amounts of sheep can cause what's called "a smother up" caused when they all want to get through a small gate to get to water and or tucker, the pressure when going downhill can and did flatten a neighbours fence loosing 200 sheep!
    Nice to read of your exploits while we drive back into Seattle after exploring Mt St Helens and Mt Rainier areas.
    Cheers J&C

    1. Poor sheep! Thankfully the ones that ran over to us saw sense and moved off before the rest arrived. Seattle would be lovely at this time of the year, continue to travel safely.


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