In September last year a small group of us from Suffolk Park cycled along the Otago Rail Trail in New Zealand. (The distance from Casino to Murwillumbah is approximately the same: 150km.) The Otago trail links a string of old gold mining towns that first flourished well over a century ago along the rich diggings of the Clutha and Roxburgh rivers. The creation of the rail trail is clearly bringing these historic gems back to life. Everything seems to be in renovation mode, from the classic stone Victorian architecture of Clyde to the fantastic art deco expressions of Ophir and Ranfurly.
The food was terrific, the accommodation clean and reasonably priced, the views breathtaking and the speedometers on our specially designed bikes indicated that we were never more than 10 or 15k from a Byron-standard cappuccino served from some previously disused railway station building or once declining hotel. Along the way we fell in with an informal pelleton composed of people from all over the world: families, kids, even grandparents with their electric bikes found the easy gradient of the old rail line more than manageable. We ate and stayed together in the same places over the four days it took to cycle from Clyde in the West to Middlemarch near Dunedin in the East. Along the way we discovered a mining history that made Otago once one of the wealthiest provinces on earth.
This was low-impact tourism at its best. No motors, no noise, no carbon footprint, no pollution. Just old buildings: derelict pubs, tumbling down railway stations, lodges, even former schools and farmer’s cottages are being renovated and turned into places to eat and stay. On a holiday weekend the pub at Chatto Creek, with its quaint collection of antique guns, bullets and hand grenades (once on the verge of bankruptcy) now serves up to 200 meals for lunch. Enterprising farmers have built overnight cabins where their land straddles the trail – no doubt adding a reliable income stream to their working budgets.
Imagine the boost that places like Eltham, Stokers Siding, Mullumbimby, even Casino and Murwillumbah (as starting and end point hubs) would get if the rail trail ever went ahead. But I live in a fantasy that we are ruled by enlightened politicians who could glimpse the cost benefit analysis of the paltry few million it would take to make our own rail trail a reality – mere pocket money compared to the billions to be spent on sports stadiums!