Alexandra to Palmerston
Separated by 8km of SH85, tiny Lauder and larger Omakau (population 250) are good stops if you’re a hungry rail-trailer with a sore bum and in need of a feed and a bed. However, the area's real gem is adorable Ophir (population 50), 2km from Omakau across the Manuherikia River.
Unless you’ve come especially for the Easter Bunny Hunt or September’s NZ Merino Shearing Championships, the main reason to visit unassuming Alexandra is mountain biking. It's the biggest Rail Trail settlement by far, offering more eating and sleeping options than the rest of the one-horse (or fewer) towns on the route.
Much more charming than his buddy Alex, 8km down the road, Clyde looks more like a 19th-century gold-rush film set than a real town. Set on the banks of the emerald-green Clutha River, Clyde (www.clyde.co.nz) retains a friendly, small-town feel, even when holidaymakers arrive in numbers over summer. It’s also one end of the Otago Central Rail Trail (see p000).
Alexandra to Dunedin
Heading south from Alexandra, SH8 winds along rugged, rock-strewn hills above Lake Roxburgh, then follows the Clutha River as it passes lush fruit farms and Central Otago's famous orchards. In season, roadside fruit stalls sell just-picked stone fruit, cherries and berries. En route are a number of small towns, many from gold-rush days.
After a series of fires in the 1930s, Ranfurly was rebuilt in the architectural style of the day, and a few attractive art deco buildings still line its sleepy main drag. The teensy town is trying hard to cash in on this meagre legacy, calling itself the 'South Island's art deco capital' and holding an annual Art Deco Festival on the last weekend of February.
With the Rock & Pillar Range as an impressive backdrop, the small town of Middlemarch (www.middlemarch.co.nz) is the terminus of the Taieri Gorge Railway, and also one end of the Otago Central Rail Trail. It's famous in NZ for the Middlemarch Singles Ball (held across Easter in odd-numbered years), where southern men gather to entice city gals to the country life.
The mighty Clutha River is NZ’s highest-volume river, and is dammed in several places to feed hydroelectric power stations. Balclutha is South Otago’s largest town but is of little interest to travellers other than as a place to stock up on supplies before setting off into The Catlins. The Balclutha i-SITE has local info and internet access.
Ranfurly to Dunedin
After Ranfurly, SH85 runs 62km to Palmerston, then 55km south to Dunedin or 59km north to Oamaru. Another option is to hop on the southbound SH87 directly to Dunedin, 129km via Hyde and Middlemarch. In Hyde, the Otago Central Hotel provides boutique accommodation. Linger in the sunny terrace cafe for a second espresso before setting out on two wheels again.
A worthwhile 17km detour north from SH85 heads into the foothills of the imposing Dunstan Mountains and on to diminutive St Bathans. This once-thriving gold-mining town of 2000 people is now home to only half a dozen permanent residents living amid a cluster of cutesy 19th-century buildings.
Heading south from Alexandra, SH8 winds along rugged, rock-strewn hills above the Clutha River as it passes Central Otago's famous orchards. In season, roadside fruit stalls sell just-picked stone fruit, cherries and berries. En route are a scattering of small towns, many dating from gold-rush days.