Monday, 25 April 2011

Someone once told me the average age of a sheep farmer in New Zealand is 55 years

Someone once told me the average age of a sheep farmer in New Zealand is 55 years.

That puts your average cocky bang in the middle of the baby boomer age strata (i.e those born between 1946 and 1964). It also puts your average cocky smack in the middle, age-wise, of those cycling the Central Otago Rail Trail.

I’ve just finished the Rail Trail with two Southland sheep farmers and our respective wives. With an average age of 51, our group almost felt like babies amongst the baby boomers on the trail. You’re never too old for adventure.

The Rail Trail is a quintessential Kiwi experience I would recommend to anyone regardless (almost) of their age and fitness. Trains were not built for steep inclines and neither are aging ‘boomers’, so the hardest part of the adventure is actually hardening your backside for four days in the saddle.

The journey spans just over 150 kilometres from Clyde to Middlemarch, passing through Alexandra, Omakau, the Ida Valley, Ranfurly and Hyde along the way. You can start at either end, it doesn’t really matter because Clyde and Middlemarch are at roughly the same altitude, so effectively when you decide which way to go you’re taking a punt on the wind direction.

The beauty of the Rail Trail, other than the stunning scenery, is the fact that you’re biking along a railway track built more than a century ago, essentially by pick and shovel. That our forebears were able to forge a railway line through such rugged country in such a challenging climate, was an engineering masterpiece.

The origins of the Central Otago line date back to 1879 when the first sod was turned at Wingatui, just outside Dunedin, but the railway took 42 years to make the 236 kilometre journey to its final destination of Cromwell.

The Clyde to Cromwell section was flooded by the Clyde High Dam in the ‘Think Big’ 1980s, while the Dunedin to Middlemarch leg stills exists as the Taieri Gorge tourist train. The bits in the middle make up the Central Otago Rail Trail.

Although it’s hard to see anywhere in the country competing with Central Otago for scenery or climate, the Rail Trail is a blueprint for other regions that want to regenerate the rural hinterland. Little pubs in far-flung places such as Chatto Creek, Ophir, Oturehua, Wedderburn and Waipiata were dying a slow and painful death with the advent of Rogernomics, rural depopulation and drink-driving laws. The Rail Trail has breathed new life into the businesses and they are now a cultural oasis along the dry and dusty track.

Every little nook and cranny along the Trail has its own unique history. My favourite tale related to the tragic Hyde Rail Disaster of June 1943. Twenty one lives were lost when the train driver, under the influence of alcohol, took a corner at twice the speed he should have. One young husband among the injured refused to believe his wife, who had been laid out with the deceased, was in fact dead. He lay beside her to keep her warm and in doing so saved her life as she was only unconscious, although badly injured. She was also found to be pregnant. She later had a baby and the couple was able to buy a farm in North Otago with the help of compensation money received from the Railways. A happy ending to a sad tale.

Farmers, this is a trip you need to put on your Bucket List. Most of you, by the very nature of your occupation, work too hard and too long. Most of you also spend a lifetime accumulating wealth you never spend.

By the time you reach that average age of 55 you have, in Central Otago Rail Trail parlance, reached the highest point of Wedderburn and are on your way downhill. Before you reach your final destination, you need to get off life’s bike and take time to smell the Central Otago wild flowers along the way.

I promise you the Rail Trail will not disappoint. ENDS.

Footnote: Jamie Mackay is the host of the Farming Show which airs on Radio Sport and Newstalk ZB. In a past life a Southland sheep farmer, these days he comments on farming, politics and sport for a living from the relative safety and comfort of his radio studio in Dunedin.


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