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Come aboard for a rail adventure

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The following article appeared in the New Straights Times. It is awesome to see Middlemarch get such a great write up all the way from Malaysia.

One of the world’s great train trips, the Taieri Gorge Railway passes through a variety of landscapes, tunnels and towering viaducts west of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, writes David Bowden

ONE of the world’s great railway journeys departs on most days of the year up through the rugged Taieri River Gorge west of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island.

Passengers have two choices with the Dunedin to Pukerangi section being the shorter option to the full trip which operates all the way to Middlemarch on scheduled days.

It has been described as one of the world’s great train trips and appeals because of the variety of landscapes through which the train passes. It passes through suburban Dunedin, lush farming land on the Taieri Plain, through the Maungatua Hills, down Mullocky Gully and then up through the rugged Taieri River Gorge.

Considered an engineering feat, tunnels and towering viaducts were hand-hewed through mostly steep metamorphic rock on the 58km trip to rural Pukerangi and a further two hours or 77km to Middlemarch at the end of the line.

This line once extended beyond Middlemarch all the way to Alexandra and Cromwell in Central Otago but was closed when to build a dam.

New Zealand Railways operated daily passenger services on this line until the mid-1970s. The original trains were hauled by steam locomotives but these were replaced by a diesel railcar until passenger numbers declined and the service was discontinued.

Had it not been for a trust operated by dedicated train lovers and the Dunedin City Council, the line would have closed.

A Save The Train Appeal was launched to raise NZ$1.2 million (RM3.78 million) to purchase the section of the line from North Taieri to Middlemarch along with five diesel-electric locomotives.

In 1995, Taieri Gorge Railway Limited was formed to operate trains from Dunedin Station. In 2014, it was rebranded Dunedin Railways to reflect the diversity of destinations as it also operates charter trips on the South Island.

Thanks to the hard efforts to preserve the railway, visitors to New Zealand’s South Island are able to take this exhilarating ride through some amazing landscapes.

Today, the train of at least six heritage carriages and two modern air-conditioned carriages is hauled by two diesel locomotives.

Windows partially open in the heritage carriages but photography is best done on the open platform in between carriages.

Gradients of 1: 50 are common on the journey (this is steep by railway standards) which means that the locos steadily climbs the gorge which is great as most passengers can photography the journey.

Trains depart from Dunedin Railway Station although it’s also possible to get on and off at Wingatui Station.

Opened in 1906, Dunedin Station, known as the Gingerbread House, is considered to be New Zealand’s most photographed building. It was designed as the jewel in the New Zealand Railways crown in the city that was then the nation’s commercial capital.

Its interior is very ornate with over 725,760 porcelain tiles manufactured by Royal Doulton incorporated into the lobby.

These panels include a small steam engine, New Zealand Railways’ logo and other rail motifs.

For the first 15 minutes, the train heads south down the main trunk line to the junction at Wingatui and the Central Otago branch line.

At Wingatui, the train stops while the locomotive crew manually switch the train onto the branch line which is now owned and operated entirely by the City of Dunedin.

Agricultural activity is evident once out of the urban limits of Dunedin with dairy farms, orchards, horse studs and market gardens dominating. Further along the journey, extensive stands of commercial pine trees cover the hills.

Viaducts are a feature of the railway with the first and biggest structure being the Wingatui Viaduct, New Zealand’s biggest wrought iron structure and with a drop of 50m to the gully below.

The Taieri is New Zealand’s fourth longest river and brown trout can be caught here although river access is difficult.

While tranquil on most occasions, flooding can turn it into a raging torrent with the 1980 flooding seeing 70 times the normal flow of water through the gorge.

At the farming hamlet of Pukerangi, the diesel locomotives are disconnected and relocated to the other end of the train for the return journey.

The name means “hills of heaven” and the countryside here is indeed a special and tranquil rural setting. While deserted now, Pukerangi was once a thriving community with its own school.

Passengers disembark here to watch this process and to admire the rural countryside located at 250m above sea level.

There is little else to do apart from watching the diesel being repositioned or watching cyclists unload their bikes from the luggage car in order to head off on the rail trail that begins at Middlemarch and heads along the former railway line.

The snack bar car is popular on the return journey. Cold beverages include juices, soft drinks, beer, cider and wines with the ever-popular local Emerson’s ales being available including the signature Taieri George spicy ale. This ale is named after George Emerson who was one of those instrumental in saving the railway.

Commentary of the journey by the train manager is provided in English while a complimentary illustrated journey guide is issued free upon ticket purchase.

The complete journey to Middlemarch takes six hours with a one-hour stop there at what is now the end of the line. Middlemarch is the eastern portal for the popular Otago Central Rail Trail for which the Dunedin Railways provides a convenient link.

Adventurous travellers can bike along part of the route on what is known as a rail trail with several outdoor travel companies offering train, cycling and accommodation packages and assistance. It’s not uncommon for the train to transfer cyclists to Pukerangi so they can start or end their rail trail adventure.

Various summer and winter schedules are available to Pukerangi but the Middlemarch extension in only available on selected days. Bookings are highly recommended for this popular journey especially during the warmer months from October to April.

Middlemarch Singles Ball 2015

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The Middlemarch Singles Ball will be held again in Easter 2015.

You can get the train back to Dunedin on the night, but why not stay at the Middlemarch Holiday Park! Click on Booking to check our availability.

Middlemarch in the New Zealand Herald

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There is a great write up today on Middlemarch in the New Zealand Herald.

The Middlemarch Holiday Park also gets a mention as a place to stay!

If you're looking for the middle of nowhere right on Dunedin's doorstep, Middlemarch is the right place. From the Octagon, it's just an hour's drive to the foothills of the high country.

We took Taieri Gorge train, which wound through spectacular spring scenery. Our kids spent the trip frozen to death on the outside viewing platforms, too gobsmacked at the views of plummeting gorges to move.

We were greeted at the station by Longford Retreat owner Lynnore, with husband Andrew, of The Rocks, a 2830ha fine wool merino station.

My wife, Nic, and I wanted the full sheep station experience (minus the work) and we found it at Lynnore's expansive property, a short drive from Middlemarch township.

The town lies in the broad Strath-Taieri Valley, a location for the Hobbit films (Sir Ian McKellan stayed at Longford, although I couldn't tell you in which bed).

With the Rock and Pillar Range as the backdrop, the detail is in the extraordinary local schist, which clads farmhouses, fences and forms lunar-looking rock piles.

Aside from being home to the Singles Ball (the next one is April 4, 2015), Middlemarch is probably best known as one terminus on the Otago Central Rail trail, once part of the Dunedin to Cromwell railway.

Our aims, with three young children, were modest: we'd cycle Daisy Bank to Hyde. We were kitted out with bikes, a tag-along and trailer by Cycle Surgery, which is run by Pip and Dave.

Pip, who counts the entrepreneurial genes of Sir John Roberts (a Dunedin mayor and director of the NZ Refrigerating Company) in her pedigree, runs the business side. Husband Dave, who boasts a lot of cycling medals, does the nuts and bolts - right down to designing the bikes and supervising their construction overseas.

We ambled along the trail, happy to be overtaken by hardier souls as we took on a viaduct and several other challenges. I can testify how loud a four-year-old's screams can be in a long, dark tunnel.

We had a late lunch at Strath Taieri Hotel: at $6 a pop, the kid's meals were gargantuan enough to feed a small suburb. Then Lynnore whisked the kids off to check out farm life. I found myself doing nothing on a wraparound veranda at Longford, a pot of pinot in my fist as I took in the sunset over them thar hills.

On our last night, the locals hosted Nic and I at a barbecue. They were of that hardy volunteer ilk who keep everything rolling along in a small town; people like Helen Finch, copper and organiser of the world-famous-in-the-South-Island Single's Ball.

Andrew's culinary contribution was fresh wild venison, marinated in Lynnore's granny's own recipe.

Dunedin beer baron Richard Emerson showed up lugging several flagons of his Taieri George beer. Profoundly deaf, Richard lip-reads. He told us about his passions: beer brewing, food - and trains, which is why he's named a beer after the railway. His grandfather George worked on the Taieri line, hence the play on the word "gorge".

Deprived of one sense, he's overdeveloped smell and taste - handy qualities in a master brewer, and which also allowed him to guess the exact ingredients of Lynnore's 100-year-old marinade recipe.

A happy collision of good beer, living history and a hearty repast, the evening was a fitting end to a great holiday we'll not quickly forget.

Eating: There's a good choice considering the size of the place. The Strath Taieri Hotel does traditional pub fare. Up the road, Steve at the Quench Cafe serves up a good latte and a menu of hearty Southern food. The Kissing Gate Cafe, owned by Dunedin councillor Kate Wilson, does a gourmet delivery service. Visit to try one of their moreish home-baked pies.

Biking: The Otago Rail Trail runs from Middlemarch to Clyde. The old rail line closed in 1990 and in 1993 the Department of Conservation bought the land. With local support, they embarked on the massive job of replacing the rails with a manicured gravel path. The trail attracts 14,000 multi-day riders annually. Winter deters all but the hardiest, but it's do-able all year round.

Walking: Several excellent DoC tracks up the Rock and Pillar Range offer magnificent views of the valley, plus a 45-minute walk around Sutton Lake - New Zealand's only inland salt lake.

Fishing: Taieri River has excellent brown trout fishing. Call 0800 MIDDLEMARCH and they will help organise a guide, who can show you the best spots - and help you with a licence.

Preserving: Middlemarch Museum is home to the remains of New Zealand's only gold-prospecting submarine, circa 1873, several restored railway wagons, which tell the story of the Otago Central Railway, and it includes an elaborate timeline wrapped around the walls.

Getting there: Jetstar flies from Auckland to Dunedin daily, with prices starting at $69.

Accommodation: There's everything from high-end Gladbrook Station and The Rocks Station, to boutique B&Bs and a holiday park.

Middlemarch Video from Insiders Dunedin

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I love this video produced by the Dunedin Tourism team. It might give you a bit of insight into life in Middlemarch.

"Within the Dunedin city limits lies a gem of a town -- Middlemarch. There is nothing quite like the warmth of the locals welcome, the spectacular Rock and Pillar Range, the unbelievable 'Big Sky' vistas. You might even get to glimpse the famous Taieri 'Pet', if you stay long enough. Take the journey on the historic Tairei Gorge Railway, and even start your Otago Rail Trail adventure here, or just stay awhile. Watch this clip to see why Middlemarch Rocks! "

Leaning Lodge Hut

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Congratulations to the Otago Tramping Club who have recently renovated the Leaning Lodge Hut.

The hut was formed in 1958 high up on the Rock and Pillar ranges near Middlemarch out of two old army huts, but the Department of Conservation wanted it removed because it was run down.

The Hut is used by trampers, skiers and University of Otago field trips.

You can find out more about the trust on the OTMC website.