Eating Dust on the Molesworth!
The Molesworth ride is one of those special bike rides within New Zealand’s South Island (and also was on my ‘must ride list’). It is an approximate 190 kilometre adventure from Blenheim to Hanmer Springs.
It is largely a gravel road that follows the Awatere River in the northern part of the ride, and the Acheron River in the southern part of the ride. The road is generally open to public access from early December until later February each year. A sixty kilometre section of the road traverses Molesworth Station, yes a working farm! You are not allowed to camp or overnight within the sixty kilometres that is the Station. There are DOC campsites at either end of this sixty kilometre section and the gate to the Station section is opened at 7:00am, so plenty of time to complete your ride through the Station within one day.
I arrived in Blenheim looking forward to the adventure ahead. Knowing that I could have about four days ahead of me in the remote Molesworth area, I needed to load up on food. I located a good outdoor store and purchased a few of those freeze-dried meals, just in case of issues, or I took longer to traverse the Molesworth than expected. I then went and topped the panniers with plenty of fresh veges, nuts, oats and fruit.
As I was preparing to leave Blenheim, I caught up with German cycle tourist Anne, who I had cycled with from Stratford to Wellington. As she was also planning to go via the Molesworth, we teamed up again.
The best route to the Awatere Valley Road, known as the Molesworth road, from Blenheim is via Taylors Pass Road. It is a beautiful wander into the hills along this road and we were passed by several MTB riders – locals doing an out and back to the top of the Pass at the end of their day. My, they appeared to be so fit and fast, as we trudged along on our heavy pannier-laden touring bikes.
All to soon, the sun was nearing the horizon and we needed to find a campsite. As the road up the Pass is mainly forested, there are lots of options and we soon found space on a hill above the road, but outside the fenced forest. The billy was soon boiling and a welcome mug of tea and biscuit, or two, was enjoyed before dinner and the instant sleep that a tired cyclist enjoys.
Next morning a peep out of the tent revealed a very misty morning, but NOT rain, yay!
The gravel on Taylors Pass Road was in excellent condition and it did not take too long before we were over the top and back onto tarseal as we rolled down off the Pass.
Awatere Valley Road was also tarseal – well at this point – and it made for easy riding. I was surprised just how far the grape growing industry has expanded into the valley. The rows of synchronised vines just seemed to go on forever (or was that just my slow speed…?)
Stopping at a bridge near Blairich Reserve, I fought my way through the bushes down to the stream to fill my water bottles. A bonus struggling through those bushes though was the fresh blackberries everwhere. I loaded up! Yum.
As you ride down the valley, to your left is the Inland Kaikoura Range. The right side is less impressive in comparison, with a vista of rolling hills. Just spectacular views and so so peaceful!
Not too far on, the tarseal ends and the bumpy gravel begins. As it was late in the season (February), the gravel was rather corrugated and the riding not that pleasant. The good news was that on any uphill sections, the road had been tarsealed. This made the riding easier, but the hills are still hard work!
Today there is only minimal population on this road as the several farms that were once located in this valley have been incorporated into what is today’s expansive Molesworth Station. However, the signs of previous occupation are to be seen. Abandoned buildings are occasionally spotted amongst the vast landscape, whilst fruit trees growing near the road were loaded with fresh fruit. We enjoyed apples, pears, plums and more. You can never have too much fresh fruit!
It was a very hot day and stopping on one of the tarsealed uphills to ‘have a breather’ (yes, I was puffing hard!) a vehicle stopped and the driver asked if we were OK, and did we want to put the bikes on the back and travel in the ute with him? ‘No thanks’, I answered. Chatting with the driver, he was a DOC Ranger heading to the DOC campsite at Cob cottage. Thanks for your concern. See ya at the campsite in a few days!
With the very warm temperatures that often occurs trapped in a valley (little wind too), the Awatere River that was curving alongside the ride was sooo inviting. No point in getting changed from riding clothes, just drop the bike and jump straight in to the river. Yes, it was ‘fresh’, but so refreshing, and after a few minutes back on the bike, the clothes were beginning to dry! Fabulous.
We targeted the Hodder suspension bridge for that night’s camp. Set high above the river, the local council have made a nice grassed area suitable for camping, with a composting toilet nearby. With the river close, we had everything we needed for a night! Wandering about Anne spotted another apple tree just over the bank. We helped ourselves to the apples but they were not suitable for eating and needed cooking. Being cyclists we only had small pots for cooking, so we thought these apples would have to go unused. However, Anne had a good idea and approached a campervan parked nearby and offered the occupants the apples and asked if they would cook some for us. No problem, they cooked the lot! We chatted and enjoyed stewed apples for dessert and again on our porridge the following morning.
Later in the evening, a couple of mountain climbers arrived to camp for the night. They were intending to climb Tapuae-O-Ueneku (2885m) the next day. This mountain was the training climb for Sir Edmund Hillary in his very early climbing days in New Zealand. Anne, who is also a mountain climber vascillated about joining the climbers. Finally, after a restless night, she decided to join the climbers the next day to hopefully summit Tapuae-O-Ueneku . So, I lost my cycling buddy. Be safe and enjoy Anne!
Leaving camp it felt odd being on my own after travelling together, but I supported Anne’s decision. The road ahead beckons…
There are several hard climbs through the Molesworth. The first is the Upcot Saddle. You view it from afar as you are approaching and it does not look too bad as it curves up the towards the saddle. However, when you get closer, you realise that the initial long straight you see from afar is much steeper than it looks. Overall, the actual climb is approximately 210 metres vertically over a 2.5km distance. The gravel surface was like small river stones and really hard riding. Well, I could not ride it safely, so I pushed the loaded bike all the way up that first long uphill straight! Eventually I started riding again when the surface was better, but it was still tough – it was stinking hot and that together with the gradient and loose surface, I found myself constantly stopping to get my breath and take a sip of water. I was making mini goals to keep myself going, like just get the next 40-50 metres and then take a break, next 50 metres etc. I was wondering about my ability to get through the Molesworth if there were more passes like this – it was time to find some positivity. When I eventually made the top, I looked back and it sure is quite an arduous climb. Check out the photos on the Photo tab.
My goal for the day was the DOC campground at what is known as ‘Cob cottage’. This campground is at the gateway to Molesworth Station. The road roughly follows the Awatere River. It is a constant gentle climb all day (Upcot Saddle apart) – not a lot of relief for the legs on another hot day! Even though I had only ridden 56kms for the day, there was about 1200 metres of vertical climbing between the start and end of the day. Ahh, so that is why I had tired legs…
Rolling into the DOC campsite was a relief. I had had enough. I rolled down to the DOC Ranger’s office where you have to ‘book in’. He cheerfully greeted me with ‘So you made it?’ ‘Of course’, I replied, ‘it was a matter of when, not if!’ He just grinned – this was the same DOC Ranger who had stopped to chat to us a couple of days ago. A really pleasant guy, he offered me filtered water from his office for all my bottles and suggested a nice deep swimming hole that I would enjoy. And it was too.
I wandered over the hill where I could view the Molesworth Station homestead area. Lots of buildings and what a setting.
I got talking to a Whangarei couple in campervan and enjoyed a cold beer with them. The joys of having a fridge on board!
Later in the evening I had a visit from the DOC Ranger to advise me that there was a wild cow out at the end of Isolated Flat. He had been at Isolated Flat that evening and this cow had charged his vehicle twice, with it actually hitting it once! He said to watch for it and if I saw it, get off my bike and hide behind a pylon or large bush. Some reassurance! Meanwhile he had phoned the Station staff and advised of the ‘loco’ cow and they were planning to bring a herd of cows through the area the next day hoping to round up the problem cow. Let’s hope so, I thought.
At 7 a.m. the next morning I was released through the gate into Molesworth Station. The road was rough and really corrugated, much worse than on the previous days. The animals (all beef stock) were very inquisitive, coming up quite close at times, although a yell quickly sent then scattering. With a few gates to open and close, I kept going as there was 60kms to get through the Station.
Wards Pass is the first and only major climb in the Station. From Cob cottage campsite it is all up until the top of the Pass just 6kms away. Cold muscles quickly warmed as the gentle climb started. The final and steepest part of the climb is only 1.5kms but it is at an aching 11% gradient. It was badly corrugated and again more than a little pushing was required. Thank goodness it was early in the day as the temperature was still cool. It took me more than 2.5 hours of grind just to get to the top of the Pass. Stuffed, but elated to be over this one, the next challenge was the similar steep downhill off the Pass. It might be downhill but it was no easier, with caution uppermost. And, at the bottom was another stream – a dip to cool off was required.
The road through the Station from the top of Wards Pass to the Acheron House DOC campsite is a gentle downhill – thank goodness.
However, I was now on Isolated Flat and the senses were heightened as I was watching for the ‘loco’ cow. Soon a vehicle came behind me and it was the DOC Ranger from the Cob Cottage campsite. He thought it a good idea to come out and ensure that I got through safely – thank you Sir! I never saw the worrisome cow, but I did see the Station stockmen driving a herd of cows through the area.
I followed the stockmen and their herd for quite some time. They were happy to chat and I was surprised at their young age – at most about mid-20s. Their handling of their dogs via whistle commands was very impressive.
As I rounded one corner, I saw a camper van stopped by the Acheron River. As I neared, one of them was standing by the road with a coffee cup and cake on a plate. Woo hoo, morning tea time! Of course I stopped and enjoyed the hot coffee and home baking!
A few more swims were enjoyed during the day before finally arriving at the exit gate out of the Station and not too far away was the Acheron House DOC campsite. The camper van had arrived ahead of me. They were sitting outside enjoying afternoon snacks. A quick swim in the river to clean-up and I then joined the camper van set for evening drinks and nibbles. Very pleasant!
After a deep and long sleep, I broke camp and set off for Hanmer Springs (and civilisation). The ride out was easy. As it was the weekend, there were many mountain bikers coming in doing day trips. The camper van passed by and left me in its dust.
Reaching the end of the Molesworth road, I was very pleased – another tick on the ‘rides to do list’!
Continuing on and just around a few corners was the camper van stopped again, enjoying the views down to Hanmer Springs. And they had the coffee cups out again. Yes, time for more social banter and that home baking – excellent.
The final run down to Hanmer Springs was via Jacks Pass, a fast and winding 6km decent. What a blast!
I rolled into town mid-morning and found myself a cafe to have the biggest second breakfast you have seen. It was demolished in no time at all!
The Molesworth ride is tough. It is physically and mentally hard. You need to be well prepared, have suitable cycling equipment, good camping equipment and clothing for all seasons. It can snow in this area at any time of year, so it is best to be prepared.
Would I do it again – you bet!