Thursday, 10 March 2016

Riding the Molesworth and Rainbow station roads

During the last couple of years in London I'd occasionally find my mind wandering back to the high country of the South Island, which I've always held in semi-mythical regard. And no part of the New Zealand is more evocative than the Molesworth Station, a sheep and cattle run that's larger than a lot of Britain's counties. In many ways the old pioneer lifestyle remains unchanged – the 19th Century settlers didn't have the benefit of Toyota's HiLux, but the horse remains an important part of the annual muster, and the men working the land are as hard as their predecessors from decades past.

The Molesworth is also one of the remotest parts of the country accessible by 'road', a term I use loosely as the rough gravel seal would test the suspension of most family vehicles, and the corrugations made for some hair-raising moments when they popped up unexpectedly as I was blasting downhill. The rougher Rainbow Station track promised even more fun, with the route recommended for 'high clearance 4WD vehicles only'.

I had a week free, and decided to include the 200km loop past the Molesworth Homestead as part of a longer 450km tour round the top of the South Island – and no hassles about flying with my bike, with the inter-island ferry incredibly convenient.

It might not sound like a huge distance, but cycling up the Awatere River valley involved plenty of spirit-sapping grinding over ridge spurs, getting high enough to clear the steep drop-offs into the river bed. It was hard work with the weight of the bike, and became harder still as the hours wore on with the only shade coming from the wide brim of my sunhat.

The landscape was enormous. I'd had a taster in the late 1990s when I climbed Mount Tapuaenuku, the highest peak in the range at just under 3000 metres, but the heat of the sun adding to the intensity of the Kaikoura mountain ranges.

The head of the Awatere was a real surprise after hours of increasingly dry landscape. Thickets of trees covered the river valley floor, with the trees along the road offering respite from the sun beating down. The Kaikouras are notoriously dry, and the sudden burst of lush greenery was a welcome change from the browns and yellows.

Eventually I reached the fabled Molesworth station. There's a basic Department of Conservation campsite, with a long drop and drinking water tap, with wooden table and benches providing the luxury element after a long day in the saddle. I pitched my tent, knocked up a cup of tea and a mammoth bowl of pasta.

Just as the sun came down I was joined by Phil, another Wellingtonian, who was on a warm-up ride for the Great Southern Brevet, an 1100km dirt road extravaganza. He was carrying a fraction of the gear I had, but we decided to ride the road out through the Rainbow Station together. I set out ahead of Phil, but before long he'd caught up.

We tried swapping bikes for a stretch, but Phil's bike felt like a chunky tyre version of a Graeme Obree machine – my set-up is very much at the armchair end of the bike geometry spectrum. I lasted a hundred meters on Phil's bike – how he managed eight days of riding on it a few weeks later beats me!

The land south of Molesworth Station is magnificent, with the morning spent a kilometre above sea-level. Isolated Flat and the Acheron River are part of the high country history – and Red Gate is synonymous with a tragic romance over 150 years ago:

Ivanhoe Augarde was a foreman working for the Clarence Run in the 1860s, based at a homestead at the junction of the Acheron and the Clarence Rivers. On horseback or foot were the only travelling options. Young Ivanhoe, 24 years of age, was in love with Kate Gee who lived many miles away in the Upper Wairau Valley. Kate communicated that she wished the relationship to end. Ivanhoe wrote her a heartfelt plea, begging her to change her mind. With no postal service to hand, and in a desperate state of mind, Ivanhoe asked a worker known as German Charlie who was travelling north, to deliver the letter.

As he travelled, German Charlie shared the contents of the letter with other men. When news eventually reached Ivanhoe that he had been ridiculed in public, he planned revenge. He confronted Charlie at the Saxton homestead near Bowscale Tarn and a fight ensued. The fight was broken up and Ivanhoe was left unsatisfied. Some time later, after writing letters to his and Kate’s family, he borrowed a rifle and set out to find Charlie. On the 29th January 1868 Ivanhoe found Charlie at the Tarndale property and shot him. The murderer then set out to return to the Clarence Valley. At Red Gate he turned the gun on himself. Ivanhoe Augarde is buried between Red Gate Hut and the Severn River. A mound of river stones marks his grave. An inscribed headstone was placed on the grave by Augarde descendants in the 1970s, around the time Mt Augarde was named.

On a lighter note, I read somewhere that long ago the Molesworth staff used to have a month of leave during the depths of winter – one farmhand famously never made it past the first pub on the road in twenty five years of employment on the station!

The track from Red Gate through to the Sedgemere Sleepout was a departure from the fairly decent surface of the Molesworth Road. Still very ridable, but the river crossings began in earnest.

Finally the road began to drop. This was my first serious bike adventure away from tar-sealed roads, and all I can say is it's bloody good fun rocketing down dirt roads on chunky tyres. The last part of the road through Rainbow Station squeezes through Wairau Gorge, and the corner at Hells Gate is spectacular.

After 92km we realised we weren't going to make St. Arnaud by nightfall, and so we pulled off the road and pitched camp. I parted with Phil after pumping our tyres back up in readiness for the sealed road: he was heading back to Wellington via the road through Renwick, while I was off to Nelson to catch up with friends. Thanks for riding with me buddy, and see you soon for a beer!

Monday, 17 August 2015

Nice write-up on Wellington

I've just moved back to Wellington, where my family are from. On my flight into New Zealand I saw this excellent write-up on the city in KiaOra, Air New Zealand's in-flight magazine. I couldn't find it online but the publishers sent me a PDF, which I thought I'd share here.

Wellington is a great city – a wonderful combination of being the country's capital, but with lots of green space and a CBD that you can walk the length of in half an hour. There's a huge array of cultural events, and as I write the sun is beaming down on the still harbour water in the middle of winter – anyone who says the weather isn't always this great is fibbing!

I've got a decent bike trip planned for this summer which I'll share via this blog.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

'Summer' in the Scottish Highlands 2014

I was introduced to hillwalking when I was at secondary school. I had two teachers who were knocking off the Munros (Scotland's hills over 3000' – 914.4m in modern currency) and our school 'expeditions' invariably took us to parts of Scotland that had hills they needed to climb, dressed up with names that excited the teenage imagination - the 'Trans-Highland Journey' seems to stand out for some reason. My first Munro was The Saddle in Glen Shiel, climbed on a sunny day in the early 1990s via the Forcan Ridge, which the Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook describes as a 'superb rich ridge [that] involves some exposed scrambling'. I remember straddling a knife edged arête with several hundred metres of nothing beneath my feet. It was bloody good fun and I was hooked.

By the time I'd done my A-levels I'd climbed over 40 Munros – mainly in the Western Highlands, and including all the remote Knoydart peaks and pretty much everything around Glencoe and the Ben Nevis area. The great thing about Scotland's hills – Munros or otherwise – is that you can have a long day of walking / scrambling / climbing and still be back in the pub by closing time.

The downside, of course, is that the weather can be decidedly iffy, something that I experienced at first hand last week when I was stepped off the train at Loch Awe with my bike, camping gear and a week's food supply. The rain was lashing down, and the week of halcyonic summer walking that I'd envisaged wasn't exactly on the cards. This was rammed home after I'd stashed my gear under a bush and walked up Ben Eunaich. I could feel the wind whipping past and throwing me off balance as I climbed up, and on reaching the summit I turned around to feel the full force of rain and hail slamming into my face. I pushed on up Beinn a' Chochuill and raced down the mountainside to escape the weather – and savouring the wonderful moment as I emerged from the clouds to see the route down the valley floor. I spent a wet night sleeping under the shelter on the Loch Awe railway station platform, and caught the first train of the morning to Tyndrum, where the campsite has hot showers and a drying room. Bliss.

[On the train ride north from Glasgow]

[Halfway up Ben Eunaich]

[Feeder gates for the Cruachan hydroelectric power station]

[On the summit ridge of Beinn a' Chochuill]

[Coming out of the clouds on the side of Beinn a' Chochuill]

Scotland had been enjoying a glorious summer, and I'd planned to do a big off road tour down Glen Lyon, but the weather for the coming week wasn't great, with a particularly foul weekend forecast, so the comfort of the By The Way campsite massively outweighed any thoughts of wild camping – I even had WiFi in my tent. I decided to have a couple more days of climbing the few Munros I had left in the Crianlarich area – starting with Ben More, which had a couple of rock steps I had to climb over on my way up. Great fun with the wind buffeting me around! Ben Dorain was another hill on my list – again, the weather didn't allow for much of a view from the summit, which was a pity as it has a commanding position over the A82 and railway line to Fort William. I've passed it on my way north countless times, and so it is great to be able to look at it having been on the summit.

[Bike tucked away in the trees...]

[Climbing Ben More]

[Summit of Ben More – 1174m]

[Sheep near the summit of Ben Dorain]

[Looking down on the A82 and West Highland Way from the summit of Ben Dorain]

By this point I'd run out of enthusiasm for getting soaked and eaten by midges, and decided to make the most of the last day of good weather and ride down to see my relatives Ken and Shena in Stirling, with a lot of the 80km-or-so on the old Callander to Oban railway line which is now a fantastic mountain bike route. It was great fun – mostly coasting gently downhill, but with some steeper single track sections to liven up the ride.

[The old Callander – Oban railway track]

[Overlooking the Falls of Leny]

I spent a few days with Ken, Shena, Carrick and Jodie. We climbed Ben Vorlich and Stùc a' Chroin on the last day before I headed back to London. These can be seen from their kitchen window, so Jodie and Taiga (the family labrador) joined me for the day. Jodie is a ferociously good tennis player and pretty much raced me up both summits. It was the perfect day for her first Munros – the weather held out and we could just about work out where her house was to the south-east, and the traverse between the two summits was steep enough to get a sense of how big the hills really are. I didn't want to spoil things by pointing out that on the basis of the past week this was a bit of an anomaly!

[Taiga spoiled the party by not wearing a headband]

[On the steep eastern side of Stùc a' Chroin]

[Taiga and Jodie on the summit of Stùc a' Chroin]

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Bluebell Railway with Rich

This is a slight interlude to the normal run of my adventures, but I want to write up some of the days out I've had with my cousin Richard, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. We had a lovely day out on the Bluebell Railway today, which has fantastic facilities for disabled visitors – not bad, considering it was built in the middle of the 19th Century! Rich tends to do a bit of research about accessibility when he travels, and hopefully this page will be of use to other wheelchair users visiting the railway.

The drive from Balham took about an hour and a quarter. We arrived at East Grinstead, where there is free all-day parking for disabled visitors: lots of space around the van to make sure people don't impede Rich's ramps. Just make sure you have the parking coupon (issued by the ticket office when you buy your tickets) visible on your dashboard.

The trains run by the Bluebell have amazing disabled access. Back in the day Rich used to travel in the cold, unheated parcel cage when he went between London and Tunbridge Wells – a pretty miserable experience. The disabled access carriage is light years away from that, as you can see. Great for the three of us travelling together, and it matched the other period carriages perfectly.

The line runs through the heart of Sussex for 11 miles, and takes about 45 minutes from end to end. The countryside is beautiful – I grew up in the High Weald and find the landscape stonkingly pretty, regardless of the time of year. The staff were incredibly helpful (and friendly) and were happy for us to get on and off along the line. We stopped off at Horsted Keynes where the station has a bar: a couple of hours of drinking Harvey's in the sun seemed like a very good idea.

The stations are rather beautiful with lots to look at – and they are all fully accessible for wheelchair users. Sheffield Park has the best disabled lavatory facilities – at East Grinstead we popped into the Sainsbury's opposite the station. Apparently there are plans to build a disabled-access lavatory at East Grinstead station this winter once the summer tourist traffic has quietened down – this is the railway's newest station (it opened in Spring 2013) and improvements are ongoing.

The workshops and sheds at Horsted Keynes and Sheffield Park are also accessible, and the fitters and restorers were happy to talk to us and explain their work, which is pretty impressive when you realise that some of the locomotives are over a century old! We were also allowed to have a look at a shed at the back of the yard where volunteers are building a brand new steam locomotive. Their enthusiasm and love for their work really came across.

Well done to the Bluebell Railway – for something run substantially by volunteers they've made the experience incredibly wheelchair-friendly.

Click here for the Bluebell Railway's accessibility statement.

Finally –  I'll tag future posts on accessibility as wheelchair adventures.