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!