The Molesworth Road
507km Geraldine to Seddon
“Oh, I couldn’t do that,” is a common refrain from people when they consider bicycle touring. We always reply that this trip is 90% mental and just 10% physical. A small hill can seem like a mountain if you’re in a bad mood but with the right attitude, and a good supply of trail mix, you can scale peak after peak.
With this in mind, we made sure to put our ‘happy hats’ on as we breezed through the spa town of Hanmer Springs (stopping only to share a 1 litre tub of Hokey Pokey ice cream, the Kiwi favourite) and turned right for the Molesworth Road. In the 1800s, this was true pioneer territory as the explorers of the day searched the land, looking for rich grazing pastures and a shorter route between Christchurch and Nelson. Today it’s the country’s largest working farm and only open to the public for a few months each year.
As we turned right onto the dirt road, we wondered how much had really changed since those early days. We could imagine the men trekking their way up the same path as we pushed our bikes, carrying several days worth of food over the loose gravel, rutted surface and steep grades. Every car covered us in a fine layer of dust as it flew by on the way to Jacks Pass.
Just how much food were we carrying? That’s 1kg of porridge oats, 1kg of trail mix (our own blend of raw nuts, seeds, raisins and dried apricots), 500g of couscous, 500g of pasta, 300g of pepperoni, 1kg of cheese, 3 boxes of crackers, 2 tins of tuna, 4 onions, 4 tomatoes, 4 carrots, 2 avocados, 1 head of broccoli, 1 iceberg lettuce, 2 kumara, 1 lemon and 8 apples, plus our standard pantry items like spices, garlic, butter, tomato paste, honey, tea, coffee, powdered milk and an extra litre of gas in case we ran out over the 4 days before we’d see any shops again. With all this on board, please note that we did not carry any wine up the mountain – an act of great restraint on our part with all the wonderful New Zealand vintages to choose from!
It took over an hour to cover the 5km to the pass but our reward came on the other side, where we flew downhill on a much better road. We followed the river through the dry mountains to Acheron Cottage, an original lodging house but now a basic campsite for travellers. If we’d arrived in the 1860s, the smell of freshly baked bread would have welcomed us and 25 cents would have bought a bed for the night, dinner and a stable for our horses. The ovens had unfortunately long since stopped baking bread so we tucked into a more modern comfort, Thai curry over noodles.
Just as it was nearly dark, we noticed a few white tails off in the distance. Rabbits. We think they’re cute but farmers would probably side more with Porky Pig and his rifle. Those ‘wascaly wabbits’ were one of the reasons that many farmers went bankrupt trying to making a living off this land over the decades. The rabbits multiplied so quickly and ate so much of the best grass that there simply wasn’t enough left for the farm animals. The Department of Conservation now seem to have rabbit control figured out since today’s farm is profitable and thriving.
After our efforts of the day before, it was past 10am before we got going towards the next camping area at Cob Cottage. There’s just 59km between the two houses and we thought it would be a relatively easy day but we should have thought a little more.
Cob Cottage gets its name from the building material used to make it. Early homesteaders mixed together clay, water, gravel and tussock to make the cob – a sort of rustic concrete – because there were almost no trees to supply wood on the Molesworth Station. No trees means no shade and we felt every ray coming down from the relentlessly hot sun as we worked our way over the gravelly, bumpy road. What we really needed were the wide-brimmed hats worn by the cowboys we saw rounding up cattle and taking them to lower winter pastures.
By the time we reached Wards Pass, the last big hump on the way to Cob Cottage, we were shattered and then dismayed to get over the top with no sight of Cob Cottage. It was still a few kilometres further on and near dusk by the time we rolled through the gates that the rangers use to close the road between 7pm and 7am.
“I’d have come looking for you if you hadn’t showed up,” said Mike the ranger as he collected our camp fees. Out here in the middle of nowhere, it’s a reassuring thought to know someone is keeping an eye out for you. Happily we were suffering from nothing other than exhaustion and a vigorous appetite so while Andrew put up the tent, Friedel whipped up supper and soon we were tucked into our sleeping bags, snoozing in the calm and perfectly quiet Molesworth night.
The next day we hoped to reach the main highway – a full 90km away but surely the asphalt road would return soon enough? We were now off the Molesworth Station and back on public land but the bumpy dirt road and the hills continued and by late in the afternoon we were a meagre 50km along. A kind couple gave us two juicy peaches. We couldn’t have been happier, even if they’d handed us two gold nuggets!
We started to wonder where we’d spend the night after the backpackers we thought existed out here turned out to be closed and the steep embankments leading down to a deep gorge offered little potential for camping. But we’ve never failed to find a place for the night yet and just as we rounded a corner we spotted a little track leading down to a flat field next to a stream, with birds chirping away. We couldn’t have asked for anything more perfect.
It took another full day before we finally emerged from our Molesworth Road experience and made a dash straight for the nearest campground with a hot shower. There’s nothing like 3 days out in the wilds to make you appreciate the beauty of a simple pleasure.