Christchurch to Blenheim on the Molesworth Road: A Bike Touring Route
If you really want to get ‘out there’ in New Zealand, cycling the Molesworth Road is the ride for you.
It’s stunningly beautiful and isolated.
The Molesworth Road passes through the country’s largest working farm. It’s a dirt road that few people ever get to experience but it’s glorious in every way – from the richly coloured mountains to the history of the pioneers who first trekked this route, seeking out a path between Canterbury and Nelson.
We’ll be honest: it’s not easy cycling, especially with a loaded touring bike, but at the end of 4 days on rough roads we felt it was well worth the effort and certainly far better than taking the busy Highway 1 that runs along the east coast.
The road is actually managed by the Department of Conservation and only opens between December 28 and April 1. Outside of these times you can apply for a special access permit by contacting Canterbury DOC (03 572 9100). It’s good to call them before you go anyway, to make sure the road hasn’t been closed due to bad weather or fire risk.
Duration: 5-6 days
Terrain: Moderately challenging to strenuous. Distances appear short but on the rough Molesworth Road they’re often a good day’s work!
Accommodation: You’ll need a tent for this one but you can get a bed for the night in Hanmer Springs and Seddon.
Highlights: The lonely but beautiful Molesworth Road and the hot springs in Hanmer.
Lowlights: Busy roads between Christchurch and Hanmer.
Be sure to bring: Food for at least 3 days for the Molesworth Road and lots of fuel for cooking. If there’s bad weather you need to be prepared to wait it out. There are no services between Hanmer and Seddon. A water filter might also be handy, although we drank the water straight from rivers and taps and had no problems.
Section 1 – Christchurch to Hurunui (95km)
Shops: Rangiora, Amberley, Waikari
Accommodation:Amberley (caravan park), Waipara (camping, backpackers, motel), Waikari (B&Bs, motels, camping), Hurunui (B&B, camping NZ$10/pp)
Check the weather forecast before you set out and beware if they’re predicting some of the famous north-westerly winds that roll through the area. The afternoons could bring particularly fierce headwinds.
We started from Kaiapoi, a suburb just north of Christchurch, but the route is largely the same from the city. In both cases, take Route 72 (signed as the Inland Scenic Route) that runs via Rangiora and Balcairn before ending at Amberley. This has far less traffic than the main Highway 1 (which also turns into a motorway for part of the journey and is barred to cyclists).
Rangiora is the first major town after Christchurch and has a lively main shopping street. It’s a good place to pick up supplies before you turn inland towards Hanmer Springs.
Once you reach Amberley, the scenic route ends and you must take Highway 1 for about 10km to the Highway 7 turnoff. There’s a shoulder most of the way but take care in the heavy traffic. For a break, stop at Mudhouse Winery, a popular vineyard on the main road with wine tasting and a cafe.
The cars still fly by on Highway 7 so again, be careful and keep your wits about you. A mirror is worth its weight in gold.
You’re heading towards the mountains now so the road climbs, steadily but gently, and it’s 14km to Waikari, where you’ll find accommodation and an organic fruit and veg shop. The road ascends a little further as you cover the last 14km to Hurunui, with its characterful old pub, serving up wine from the vineyards around the property and Monteiths Beer, a fine West Coast brew.
Get a bed for the night or try out the brand new camping area (it gets a bit of traffic noise). Grab a meal in the pub and chat with the farmers, who pack the place out for a drink and a laugh most nights.
If you’re on a budget, carry on 2km further to the Balmoral Reserve, a basic tenting area.
Section 2 – Hurunui to Acheron Cottage (on the Molesworth Road) (78km)
Shops: Culverden, Hanmer Springs
Accommodation:Culverden (motels, B&Bs), Hanmer Springs (all types), Acheron Cottage (DOC camping, NZ$6/pp)
This is a relatively tough day and you may want to break it with a night in Hanmer Springs, home to the famous hot pools and all the trimmings you’d expect in a spa town: nice restaurants, souvenir shops and plenty of mini-golf. If you’re more into wilderness than wine and fine dining, push straight on through to the joys of the rugged Molesworth Road.
In any case, start by continuing from Hurunui to Culverden (there’s a good bakery here) along the mostly flat land that leads towards Hanmer. You are gently climbing all the way but most of the grades aren’t sharp enough to be noticeable.
The exit for Hanmer is clearly marked and takes you across the Waiau Ferry Bridge. It opened in 1887 and was a major engineering achievement for the time. You’ll pass one caravan park about 7km outside of town but there are several more in Hanmer itself. The tourist bureau in the town centre can tell you all about your accommodation options, update you on the weather and verify that the Moleworth Road is open.
When you’re ready to push on from Hanmer, take Jacks Pass Road past the golf course and then Clarence Valley Road on your right. This is the road that will take you up to Jacks Pass and the Molesworth Road (not Jacks Pass Road itself, as you might logically think).
The climb to Jacks Pass is a tough 5km, especially on a loaded bike. It’s steep with plenty of loose gravel. Expect to push through the toughest sections. Don’t get discouraged. Even at a snail’s pace it shouldn’t take you much more than an hour and things improve hugely on the other side.
The downhill run to Acheron Cottage is simply stunning and the road is in decent shape for the most part. There are some rutted, bumpy sections but it’s usually possible to work around the roughest bits and there are far fewer loose stones compared to coming up the pass.
The former lodging house that is Acheron Cottage is a welcome sight at the end of the day, with an interesting explanation of the area’s history inside and a friendly ranger next door who will collect your camp fees. Unfortunately, 25 cents will no longer buy you freshly baked bread, a bed, dinner and a stable for horses as it did in the 1860s!
Section 3 – Acheron Cottage to Cob Cottage (59km)
Accommodation:Cob Cottage (DOC camping, NZ$6/pp)
This remote and lonely expanse of land is the highlight of the Molesworth Road. Start early so you have plenty of time to admire the scenery and still reach Cob Cottage by sunset. You aren’t allowed to camp anywhere else in the Molesworth Station and the rangers do watch to make sure all cyclists make Cob cottage by dusk. They’ll come looking if you don’t appear at Cob Cottage and give you a lift if necessary.
The road is quite rough in certain stretches and there are a few good climbs so don’t count on covering more than 10km/hour on a loaded bike. Pack plenty of snacks and water. The only other people you’re likely to see are motorists passing through and, if you’re lucky, a cowboy herding stock.
The day starts with a climb straight out of Acheron before you descend towards the river. It’s a pattern you’ll repeat for the rest of the day, rolling over the hills and crossing the water. There’s very little shade between the rivers so take advantages of the tree-lined river banks.
Isolated Saddle and Wards Pass are the two big challenges to test your legs and both of them come near the end of the ride. Wards Pass is particularly steep but it’s less than 2km long so even pushing up won’t take you too long and then it’s mostly downhill to Cob Cottage, where you’ll find a friendly ranger, water and a pit toilet.
Section 4 – Cob Cottage to Camden (52km)
You lose about 400 meters of altitude today but it’s a tough ride nonetheless, with plenty of rolling hills (including a few steep climbs) and continued rough patches on the gravel road. Only the fittest and most lightly-loaded cyclists should count on making it very far past Camden.
Carry at least two full bottles of water and restock at the streams as necessary. Aside from a few farms raising merino sheep and more spectacular scenery, there’s nothing out here.
You will find a small picnic area at Heddon Bridge but it consists only of a pit toilet, with some water from plastic jugs for handwashing, and a marvellous view down into the gorge. A little further down the road is Camden, which once hosted a backpackers but unfortunately it’s now closed, although if you’re in a pinch the locals will undoubtedly find a place for you to stay the night. The ‘homesteaders’ as they’re known out here are very friendly.
Assuming it’s fine weather, however, continue on just a short distance past Camden and watch on your left for a grassy track doing a 180 degree turn off the road and down to an unfenced flat area next to a stream and mostly hidden from the road. This is a beautiful place to pitch your tent. The day we stopped here the birds were warbling all kinds of tunes through the air. Simply magical. If you reach the bridge over the Isis River you’ve gone about 200 meters too far.
Section 5 – Camden to Seddon (55km)
Accommodation: Duntroon High Country Farmstay (call ahead: 03 575 7374), Seddon (Awatere Motorcamp NZ$15/2 people, backpackers, B&Bs)
After so much rough riding, this is the day when you finally return to the oh-so-sweet smoothness of asphalt. Hurrah! The tarsealed road first appears in tantalising bits that will have you wondering if the dirt has completely disappeared but you’re not out of the dust and ruts for a good 20km. There are a few more hills left to conquer too.
A few farm houses appear in the settlement of Duntroon. There’s an unsigned B&B too but call ahead if you want to stay here. In autumn, look out for the pear and apricot trees by the side of the road in Duntroon – they make good eating!
Once you reach the true start of the paved road, the terrain slants mostly downhill, taking you out of the mountains and past a seemingly endless string of vineyards growing the Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have made this area famous in wine circles.
The Blairich Scenic Reserve (also known as Black Birch to locals) is 14km before Highway 1. It has a pit toilet and stream to draw water from. It’s not officially a camping site but cyclists have tented here before and no one seems to mind.
Soon afterwards a road veers left to Blenheim via Taylors Pass. At just 26km, this is shorter and far less busy than going to Blenheim on Highway 1. The road is unpaved to start with but sealed from the peak down to Blenheim.
Otherwise, carry on to Highway 1 and go right for Seddon, where you’ll find a well stocked supermarket, cafes, a tourist bureau (with internet access) and a motorcamp that’s cheap and basic but with the essentials – a kitchen and hot showers.