After nearly three full days in Hanmer Springs waiting for better conditions, we give up and leave. A steady drizzle accompanies us for the six-kilometre-long climb out of town. Jan, Sven and I chose not to wear any rain gear as it is warm enough, and getting wet from rain is far more preferable than getting wet from being encased in goretex that doesn’t really breathe if you’re engaged in any kind of activity above a brisk walk.
It is a slow, grinding climb with ramps up to 16 per cent, but we get to the pass in an hour, gaining almost 500 metres in elevation. It’s a bit of a surprise when we get there as visibility is next to nothing and we had read that the climb was eight kilometres. But suddenly, the road flattens out. Even better, it stops raining as soon as we get to the pass. We are wet but warm and now put on our rain gear to prevent getting cold for the gentle downhill ride to Acheron Station.
The cloud cover slowly lifts, revealing the Clarence River Valley stretched before us in swaths of blooming, yellow Scotch broom mixed with different greens and browns. We stop often to take photographs and eat our lunch on the bank above the Clarence River.
Three hours after leaving Hanmer Springs, we arrive at Acheron Station and the Department of Conservation camp site. The old cob house there has been closed and fenced off since the 2010 earthquake but a small horse shed with stalls – one for each bike – and a table in the middle provided ample shelter for more threatening inclement weather.
We get the tents up and just then the downpour begins, but we are dry, warm and under a roof. A German couple, also cycling, soon joins us and we spend the rest of the afternoon chatting over tea and coffee while the rain lashes the tin roof. It pours for several hours but by evening the system has moved on and conditions are improving. We walk up the hill above camp to have a view of the valley before turning in for the night.
Conditions the next morning are a vast improvement over the previous day. No rain and it looks like the sky might even clear. We waited for the tents to dry over breakfast before packing them up and soon after, hit the road.
Molesworth Station is New Zealand’s largest farm, covering 1,800 square kilometres. It supports the country’s largest herd of cattle on leased crown land, as well as hosting a number of science research programs under the administration of the Department of Conservation.
The trail from Acheron Station turns north and follows the Acheron River upstream, gently climbing all the way. The road eventually turns west and climbs steeply up to Wards Pass, at 1,145 metres above sea level in the Rachel Range, crossing into the Awatere River Valley.
It’s a beautiful, scenic ride through the Kaikoura Ranges, and the weather cooperates most of the day until a squall catches us just before Wards Pass. As luck would have it, a large shed by the road side provides us with shelter from the downpour. We hang out there for nearly an hour before tackling the climb over Wards Pass.
The final climb is only 1.5 km but quite steep, and rain catches us again on the way up. But the 10 km descent to Molesworth Station is quick. By the time we arrive, the sun is shining again. We’re tired. It was a long day, steadily climbing almost 50 of the 60 km we rode, but we bask in the warm sun, enjoying coffee and cookies and each other’s company. It’s a real treat to cycle through the mountains without having to compete with cars for the road.
After dinner, we walk up the hill behind camp. The light is gorgeous, painting the grasses gold as dark, brooding clouds scud across the northern sky, dumping rain on distant mountains. It’s a great ending to another great day.
Fatigue catches up with us and we all retire to our tents before darkness envelops the valley. We need our rest as the road ahead will continue to challenge us. On paper, it’s a downhill ride, but on the road, more than 1,200 metres of climbing are mixed in with the descent. It’s a gorgeous day for it: warm and mostly blue sky. We get on the road early.
We climb and descend constantly, following the Awatere River in a northeasterly direction through the Kaikoura ranges. The Awatere flows along an active fault as part of the Marlborough Fault System. In October, 1848, a rupture in the eastern section of this fault caused a major earthquake. The risk of more earthquakes is deemed low, according to scientists, with tremors historically occurring approximately every 800 years.
We eventually leave grazing lands behind and ride into Marlborough wine country. Vineyards line both sides of the road as we come out of the high country. Gravel gives way to tarmac and we begin to look for a place to camp after cycling more than 80 km.
Wild camping has been difficult in New Zealand. Everything is fenced off. There is lots of “free camping” but only for “self-contained” vehicles, i.e. motorhomes with toilets. Tents are not allowed at these sites, even though there are often bathrooms on site. It’s one of the major disappointments of our journey here. We are forced to stay at camp sites, often costing $40 per night, same price as a motorhome. The most galling practise is charging per person instead of per tent. Most places are $20 for one in one tent and $40 for two in one tent. There is something seriously wrong with that, in our view.
This time, we find a free camp site at Blarich. It’s a small grassy area under a power line with a pit toilet but no water. We get water from a nearby creek and scrub the road dirt off our sweaty bodies. It’s a refreshing bath after a long, hot day on a dusty road.
The Molesworth, at just over 200 km from Hanmer Springs to Blenheim, is easily one of the nicest bike rides on the South Island. Remote, with little or no traffic for three days. I can count the number of vehicles we encountered on two hands. It was just what we had hoped for. Initially, we had planned to ride the Rainbow Track and part of the Molesworth but the Rainbow Track doesn’t open until December 26, and despite our email asking for access, we were denied permission.
We complete our ride the following day with a short, 35 km ride to Blenheim, near the coast, where we stay at another Top 10 Holiday Park for $40. We do laundry and plan the next part of our journey.