Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Cycling NZ - Molesworth Station (Blenheim to Hanmer Springs via Awatere-Acheron road)

If you're up for a real cycling challenge, try riding through the Molesworth station. There are 200 kilometres of gravel road connecting Blenheim and Hanmer Springs, with beautiful scenery, really tough climbs, heaps rivers ideal for swimming and fishing, and long hours of quiet solitude in the middle of nature. Here's a map with the key points' description.

Molesworth is New Zealand's biggest farm (181 000 acres), it's operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and it's only open to the public during summer (late December till early April, check here for details). It runs through some impressive scenery and it makes for a bloody challenging ride. If you haven't got enough at the end, you can cycle back via the Rainbow Road.

Fit or crazy enough cyclists could beat the 200 km ride in two days, but those who prefer to relax should break it into at least three or four. Keep in mind that there's a 60 km section to be ridden in one day; there's a DOC campsite ($6) on each end and camping in between isn't allowed (not sure how strictly they keep track of who's entering and leaving the no-overnight zone).

View Larger Map

Don't worry about deep gravel. In January 2012, when I've ridden it, the gravel was almost completely gone and most of the road was just fine dirt. I did it on slick tyres, with 25 kg of gear, and it only bothered me on some of the steepest climbs. It does get dusty with passing cars, but I haven't seen more than two or three dozens in four days.

Track summary:
1) Blenheim to Awatere Road w/ Taylors Pass Road intersection - 25 km
2) Awatere Road to Cob Cottage campsite (Molesworth north entrance) - 92 km
3) Molesworth station gate to gate (Cob Cottage to Acheron Hut campsite) - 60 km
4) Acheron Hut to Hanmer Springs (via Jollies pass) - 25 km
Total distance: 202 km
Time required: 2 days for a race, 3-4 days for a relaxing pace

Tip: Don't encumber yourself with too much water.
There are plenty of streams and rivers to drink from (just check there's no cattle upstream).
Take plenty of sunscreen, though.

Click for more photos.
Section 1: Blenheim to Awatere Road (near Seddon) - 25 km
There are three ways to get there: a) the highway, 30 km; b) via Redwood Pass Road close to the coast, 37 km; or c) via Taylors Pass Road, 25 km.

Unless you want to die, DON'T take the highway! State Highway 1 (SH1) is one of the most dangerous roads in NZ, particularly in this section, where it's very steep and winding, full of tight turns with poor visibility around corners and virtually no shoulder. Hundreds of cars and trucks drive through there every day (especially from the Picton ferry), edging the turns and leaving no room. Although some websites and tourist guides advise to use this road, in my opinion it's pure insanity and a completely unnecessary risk.

Redwood Pass Road is less steep, but way longer than Taylor, which is the shortest way and in my opinion the best option. Simply leave the town centre via Maxwell Road, which changes to Taylors Pass Road after the hospital, and keep going straight. It's not nearly as steep as the highway, you'll hardly meet any cars, it's shorter and although it's not tar sealed, there isn't any deep gravel to worry about. Besides, if you're planning to tackle the Molesworth anyway...

Section 2: Awatere Road to Cob Cottage campsite (Molesworth's north entrance) - 92 km
In a nutshell, a god damn hard ride. It starts at 100 metres above sea level and ends at 900. The road teems with steep climbs, rolling hills and descends so windy and slippery that you'll burn the breaks rather than developing any serious speed. The hardest nut to crack is Upcot Saddle, with a 200m elevation to beat on a very steep gradient and slippery dirt/gravel that'll make cycling a nightmare. I wasn't ashamed of getting off the bike and pushing it.

The farm itself is off-limits, but who wants to see another farm?
Although the whole bit from Blenheim to the Cob Cottage can be beaten in one day, it would be a very long and exhausting one. Luckily, there are plenty of spots for free camping to break the day. I could barely stand after 80km (and it was getting dark), so I tented just before Upcot Saddle and rode the remaining 40km the following morning. That said, I was so knackered even after such a short distance that I stayed at the campsite and enjoyed a nice relaxing day (at 900m above sea level, hardly any sandflies). That appeared to be a very wise decision, which allowed me to enjoy the following day's ride through Molesworth without stress.

Section 3 and 4: through Molesworth station (to Acheron Hut campsite) and to Hanmer (60 + 25 km)
The road is open from late December to early April, 7am to 7pm, camping on the station is not allowed. Check exact opening dates and other details on the DOC website.

The day starts with a nice climb up to Wards Pass (1150m), the trip's highest point. It's the second toughest climb and after Upcot Saddle I didn't bother even trying to ride. Pushing the bike took just half an hour.

It's damn hot at Wards Pass, 1150m above sea level.
Once at the top, things get a lot easier. Wards Pass is the turning point in this whole adventure - the road to Hanmer gets bumpier, but also flatter, with a slight descending trend and only a few climbs worth noticing, none of which as tough as the ones already beaten. Unfortunately, it also gets a lot windier, with a westerly breeze coming towards you, of course.
Even the landscape changes; mountains become sharper, more scenic, the Awatere and Clarence rivers reveal beautiful rapids, there are plenty of spots for fishing and refreshing in the dark blue water. Worth mentioning is the Guide River: at one point there are two currents flowing in opposite directions, which is quite impressive. The shallow but warm current is ideal for soaking your feet after all the pedalling.

And it gets even hotter down by the river.
The no-camping section ends at Acheron Hut campsite, 700m above sea. If you've had enough cycling, this is the place to stop for the day, have a swim in the Clarence river and relax while being eaten by sandflies (they're a lot busier at this elevation). However, if you prefer to push on, the remaining 25 km to Hanmer are very easy, the ride only takes about one hour and a half and there are several free camping spots along the way. Don't worry about Jollies pass, it's a sweetie coming from this direction. Just make sure you double-check your breaks before going down. It's a very steep (and very fun) 400m descent on a rough, rocky and worn-down dirt road, a sweet reward after the excruciating two hundred kilometres you've just beaten. Congratulations!

Alternative: riding from Hanmer to Blenheim
I can't really say which ride is tougher, but I'd be inclined to say that although they're both very demanding, each one in its own way, the Blenheim-bound one may be slightly easier.

Its obvious advantage would be to start in Hanmer, at 400 m above sea level, instead of Blenheim's 100 metres. However, there would be the much steeper side of Jollies pass to begin with, followed by approximately 50 kilometres of slightly uphill road to Wards pass, again a lot steeper coming from this direction. The rest should be easier, though. There would still be many challenging climbs and rolling hills, but going from 900 metres above sea level to 100 is undoubtedly easier than the other way around. Plus, you might get the odd westerly tailwind, instead of fighting a headwind.

Bonus: Acheron Hut to Hanmer Springs to Christchurch - 170 km
My trip was far from over when I had finally reached the town and enjoyed a rum and raisins ice cream in the shade of a big pine tree. I was going to Christchurch and had a pretty good motivation to get there in one day. And I did it, I cycled 170 kilometres in twelve hours! But that's for another post, this one's already too long. Enjoy your Molesworth ride.

Personal ride details
Date ridden: 3-6 January 2012
Total distance: 340 km
Start/Finish: Blenheim / Christchurch
Weather: sunny, hot


  1. Kua, to jsou panorámata... :-)


    1. tahle jizda me co se tyce panoramat zrovna nenadchla, ale pekny to tam bylo, to zase jo :)

  2. Impressive, I'd love to go back to NZ and do such a trip on my bike.


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