Published: January 23rd 2011January 21st 2011
Tuesday 18th – Friday 21st January 2011
After a pretty smooth and uneventful Cook Strait crossing – the best kind! - we arrived in Picton at about 9.30pm, better than the midnight we were due in had we caught the sailing we'd booked. (A note for those with small children booking the Interislander, try and get on the Awatere, it has a small nursery with bassinets, clean sheets and some reasonably comfortable chairs for feeding.) We headed round the coast a little way to a lovely DOC site at Whatamango. At least, it was lovely when we got up in the morning and could see it in daylight! Unfortunately the weather decided to turn nasty on us (cyclones can do that!) and we didn't fancy sitting there in the rain all day. We wandered back into Picton, restocked the water supplies and drove towards Blenheim. We planned to spend the night at another DOC camp on the coast, same rain, different view! We passed the Rarangi Beach camp and headed up and over (and up and down and round and round) to Robin Hood Bay, where there was another DOC camp (we plan to stay at these as much as
possible as they are cheap, or free, and in some of the best locations). We hunkered down that night watching the rain come in waves over the hills, but woke to clear blue skies and a baking sun the following morning.
We somehow managed to miss all the wineries in and around Blenheim, but we'll go back! We have some favourites to visit, and some new ones to try. We did however find a camp ground with cheap laundry facilities. They did have pay showers unfortunately, but we had a good soak / swim in the pool first. Samara had her first taste of cold water in the little paddling pool, and wasn't overly impressed!! She looked a proper little kiwi in her togs though.
After feeding the tame eels and ducks the next morning, we left the vineyards and headed for the hills. There is a road from just outside Blenheim that goes through the high country Molesworth Station and comes out at Hanmer Springs. Its just over 200km long, much of it unsealed. The main track through the station is only open for three months over summer, though the road can be closed at any time
for weather, slips or stock movement.
Molesworth is the biggest farm in NZ. It is owned by the government, administered by DOC and farmed under lease by Landcorp Farming, with the idea that conservation, farming and recreation go hand in hand. When the government took over in 1938, the land was suffering from loss of vegetation and severe erosion caused by the overgrazing of sheep (95,000 of them at one point) and rabbits (a bane to farmers all over NZ) and by repeated burning of tussocklands. With careful management techniques including rabbit control, revegetation and swapping sheep for cattle, the land has been gradually restored to good health. To help this, the public are only allowed access to certain areas at certain times of the year and have to remain on the road.
Some Molesworth facts (courtesy of the DOC guide):
Molesworth is NZ's largest farm at 180,787 hectares and supports the country's biggest herd of beef cattle, numbering up to 10,000 over winter.
The property ranges in altitude from 549m to over 2100m.
Ground frosts occur at the Molesworth homestead roughly 2 days in 3.
At 900m, Molesworth is the highest occupied (year round) homestead in
NZ. Tarndale, at 1000m, is occupied by stockmen but not during winter.
The 1347m Island Saddle is the highest point on a publicly accessed road in NZ (but its not on the road we drove!)
Over 60 endemic plant species are found in South Marlborough with almost half these growing on Molesworth.
The whole road isn't on the Molesworth station. The first 100km up the Awatere River Valley is on public roads and passes through vineyards and the Muller Station. The road follows the river, getting higher and higher, with the landscape turning from grapes to grassy slopes and scree covered hillsides. The scenery was amazing, steep hills, milky grey river, the odd bird, rabbit, cow or sheep, not that many other vehicles but enough that we had to keep our eyes open as the road was narrow in places.
We stopped for lunch at Hodder Bridge, and noticed how much colder it was getting. The day before we were in shorts, now we needed trousers and jumpers. The road carried on winding up and round the hills, leaving the main river for stretches, the sky still looking bleak, cold and unforgiving. Not far in Molesworth station was
the first DOC camp (there is one at either end of the station road), by an old cob cottage. This was the original homestead built by a guy called John Murphy at 1866. Its a small two roomed, thick walled cottage, and was very cosy inside! The current Molesworth homestead is just round the corner from the cob cottage, and was built in 1885. We camped between the cottage and some trees, nicely sheltered from the cold wind. We got talking to an English couple who were biking round the South Island on a tandem, they had travelled from the Hodder Bridge that day. Like us, they found the corrugated road hard going, but at least our seats were more comfortable. Poor Samara finds it hard to sleep with all the vibrations, she can only doze and wakes up each time we stop to take a photo, leaving us with a tired baby at the end of the day.
After a night bundled up in more than we've had to wear for a while (but nice and snug!) we slowly drove the 59km of road through the station and the 26km of road down to Hanmer Springs. The road
only got worse the further we drove! Through Molesworth it was ok, just up and down with hills and corrugations, but the last part down to Hanmer was rough.
From the cob cottage, we crossed some flats before climbing Wards Pass, the highest on this route (1145m). Down the other side, the road passes briefly through the neighbouring Muller Station before crossing the 250 hectare Isolated Flat. It certainly was isolated, a big expanse of pasture (“outwash plain”) with a wide rocky riverbed. At the end we climbed over Isolated Saddle (great views) and on to more windy, hilly driving. The cloud cover was getting lower (at Wards Pass we were almost in the clouds, as we looked back it was lost in the mist) so we didn't dawdle, we were also looking forward to a hot soak at the end.
At the other end of the Acheron Road through Molesworth, at the confluence of the Acheron and Clarence rivers, was the other DOC camp at historic Acheron Accommodation House. Built in 1862 it was an overnight stop for travellers and stockmen travelling the inland route until 1932. It cost 2 shillings and sixpence for a bed, meal
on the way to Molesworth Station
and stabling, horse feed was extra. It had a tussock-thatched roof with beech rafters tied with flax along with cob walls. Its now got a corrugated iron roof, though the thatch is still visible underneath.
As soon as we turned onto the road to Hanmer, over Jacks Pass, the weather and road condition went downhill. The road also went downhill, but only after going uphill first. We drove through the clouds for a while, and the road got wetter, muddier and potholier (not a real word, but you know what we mean!) Finally we came round the last bend and there was Hanmer Springs on the valley floor in front of us. It was with mixed feelings that we drove into town, pleased to be on tar sealed roads again, but also already missing the quiet splendour of the drive through the high country.
It was an amazing drive, one we would recommend. Make sure you take enough petrol for 200km of slow, rough driving (we used about twice what a similar distance on sealed, slightly flatter and straighter roads would have used) and take your time, camp up overnight at one of the old cob buildings. We
got passed by plenty of faster cars and 4WDs, but you need to go slowly to appreciate the scenery. Maybe pick better weather, it would be really impressive in the sun!
We treated ourselves to a couple of hours soaking in various hot pools at the Hanmer Thermal Resort. We kept to the 35-36ºC pools as we had Samara in with us, but I managed a quick soak in some hotter ones when Colin got her dried and dressed. It was so relaxing after two days of juddery driving. Despite being tired, Samara seemed to love her long bath, and fell asleep soon after getting dressed at the end. I'm not sure which way is the best to drive the Molesworth Road, ending up in Hanmer for a soak or in Blenheim for some wine tasting. Maybe having a soak then settling down with a nice glass of something? For those Geordies on their tandem, I bet they are loving Hanmer Springs!
There are more photos below