Molesworth - A road trip on the trail of ancestors
By: Christopher Cookson
Last Modified: 19-4-2021 15:51
There’s something about Molesworth that keeps drawing me back to New Zealand’s largest farm, and recreation reserve. I read in my great-grandfather Sir Ernest Andrews’ memoirs ‘Eventful Years’, how his father travelled through Rainbow and Molesworth from Nelson to Canterbury in the 1850s, and the place always fascinates me with its barren wilderness landscapes and remoteness.
It’s a sunny early Easter Sunday morning I pack the car with picnic essentials, extra clothes, and lots of camera gear and round up the family for the long drive up the Awatere Valley to Molesworth. I’m feeling a little guilty as I usually go to church on Sunday, and Easter Sunday is about the most important event on the Christian calendar, but I remember Jesus’ words that “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”, and after weeks of battling respiratory infections, overcast skies, or general lethargy, I feel the need for some fresh air, and there’s nothing like a good road trip for some family bonding time if we do it right. It’s taken a bit to convince my wife Rosimeire to go, as I think she finds the distance from civilisation somewhat daunting, although we have made the trip three times before, each time in a different vehicle, but our previous trips have all felt rushed, and in a place the size of Stewart Island, it pays to take your time to really appreciate it. To keep my nine year old daughter Anna occupied, I’ve made sure the tablet is fully charged and loaded it up with offline topographical maps, and told her that she’s our navigator and has to tell us where we are and let us know how far and how long till we reach Molesworth. That seems to keep her happy.
According to DOC, it’s 122 kilometres from Blenheim to Molesworth Cob Cottage, but we decide to take the ‘scenic’ route over Taylor Pass which is a shorter route to the Awatere Valley from the south end of Blenheim, but with the drawback that most of the road is unsealed, and there are some tight hairpin bends along the road. I like the Taylor Pass route, as not only is the distance shorter, but it gets you out of Blenheim and into wilderness more quickly. Only five minutes from town, and the steep golden hills with rock outcrops, patches of tussock and roadside bracken could almost pass for some Scottish landscape if it weren’t for the patches of mānuka scrub that mark it as unmistakably New Zealand. A Scots family, the McCraes did indeed explore and give Pākehā names to a good part of this landscape.
We reach the pass and drop down steeply into the Awatere Valley, with Tapuae-o-Uenuku and vineyards coming into sight. We pass the small Lake Jasper, and then we’re back on the sealed road again for a while at least, until we pass the confluence of the Medway River, where the seal ends again for several kilometres. This patchwork of sealed and unsealed road means attention is necessary on the road, although there’s plenty of distracting scenery. As well as the end of the seal, the Medway confluence also marks the farthest reach of vineyards up the valley, and the landscape quickly changes from rows of carefully cultivated green that give the landscape an appearance like knitted fabric, to something wilder that would not be out of place in the Lord of the Rings or some other fantasy epic. Speaking of epics, we pass a few cyclists along the way heading in the same direction as us who must be either brave or crazy, and at least incredibly fit. Cycling is a great way to take in this landscape at a slower pace if you can cope with probably ten hours of riding or more in a day and sleeping out in a tent at the end of it.
After the Medway, we gradually climb up and away from the river with the road winding through mostly barren looking hill country with no fences, and the occasional patch of mānuka scrub or other vegetation, particularly in gullies with small streams. From our high vantage point, we have a great view to the Blue Mountain and Inland Kaikōura ranges to the south. Today the sky is blue and the day is warm, but I’ve been here in winter when the whole landscape has been bleached white under a blanket of snow.
We drop down to the river again at Jordan, and cross over to the south bank. From here, the river passes through a narrow, rocky gorge, and the road clings to the hillside below steep bluffs above and the river far below on the other. The occasional rocks on the road, and no stopping signs provide good reason to want to get past this part of the road, although the views are spectacular, with steep, dry hillsides with the occasional cabbage tree and matagouri scrub to the south, with rock daisies clinging to crevices in the rocks, and patches of native bush in gullies on the north bank of the river. On an unexpectedly flat section of road near the confluence of the Penk River with the Awatere, we encounter a section of sealed road and a small collection of homes that is close as we’ll get to anything resembling a settlement in over a hundred kilometres, although we do pass a number of isolated farms.
Ponies at Upcot
At the Hodder River, we make an almost mandatory stop at the historic Hodder Suspension Bridge, where there’s the only public toilet between Blenheim and Molesworth. Shortly after our break at the Hodder Bridge, we cross the Limestone Bridge over the Awatere, and gradually begin climbing away from the Awatere River towards Upcot Saddle, although my horse mad daughter spots some ponies as we drive past Upcot Station, with requires a mandatory stop. It turns out the ponies are very friendly, so we end up spending a few minutes petting them before we carry on. Although we’ve left the Awatere for a while, the road follows and crosses several streams until it reaches Upcot Saddle at just over 800 metres altitude. We drop down the other side of the saddle and follow Lee Brook for a while before a steep descent to the Castle River.
Queen of the Castle
As we cross the Castle River Bridge, Anna spots a couple of large piles of gravel for road maintenance, and she decides she wants to do some ‘mountain climbing’, which involves scrambling to the top of each pile in turn several times, then sliding down along with dislodged gravel.
Getting up close and personal with the Awatere
We follow the Castle River to its confluence with the Awatere which we rejoin for a couple of kilometres before the road climbs away again. We stop near Middlehurst where an impressive rock outcrop catches my eye, and Anna goes paddling in the chilly autumn waters of the Awatere, by now a fairly small river, although still with its characteristic cloudy water, due to the silt it carries from mudstone formed from ocean sediment that’s been raised up as a result of ongoing geological activity that gives this area its rugged characteristics.
From Middlehurst, the road leaves the river again for several kilometres and passes through some particularly dry, rocky country, where even the willows seem like they struggle to survive, although increasingly we see sweet briar which has invasively colonised the landscape where not much else will grow. As we drive through this arid landscape, near Muller Station, we spot movement against the jagged backdrop of the Inland Kaikōura Range. A mob of sheep is moving in a valley, followed by a team of dogs. As we watch, a lone horseman rides up onto a spur to oversea the stock movement, and with the sheep headed in the right direction, his dogs quickly regroup behind the rider. We stop and watch a while as my daughter is fascinated. She’s long heard stories about cowboys and people mustering on horses, but she’s only ever seen horses at A and P shows or riding schools before, along with plenty in movies, so watching a horse and rider as a working team in real life is a new experience for her.
After the horseman and his flock disappear behind a fold in the landscape, we continue on to Molesworth, which is only a short drive further on, only to arrive just as a bunch of riders are rounding up cattle on horseback around the Molesworth campsite. In a highly connected and technology driven world, I find it confronting in the Twenty First Century to be in a place with no mobile coverage, where people are still working the land in a similar way to how it’s been done for over 150 years. With the stock out of the way, we arrive at the camp ground and picnic area around the historic 1866 cob cottage just after midday in time for lunch. There are a handful of people as we arrive including some motor cyclists, and a camper van or two. We soon have the picnic table to ourselves in the shelter of the golden autumn coloured poplars that colonists had planted around the cob cottage to provide some shelter in the otherwise treeless landscape.
A Picnic Lunch
We get out our portable gas cooker, a can of beans, and some corn chips, and soon have some hot nachos ready for lunch, and along with some hot cross buns and a thermos of hot water to make coffee, we sit down to a tasty lunch. By my estimate we’ve been on the road for about three and a half hours by the time we reached Molesworth, with probably around forty minutes of stops along the way. After lunch, with plenty of daylight still, and blue skies with only a little high cloud, I estimate that we have about another two hours that we can explore before we’ll need to turn back for home. The Molesworth camp ground is the limit of year round public road access from Blenheim, weather and earthquakes permitting, while beyond this point road access is at the discretion of DOC who normally open the road between Labour Weekend and Easter unless fire risk or heavy rainfall make public access too risky.
From the camp ground, it’s a bit under ten kilometres before we leave the Awatere catchment completely, climbing up over Wards Pass and dropping down into the Acheron Valley. The road climbs with plenty of twists and turns to over 1100 metres at Wards Pass, and just before we reach the pass on a tight hairpin bend, we see vehicles parked under some willows and a DOC sign indicating a walk to 1518 metre high Mount Chisholm which offers views over both the upper Awatere and Acheron valleys. We haven’t planned on a tramp today, so continue on the road, and descend to a long flat valley running south west known as Isolated Flat. The name is certainly most appropriate as the area is flat and very isolated. We’ve come a bit late in the season for the native gentian flowers that grow in this otherwise apparently barren landscape, although we can still see their dry stems all along the roadside. The only break in the otherwise stark landscape is a rather incongruous rectangular block of tall conifers planted in a small area in the middle of the flat, along with scattered willows alongside the Acheron River, but otherwise this is a very inhospitable landscape with both the valley and the surrounding mountains completely devoid of shelter. It’s not the sort of place you’d want to get stranded either in the heat of summer or the cold of winter, but there is a beauty about the barrenness.
In the footsteps of ancestors
At the south western end of Isolated Flat, the road climbs up to Isolated Saddle where a walking track climbs Mount Augarde, named after a muderer, Ivanhoe Augarde, who committed suicide in the area shortly after his act of murder in 1868. Looking south from Isolated Saddle, we can see the Severn Valley, with cattle grazing around the river flats, and I decide that this will be the limit of our road trip today. I can just make out a cutting on the far side of the river nestling under the hills that mark the boundary of the valley. This is a four wheel drive route that follows an old stock route up the Severn River then along its tributary, the Alma River through to Tarndale and then through to the upper Wairau. Based on my great grandfather’s memoirs, this seems likely to be the route my great great grandfather took several times between Nelson and Canterbury in the 1850s. We drive down to the Severn River and cross over the bridge and stop near some willows. The river is flowing deep and clear under the bridge, as I contemplate the river where my great-great grandfather passed. Anna thinks I’m a bit crazy wanting to drive off into the middle of this wilderness, but as I get back into the car and tell her how her great-great-great grandfather rode this way on horseback, she brightens up as I suggest that maybe one day when she learns to ride, she might like to follow the trail of her ancestors.
As we retrace our route lengthening shadows fall over the Awatere Valley as the sun sinks behind the mountains. As the Māori whakataukī says, “Whatungarongaro te tangata, toitū te whenua”, (“as people disappear from sight, the land remains”).
Cite this page
Cookson, C. (2021). Molesworth - A road trip on the trail of ancestors. Retrieved June, 19, 2021, from https://www.marlboroughonline.co.nz/marlborough/information/commentary/molesworth-a-road-trip-on-the-trail-of-ancestors/
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