Riding high in the saddle
Autumn in the Molesworth. The wild daisies and echiums - in summer a riot of blue spires - are spent, leaving precious little for bees from remaining hives.
There's beauty yet in the briar roses, a few still flowering among glowing orange hips all the way from the top of the road at Jacks Pass, above Hanmer Springs, in the south, down into the Awatere Valley.
Noxious plants they may be, but they have their own beauty, and they're certainly more showy than any of the species endemic to this area. There are rowans in brilliant red berry too - the Scottish mountain ash planted by settlers - behind the Acheron hut, one of several cob staging posts still offering shelter from the storm.
The willows that line streams and watercourses, as we descend the Acheron Valley through Desert Rd- type country heading for the hut, are mustard coloured and still lush, in this high rainfall area.
And there's the rub. It's hosing down the day we bike through the magnificent Molesworth, open only between late December and Easter, around which our five-day Adventure South cycling tour of North Canterbury and southern Marlborough is structured.
The weather has been fine up until now and the next two days will turn out brilliantly sunny. But on our wilderness ride, we cop the lot: wind, rain and cold temperatures.
The bonus? Fresh snow caps Tapuaouenuku, towering overhead to the east when we arrive at our accommodation for the night - the shearers' quarters at Upcot Station, just north of the conservation estate's Molesworth Station boundary.
Den and I crossed to the Mainland on Bluebridge, with our own bikes, and travelled by train to Christchurch, for a little leisurely exploring the day before the ride begins. Monday morning, there's a courtesy pickup in the bus that will be our base for the week - towing bikes, packs and food, and offering comfortable transport between rides.
At Adventure South's base, near AMI Stadium, there's a reassuring bike check before we load up and head off. We should be biking part of the way to our first stop, but the wind is against us so our seasoned driver, Geoff Gabites, who set up Adventure South some 17 years ago, decides to start with morning tea, at Jo Seager's cafe, at Oxford.
The prospect of tea and tiny cakes at Easy Peasy's kept me going in the period leading up to the tour, when I wondered whether I could sustain 50 kilometres a day, having only twice in my life ridden that far.
Even without an appearance by The Famous Cook - teaching a class next door, they said - our stop is welcome for the chance to get to know the others in our party.
Our fellow riders are mostly seasoned cyclists - two women from Auckland on their third bike tour, a couple from Hamilton and a trio of jovial "semi-retired" blokes from Melbourne who have been biking together for 15 years.
A fun young couple, also from Melbourne - he's a BMX-loving graphic designer and she has one day's experience, riding in Thailand - provide balance to an otherwise age-skewed crew which includes three lawyers. There is someone I went to school with, of course, and there is Rudi, our Peruvian guide, offering a bit of Latin American cross-cultural exchange as well as technical backup.
Geoff, who has a fleet of these comfortable touring buses scattered around the South Island over summer, has everything sussed, from food to comfort stops. We get a daily printout of the route, including a profile of the terrain from MapMyFitness.com and details of the night's accommodation. Best of all, the bus takes us up the worst climbs.
During the week, we enjoy a range of accommodation, from small motels to shearers' quarters and an upmarket bed and breakfast, complete with winery.
Meals run the gamut from roadside picnics to memorable brunches, lunches in historic pubs and dinner at a new, very good restaurant in Kaikoura. No-one wants to whale-watch, but we do have encounters with history: four cob buildings, including the homestead at Upcot Station, where we enjoy roast merino, before bunking down in century-old shearers' quarters. By chance, we also visit a small but well- stocked community museum at Waiau.
The balance of biking to downtime seems just right. Everyone is keen to set off at 9am each day. Most of us have to get off and push up some hills, and we all have a turn at being tail- end Charlie and sharing the gracious company of Rudi. He and I swap information about textiles - alpacas abound down through the Waiau valley - and plant life, such as Marlborough daisies and raupo on the verges in the Awatere.
The week's highlights are hot showers and a roaring fire at Upcot, mild weather and autumn colours, the exhilaration of coasting downhill at speed on back-country roads, and the easy camaraderie of our group.
Ann Packer was hosted by Adventure South and crossed Cook Strait courtesy of Bluebridge.
The Dominion Post