Rawhide in the high country
Reporter Ian Allen saddles-up for a five-day cycle tour through the Molesworth.
"Rolling, rolling, rolling, though the streams are swollen, keep them doggies rolling, Raaaaawhiiiiide."
Not 10 minutes into our five-day bike tour of New Zealand's largest farm, the Molesworth Station, we had broken into chorus - like cowboys on bicycles.
Little did we know our choice of song would prove so prophetic.
Because, by the end of our trip, our tender, city-slicker backsides had seen better days.
But the pain, and pins and needles in private places, was worth it for a few days in the high country, taking in some of New Zealand's most spectacular landscapes.
There were times, at altitudes of 1000 metres with not another ranch hand in sight, that the empty expanse looked almost other-worldly.
Of course to real men, like high country farmers, this unforgiving terrain linking Marlborough to North Canterbury is called home.
But for a few months a year, during summer of course, this road less travelled is opened up to the ambitious public.
A mate and I joined a group of keen Wellingtonians in December for the 170-kilometre bike ride with the Molesworth Tour Company. They were in their 50s and 60s but had the vigour of someone half their age. And, as it turned out, the stamina too.
We started cycling from State Highway 1 about 20km south of Blenheim, and headed up Awatere Valley Rd towards Upcot Station, a high country farm with 6000 sheep and 600 cattle.
After about 25km in the saddle on "day one", the team checked into our shearing quarters for a hot shower before dinner at the homestead with farmer Bill Stevenson and family.
A traditional roast dinner, after Bill's oldest girl showed off her end-of-year art project, was everything a "real New Zealand" tourist could ask for. They seemed genuinely happy to open their remote home to passing travellers and I couldn't help but think Americans, in particular, would lap up the authenticity.
Molesworth Tour Company owner Geoff Swift said he would love more international visitors; about 98 per cent of clients on his tours are Kiwis.
Geoff is basically "Mr Molesworth". There seems to be nothing the man doesn't know about the 180,000 hectare station.
His tales of the legendary Bill Chisholm, the first manager of Molesworth (1942-79) have a rugged romanticism and, thankfully, Geoff isn't shy about telling a tale or two.
"Who wants to hear another story about Bill?" he calls out from the driver seat as we drive between cycle points.
He even regaled us with high country ghost stories steeped in murder and suicide.
But it was sitting outside our shearing quarters, sharing a beer with Geoff, that he laid down the gauntlet for day two.
Most people get dropped off at the top of the Upcot Saddle at 9am and ride to the entrance of Molesworth Station for lunch.
However, experienced (or foolhardy) bikers can start an hour earlier to see if they can reach the saddle before the bus. If you head off early and complete the 34km to Molesworth before 12.30pm, your name is added to the tour's Roll of Honour.
That was enough incentive for us.
We headed off at 8am and made short work of the early undulations, thinking "this is all right", before the real climb came into sight.
The gravel road looked as steep as a playground slide . . . a giant slide for an enormous baby. It was like we had jumped from Rawhide to Land of the Giants, thrown into a new world of epic proportions.
Stopping for photographs became more of an excuse to rest our burning thighs than a desire to capture the scenery.
Nevertheless, all seven of us who left Upcot Station early conquered the saddle, but our celebrations were short-lived. The Honours Board was calling.
Keeping a steady pace, with welcome downhills scattered among more heartbreaking climbs and a killer headwind, we reached Muller Station by 10.45am.
We recalled Geoff saying the record for reaching Molesworth was 11.05am and, going by his maps, we weren't far away.
With renewed vigour, Anthony and I left the pack in search of glory, only to be disheartened by more agonising inclines.
"It must be just over this hill," we encouraged each other before the brief plateau snaked off and up into the distance for another few kilometres.
We eventually reached Molesworth at noon, nearly an hour off the record but good enough to make the Honours Board.
Geoff arrived about 20 minutes later and set up lunch beside the original cob cottage built in 1865.
Lunch each day was a smorgasbord of meat, cheese and salad that riders can fashion into an overflowing sandwich. We washed it down with a cup of tea or coffee and homebaked biscuits before loading up the bus and trailer.
Day two finished with another 12km ride towards Hanmer, which acted more like a necessary warm down after the mornings' push.
Day three was a welcome rest day that started where day two finished - with a much-needed soak in the Hanmer hot pools, nursing our fatigued legs back to health.
Anthony and I squeezed in 18 holes at the pitch and putt before meeting up with the group for dinner. The relaxing 24 hours meant our thighs were refreshed and rejuvenated but I'm not sure the time out helped our throbbing backsides.
The first sit down of day four was agony, but the numbness soon returned.
Unfortunately the normal route to Rainbow Station was closed because of heavy rain days earlier. That meant a slight detour for the group but we were still able to check out Lake Tennyson and the source of the Clarence River.
Although I preferred riding the desolate Molesworth, I still enjoyed getting out on the open road between Hanmer and St Arnaud.
The fast descent of the tarsealed Lewis Pass was completely removed from our earlier cycle routes.
It wasn't until day five, though, that we really got the hang of things and a three-man peloton of Anthony, myself and Wellingtonian Craig decided to smash the 60km to the Wairau Valley Tavern.
Like three doped-up Lance Armstrongs on mountainbikes, we kept a ferocious pace, wheel-to-wheel as if sharing one bike.
We were a well-oiled machine, taking turns to enjoy the slipstream while someone else set the pace in front.
We reached the country pub about 1pm and headed inside for a cool beer. I pushed open the tavern doors humming wild west music in my head. Putting on my best Clint Eastwood walk, with legs bowed, I strode up to the bar.
Tipping my bicycle helmet to a man in the corner I turned to the barman and ordered my beer . . . in a dirty glass.
Five-day cycle tour: Twin/share rate is $1550 per person; single supplement options are available at $220.
Bike hire, with helmet, available for an additional $175.
Two, three and four-day tours available.
For more information visit molesworthtours.co.nz
The Marlborough Express