Out in a vast adventure playground

WILD GOOSE CHASE: Stuart Mirfin and grandson Jake hunt  geese at the Sedgemere Lakes.
WILD GOOSE CHASE: Stuart Mirfin and grandson Jake hunt geese at the Sedgemere Lakes.

Molesworth Station is an iconic Kiwi location for many reasons.

Romanticised in Lance McCaskill's classic 1969 book Molesworth, there are the historic travel routes of Maori and early Europeans, the legacy of high country farming, the individual trials and tribulations of survival in a harsh environment, and don't forget the stunning alpine terrain and scenery.

For many of us what really appeals about Molesworth are the numerous recreational opportunities available to the public on land owned by the public. People bike, run, hike, raft, drive, camp and swim, but what particularly appeals to many outdoor people are the premium fishing and hunting opportunities available on Molesworth.

Molesworth Station is a massive chunk of dirt covering over 180,000 hectares in the northeast corner of the South Island. It is dry, barren country, with parts of it in rain shadow areas making it as close to desert as anywhere else in New Zealand.

Characterised by harsh environmental extremes, a short growing season, and snow, ice, and baking summer heat, Molesworth is New Zealand's largest farm and about the same size as Stewart Island.

Within three hours drive of anyone in either Nelson, Blenheim or Christchurch, Molesworth is cradled in the headwaters of the three great rivers of Marlborough - the Wairau, Clarence and Awatere. The scenery never fails to impress and the wide open spaces are "big sky country" as the Americans would call them.

Modern Molesworth is made up of the historic runs of Molesworth, Tarndale, Dillon and St Helens that were first taken up in the 1850s. Problems were legion with burning, overstocking, overgrazing, scab mite, erosion, rabbit infestation, and economic recession, all taking their toll on the land.

By the late 1930s the land had been largely abandoned and sorting out the mess left behind became the task of the Government of the day. Since that time Molesworth has arguably been the largest soil and water conservation project this country has ever experienced and farming operations have facilitated the repatriation of eroded rabbit-prone land into what it is today, through weed and pest control, combined with only modest stocking rates of cattle.

Maybe it hasn't turned a sow's ear into a silk purse, but the transformation has been remarkable and a tribute to the three managers that have ruled Molesworth since the land was originally abandoned. Problems will probably always exist and newer weed pests like wilding pines, sweet briar, ground-smothering hieracium and water-borne didymo will continue to offer challenges in the years ahead.

Two main roads bisect modern-day Molesworth allowing access for farming, recreation, and the transport of electricity from the deep South to the North Island via high-voltage power pylons and cables.

Probably the most popular road is the Wairau-Clarence road between St Arnaud and Hanmer, followed by the Acheron-Awatere road from Hanmer to Blenheim which was first opened to the public in the summer of 1988. You can do the round trip in a massive day of driving, but to do the drive, scenery, and alpine experience justice takes at least two days, maybe more if you like to camp and play along the way.

Over the years I've been fortunate to have climbed, walked and waded all over the remote, even desolate country of Molesworth in pursuit of canada geese, brown trout, red deer and chamois. It's been an awesome adventure and I hope to explore all the last corners I haven't yet visited in the years ahead.

Molesworth places and memories pop into my mind as I type with names like yarra, red gate, guide, leaderdale, dillon, five mile, saxton, severne, alma, sedgemere, and tarndale lifting my pulse rate. On a commercial level I've held commercial access permits since 1995 and have had many successful fishing trips with overseas anglers who have been blown away by the fish and the scenery, but in my heart the best trips have always been with family and friends.

Over the last couple of years, my oldest son Jake has joined the party, too. Alas, during the last Molesworth goose hunt, organised by the NZ Game Bird Hunters Association in October, I was away fishing. Fortunately, Jake, 12, had a wonderful time with his grandfather Stuart, and other men of Tasman, shooting his first four geese, as well as lots of rabbits at Isolated Flat on the upper Acheron River. These organised goose hunts have become a favourite part of our annual Nelson sporting calendar and it is gratifying that the Department of Conservation (DOC) intends to keep this tradition alive with the joint benefits of conservation and recreation.

Public access to Molesworth has probably always been problematic with restricted access or often none at all in dry summers with high fire risk. Many of us have been frustrated at the barriers to public access and the only way I could ever get access in the 1990s was to jump through draconian bureaucratic hoops and pull out the chequebook to obtain a commercial operator permit. Even then access wasn't guaranteed.

At the northernmost Awatere access point to Molesworth there was a sign that went something along the lines of "Molesworth Station: Where farming, conservation and recreation go hand in hand". Often it felt more like three clenched fists - or maybe each giving the other a single-finger salute.

Fortunately, public access to Molesworth is heading in the right direction since the land has been handed back to DOC to manage on behalf of the public. It's long been said that public access to Crown-owned Landcorp properties has been some of the most difficult in New Zealand but now Molesworth farming is retained by DOC, under lease to Landcorp, with the intention of gradually enhancing conservation and recreational values.

This has been a great result for public access and public enjoyment of Molesworth and the area is now designated a recreational reserve under the Reserves Act (1977) with provisions for recreational values.

Not everyone is happy, though, with the September 2012 Draft Molesworth Management Plan acknowledging that "this plan may not match the access expectations of some members of the public" and that includes me.

It's a big job keeping everyone satisfied and the draft plan notes that "the greatest challenge facing the management of Molesworth is how to integrate the various land uses to best advantage" and that "integration requires a strong commitment to a co-operative style of management between DOC, lessee [Landcorp], and the public".

In my opinion, previous management plans have always looked good on paper but failed to deliver as governance intentions are subverted at the management level. Here's hoping lessons have been learnt and will herald a new era of Molesworth management for all.

Getting the management balance right is a real challenge and the Government has appointed a Molesworth steering committee to work through the issues and the contest of values between stakeholders. At a pre-consultation meeting this month in Nelson at Founders Heritage Park, many people with a keen interest in Molesworth met members of the steering committee.

Independent chairman Hamish Ensor and all committee members, except for one, impressed me as fair, balanced and capable individuals. Criticism of Landcorp management for the access issues of the past would be an easy task but times have changed and better access for hunting and fishing to Molesworth lie ahead for us all.

Molesworth means many things to many people. To me, it is the opportunity to experience the haunting cry of wild geese silhouetted against mountain skies. To you it may be fly fishing for trout in remote wilderness rivers or hiking the open hills in search of red stags. Whatever your interest, public hunting and fishing in Molesworth is too valuable to leave to chance. Make your voice heard.

Submissions to the Molesworth Management Plan close on December 14. See Molesworth Draft Management Plan on the DOC website or visit your local DOC office for information.