Feature: Mighty Marlborough
A photo essay of our bikepacking trip to the stunning southern Marlborough region, with a stay at a high-country station thrown in for good measure.We - Joe Cox, Bob Tuxford, Henry Jaine (photographer) and I - had three days to explore. Starting in Blenheim, we’d bikepack down the Awatere Valley into Middlehurst Station, which lies on the outskirts of the Molesworth Station, stay for two nights then return on the same route to Blenheim. It was a riding trip to explore a new part of the country, experience some high- country hospitality and do something a little different.
The beginning of the bikepacking journey: bikes to build, bags sprawled everywhere, too many coffees, in a hotel room trying to make everything fit onto the bike. There’s a sort of panic about getting it done - this deadline is only with yourself but there’s a certain urgency about getting out on the road. Often, the things you want, versus what you actually need, have to be negotiated inside your head. All the time and effort spent getting things sorted is so worth the investment. Just like that, things are in place and we’re ready to escape the everyday, into a new world.
Once on the road – well, less than five minutes from the hotel - we need to pack food into our bikepacking bags. This is always a game of Tetris, as you’ve already got your gear packed and have usually kept everything as minimal as possible. Inside the supermarket aisles, I get excited about everything I can eat whilst burning all those calories riding. In reality, you have to decide on flat packaged items and other provisions that will be easily packable. Sometimes, there’s an internal debate with myself about weight, storage and satisfaction. Again, it’s that balancing act of what you want but also, what you actually need. Outside the supermarket, we make a mess on the ground trying to get rid of all the extra packaging, making everything as small as possible, whilst disturbing the supermarket patrons. At this point, their world is completely different to ours and I kind of like that.
After haulin’ for a few hours in the saddle we got deeper into the Awatere Valley. The landscape was forever changing but there was a sense amongst us all that we were escaping into some remote countryside. Until the late 20th Century, most of the economic use of the Awatere Valley was for pastoral farming with large sheep runs established from the 1840s. Since then, much of the lower valley has been planted in vineyards, with the Awatere becoming Marlborough's second most important wine producing region after the Wairau Plain. Several wineries are located in the valley, including Yealands, one of Marlborough's largest. Further inland, where frosts make vineyards inviable, pastoral farming continues on a number of high country stations.
Finding the ideal lunch spot took a while – it needs to be scenic and away from the wind. Vines started to line the roadside so what better place to park up, put a brew on and scoff some of the food we’d bought at the supermarket. The breaks are something I look forward to the most when out bikepacking. Don’t get me wrong, the riding is fantastic too but when you stop and take in the surrounds it really captures what you’re doing. For that brief moment, time stands still – there’s nowhere else to be but having lunch with your mates amongst the vineyards.
The Awatere Valley is rolling and, quite frankly, relentless with its continuous ups and downs. The autumnal colours were out in full force as they blurred past us. As the day’s efforts started to take its toll, the daylight began to fade away. That’s not the only drama with doing these adventurous bikepacking escapades during our colder months.
The temperature plummeted as we reached for more layers, and the morale dipped as the sun’s rays disappeared behind the treeless hills. Darkness was swiftly upon us and we flicked on our lights, shining the way down the gravel road that would eventually lead us to our first night’s digs. With the sound of gravel beneath us, the stars peeked their way through the clouds above us and we pressed on in sheer darkness. Hard hill climbs followed, and we didn’t know where they’d end as couldn’t see the top of them. Eventually, the road flattened and a beacon of light was seen shining amidst the silhouette of the mountains. It was quite a special moment to experience together – no words were exchanged, just gestures to one another in order to keep spirits high. After what seemed like an eternity, we turned off the Awatere Valley Road into the light of Middlehurst Station. The clunk of beer bottles, and a stern handshake, greeted us.
The new day dawned, and I drew the curtains to some splendid landscapes from the Middlehurst Station lodge. Distracted by the views, I was excited to get out and explore more - after all, we had a day, a night and another half day to spend in and around the station's 16,550 hectares. A cooked breakfast, strong coffee and solid yarns with the owners and their staff was on the cards before we turned our pedals. An adventure across the station’s four wheel drive tracks had us pushing instead of pedalling the bikes, because of the steep gradients, but it was matched by natural beauty and uninterrupted views as far as I could see.
A jaunt to Molesworth Station, the name alone evokes the nation's high-country farming identity: musterers, stockmen and their dogs working livestock in vast tussock landscapes. The Molesworth Station is New Zealand’s largest high- country station, covering almost half a million acres (185,000 hectares) - this time around we couldn’t explore all of it. It was worth the afternoon effort, before returning to the lodge for evening refreshments. After the day’s adventure, I found myself yearning for more before we headed back to Blenheim. I spoke to the station owners and decided a dusk ride to the foothills of the Inland Kaikouras, and back across the riverbed, would be the next morning’s affair.
With a desire to escape the (modern) world and its constant connection, we dove deeper into the station’s backbone. This disconnection from our – or rather, my – day-to- day routine, and just being wholly immersed in riding and exploring this divine land, had me in awe. Time was paused or rather, on the go-slow again, as there was nowhere to be at a certain time. Out here, you can simply just be. The loop around a speck of the Middlehurst Station was rough, rugged, wild and, quite simply, bloody awesome. At one of their remote huts, we were served hot coffee and cooked sausages with bread - the breakfast of high-country hard men. A brief dance across riverbeds turned into several river crossings before hustlin’ hard back towards the station’s base.
Our stay at the station came to an end. I didn’t want to leave, but we all had to return to reality at some point. Once again, we packed our bikepacking bags, wrestled with getting our gear into the bags and onto our bikes. We shook hands and waved goodbye. Grins were seen from ear to ear as we talked about our experience, on the return leg up the Awatere Valley Road. A desire to conquer the ride was evident early on, but we needed to be patient with our tired bodies. The mountains blackened and a light snow layer dusted the peaks – the winter months weren’t far off. Again, we took our time to stop, breathe and take in the places we were riding through. Chasing the day’s light, again, we knew it would be a long shot if we got into town before dark. The final climb across Taylor’s Pass was met with a team time trial at full race pace. The tank was emptied before this, so we (and I mean, myself) must have been running on fumes by now. Dancing between the roundabouts and traffic amidst the glaring street lights on the outskirts of Blenheim, brought us back from another world. We navigated the town before returning to our hotel. The hotel staff were somewhat bemused that we were riding in the dark. If only they knew what we had etched into our memories over the past few days. If the opportunity to do something outside of your ‘normal’ arises, I say jump with both feet first into the deep end. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish.
Words: Liam Friary
Photography: Henry Jaine