Awatere Valley (Molesworth), NZ to St. James Range, NZ

36.5 mi / 7.9 mph / 2273 ft. climbing
Home: Acheron Accommodation Campsite

It felt chilly in the tent when we woke up, and when Rett asked what I thought the temperature outside the tent might be, I guessed 45F, based mainly on the forecast. I guess the forecast didn’t have the resolution to target this specific high mountain valley, because it was only 33F, just one degree above freezing! Everything was also wet with dew (the worst in NZ so far, which thankfully has had drier mornings than I expected), so I just told Rett to stay warm in the tent while I brought all her oatmeal-fixings and hot coffee to the tent door.

We passed through the gate (now officially on the Molesworth Farm, where the public is only allowed between 7am and 7pm, and only in the summer), and immediately began a brutal climb that necessitated a strip-down to our shorts. The skies were almost perfectly clear, so the sun plus the hill made the near-freezing temperature a distant memory just 10 minutes into the ride.

On our fourth day of riding this trail, have the scenes gotten boring? No, they have not. (And the road we just came up is at the bottom edge of the photo).
Early-morning mountain-climbing.
The cattle get to enjoy the epic views too.

Like yesterday, our stopping point for the night seems to also have been a stark dividing point in the gravel road quality. Unfortunately, today the quality went negative. Some of it seems to be the increased usage by cattle (the worst spots were places where they would gather or cross the road, and at one point a big group went thundering right in front of Rett when they freaked out at our approach), but even in the cattle-free areas the stone was one again bigger and looser than yesterday.

Which made it especially tough when we had to get over Ward Pass, a 500-foot climb that would take us to the highest point of the trail, at 3700 feet above sea-level. On paper it wasn’t as tough of a climb as yesterday’s Upcot Saddle, but I think the bad surface made it more-challenging. I wasn’t able to switch back and forth across the roadway like I did yesterday, because the cost of crossing the gravel grooves was greater than the cost of just brute-forcing it straight up the 11% grade. Rett again managed most of the climb on her own, with me doing a bike-ferry for about 20% of it. She’s upset that she didn’t do 100% of it, and she definitely could have done it, but without knowing what the rest of the long day held, it wasn’t worth risking her wrecking herself this early. I also just read a journal from a couple who gave up and turned around before yesterday’s Upcot Saddle, so the fact that we’ve made it this far into this awesome insanity is pretty incredible. I’ve done a lot of climbing in my cycling life, but these sustained 10%+ grades on an unpaved surface is a new challenge even for me!

#FindRett, riding, still on a 9% (or more) grade, high above me on Ward Pass.
#NoRett in this one looking backward and down to the majority of the 500 foot climb to Ward Pass.

If you’re just heading out from your home in New Zealand to spend a few days riding the Molesworth Muster Trail, they recommend doing it in the opposite direction than we’re doing it, because it’s more-downhill that way. And if we had been doing it that way, I’m sure we would have agreed, because whatever direction we do something in, something in our psychology always generates a list of reasons why the other direction would be worse. In this case, it was the downhill side of Ward Pass (for us), which registered in sections as 14% on our computers! It was bad enough for us (it was easier for Rett to walk portions of it than to squeeze the brakes hard enough to ride down it, while avoiding skidding-out), but climbing at 14%, especially near the end of the day, might have been a turn-back moment for us! I suppose if we try to rationalize it, the surface was a bit better on our downhill side, so we would have said “man, that 14% absolutely destroyed us, but at least we didn’t have to go up at 11% on this loose stuff we’re riding over on the way down!”

Rett walking down a 14%-grade section of Ward Pass, with the Acheron River now in our sights.
Rett’s bike computer makes a little bit-map drawing of what the up-and-downs of the last few miles looked like, but the incredibly-steep up-and-down of Ward Pass is the first time the whole symmetrical mountain (except for the cut-off top!) has been captured so nicely.

At the bottom of the pass, the Acheron River awaited us, the downstream counterpart to the Awatere River that we had followed upstream for most of the route so far. Hopefully it doesn’t lead us to the Underworld, like its Greek namesake, but I suppose New Zealand’s Underworld is probably pretty amazing if it comes to that? And once again we didn’t see a single other human out here on this road for at least the first 90 minutes, so it’s not entirely clear that we haven’t left our known world for an abandoned mirror-world.

So it was all downhill from here, right? No, of course not, no more than our way up the Awatere was all uphill. But, the profile overall did show a long, gradual slope of the sort we never had on the uphill side, interspersed only by a few peaky climbs. And the change in the visual landscape reflected that; we were in a wider, flatter, straighter valley than anything we had seen thus far. And while big stones embedded in the surface continued to jar us, there were sections where Rett was flying over them as the straightness and the slight downslope outweighed the gravel’s tire-sucking. Good thing, because today’s segment was the longest distance (and, it turns out, the longest riding time).

Still a long road ahead. In this section it looked and felt like a power-line access-road more than anything else.
Colorful wildflowers lining the roadside (another thing we didn’t see on the Awatere side), along with a bit of a view of the rougher road.
#FindRett, not on her bike, washing her face in the Severn River, an Acheron tributary where we stopped at the bridge for a nice shady lunch.
A wider view of the Severn River.

Sometime after lunch, we saw the gravel surface ahead become suddenly darker. Yay, it’s a return to the fine-grained stuff that we had yesterday! BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM! What the fuck?! Apparently here, that fine-grained stuff has been re-formed into jarring washboards like we haven’t seen (or felt) thus far. And these weren’t avoidable because they stretched across the whole road width.

#FindRett with the enormous mountains of the valley closing in again around her, marking the end of our traversal of “Isolated Flat”.
The Acheron River begins gorging itself, no longer the braided stream of the higher reaches. (oh yeah, and you can #FindRett here too).
The Acheron River begins gorging itself, no longer the braided stream of the higher reaches. (oh yeah, and you can #FindRett here too).
Looking back upstream to a braided section, with African-savannah trees.
A good visual explanation of why the road doesn’t just go steadily downhill, even though the river does.

At the red-roofed shelter you can see in the photo above (the only thing like this we’ve seen along the entire trail), there was a couple on loaded bikes stopped for lunch. The guy sauntered out, and while Rett continued on, I stopped to chat for a bit. After exchanging interesting versions of the usual info (he had just done the Baja Peninsula last year), he asked “are you familiar with WarmShowers?” Yeah, of course… “So you expect to make it to Hanmer Springs tomorrow then? We should be home by then, right hon?” (they were just out on a couple-day loop). A week ago when I had been checking to see if there were any WarmShowers hosts in Blenheim, I had noticed that there (surprisingly) was one in the small town of Hanmer Springs too. And here they were! I said “oh yeah, and I remember your name being somewhat unusual…?” “Grum”, he said as we shook hands, confirming my memory while silently suggesting that this was the first time he had ever heard someone think his name was unusual. They invited us to come stay with them, or even just stop by for a coffee. How wild in this empty place to run into the single WarmShowers host that exists for 100 miles in any direction! (I later learned that he’s even semi-famous for his extensive bike-touring, so I guess not that wild of a coincidence to run into him on his bike after all!)

Soon after meeting Grum (and Rebecca), and catching back up to Rett, the washboards had cleared, but eventually the big-rock surface returned. The near-freezing temperatures of the morning were a distant memory, and the trail had become a hot, sun-burnt slog. Grum and Rebecca had mentioned that some good swimming holes existed ahead if that was our thing. They didn’t specify exactly where, but as we crossed another tributary, Rett’s fairy nose spied a perfect shaded spot down in the gully, a spot where fairies and hobbits visit. We didn’t go for a full-on swim (though there was a perfect hole right there), but just cooling our feet in the stream was an incredible relief. Miles later my feet were still cool. In many other places, this “secret” swimming hole would be listed in a guidebook, and be a pin on Google Maps (with 44 reviews). But here, in this place so remote and in this country so unpopulated, it genuinely was a secret swimming hole, pristine and free of trash not because the municipal workers come and clean it up, but simply because human footprints rarely touch this place.

Drying out our hobbit feet at our secret swimming hole.

Over the last 10 miles the washboards returned again, and by the final, incredibly-rude up-and-down hill leading to our campsite, even I was walking my bike up because riding it felt way too difficult. But we had made it, with just a short (but still not easy!) day left for tomorrow. As I chatted with the ranger about where we could set up, Rett spied a couple of cyclists coming in behind us and raced over to the single picnic table (in this one of three sections to camp in). They were lightly-loaded mountain-bike-riding “bikepackers”, and when a second similarly-styled company came in, (and combined with others at last night’s camp), their ease and acceptance of just sitting on the ground while cooking, eating, etc., said to me that most of these people see a picnic table as nearly “cheating” in their culture, not sufficiently-minimalist. A couple of older guys in a car was the fourth party in our huge open area, and again like the vehicle-drivers at last night’s campsite, they brought their own folding table with them. So that makes us the party for whom the table is most-useful, and that makes me feel less-bad about commandeering it! (my offer to share ours last night with a bikepacking couple, that wasn’t explicitly rejected, but also not taken up, is part of what informs my cultural theory.)

What we did have in common with the cyclists-from-a-different-culture is the desire to cool down and clean up, and luckily a wooded path led down to the river where we could all get an amazing bath.

Rett trying to not float away down the Acheron River.
Dust, sweat, forty layers of sunscreen, begone!
Our spot at Acheron Accommodation Campsite (again, that’s the volunteer ranger’s residence in white).


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