Uncomfortably cold night. I slept with most articles of clothing I had packed to keep warm. Horse did the same.
We decided in advance to get up early to hit the trail and crawled out of our respective tents through bracken and thorn at 6 to start the day. The cold SSW wind was up and funnelling through the valley as I watching slow fingers of a rising sun from the east massage their way down the hills to the west. I closed my eyes when they finally reached me and took in the warmth.
Warm but with a feeling in my gut that we just hadn’t made enough distance yesterday and today was going to go large. I was proved right. It was time to go.
We started with a climb and soon passed another sheep truck coming up to greet us from the valley below, bathing us in another layer of fine grey dust. We made good time on the decent into the wind and winding passage though jagged cones and smooth saddles southward.
We closed the gate on the entrance to Molesworth just before 9am and made Cobb cottage just after 10. ‘Now we can begin the day’ I thought.
“Oi, where have you come from?”
That call seemed to come out of nowhere, but near Cobb cottage was a small tin hutt, a DOC hutt and standing hands on hips in the doorway looking all stern and important was Rob the Ranger. He was clad in regulation grey green shorts, a bush shirt he must have been given on his first day as a forestry cadet in the 80’s, and a pair of half inch think wool socks stacked in a puddle around the tops of each ankle. Best still Rob has a gentle weathered face, steely grey blue eyes behind a huge moustache and ageing long peppered mullet.
On request I really had little choice but to confess and tell him we free camped south of Upcott saddle to shelter from the wind whipped dust. There was silence as he looked us over… “cup of tea?” he offered. “You bloody legend” was the reply from Horse.
From then on we were all mates, swapping stories, paths less travelled as he delicately passed us little dainty cupcakes in paper wrappers his wife must have made prior.
Rob then told us pretty frankly there is no free camping in the Molesworth. In fact Kim, his young assistant would be driving through after us to make sure all travellers were off the road by 7pm. They had our number.
We’d already ridden a wild 35km and had few choices: cheat and throw our kit on the back of Kim’s ute; stay in Molesworth another night; or ride out with another 60 odd km of wild and wind. We rode.
No rest until Acheron
We left the Cobb just before mid day and crawled up and along the traverse towards Wards pass. The slopes east of Mt Chisholm was a rolling windswept swell of yellow and purple of dry grass and lupins. We entered the pass and crawled up to the 1150m summit, then plunging headlong down into Isolated valley.
We rode through the vast valley floor taking into the incessant dry dusty headwind until we made the Acheron river and liquid resuscitation. Then the long twisting ride out until we finally reached the southern gate late in the day, weathered and worn.
As night passed I lay in my tent remembering the terrain and especially Isolated valley. ‘New Zealand has such a great knack of naming remarkable places in very unremarkable ways’ I thought.
I remembered earlier in the day looking down at a distance from Wards pass to see two tiny vehicles travelling south along the floor at pace, leaving a long sideways trailing tail of dust and stone.
Tomorrow we’ll drop out of the station, back to the world… Muster over I drifted off.
Today’s top track: With this love – Peter Gabrial