Thu, Jan 4, 2024 7:00 AM
By Amy Russ.
Isolated, sparse, and seemingly barren, Molesworth Recreation Reserve is an inexplicably stunning area of land that is steeped in history and rich with tales of living in one of the country’s most isolated high-country frontiers. Located behind the towering Kaikōura Ranges and its colossal Mount Tapuae-o-Uenuku, stretching from Molesworth Cob Cottage at the end of the Awatere Valley to Jacks Pass near Hanmer, Molesworth Recreation Reserve spans approximately 180,787 hectares, and stands as the largest working farm in New Zealand.
Having travelled through this area every year for the past few years, each time I am blown away by just how extraordinarily beautiful the remote and dramatic landscape is – it is incredibly hard to sum up in a few words. A backcountry playground for its visitors, the area sees off-road enthusiasts, cyclists, runners, hunters, fisherfolk, campers, trampers, hikers, and horse trekkers. Playing host to endurance races and annual pilgrimages, I have even seen groups of vintage car enthusiasts tackle the dust and terrain of the mighty Molesworth.
A chain of trails connects the Molesworth to Marlborough, Nelson, and Canterbury. From Seddon, the Awatere River is followed into the Acheron Valley and over Jacks Pass into Hanmer. From Nelson Tasman, the Tophouse route is taken via Rainbow Road, down Clarence Valley, and joins Jacks Pass into the Canterbury Plains via Hanmer. Initially traversed by Ngāi Tahu for gathering food around 600 years ago, the path through Molesworth and its trails were later described to early European settlers. In the early 1850s, settlers herded stock through the reserve on journeys that often spanned weeks.
Situated at 900 meters, Molesworth Station hosts the highest continuously occupied homestead in New Zealand. Tarndale, positioned at 1,000 meters, is occupied by stockmen for parts of the year. With many trips through this area, we
have always held a deep sense of awe for those who have endured its harsh terrain – pioneers who chose to try and tame the shifting screes, wide grasslands, and steep hillsides to survive in one of New Zealand’s harshest environments. From the 1860s to the 1930s, the Acheron house served as a hub of social activity, an unofficial post office, and a local store.
The historic Molesworth Cob Cottage was constructed in 1866 and was replaced by the existing private Molesworth homestead in 1885, which still houses the farm manager and his family to this day.
A profound feeling of pride came upon us when we discovered that in one of these
very homesteads, near the heart of the most inexplicably beautiful landscapes at Tarndale, was, for a short while, where my husband’s great-great grandparents called home. Travelling up from Hanmer and over Jollies Pass, the family arrived on horseback in 1894 to work on the station and tend to its visitors. Great grandma Jessie Tomlinson was born at Tarndale in the heat of a February summer in 1895, and the family stayed on at the station for nearly four years before going on to manage the Tophouse Hotel for two decades. Landlocked, the climate swings to extremes, with hot, dry summers followed by cold, harsh winters. Snow has been known to cover the entire property for up to eight weeks in the winter.
We were fortunate enough when, by the kind graces of the station manager, we were able to visit the Tarndale Homestead and for a moment imagine the life that my husband's family led. Jim and Tracey Ward have served as on-site station managers for 23 years, raising their family at Molesworth and putting their heart and soul into the station. “Our children were aged seven and five when we began living here,” says Jim. “They were homeschooled by Tracey, which adds another dimension, and both have done stints as stockmen over the years. The biggest thing for us is we firmly believe that we represent the 5 million or so people of New Zealand that are shareholders in this piece of land, and we have always run it that way.”
Dedicated to the area and its surroundings, Jim says, “It is an honour to be able to add to the legacy of previous managers, and all the people that have come before us and continue in the rehabilitation work that was started back in 1942 by Bill and Rachel Chisholm. Being part of the collaboration of Molesworth is quite special. We are proud of how hard we have worked hard to protect and nurture the landscape, lowering our emissions and footprint, while also balancing it with being a working farm. When we first started here there were 74 native plants, and now there are 83.”
Life at the station back in the early days must have been fraught with difficulty, but with plenty of stock route travellers and gangs of workers tending to the needs of the station, it may not have been as overly lonely as one might think. Every year
when we travel through, I am always baffled by how many people you can cross paths with in such a seemingly deserted place. “This is what everyone who has worked here takes with them,” says Jim. “The interactions with the people and ensuring that its visitors feel like they are a part of it.
I remember a few years ago when I was mustering, it was a hot day and a car pulled up beside me. A guy jumped out and asked if I was ‘the real McCoy’. I asked what he meant, and he said, ‘Well you’re out here on horseback with dogs and cattle’. We ended up having lunch with his family while his kids played with the dogs. At the end he shook my hand and said his family lived in an inner-city Auckland suburb and this trip was the family’s highlight. It was a really great interaction and such a cool moment for me.”
“For us, and all the stockmen the interactions have always been part of what has driven us, connecting with the public with the property. We all feel and get that connection with people. Taking the time to chat with Molesworth travellers may seem like such an innocuous thing, but it is such an important part of the role and the history of the place. We are just a small part of such a huge legacy.”
Caroline Cornelius, Community Ranger for Department of Conservation says, “Rangitahi/Molesworth is New Zealand’s largest recreation reserve, bigger than many of our national parks. It is valued for its outstanding biodiversity and natural landscape, as a stunning environment for recreation and for its rich cultural heritage.”
Travelling 122 km through the Awatere Valley, the historic Molesworth Cob Cottage marks the gateway to the station and its reserve and is where the unsealed Acheron Road begins. A short hillside lookout track gives a fantastic overview of the various farm accommodations, buildings, and sheds still in use today. Passing through the gates, the road winds around before ascending to Wards Pass, the journey's highest point, crossing through a section of Muller Station before reaching the vast expanse of Isolated Flat. Personally, this is easily one of my favourite parts of the journey. As the name suggests, this is where you can truly feel like the last person on earth. Immense and surrounded by rolling hills, occasionally you will see a trail of dust flying high in the sky, indicating that a vehicle is approaching in the very far-off distance.
Climbing up and over Isolated Saddle and past Mt. Augarde, the road leads down to the junction of the private, and 4WD-only, Tarndale track, which trails to the historic Tarndale Homestead and Lake Sedgemere. Continuing past Red Gate to where both the Severn and Acheron Rivers meet, at Severn Shelter and Pudding Hill, the road winds its way to Rainbow Junction and over Jack's Pass into the township of Hanmer.
With allocated camping and hut areas along the way, as well as options for brown trout fishing, hunting, rafting, mountain biking, and guided tours, why not take the time to explore this hidden gem right on our doorstep? Scattered throughout this historical route are a myriad of signposted notable sites and tracks, each giving a glimpse into the life of early travellers. Only open to the public at certain times of the year, be sure to do your homework on accessibility and guidelines before you go. And if you do decide to follow in the footsteps of so many before us, take note of the Molesworth Care Code and help its guardians preserve the special treasure that is Molesworth Recreation Reserve.