“You should come on the May autumn muster to Lake McRae.” said Jim Ward, Manager of Molesworth high country Station.
What an invitation; for those that know Molesworth Station you’ll understand the significance of such an invite! For those that know Lake McRae (see map at bottom), many will regard this as a holy land of sorts. To join in on the annual cattle muster to push 400 cattle over the Inland Kaikoura Ranges to their traditional winter pastures is epic. Not only is it regarded as one of the highest cattle musters in the world (at over 1400m/4700ft), but it’s also one of the most remote seldom visited spots in New Zealand. With three stockmen & horses involved, and small backcountry hut, it’s also a very few lucky folks that have ever participated in this 100 year tradition. More folks have climbed Everest than been here. This is not a commercial trip, but a unique rare opportunity to join the stockmen on part of their annual work programme in the high country.
“Would love to Jim, thanks” was my response, adding “I’m a bit of a green horn on a horse though. “Don’t worry, there are horses that don’t like people too” Jim shot back as I was leaving. I just hope I’m not given one of those horses I thought. This is the story of the amazing adventure, including learning to ride, that followed (youtube video of trip now available, so have a read of this & then click here to view the short vid to get a real feeling for the place)…
For the last 18 months I’ve been working on a book about this historic high country station with Harry Broad. Lance McCaskill wrote a seminal book about the first 50 years of Molesworth history. We’re bringing the history of this fascinating iconic high country run up to date. It’s New Zealand’s largest farm at 500,000 acres and sits nestled amongst mountain ranges between Blenheim, Hanmer Springs and Kaikoura.
Back at my office in Wellington, Nina, my Business Manager, was excited. She’d grown up with horses and rode professionally back in Sweden. On weekends she trains riders and horses. You will be fine, I’ll teach you she said.
So started a wonderful bi weekly programme designed to advance me from newbie to competent horse rider in less than a month, but most importantly to toughen up my softer spots. Each Tuesday and Thursday we shut the office at noon, headed for Wainuiomata and climbed on horses. My third lesson as cantering bareback. They pushed me hard to learn on the crash course but I’m very grateful now. Luckily I apparently picked things up fast, learning I think more about animal behaviour and psychology than staying on Red, Ray, or Teddy, the three boys I learnt to ride on. Bruce and Kelly’s property in Wainuiomata had a great variety of steep hills and trails to explore between flat work. Things started to arch and hurt in places you’d normally only see with a mirror; apparently a sign you’re doing it right. Weird that.
One Sunday night the phone went; it’s Jim. “Can you get down tomorrow? We’re bringing it forward due to weather”. I hurriedly finished my GST tax return, a quick pack and assemblage of equipment and I was on the ferry heading for the South Island.
I arrived late evening, got a bit of gear organised, hit the hay around midnight, to be up a 4.30am for breakfast with Jim & Tracey and the three stockmen that I’d be riding with for the next 3 days, Andy McLachlan, Cory Hollister and Tom O’Sullivan. Nine months before I’d met these guys on their first week on Station as they learnt horse shoeing from visiting farriers so they could look after their horses in the remote out stations through the year (a skill we’d rely on later…
). Here’s a link to the Molesworth Station winter farrier images – snow, fire, horses, men.
First day was to gather the 400 cattle from near the homestead and push them 6kms up the Robinson Creek where we left them overnight, and important test how to carry and use various bits of camera equipment on a horse, before riding back to the station for dinner and to pack gear for the next 3 days.
Up well before dawn, on day 2, we enjoyed a big breakfast before sharing out supplies, saddling up and tying on saddlebags and swags.
Jim Ward, the Station Manager, departed ahead to start the herd of cattle moving. It was a 6km ride back to the mob, and we arrived just as a southerly front did, plunging temperatures and threatening snow. We had a quick lunch before the big steep push uphill. I learnt that managing the cattle and their behaviour was vital; the cattle needed to be pushed really hard to get them to climb high, but if you pushed them too hard they could just give up and sit down and then you’re in trouble – a fine balance. The pass was reached in thick mist and fog at midday – Robinson Saddle at 1430m/4700ft is apparently one of the highest cattle mustered passes in the world.
Jim Ward, the Station Manager, left us near the top for his long journey back to the Station, leaving Andy, Cory, Tom and myself to start the trip down steep Driving Spur towards Lake McRae. As the mist lifted slightly with the descent it became apparent that we were creating our own mist; 400 puffing cattle beasts created a huge amount of steam that made for spectacular photos down the very steep ridge.
We left the cattle in the Tweed River Valley for the night and headed off to the Lake McRae Huts – the old kerosene tin clad historic version, and the recently revamped double glazed flash DOC one (see photo below). That evening before dark involved a quick unsuccessful pig hunt, and my first full speed gallop downhill following the others. A bloody exciting thing – especially going downhill and being in a western/stock saddle for the first time and having no real idea at this stage that they required a different riding style to what I’d just learnt. All and all not a pretty sight, comedy for the others, but most importantly I stayed on and survived with my heart pumping, sans my handy Canon G10 camera – it had ejected at full speed from my breast pocket somewhere into the tussock – luckily to be found later in a functional state! I made a pledge to try it again and the guys were to hold me to it.
Up early, for day 3, we cooked breakfast in the dark, before the guys assembled the 18 or so dogs, and then we saddled up and headed down valley to collect the herd. It was split in two with 200 head being pushed around Lake McRae and down into the Elliott River for winter, while 200 would be left in the Tweed. Lake McRae is a place I’ve wanted to visit for over 20 years, so it was pretty special to ride up and over the hill to gaze upon it from the saddle in this style.
The lake was very high, so it meant a lot of deep wading in freezing water for horses, dogs and cattle. Down the Elliott Valley we went, stopping to hunt a few wild pigs enroute before arriving at the small 2 man Elliott Bivvy/hut – where the cattle would be left. We found a wild beehive in an old willow tree and launched a plan to appropriate a bit of honey for the saddlebags – an exciting and delicious diversion, just as it has been done for millenia, followed (you’ll have to watch the youtube video to see the plan), making sure that we didnt take too much, leaving plenty for the hive over winter. No one got stung despite bare skin and us reaching in by hand to pluck out honeycomb. It was blue borage honey – honey that could not have tasted sweeter by any other means!
We took a interesting different route back to Lake McRae -climbing straight up a dramatic geological faultline that ran straight uphill and back over to Lake McRae. I had a ball – the horses were very fit and determined (Ghost had been riding this type of terrain for the last 5 months) and the 250m climb took no time at all as the horses cantered straight up weaving through briar shrubs bristling with nasty thorns. It was an unforgettable ride with an amazing view as we passed Little Benledi peak before sidling through steep gully heads. If you’d suggested I’d be jumping mountain gullies on horseback one handed while filming with the other, 3 weeks back, I’d have said you were nuts – but here I was doing it and loving it. Nina was a good teacher and other guys were tremendous at showing and encouraging me on the challenges – I was really starting to love it and didn’t want to start the inevitable long trek home the following morning. 10 minutes later one of the horses rolled over in a bog, throwing its rider – a reminder that thngs can get serious quickly in this country, and could easily smash or squash $20k worth of camera gear in one saddle bag, in a flash. With a few muttered words, both rider and horse were up back into it. As we sidled back towards Lake McRae, and the hut, the pig hunting dog got into several wild pigs.
The last pig it chased just on dark made for the far horizon with speed and a vapour trail, hence the dog was gone into the darkness and we were left to return to the hut without her. It was a freezing cold miserable night and the early morning light revealed snow to low levels on the surrounding peaks. First job of the forth day was to go find a lonely wayward dog. It was an uneasy night for the guys knowing she was out there in the freezing cold and wet. The search was an unexpected bonus for me, as it was an opportunity to take more photos and get another look at Lake McRae and once again ride through the beautifully barren steep country leading down into the Clarence River.
Beyond Lake McRae we parted, Andy & Tom shooting down the Elliott Stream to search, while Cory and I sidled the faultline route back towards Elliott Bivvy. Sure enough the dog was found at the Elliott Bivvy, where we’d found the wild honey the day before, and we headed for home. Enroute Cory’s horse rolled clean over in an alpine bog again, and we discovered both our horses had dropped shoes. While passing Lake McRae the guys said that a swim in the lake was traditional for first time visitors. I didn’t come down in the last shower, but being an Antarctic Polar Plunge veteran (a fully paid up member of the Blue Acorn Club some would say) I said I’d do it if they did.
Not long afterwards the dogs and horses looked on with utter confusion as four humans peeled off outer skin, stripped down and plunged into the icy alpine waters, declaring it to be very fresh (actual words might have varied – youtube video now finished).
Back at the hut, we had a quick pack up before the hut and equipment was thoroughly tidied. It was great seeing three young men work so well together without hardly a word being spoken. They had spent most of a year together in remote locations where equipment, huts, dogs and horses must be well looked after, not only because their job relies on them, but their lives could also. Everything at the hut was cleaned carefully and stored, firewood checked, horseshoes put on (the guys were very competent at this now), swags tied on before we set off for the big climb out over the Inland Kaikoura Range and Robinson Saddle again. It was a relatively uneventful but exhausting climb up Driving Spur before gaining the pass, which still held remnants of the nights snowfall.
A quick team photo (above top) was taken before the steep descent into Robinson Creek down scree and steep rock faces. I just couldn’t believe how surefooted the station horses were in this country – born and raised of the mountains. We had problems walking down the steep grade, but the horses coped so well, almost sliding down on their behinds (some great clips now in the video).
It’s a long way down the Robinson Valley, but the horses had the smell of home in their nostrils so it was a fast walk, the last hour being in near total darkness. Andy, the head stockmen, remembered the galloping pledge as we gained the main station road. “Are you still game for that gallop?” “In the dark?! um yes…..” was my uncertain reply. For 300 metres I was galloping on a very determined horse in near total darkness – my fear was replaced with exhilaration. Perhaps it was not seeing the ground rush past in the dark, but it was a thrilling end to the adventure, and the long cool down walk alongside our horses back to the stables was just as useful to calm me down as it was for our horses.
The trip was remarkable. I’ve been lucky to do some grand things in life so far, but this little adventure rates up there. One of the strongest memories are the colours – everything was brown, yellow or grey – the mute autumn colours of this barren land and the deciduous trees (willows mostly) both of which are not common in NZ outback, coupled with the western/outback riding gear (saddles, chaps, hats etc) and the work, at times it really felt as if I’d landed straight into a western movie genre.
As I said, if you’d told me I’d be riding horses over this rugged terrain 3 weeks ago, one handed while filming it on video, I wouldn’t have believed you. But, the outcome is a great youtube video documenting the whole trip. Have a watch and leave a comment – it’s a way of life that very few will ever experience anymore, not to mention the wild honey raids, and polar swims. Overall we had 4 days and 95+kms in the saddle – an amazing experience that I can’t thank Jim & Tracey Ward enough for, and that should add the icing to the book project. I felt very proud at the end when the guys quietly admitted they were impressed that through it all I hadn’t fallen off – especially as I hadn’t been a horse rider several weeks earlier. So, a big thanks to Nina, Bruce and Kelly for preparing a total green horn, and toughening up his soft bits ready for the adventure! Before I left I had lots of advice from well wishers and tweeps via Twitter about how to variously stop saddle sores, pain and other fun things of a crippling nature from 4 days in the saddle. This ranged from sheepskins under the saddle, to lambskins under me, and some helpful advice on where to liberally apply vaseline. Any of this advice, I suspected, would not have increased my status with the guys. I did sneak a small tub of vaseline as a prophylactic from chaffing just in case (not the done thing to admit that in the outback apparently). But, I’m happy to report that afterwards I had no sore spots, chaffing, or muscle soreness – I was very surprised and will keenly attest to the comfort of stock saddles for long hours riding.
PHOTOGRAPHIC NOTES: I carried three cameras – a Canon 1Ds Mk3 with 70-200 f2.8L in a saddle bag, a Canon 5DMk2 with 24-70 f2.8L mostly on the strap diagonally over one shoulder (or when things got tough in a bumbag), and a Canon G10 in my breast pocket – mostly for video. The only other bit of kit I could carry was a Canon 14mm 2.8L (which never really got a look in as it was just impossible to change lenses quickly, and I couldn’t afford to get stuck with a super wide on the only camera I could get at fast, and I was seldomly close to subjects while in the saddle anyway), and a small compact tripod (a toy really) that I could just squeeze into a saddlebag. I tried various rigs to carry gear, even a custom over shoulder harness I’d constructed to hold a camera to my front, but the camera weight and horse movements (especially trotting and jumping) rendered most useless on day one (which was a great shake down day near the Station and the rest of my gear). I also really noticed that the quality of my photography was lower than I’d hoped for; I think because I had to invest considerable mental and physical effort into horse riding in really demanding situations as a relative novice, and didn’t want to holding the guys up. Little wonder that my creative investment had to be lower. Generally I had to ‘shoot images from the hip’ – taking easy opportunities as I could, and with so much time in the saddle that turned out to really limit photographic angles or perspectives (very hard to get foregrounds for instance that aren’t horse ears!). I’m really happy though – as it’s only one aspect of the book, will tell a great story, alongside the other fantastic material I’ve been shooting over the last 2 years (here are another couple of related blog posts).
The map below is a rough overall view of the trip with embedded photos. Zoom in & move around the map.