We lower our heads and press on. The next few days could be ferocious if this keeps up. I’m still trying to make friends with my bicycle. I own a mountain bike, but the occasional traverse of the wilds of Wellington hasn’t quite prepared me for this journey. There’s nothing particularly ‘off-road’ in my repertoire.Still, the gorse is glowing against the grey riverbed beside us, where ribboning strands of silver lead the eye to the lowering clouds and beyond. It takes my mind off what’s happening to my backside and recalcitrant muscles.
Farmers Anne and Phil Todhunter knew their sheep station was in a special part of the world: they began sharing 23 years ago, flying visitors in on helicopter tours. Guided walking followed, and now they have created a four-day mountain bike tour, setting off from Methven, following the Rakaia River up into the high country. Riders get to experience the back of beyond - glacial valleys, swathes of tussock and wide, lonely plains - magical country, that most of us never even suspect exists.
There’s one last rise ahead of us as we reach the head of the valley. The clouds bunch in around us as we sweat our way up and over the brow of the hill, but admit an almost biblical shaft of sunshine that illuminates our stop for the evening, Glenrock Station, far below. And with hot showers and a feast of marinated wild venison shot just a few days earlier, it’s the promised land all right.
From Glenrock, we hit a private farm track to Lake Heron Station next morning. Gingerly, we pick our way across an expanse of shifting shale up into the tussock lands. Memories of the previous afternoon’s travails fade, as our muscles loosen and the wind dies back to a friendly breeze. Here, there are only the sounds of riffling grasses and random streams tripping across the shingle.
There’s some downhill action in store, too, as we drop back onto the stony plains surrounding Lake Heron. I learn the hard way that too much caution can be just as treacherous as an excess of speed when confronting gravity at an angle.
The landscapes switch and change. Behind us, a curling river splits the plane from the bowl of the Ragged Ranges mountains where we started out, a surprisingly long way away. In the long twilight, the last of the sun splashes seashell pastels on the snowy peaks surrounding the station and Lake Heron; beyond the homestead is a slash of ultramarine blue. Another feast awaits. Anne has prepared a succulent fillet of Lake Heron merino, which we wash down with a dulcet Otago pinot. Later we all agree a wee dram of whiskey is warranted, as we sit beside the roaring fire in our cosy farm cottage.
The nor’-wester’s back for the last day but, like us, it’s been broken to the saddle. It slips firmly in behind us, as we follow a narrow trail up into the outer edges of Lake Heron Station. Not for the first time, the townies amongst us express astonishment at the sheer scale of the country up here, and marvel at the notion of farming it.
We’re following the Stour River valley. The terrain beneath our wheels changes from stony river trail to soft springy grass track to a rutted 4WD DOC track. By now, I seem to be getting my head around the technique of stream and river crossing - we’ve had plenty of practice, after all. I know where to aim, how fast to hit and to resist, at all costs, the urge to shut my eyes.
There’s one last decent hill to tackle, last of the day, last of the tour. At the top, I flop into the grass. The crickets rustle and chirp in the grass beside me and I watch a skylark high up in the sky twisting and whirling in lazy drifting loops. I have everything I could wish for from an adventure: a few cuts and bruises, rashes in strange places as souvenirs, a belly that still tingles from the gourmet cooking we’ve been treated to and, more importantly, a new appreciation for this part of the world. The burnished landscapes are etched into my memory.
We mount up and move on. Without warning, we leave the hidden realms behind. The golden tussock gives way to the emerald green of the Canterbury Plains and, as if to drive home the point, a southerly front arrives to deliver a dose of cold, wet reality. At the sight of a 50km/h sign, I raise my fist in triumph. But, it’s a hollow victory. As two giant tractors roar by, I’m immediately nostalgic for the peace, the silence.
Reported by Nicola Edmonds for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue