A Bovine Adventure

Naturally we wanted to see more of the south island of New Zealand and, heading north from Hanmer Springs, our plan was to cut through the Molesworth Station crossing the Acheron river and 200km on to Marlborough and Blenheim. The weather didn't look wholly welcoming but at least, being January, the Acheron Road was likely to be open. Armed with an internet map and trusty 4WD and assured that there'd be plenty of signposts, we were ready for adventure.

Gorgeous : a seemingly never-ending landscape of craggy scree-scarred grey mountains, wide river valleys, slopes of haphazard greeny-grey hairy tussocks, and stretches of glorious golden flax in bloom. Mile after mile where we felt completely alone in the world.

Perhaps we dallied too long over elevensies, admiring yet another vista; by the time we pulled up at the station ranger's house, it was early afternoon and we still had some way to go before we were even out of the Molesworth.

And there were delays ahead : the ranger beckoned us over. "They're driving a thousand head of cattle through here later on" he warned. "Best wait a little way up and off the road until they're passed in an hour or so. But you can't go from here - you DO NOT want to meet them on the road."

We took this as our cue to back-track for lunch. But, on our return, an hour later, still no sign. To be honest, I had little notion of what "a thousand head of cattle" looked like but I was pretty sure that we hadn't missed them.

So we waited.


"You'll hear 'em coming" said the ranger.

We listened hard. Was that a slight rumbling? Maybe not. We'd moved up an incline within 50m ahead of a gate which would have to be opened to funnel them through and which we thought might act as a pinch-point to delay their progress if we missed any action.

And, sure enough, we heard them before we saw them: the unmistakeable impressively solid heavy sound of collective mass movement. A hat-less cowgirl appeared suddenly around the corner, following by the first cow, skittering away from the crowd. Two cowboys followed, at the head of breathtakingly vast blur of brown-black bodies. Heaving, pushing, snorting; shining hair and glinting horn; dust and steam rising; the occasional tail flicking up or wet, panting nose rearing. I made out more cowboys, trotting calmly along in patrol at the borders, and sheepdogs darting in and out in response to whistles and clicks.

But then - there was the gate. The cowgirl dismounted, leaving the dogs to corral the front-runners while she opened the gate and nudged the first brown beast through the gap. Hesitant at first, a dance ensued as it dodged back and forth, while behind them the remaining mass struggled against the increasing bottleneck, until there was no room left for the game to continue. With no option left, it lifted its head and trotted nonchalantly through.

The example bravely made, the mounting pressure finally told; the bottleneck broke through en masse in a noisy, muscular flood of bovine chaos. Released into freedom to move in the space of the next field, the cattle now became even more uncontrolled and the cowboys and dogs struggled to keep them together.

Spreading like dark blood across the side of the green hill, becoming more and more dense in colour as the herd gradually merged, the gate eventually clicked behind the last skittering rump. We looked at our watches and realised we had some miles to go before we were safely in Marlborough.

Half an hour further on though, we cautiously overtook two black cattle thundering along at full pelt - the Molesworth Two making a brave escape?!

Sara Partington.

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