High Country Stations - Kiwi Guide Stories
In this article MoaTours Kiwi Guide Andrew shares his adventures in the South Island’s High Country on our High Country Stations, Gardens & Goldfields 7 day tour.
An iconic Kiwi journey into the stunning Canterbury High Country and Central Otago goldfields in autumn 2021.
Our High Country Stations, Gardens & Goldfields adventure
For me, travelling in the South Island has always been special, when I first started guiding in the late 1990s it was in the South and for the first 15 years of my guiding life I was privileged to lead tours all over the South Island.
So having just moved back to the South Island, after enjoying many North Island adventures with MoaTours, I was very excited to get back on the road and there’s no better time to do that than autumn in the South.
So here’s the story of my High Country, Gardens and Goldfields adventure, shared with an intrepid group of MoaTours travellers from different parts of the country to explore the stunning landscapes and meet the amazing people to Te Wai Pounamu.
Day 1 - Christchurch - Homebush Station - Mt Somers
For most of our guests the trip started with flights to Christchurch from their home cities and towns and as I pulled up at the airport with the coach I realised that on such a beautiful day there would be perfect views of the Southern Alps, Canterbury Plains and braided rivers from above as guests winged their way South.
Even at the airport in Christchurch, which is the South Island’s largest, everything’s just a bit smaller and laid back than in the North Island, one of the big attractions for everyone visiting the South.
So it was an easy arrival and transfer out to the coach for introductions and our pre-trip safety briefing before we headed off to our first destination, Homebush Station.
Homebush is the home of one of the earliest Canterbury settler families, the Deans, and it was Crispin (Deans), his wife Fleur and their two little girls who hosted us for lunch and a visit to their wonderful garden, homestead and museum.
Crispin shared his family story, from the two brothers, William and John Deans, who arrived from Scotland in the early 1840s, All Black Bob Deans and the matriarch of the family Jane who held everything together after the early deaths of both brothers.
The old homestead and museum are filled with mementos and curios from the last 180 years, but it was the walk around the garden in the beautiful autumn sunshine which seemed to bring smiles to most faces!
Crispin and Fleur really made us feel so welcome and we were all a bit reluctant to leave after such an idyllic start to the trip, but we headed on in the brilliant sunshine to our home for the evening, Mt Somers.
If there was one more "wow" moment today, it was our stop at the Rakaia River, which was absolutely stunning and we all enjoyed a short stroll down to the brilliant blue waters.
We spent the night in Mt Somers and had our first real taste of Southern hospitality with dinner at the award winning Stronechrubie restaurant. It was a fun first dinner as everyone started to get to know each other and look forward to the week to come.
We knew we were being spoilt with the freshest produce when we saw one of the staff go out into the garden and pick fresh mint for our deserts! From garden to plate in about 5 minutes, that’s country living!
Day 2 - Erewhon Station
Of all the special places we were to visit on this trip, and possibly of all the places we visit anywhere in the country with MoaTours, guests look forward to Erewhon Station so much.
Even the name has a magical sound, and literature lovers will know of Samuel Butler’s famous novel Erewhon, which was inspired by his time working at nearby Mesopotamia Station in the 1860s.
But it was another Samuel Butler work which I drew inspiration from today, his lesser known “A first year in Canterbury Settlement '', which tells the story of his journey from England to Canterbury in 1862, including all the way up the Rangitata River, right where we were going today.
There’s nothing like reading the words of the early explorers in the very spots they wrote them to give you a real sense of our history.
The day was brilliant again as we travelled higher up into the Rangitata valley, onto the gravel road (in true MoaTours fashion, we love getting off the beaten track), past Mt Sunday (Edoras from Lord of the Rings) and onto Erewhon Station to meet our hosts, Erin and Colin.
Aside from Samuel Butler's famous novel, Erewhon Station is famous for two things, it’s amazing alpine location and their Clydesdale Horses, and that’s what we were here to experience.
As we arrived at the woolshed we were greeted by a team of magnificent Clydesdales hitched up to a wagon, and a second team pulling a plough on the fields right behind. Erin and Colin showed us around (by horse drawn wagon of course!) and shared stories of the trials and tribulations of their high country life with us.
It goes without saying we were impressed by what they have to do to make life work in such a remote location, as Erin put it, “before I came here I used to be a clipboard girl but I soon learned that doesn’t’ work up here!”.
It was an idyllic morning topped off by lunch in the woolshed, although quite a few enjoyed the sunshine outside on another perfect day.
We took our time heading back towards civilisation and took advantage of the beautiful day to make plenty of stops for photos and to enjoy our first full day out in the High Country.
We stopped at Mt Sunday, the Te Araroa walkway across the Rangitata Valley, the little crib settlements and Lake Clearwater and the historic buildings at Hakatere, before heading through to our home for the next two nights, Geraldine.
Day 3 - Orari Gorge Station - Orari Estate
With two nights in Geraldine, we made the most of our time to explore more of the historic High Country Stations in the area, two of the oldest stations in Canterbury, Orari Gorge Station and Orari Estate.
The names are quite similar but they’re quite different, Orari Gorge is up in the foothills of the Southern Alps surrounded by native bush and Orari Estate lower down on the plains.
Our day started with a short visit to nearby Woodbury, home of Woodbury Rhododendrons and also the historic St Thomas church, erected by the Tripp family and resting place of many early settlers.
Orari Gorge Estate was one of the very first stations in Canterbury, established in 1856 by two early settlers, Charles Tripp and John Acland.
Up at the station we were met by Rosa, the granddaughter of Charles Tripp, who, along with her husband Graham, showed us around the wonderful gardens and the original 1860s farm buildings.
You would never imagine that hidden in a back corner of a country property like this there is a treasure trove of historical buildings and mementos, all of which are Heritage New Zealand listed and loving cared for by Rosa and her family. We were heartened to hear that the next two generations of Rosa's family are already here on the property ready to continue their work.
It was another beautiful day and everyone enjoyed a walk through the garden and morning tea at the homestead before saying goodbye. Country life at its best!
We headed down country for lunch at Orari Estate and the next of our friendly hosts, Rosie. (Rosa at Orari Gorge, Rosie at Orari Estate, it’s all true!) Both the stations we visited today are still owned by the original founding families, Rosie is a descendant of the original family who established the property in the 1850s.
Rosie is the consummate host and entertainer, although she confesses to not being too much of a gardener so leaves that to others. We had a wonderful lunch in the homestead while she told us “Upstairs Downstairs” stories of maids, gardeners, lords and ladies. More wonderful country hospitality and flavour!
We returned to Geraldine by mid afternoon for people to explore town and pick up some goodies like Barker’s preserves and Geraldine Cheese.
A few keen walkers even stretched their legs on a short walk in Talbot Forest, and were rewarded with fantails and kereru!
A great day was capped off by dinner at the local craft brewer, where again we were spoiled with country hospitality.
Day 4 - Four Peaks Station - Aoraki Mt Cook
Once again we couldn’t believe our luck as we were greeted with another perfect blue sky day and even though it was autumn it was pretty warm too.
Today was another real highlight, on our way up into the Mackenzie Country we ventured off main road just before the town of Fairlie to follow a backroad to visit another amazing High Country Station, Four Peaks Station, this time we were hosted by Jo and Steve McAtamney.
Both Jo and Steve grew up here and we learned that Jo is also related to the Tripp family and Rosa from the previous day. Orari Gorge and Four Peaks Stations were originally part of the same property, but they’re separated by a big range which we’d driven around this morning. These early stations were big, what an undertaking for the first people to work this land!
Our highlight today was heading into Sutherland’s Hut, an original 1860s High Country Hut lovingly restored and cared for by Steve and Jo. This is one of the oldest remaining original huts anywhere in New Zealand.
As it’s on their freehold property (a lot of the other high country stations are leased from the government) they have been able to do the work to keep this heritage building alive with minimal red tape. Steve reckons that if they’d had to follow all the government regulations required for buildings on leasehold land the hut would have been lost!
We travelled up into the heart of Four Peaks Station on our coach, with the last few kilometres on Steve & Jo’s 4WD vehicles. The setting is stunning and we were treated again to this amazing High Country hospitality with a beautiful lunch which we all enjoyed in the sun at the hut.
After saying goodbye to Jo and Steve we headed further up into the Mackenzie Country and the heart of the Southern Alps, Aoraki Mt Cook National Park.
Although a lot of the stories of this tour centre around the early European settlers, we were also mindful that Europeans were not the first people to live in this area, that of course was the Ngai Tahu, Ngati Mamoe and Waitaha people.
I had read somewhere that Te Waipounamu (the South Island) is a cathedral to the ancestors of Ngai Tahu and Aoraki Mt Cook itself represents a sacred ancestor.
Over the last few years, like many New Zealanders, I have been learning more about Māori language and culture, and it gives the countryside a totally different feeling when you think that all the mountains, rivers and landforms we pass represent ancestors and I wanted to pass this on to our group.
The South Island was looking amazing as we travelled past the stunning lakes of Tekapo and Pukaki, again blessed by the perfect autumn weather which made for great photos.
Arriving at the Hermitage Hotel always feels like pulling into an oasis to me, and tonight was no different as we made our home and enjoyed the excellent dining and service in this most stunning of locations.
The sunset on Mt Cook was memorable and I could see some very happy faces at dinner as people compared photos.
Day 5 - Aoraki Mt Cook - Danseys Pass - Ranfurly
After a delicious breakfast at the Hermitage we had the morning free to explore Mt Cook, but for now our weather luck had run out and it was raining steadily.
So it was the perfect time to visit the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre which is right inside the hotel. It’s a treasure trove of mementos and history from Sir Ed’s exploits, and we were reminded that it was at Mt Cook in the Hermitage Hotel that he decided to dedicate his life to mountaineering.
A few guests ventured out to the National Park visitor’s centre close by in the village as well, just a few minutes away. But most were happy to enjoy a relaxing morning in the museum followed by a cup of tea in the hotel lounge.
Before leaving Mt Cook village we ventured up to the Hooker Valley road in the coach to the campground and site of the first Hermitage Hotel built in 1884. The first hotel was washed away in a flood but you can still see some of the original stonework to this day.
We headed on our way and as often happens the weather improved as we travelled away from the main divide. After a lunch stop in Omarama we made our way up the Waitaki Valley, for the “Goldfields” part of the tour. The first few days of this trip focused on the High Country Stations in Canterbury and now we were to head into Otago and Goldfield country.
The Waitaki Valley is probably not as well known as the Mackenzie Country or Southern Lakes but it is equally as stunning, we all agreed as we travelled past Lakes Benmore and Aviemore, all part of the Waitaki hydroelectric scheme. The fiery autumn colours just added to the scene.
Everyone knew the answer to my trivia question as we drove through Kurow and the turnoff to nearby Hakataramea. Who is the famous Kiwi who comes from Hakataramea? Richie McCaw of course!
Our Central Otago adventure started in earnest when we turned off State Highway 83 onto the Danseys Pass road, this felt like we were really getting into the backcountry!
The Danseys Pass is an old gold mining route, first discovered in the 1860s by gold prospectors heading exactly the same way we were, from the Waitaki Valley up into Central Otago.
Our first stop was at Danseys Pass Lavender, where we received another warm Southern welcome from Jo and Barry, the owners. It was a real oasis of colour in the dry Central Otago environment under low cloud which made the photos we took quite surreal.
We love visiting places like this run by hard working Kiwis in amazing locations, we know they’re running a business but it felt like stopping in on old friends. I noticed people were keen to offer their support, with quite a few lavender products making their way back onto the bus!
Onwards and upwards to the pass, the official border between Canterbury and Otago. Although we had noticed that the rural mailboxes changed from the Canterbury Red & Black to the Otago Blue & Gold from the Waitaki Valley onwards.
It was overcast with low cloud today, which gave a mystic feel to the Pass and surrounds, the only downside was that we couldn’t see all the alpine views we might do on a clear day, but that’s all part of High Country travel.
After a drink at historic Danseys Pass Hotel we continued on over into the Maniototo Valley.
As we descended into the Maniototo we passed through settlements where rich gold strikes were abundant, places like Kyeburn and Naseby, which has a real frontier feel to it with all the restored historic buildings still in use by businesses today.
The lasting memory from today was the brilliant late afternoon sunlight illuminating the mountains and plains all around the Maniototo as we continued our journey to Ranfurly.
I noticed everyone fell silent as we just enjoyed the wide open spaces and tranquility.
Day 6 - Ranfurly - Macraes - Moonlight Route - Lawrence
We spent our morning visiting a couple of Ranfurly institutions, the Art Deco Gallery and Curiosity Shoppe. Both are run by passionate locals who love sharing the stories of their town and glimpse into their rural lifestyles.
Many people won’t know that Ranfurly has some great Art Deco buildings too, the gallery is housed in a beautifully restored 1930s ”Milk Bar”.
Right in the centre of town there’s a statue of the first provincial surveyor of Otago, JT Thomson, who surveyed and named many High Country icons such as Mt Aspiring, the Lindis Pass, Mt Earnslaw and the Cardrona Valley.
His background made some interesting reading, as a teenager he was sent from Scotland to Singapore, where he learnt his trade, then he came out to New Zealand in the 1850s, eventually marrying and having eight daughters!
The lives our early settlers had were very different to the way we live today.
From Ranfurly we continued into Goldfield country, this time to visit a modern day gold mine at Macraes. It’s a very impressive site and a big employer too, there are 17 buses a day transporting workers to and from Dunedin!
Lunch was at another historic hotel, Stanley’s Hotel, built in 1882. After lunch everyone enjoyed a stroll out to the impressive Haast Eagle sculpture, which is part of the Art & Heritage Park being developed by the mine owner’s to help attract more visitors to town. This sculpture is the work of Mark Hill (son of jeweller Michael Hill) and was flown in by helicopter!
Our afternoon gave us the chance to really get off the beaten track again and I think the journey surprised everyone. Part of exploring the regions of New Zealand like we do is taking these iconic roads which many people say they have always wanted to travel but never had the chance. Today was one of those chances.
From Macraes we retraced our steps a little way then left the paved surface again for the Moonlight Road, an amazing route through schist “rock gardens” that look like they belong on the moon. This route was named by JT Thomson as well, and we were wondering what inspired him to name it so, as in the 1850s he would have never seen a photograph of the moon.
After popping back out on the tarseal to pass through Middlemarch, we took some more backroads again through to Lawrence via Lake Mahinerangi.
Everyone was surprised to see a lake this size in the middle of the hills, one that no one had even heard of, but obviously the locals knew as there were lots of holiday houses (cribs) and boats at the little settlement.
Our journey ended at Lawrence, where we enjoyed more local hospitality and a great final dinner together at the Wild Walnut Cafe, hosted by our friends Sue and Jim.
Day 7 - Lawrence - Dunedin Airport - Home
It was hard to believe that this was our last day, we’d all had so much fun and seen so much the time had just flown by.
For our last morning in Lawrence we were joined by local guides Barbara and Steve, who have been working tirelessly for years restoring sites and bringing stories of Lawrence’s heritage alive for visitors. For those that don’t know, Lawrence is the site of the very first find of the Otago Goldrush, by a man called Gabriel Read, at a place now called Gabriel’s Gully.
As we journeyed around town Barbara and Steve brought the colourful history to life with stories of riches and ruins, love and loss, heroes and villains. We went to the very spot where the first gold was found, which Gabriel Read described as “shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night”.
That discovery was to transform Otago from the poorest province in New Zealand to the wealthiest, in a very short time.
Our last stop in Lawrence was for a hosted country lunch at Linlithgow Farm, where local Sarah Homer and her family farm in the hills close to Lawrence. It was our last meal together so we celebrated with a glass of wine!
It was also our final opportunity to enjoy Southern Hospitality, and our last gravel road too, as from here we headed through to Dunedin airport for our flights home.
High Country Stations, Gardens, Goldfields & Southern Hospitality
Looking back on the trip and talking to a few of our guests since then, we all remember the amazing High Country scenery and the amazing stories of the early settlers who laid the foundations for our society today.
But what I think will remain with all of us most of all was that warm Southern hospitality, every single place we went we were greeted with smiles and warm welcomes.
That is something everyone remarked on and for me, having just moved back down to the South Island, made me feel right at home again.
Thanks to all our wonderful guests on this trip, who made it such a fun and enlightening experience, and of course our wonderful Southern hosts, for opening their homes and hearts to us.
See you next time in the High Country!