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June 2013 Issue
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Moving to the mountains

Mountain towns like Wanaka provide easy access to the outdoors
For outdoorsy people, living in a city far from the mountains is like a yachtie living in Mt Cook Village. Josh Gale finds out what it takes to up sticks and move to the mountains

It happened to me while sitting at a traffic light in Onehunga.

It was 5pm gridlock. Semi-trailer trucks were squeezing me in and coughing out fumes.

The traffic light went green, two trucks went through and the light prematurely went red.

Next to me, a middle aged suit in a Ford Falcon exploded and screamed abuse at the traffic light.

His face reddened, his neck tightened as he slammed his steering wheel and swore loud enough for me to catch every insult.

Right then, I had a moment of clarity: “What in seven heavens is this all about?” I asked myself.

There we were, one person to a car, pumping out carbon, yelling at inanimate objects while global warming heats the planet.

As I sat there, I remembered something American writer Mark Twain had said: “Whenever you find yourself in the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Cynical as that sounds, the quote made me question what I was doing spending day after day in traffic amongst the masses.

An overwhelming desire to escape the city came over me.

For some time I had been entertaining the fantasy of moving to the mountains to live a quieter life and have easy access to an alpine environment.

But something changed that day in traffic; it was no longer just a childish dream, it was something I wanted to make a reality.

A week after this revelation, I was still mulling it over.

My wife pointed out I needed to get out of my head and into the outdoors, so we packed our bags and drove to Ohakune, the closest mountain town to Auckland.

Ohakune is a bustling winter town, but come summer visitor numbers start to dry up – making it hard to make a living for some locals

Ohakune is a bustling winter town, but come summer visitor numbers start to dry up – making it hard to make a living for some locals

I decided I’d find out firsthand what it takes to move to the mountains.

I’m by no means the only city dweller to have got to this point. In fact, I imagine most have at some stage experienced a similar moment when they question what they’re doing with their lives.

Take Aucklander Joanne Miller, for example. She and her partner Phil have made moving to the mountains part of their five year plan.

Miller would love to live in Wanaka or somewhere in Otago, but the location depends on where they find employment.

The couple have reached their wits end with Auckland’s traffic problems and want easier access to the mountains for snow sports and mountain biking.

“I hate the fact that if I’m planning a weekend down in the mountains it takes four hours to get there and you’ve got to fight through Auckland’s traffic just to get out of the city,” says Miller, who moved from England to New Zealand 13 years ago. “What we’ve found when we’ve visited provincial towns is that you can go mountain biking and do so much within one morning because there’s no traffic problems.

“I moved from England for a better lifestyle, but in Auckland at the moment I feel like I’m a little hamster trapped on a wheel.”

Miller and her partner are renovating their house so they can sell up and use the capital gain to fund their move to the mountains. However, she isn’t sure she’ll last another five years in Auckland and would move tomorrow if the right job came along.

On the first morning of my escape to the mountains, I hired a bike and rode the 15km Ohakune Old Coach Road.

Cloud hid Mt Ruapehu’s summit, but its weighty presence, the old podocarp forest and the fresh air flushed the city out of my mind. As I pedalled along the historic cobblestone road I met other weary urbanites who’d come for a break from the city.

One couple told me they’d love to live in a mountain town like Ohakune. I asked what’s holding them back and they said the same thing as Miller: “Jobs.”

Back in Ohakune, I met ex-city-dweller Darren Gamble who knows firsthand how difficult it is to survive in a small town like Ohakune.

Gamble is owner-operator of Station Lodge Backpackers, Mountain Bike Station and Ski and Board Station. He also runs a mountain shuttle service, is the president of the Ruapehu Mountain Bike Club, the chairman of community group Ohakune 2000 and runs Visit Ohakune.

Like other lifestyle seekers who moved to the town, Gamble learned quickly you’ve got to invent your own income and have your fingers in a few different pies because there are few jobs going.

Before moving to Ohakune five years ago, Gamble and his wife Jane had been running one of the southern hemisphere’s biggest outdoor education schools in Malaysia. In 2008, the company’s owner offered to promote Gamble to director and give him shares in the company. He tempted him with a package that would have set him and his family up for life.

But Gamble turned it down.

The corporate lifestyle, working long hours and being stuck in traffic in Kuala Lumpur didn’t sit right for the former Outward Bound instructor. The couple also enjoyed working alongside one another, but in Kuala Lumpur it wouldn’t have been possible.

“We decided to come back to New Zealand without knowing what we would do here,” Gamble says. “We didn’t even know Ohakune existed then.”

Darren Gamble escaped the corporate ladder for Ohakune but is not sure how long he can stay

The couple spent a few months travelling around the South Island. But as their savings dwindled they began to think seriously about what was next.

Gamble had always dreamed about owning his own business so he began looking for one to buy on TradeMe and through a broker.

Then a friend suggested they check out Ohakune.

Gamble discovered Station Lodge backpackers and bike hire was for sale and they threw every cent they had into it and got a bank loan to cover the rest.

“We bought it on the basis that we thought Ohakune would rock in summer,” he says. “The winter ski season is already sewn up and we thought if summer went off, then the town would crank.

“We just couldn’t understand why more people weren’t here: being in the outdoors most of our lives, we saw it as a goldmine.

“The bush is right there, the mountain, hiking tracks and there’s mountain biking potential all over the place.”

Gamble’s enthusiasm and optimism for the town remains strong today, but it has been tempered as the challenges of living in Ohakune came to the surface.

After five years in the town, he isn’t sure how much longer they’ll continue living there. He says many people move to the town with the dream of living on the mountain, but “the reality is a little bit different”.

Adventure tourism during the summer months is growing. Over Easter, Gamble says the town was packed with Lycra-clad city slickers driving four wheel drives with bikes on the back. More and more people from around New Zealand and from abroad are visiting the town for cycling and mountain biking adventures.

So what’s the problem?

“We really love living in Ohakune. It’s a beautiful place for kids,” Gamble says.

“Sometimes I get the climbing bug, and I say ‘see you honey I’m going to go climb the mountain’ and run to the top.

“That’s why we love living here.

“But we’ve got to have a more reliable income.”

About 50 per cent of the homes in Ohakune area are owned by absentee owners and are rented out as holiday homes which directly compete with accommodation providers like Station Lodge Backpackers.

Most of the 400-odd holiday homes are owned by urbanites, which means the rental income they earn isn’t reinvested in Ohakune.

“Just about every accommodation business in this town is for sale because it’s so hard,” Gamble says. “If the holiday home issue is dealt with by the council, it will help the town to grow because it will mean more money is reinvested.”

Gamble and other accommodation providers have requested the Ruapehu District Council investigate ways to make it an even playing field between them and the holiday home market.

Currently, accommodation providers are expected to adhere to health and safety regulations whereas holiday home owners are not. Gamble wants this changed.

For Ohakune residents who have a job though, life is easier.

Dean and Jane Sherrit, for example, feel privileged because they’re working in their respective careers: surveying and dentistry.

They moved to Ohakune after working in London for six years and becoming tired with the lifestyle.

Ben Story created a living selling coffee out the back of his kombi van

Sherrit says Ohakune is a great place to raise kids and, like Gamble, he believes it has the potential to grow into a world class mountain town.

“We have friends in the city who would love to live here and have a career at the same time, but it’s not easy,” Sherrit says.

As far as he can tell the job prospects aren’t going to get better anytime soon, either.

For example, Winstone Pulp Mill, the biggest employer in the area, axed 80 staff at the end of 2010 and Sherrit believes the mill will continue to decline.

Due to technological advances, Ohakune’s famous market gardens are also not the big employer they once were.

To turn this decline around, Sherrit and Gamble would like to see downhill trails built to the side of the Mountain Road, the highest road in the country.

Along with attractions like the 317km Mountain to Sea Trail, the recently opened 85km Pureora Timber Trail, The Bridge to Nowhere and events like the T42 mountain bike race and others, Gamble says epic downhill trails along Mountain Road would be the icing on the cake and would transform Ohakune into an international mountain biking destination.

He and a group of dedicated locals are working to get the project off the ground, but he can’t say when it will happen.

“It’s just very slow progress because there’re only three or four motivated individuals who get behind these initiatives,” he says. “Few of us can afford to employ staff so you have to do all the work yourself and you get trapped in your own little world.

“It’s hard for people to step outside and work on different projects because we just don’t have the time.”

Driving around Ohakune, it’s easy to see why Gamble is concerned about the future of the town. Most of the houses have the curtains drawn which give it a gloomy feeling.

It’s a long way off from being a year-round busy mountain town like Wanaka.

However, Ruapehu District Council mayor Sue Morris says she doesn’t want Ohakune to be the same as Wanaka: “We want to be better than Wanaka,” the mayor says enthusiastically.

Morris has been in the job for 12 years and says this is her last term. In her spare time, Morris likes to work on catchy marketing phrases about Ruapehu district.

“I’d like you to put this in your article because I dreamt it up myself,” she requested when we spoke. “If you hike, bike, fish or ski, Ruapehu is the place to be.

“How do you like that? It’s quite catchy, eh?

“I say it wherever I go because I’m so passionate about the place.”

Morris is genuinely passionate about the area. She loves the idea of building downhill trails along Mountain Road, but isn’t sure when it will happen.

Her council is busy working with commercial developers on a retail project in Taumaurunui that she says will create 200 jobs.

She’s points to how much Taupo has grown over the last 20 years and is confident her district will do the same over the next 20.

“There are people coming in from the cities to live here because with technology now people can move in and establish their businesses right in the middle of everywhere,” she says. “We’re in the middle of everywhere and we’ve been the best kept secret for years, but we don’t want to be that anymore.

“We want the district to become a world class tourism destination.”

Oddly, though, Morris believes the success of the district isn’t based on attracting more people to live there.

“I think we have to accept the fact it’s about a visitor presence in our district and not about people staying here permanently,” she says.

Down in Wanaka, Queenstown Lakes District Council is doing the opposite – it’s working to make the area less reliant on the visitor industry.

QLDC deputy mayor and Wanaka ward councillor Lyal Cocks says the council is trying to diversify so migrants have jobs to come to.

The council is aiming to make Wanaka the snow sports centre of excellence for the southern hemisphere and it would like it to also become a research and development hub.

“We have growth here because we have some great natural assets, but at this stage we still don’t have a diverse enough economy and enough high paying jobs that attract people to stay here,” Cocks says. “The reality is the cost of living is high and the level of the average income is not comparable to the cities.

Those who have moved to small mountain towns say they're a great place to raise a family.

Those who have moved to small mountain towns say they’re a great place to raise a family.

“That’s why we always tell people to have a careful think about what they’re going to do when they come here.

“You can’t live on mountains.”

Like Gamble in Ohakune, Cocks invented his own income when he moved back to Wanaka in 1998 after serving in the Navy out of Wellington for 23 years.

He noticed there wasn’t a local pizzeria so got his own going.

“I was told Wanaka wasn’t big enough, but we created a job for ourselves and a few other people,” he says.

Like Ohakune, that’s the way you have to do it because it’s not easy finding a full time job in Wanaka either.

Ex-Wellingtonian nurse Lynda Davis says the medical centre where she works is inundated with job applications.

“It’s all very well being a keen outdoors person, but if you don’t have financial backing it’s hard to live in Wanaka,” Davis says. “Jobs are limited so people tend to hang onto what they’ve got.

“Others base themselves here, but do contract work in the city for a couple of months and then come back.”

Davis moved to Wanaka with her family in 2004 because her husband Lester partially lost sight in one eye due to a rare illness that meant he could no longer work as a commercial artist.

However, she says the illness was a blessing in disguise.

They’d dreamed about retiring in Wanaka, but the illness expedited the move and gave the family a better lifestyle.

To make ends meet, her husband grows and sells lawn turf, does landscape design and pool maintenance. And when their two daughters lived at home, he was an at-home dad. This was a complete role reversal from when they lived in Wellington.

Back in the capital his salary dwarfed what he earns now, but he was leaving at 7am and getting home at 8pm.

“He was missing out on the girls’ growing up because the whole time he was working,” Davis says.” Now, with the working hours he does, we have time to do things we want to do on the weekend.

“On Saturday we’re going to walk up Mt Roy to check out the newly fallen snow.”

Being so close to the mountains has made it easy for the whole family to go tramping together. Davis and her husband organised Duke of Edinburgh trips for their daughters and their friends. This gave the girls, now 18 and 21, a taste for outdoor recreation and now they continue to go tramping with friends.

Davis doubts this would have happened if they’d continued living in Wellington.

“The kids living here don’t go off to the mall or hang around the railway station after school, they head down the lake,” she says. “Wanaka is big enough so you’re not in everybody’s pocket, but small enough so you know most people. You’ve got a great community feeling and people look out for one another, especially the kids.”

After my weekend escape to the mountains, I can see myself living there and going trail running, tramping and mountain biking every weekend. Like Gamble does when he gets a break, I see myself ducking out the back door and climbing Mt Ruapehu.

I can see myself living the dream, but I can’t see how I’d make a living doing it. Somehow, I’d have to invent my own living.

On my way out of Ohakune, I stopped for a coffee sold out of a kombi van and was surprised to find an old high school friend owns the business.

Aucklander Bent Story invented Kombi Coffee when he came to live in Ohakune in February 2010.

Story is a broadcast journalist and had been working in Wellington and Christchurch and raising a family. The pressure of work and raising five children in the city eventually wore Story and his partner Katie down.

“We didn’t know it, but we needed a more simple life basically to heal from over a decade parenting and stress,” Story says. “Coming from that city life, you don’t know you need a simpler life until you actually live it.

“I look back now at how I was living and I can’t believe I was even functioning.”

It finally got too much for the couple and they decided to move to Ohakune because Katie’s parents live there and they desperately needed the support.

The move helped make Story more of a family man and it’s been good for the kids, too. Story says local children are raised “free range” and once you’re known in the town everyone looks out for each other’s families.

The hard part for Story was figuring out how to make a living.

“Unless you’re providing a core service like being a teacher or a policeman, you have to invent your trade,” he says. “I had to invent this little patch for Kombi Coffee and it’s gradually starting to turn into something I can live off properly as it becomes more full time.”

However, he says the major hurdle wasn’t money, but himself.

“On off days, I wonder why I’m here, why am I making coffee in this little town,” he says. “I have two degrees, eight years of tertiary education; I could definitely be working in the media if I moved to a city.

“But then there is so much more freedom living here and that’s the way I’ve chosen to do it.”

Leaving Ohakune for Auckland, I found the call of the mountains stronger than ever. There’s no rush hour in Ohakune, no suits screaming at inanimate objects. Life is what you make of it.