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Walking the rural-urban divide

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Private tracks are often touted as a luxury walking experience. But for most, it’s seeing farm and high country station life first hand that is the real attraction.

The road from Christchurch up the east coast to Blenheim and Picton is one of the country’s busiest. Winding through the Hunderlee Hills most drivers wouldn’t notice an innocuous rural road, just over the Conway River, which leads to the coast. Nelson woman Liz Griffiths has been taking this road for years, knowing it leads to a hidden part of the country few people know exists; a pocket of pastoral land where two families have been inviting hikers to walk their farms and see the world through a new lens. “I remember the first time I did the Kaikoura Coast Track,” says Griffiths. “We stopped at the cattle yards, right beside the sea, and just offshore the water was awash with hundreds of dolphins, jumping and spinning. It was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.” The Macfarlane and Handyside families have been running their two-day, 26km private walk for over 25 years. Hikers stay in comfortable cottages with fully equipped kitchens and hot showers. Luggage is transported and the hosts even arrange the catering. And while the scenery and the wildlife encounters are undeniably stunning, equally special is being invited onto someone’s land, and invited into their life. 

“Showing people our land and our life is exactly why we’re here,” says Sally Handyside. “It’s a living, breathing, working farm. The farm dogs rush over to say hello and our son will drive past on the quad bike and wave. My daughter-in-law drives the kids to the school bus at 7.30 in the morning. There’s no mistaking where you are.”

Private walks like the Kaikoura Coast Track are showing walkers a piece of New Zealand we’ve lost, or perhaps become disconnected from. The walk becomes as much about the people as it is about the land, and walkers learn how deeply the two are linked. 

Incredible coastal views at Whareama

“Showing people our land and our life is exactly why we’re here,” says Sally Handyside. “It’s a living, breathing, working farm. The farm dogs rush over to say hello and our son will drive past on the quad bike and wave. My daughter-in-law drives the kids to the school bus at 7.30 in the morning. There’s no mistaking where you are.”

Private walks like the Kaikoura Coast Track are showing walkers a piece of New Zealand we’ve lost, or perhaps become disconnected from. The walk becomes as much about the people as it is about the land, and walkers learn how deeply the two are linked.

“Everyone used to have an aunty who lived on a farm,” says Handyside. “But that just doesn’t happen anymore. Most people have never been on a farm.”

The popularity of private walks in New Zealand is steadily increasing, as hikers seek to explore new terrain and meet locals who live on the land. Generally costing between $200 and $700 a person, private walks always boast a level of comfort, making them widely accessible and suitable for all ages. On some walks, the hosts will cook for you and most will cart your luggage. Accommodation is often at historic and restored farm cottages and homesteads, with all the amenities of a regular home, including hot showers, barbecues and fully equipped kitchens.

But talk to people who’ve done these walks and you’ll usually hear the value lies in learning how landholders live, and sometimes in re-evaluating their own preconceptions about farming.

“We’ve noticed over the years that the rural-urban divide is growing,” says Kiri Elworthy, who, along with husband James, runs the Tora Coastal Walk on the eastern Wairarapa coast. “We’re getting walkers who know absolutely nothing about farming, apart from what they’ve read in the media. So we have a unique opportunity to educate them and show them how we farm.”

It’s the diversity of landscape that Elworthy says most surprises walkers, as they climb over hill country before dropping down to the coast to explore the wild beaches (including a shipwreck) of the east coast, then walking up a river valley and through a QE2 National Trust covenanted bush block.

Learning about how the family farms is always a big part of any group’s experience, says Elworthy. “Our farming is probably what 70 per cent of New Zealand farms are like, but that’s not the type of farming that’s widely known. People tend to think of dirty dairying and intensive feedlots. Here, we don’t farm intensively. Walkers are allowing us to farm a lot more sustainably than we otherwise might have, because we now have that other income stream.”

The Elworthys also spend a lot of time on conservation work. They’ve been retiring and fencing off paddocks in the steep, erosion-prone areas of the land for the last 40 years. The local community also benefits through employment, with six people now employed to help run the walk (“about half the community!” laughs Elworthy).

“Meeting a local is the greatest benefit for people,” she says. “We get to sit down and yarn with the walkers. They get to hear about the huntaway that took off with the roast dinner and all these stories from the land. People don’t want their hosts to put a wall up, they want to see warts and all what happens on the farm.”

The Lou family chose the Kawakawa Station Walk for an authentic outdoors experience that involved a touch of luxury

The Tora Coastal Walk has even inspired other Wairarapa farmers to set up their own walks. Carmen and Dick Tredwell run Whareama Coastal Walk, a two-night fully catered loop walk located between Castlepoint and Riversdale Beach. The walk traverses five different farms, although the land all once belonged to Ica Station, established by the Reverend John Chapman Andrew in 1866. The Tredwells bought Ica Station homestead six years ago but had been operating the walk for five years previously.

Carmen says walkers receive a local history lesson, including learning about the historic Tinui ANZAC Cross – New Zealand’s first ANZAC memorial – which sits atop Mount Maunsell, near the tiny Tinui township, and is visible in the night sky from the Ica homestead.

“We think Kiwis are trying different things in the holiday space as a result of Covid,” says Carmen. “Last year was a record for bookings, and we’re tracking really well for this season.”

On the southern Wairarapa coast, not far from Cape Palliser, is the Kawakawa Station Walk. This three-day walk is fully catered and explores one of the province’s oldest sheep stations, staying in historic cottages. Simon and Anna Lou from Cambridge recently did the walk with their three children. They chose it because it was something the whole family could achieve.

“Our hardcore tramping days are over, so we needed some creature comforts,” laughs Simon. “But we still wanted an authentic outdoors experience that involved some good, solid walking. We got a good sweat up and felt like we’d earned the luxury of a warm hut and prepared meals, along with a glass of wine.”

Carmen and Dick Tredwell run Whareama Coastal Walk and say Kiwis are trying different holiday experiences because of Covid

Simon says they learned a lot about the challenges farmers faced contending with such steep landscapes. “Simply taking care of daily operations like fencing, drainage, provision of water and mustering stock is so much more difficult here,” he says. “Diversification is something we talked a lot about with the owners. It’s increasingly clear that farms can’t rely solely on primary industry, so tourism adds another string to their bow.”

Simon says private walks help educate “townies” about the practical way of life on a modern farm. “Getting the opportunity to see first-hand and talk with the landholders gives a more balanced view about how primary industry has evolved over time in New Zealand.”

Banks Track lays claim to being New Zealand’s oldest private walk, opening in 1987. Here, on the wind-swept south-east corner of Banks Peninsula, five farming families have teamed up with conservationist Hugh Wilson to create a private walk that showcases how farmland can be managed and transformed for conservation purposes, with quite startling results. Charlotte Gibbs is one of the landowners and says everyone involved in Banks Track is an ardent conservationist.

“There’s still farming on all the farms, but we have large areas set aside for native bush,” she says. “What drives all of us is we’re insanely passionate about birds, and therefore spent many years avidly trapping.”

Tūī were re-released 10 years ago and are thriving. Walkers can expect also to see bellbirds, tomtits, grey warblers, riflemen, the migratory shining cuckoo, harrier hawks and the New Zealand falcon, to name just a few.

“We graze the areas where we want to retain the beautiful views,” says Gibbs, “and let the rest of the land go back to native bush. We have an abundance of native plants, tree ferns, red beech forest, kowhai and lichen-covered volcanic rocks.”

Walkers traverse a varied landscape, from high ridge tops with views down Akaroa Harbour, to open cliffs above the sea, to the secluded Stony Bay, to a walk through the Hinewai Reserve, a private nature reserve that is returning 1250ha of land to how it was before human settlement.

“We’re most proud of our flourishing birdlife,” says Gibbs. “The Pohatu penguin conservation project at Flea Bay, where you can watch penguins come ashore at dusk is just magical. We just love sharing with walkers what we’ve achieved.”

Charlotte Gibbs from Banks Track says she is proud of the flourishing native birdlife, including penguins, walkers can see on Banks Track

Simon and Lynda Harvey, eldest son Tom and his partner Claudia own Glen Orkney Farm at the northern edge of the Inland Kaikoura Range, where they farm merino sheep and Angus cattle. Between November and April, the Harveys open their land up for walkers to tackle the Awatere Tussock Track, a three-day walk that offers an authentic immersion in an historic station, staying in a renovated farm cottage complete with heating, a shower and a flushing toilet. Currently, walkers can only book the walk through Sidetracks Women, a walking company that offers guided and fully-catered women-only walks and cycle tours throughout the South Island.

Simon Harvey says he and Lynda enjoy meeting walkers and talking to them about the issues facing farmers. “We make a point of interacting with walkers and showing them what we do. People are welcome to ask us any questions, nothing is off limits.”

Harvey acknowledges that farming has an impact on the environment and he welcomes the chance to have conversations on the topic with visitors. “Society does need to accept that it can’t be all about commercial productivity and it can’t be all about conservation. We have to mesh the two if we’re going to have a civilisation that is able to succeed into the future.”

Dogs are welcome at Island Hills Station

Fifteen years ago an ecologist helped the Harveys map areas of their property that were suitable for farming and areas that would be better put aside for regeneration. There are currently eight nature covenants.

“We integrate conservation with our commercial production,” says Harvey. “We limit chemical use and don’t run the farm like a factory – that’s something we’re passionate about. We want to see a good future for our grandchildren, and therefore the right decisions made for the country.”

Harvey says walkers especially love seeing the farm dogs in action (who in turn love meeting new visitors). “The interaction walkers get to have with Lynda and me is really important to their experience, and one of the main attractions of doing this walk.”

Formerly called the Hurunui High Country Track, Island Hills Station Walking Track is the new iteration of a popular private walk in North Canterbury. The old track had been closed for eight years before Shaun Monk came along to revamp the walk, working in conjunction with landowners Dan and Mandy Shand.

“Covid gave us the opportunity because New Zealanders were trapped here and wanted to explore their own backyard,” says Monk. “We really wanted to capture the station vibe and let people know they’re coming to a private property.”

Walkers stay in converted shearers’ quarters, an historic woolshed, built in 1912, and a log cabin built in 1931 by workmen during the Great Depression. There’s a museum of old family relics, and the walls of the cabins are adorned with photos and memorabilia from the old days.

Shaun Monk runs Island Hills Station Walking Track and says he wanted to capture the “station vibe”

But, on this farm, much of the experience is focussed on what a sustainable future will look like. Walkers get to sponsor a predator trapping programme. Fully 3300ha of the 7000ha station is under covenant, regenerating back into native bush, which contributes towards carbon credits under the Emission Trading Scheme. Gorse, broom and other weeds have been cleared. Part of the land is leased for honeybees. “Having income from tourism and other diversification allows all this to happen,” says Monk. “This is a fourth-generation family farm, so the Shand’s are proud custodians of the land. Walkers really love the connection to the people who live here. You experience real rural hospitality from genuine farming stock.”

Lyn Allen recently did the walk with her husband and another couple. “We loved the fact that it was dog-friendly,” she says. “I’ve mustered in the high country before, but to walk it for three continuous days was just beautiful. Everything is laid on for you; comfort is a big attraction. But we also learnt so much about how the farm runs, and why they do the things they’re doing.”

Which private walk?

Banks Track, Banks Peninsula

Two or three-day options, starting and finishing near Akaroa, with accommodation hosted by a different farming family each night. Bankstrack.co.nz

Island Hills Station Walk, North Canterbury 

Two or three-day self-guided walk with lodge-style accommodation. Open from October to March. Dogs welcome. Islandhillsstation.com

Awatere Tussock Track, Marlborough 

Three-day fully guided walk through working sheep and cattle station with meals included. Women only. Booking only through Sidetracks Women. Sidetrackswomen.co.nz

Kaikoura Coast Track, Kaikoura

Two-day walk along two backcountry sheep farms on the Kaikoura coast, with impressive views of the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Kaikouratrack.co.nz

Whareama Coastal Walk, Eastern Wairarapa 

Two-night walk on the eastern Wairarapa coast based around the historic Ica Station Homestead. Fully-catered option available. Whareamawalk.co.nz

Tora Coastal Walk, Eastern Wairarapa 

Three-day, fully catered walk from inland homestead to the rugged ‘Tora’ coast and back. Accommodation intwo historic cottages and a modern, purpose-built lodge. Toracoastawalk.nz

Kawakawa Station Walk, Southern Wairarapa 

Three-day, fully catered walk over private farmland adjacent to Aorangi Forest Park. Steep, hill country with views to the south coast. Kawakawastation.co.nz