High country heroes

Every year, tens of thousands of Kiwis and international visitors venture into the South Island high country to explore some of our country’s most stunning scenery.

They take in the peace and quiet, go hunting and fishing, and snap photos of the breath-taking mountain and river valleys made famous on postcards, tourism websites and social media. 

Experiences like these are often considered to be at the heart of the New Zealand experience, yet in many cases they wouldn’t be possible without the generosity of high country pastoral leaseholders who grant permission for people to cross their private land.

Some of the access in the high country is legally formalised, due in part to tenure review, but much is voluntarily granted by landholders who uphold the Kiwi tradition of allowing access so long as people respect farming operations and the environment.

A prime example of this is Glenfalloch Station near the Canterbury township of Methven. This 10,000-hectare property at the headwaters of the Rakaia River is popular with local trampers, climbers, anglers and hunters.

Station leaseholders Chas and Dietlind Todhunter enjoy the outdoors and are happy to grant access so long as people ask permission first. While they run a lodge and conference centre on the property, and offer specialised tours for those who want a guided experience, that hasn’t stopped them from providing access, without charge, to hundreds of groups and outdoors people who want to explore the station.

“We understand why people want to access the land,” Mr Todhunter said. “We are doing it as a service to a certain extent.”

Perhaps the best known and most trafficked high country station in New Zealand is Mount Aspiring Station near Wanaka. The station, farmed by the Aspinall family for four generations, sees close to 100,000 visitors cross or step foot on it every year. Many of them cross the station to access Mount Aspiring National Park, while others come for shorter visits, to enjoy a picnic on the banks of the Matukituki River or to fish its waters.

Station leaseholder and manager Randall Aspinall said his family could not have imagined the numbers that would be crossing the station when his father John first marked a route up the Matukituki Valley for the public to use. But, despite the large number of visitors, the family is happy with the decision they made. 

“We get some satisfaction out of people being able to see this beautiful part of the country. You see the expressions on people’s faces when they see the shepherds out herding the sheep and you can see they enjoy it.”

While much of the access on the station has been formalised recently though tenure review, the family still allows a lot of access to hunters and others who want to explore parts of the station that are off the beaten track. This has generally been problem-free, save for the odd issue with gates being closed or opened when they shouldn’t be, and the occasional visitor who inadvertently gets in the way when station workers are trying to move stock.

“Over the years, I don’t think it’s caused many problems,” Mr Aspinall said. “DOC has done a really good job of stiles and marking tracks through tenure review and that helps.”

Another well-trafficked section of high country can be found on nearby Coronet Peak, Glencoe, Motatapu and Mount Soho stations. The stations are leased by internationally renowned record producer and songwriter Robert “Mutt” Lange, who famously gifted 53,000 hectares of the stations’ land for protection in perpetuity under a QEII National Trust covenant. Access on the stations is a mix of formalised routes, resulting from purchase conditions imposed by the Overseas Investment Office, and additional voluntarily granted access.

Station manager Russell Hamilton said tens of thousands of people visited the station each year, with the Sawpit Gully Track, Bush Creek Track and New Chum Gully Track proving particularly popular. He said the only problem he could recall was trail bikers going up Bush Creek Track, but that had stopped recently and the high number of users meant the access was “self-policing” in most cases.

Mr Hamilton said allowing public access was largely beneficial and could help engender greater understanding of the challenges farmers faced.

“We have a problem with wilding trees and having people out on the land and moving around gives them an appreciation of the scale of the issue. It’s immense and if we don’t act all we will see is a monoculture of exotic forest. We’ve got to control seed sources, and to do that we need a general appreciation by the public that we can’t have these seed sources if we want native forest.”

The Arrowtown community was supportive of the access provided across Mr Lange’s properties and that had resulted in some community initiatives that benefited farming operations on the station, as well as the community, Mr Hamilton said. For example, a group of volunteers is planning to put a trapline up Bush Creek to help control pests and another group regularly visits the station to cut down wilding pines, with more than 50 locals pitching in on Otago Anniversary Day.

“These groups are really supportive. They appreciate the size of the issues high country stations face and they are willing to put it in the effort.”

The combination of generous landowners and engaged communities is helping to create and maintain some wonderful access opportunities in our stunning South Island. That’s something well worth celebrating.

Page last updated: Oct 9, 2018, 11:44 AM