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Exploring Lake Heron

Updated: Sep 27, 2018

Turning north at the historic Hakatere buildings in Mid-Canterbury, the final half-hour drive up the valley towards our destination is mesmerising. The freshly-graded gravel road makes the journey slower than usual, no doubt ready for the influx of holiday makers at Arrowsmith Station Campground over the Christmas period. But there are no complaints here; the sheer scale of the landscape makes us feel inferior as the powerful glacial mountain ranges surround us on both sides.

Located in the heart of New Zealand’s South Island, Lake Heron Station is found nestled amongst towering pines at the end of the road. It’s hard to comprehend we are now closer to the West Coast than the East, and an easy two-hour drive west from Christchurch, it’s like stepping into another world. It’s easy to see why Peter Jackson chose Mt Sunday, just a valley over on Mt Potts Station, as the backdrop to 'Edoras' in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Covering 20,000 hectares, Lake Heron Station is owned and operated by Philip and Anne Todhunter. It has been a part of their family for the last 100 years, although when I asked Philip if there were any celebrations to mark the milestone, he laughed, adding “It might have to be 101 years instead.” Philip's great-grandfather, Robert Charlton Todhunter bought Lake Heron Station in 1917 and set up a merino stud in the Rakaia Gorge. His son, Joseph, Philip's grandfather, farmed Lake Heron until 1945 when he moved to the Rakaia Gorge. That stud is now run by Philip's brother Ben and father Bob, over the valley at Cleardale Station, and continues to supply Lake Heron with merino rams.

I was joined on my adventure by a good friend Liz Carlson (also known as Young Adventuress), an American social media influencer who now calls Wanaka home. While I was brought up on a sheep and beef farm on the Canterbury Plains, this was a whole new experience for her, having spent her childhood surrounded by the concrete jungle of suburban America. Being able to share this unique experience with her, the delight and amazement so clearly expressed on her face, only solidified how lucky we are as Kiwis to call this place home. Colloquial farming terms like ‘rattle your dags’ definitely warranted an explanation, much to the amusement of us all.

Pulling up to the homestead late in the afternoon, Anne appeared at the big wooden door, warmly welcoming us into her home with a cup of tea before showing us to our home for the two nights. With five original accommodation options scattered over the property, we were staying in the cottage which dates back to the 1900s, a stone's throw from the main homestead. With an outdoor bath and a view of the woolshed, it’s easy to see why the comments left in the visitors' book were that of only high praise. Beautifully furnished, but not too over-the-top for a high-country station, it had everything we needed for a warm and comfortable stay. Fully catered, we headed over to the homestead for a delicious home-cooked meal with the family, although there was the option of having our meal delivered if we preferred. Their three children, Maria (18), Alex (16) and Oscar (13) were all home for their summer holiday working on the farm.

While eating dinner we learnt just how amazing our hosts are, although it did take some coaxing to reveal the true extent of their talents. Coming from an adventure background myself, I was in awe as we heard about Anne’s climbing achievements, having spent a fair amount of her younger years as a mountaineering guide based at Mt Cook. Alongside Anne’s adventures we discovered that Philip has over 35 years of flying experience himself. First learning in a fixed wing, he then took up flying helicopters, a skill that has taken him to all four corners of the globe, and as you would imagine, he has many a story to accompany it. Liz turned to the children, and informed them that their parents were ‘badass’, to which they all smiled and nodded in agreement.

While they run 700 Angus cattle on the station, it’s the 11,500 merino that dominate the landscape and are the main source of income. Growing merino for their high-quality super-fine wool, the Todhunters are one of 56 high-country stations who have just signed an exclusive 10-year contract with the apparel company, Icebreaker. Producing approximately 65 tonnes of wool a year, with an average of 20 micron (the measure of fibre diameter of wool), the contract provides much-needed stability heading into the future.

As with many high-country stations these days there is an opportunity to create a diverse rural-based business of adventure tourism alongside farming. While the land is privately owned, they welcome people to explore their slice of paradise through a variety of experiences such as scenic flights, heli-skiing and mountain biking, or the more recreational activities such as day walks, farm tours and fly-fishing. The closed gate at the entrance to the station indicates you are entering a working farm, with Philip remembering when a couple of men appeared one day, asking permission to ice-skate on the frozen lake in front of the house. Offering Philip a spare pair of skates to accompany them, he agreed. They managed to skate from the house all the way down to the bottom of the lake, with Philip recalling how the muscles in his jaw hurt from smiling the entire way!

Waking up on our first morning we pulled back the curtains to reveal a light drizzle hanging in the air. With the skies forecast to clear later that morning, we decided to head for a walk up Mount Sugarloaf. There was time for a quick cuddle with the farm pups on the way before meeting Anne who informed us that to get to the start of the track, we first had to row a short distance over to the other side of the lake. Not one to shy away from a challenge, I jumped in the dinghy and immediately took control. After a few false starts and with the help of Anne pulling us out further, we finally managed to zig-zag our way over.

Following Anne’s instructions, we easily found the track. Sitting at an altitude of 1,238 metres, it starts with a gradual gradient before turning into a sharper incline. Taking the opportunity to catch our breath, we turned around and looked back over the homestead and as far as the eye could see up the valley. Even with dark moody skies rolling past, the view was breathtaking.

After a few false tops we managed to catch a glimpse of the real top before it disappeared behind the thick cloud. Spotting Philip driving back along the road far below, we decided to turn around and head back down to meet him. The main reason for our stay? A scenic flight in his fixed wing plane, and the last thing we wanted to do was keep him waiting!

On reaching the bottom and making our way back over in the dinghy (Liz was far better at steering than me!) we found Philip who informed us that Anne had already taken the 4WD up to the ‘New Hut’ (built in 1923) and was waiting for us with lunch. Our mode of transport was to be much quicker however… the new four-seater Cessna 185. With pockets of blue now poking through the clouds, we were both super-excited to explore the landscape from above.

Taking off to the east we looped around and headed up the valley, feeling slightly guilty as we passed over the children and staff who were busy doing the annual tailing. Landing on the top airstrip it was a quick five-minute walk over to the hut where we met Anne who was busy making the beds, ready for a group of holiday makers who were staying over the weekend. With 12 king-single beds, the hut can be booked year-round. Popular with heli-skiers in winter and trampers in summer, it’s also the base for the annual autumn muster. Philip gave us a quick rundown on the process involved in bringing the wethers (castrated rams grown for their wool) down from the surrounding mountain ranges to the lower land for grazing over winter. Liz and I looked at each other with the same thought, “How can we come back and help on the next one?”

A delicious simple lunch of hearty soup and fresh ciabatta buns with ham was devoured as we discussed the afternoon plans. The beauty of their central location means the opportunities are endless. We could have gone north for a look along the Kaikoura coastline, or south to check out Mount Cook and the glaciers, or even further afield to South Westland. But when it’s a beautiful day on the West Coast, you can’t pass up the opportunity, so we unanimously agreed to head up to the top of the Rakaia Gorge and over the Main Divide towards Hokitika and Greymouth.

Each with headsets, we listened intently as Philip narrated our journey, providing knowledge that only comes from many years of exploring the landscape. Sitting in the back I had the luxury of seeing out both sides as the iconic braided river sparkled and weaved its way below. Doing a loop at the very top of the valley we took a left-hand turn and headed for the Coast via the Whitcombe Pass. Glaciers and alpine lakes appeared around each corner, and we managed to spot a couple of brightly-painted huts along the ridge lines. It’s a four-day hike from the top of the Hokitika Gorge, over the Whitcombe Pass and out at the head of the Rakaia Gorge.

The landscape below changed from dense forest to brightly-coloured green paddocks as we popped out over the Hokitika Gorge and up the coastline to Greymouth. Flying over Lake Kaniere we spotted a boat pulling a water-skier far below, enjoying the beautiful West Coast sunshine. Heading north we flew out over the sea before looping around to land on the runway. We were then able to walk over the road and onto the beach. Walking up Mount Sugarloaf, lunching at the New Hut, and now standing on the gravel beach with the Tasman Sea stretched out before us, it really was one of those days I’ll never forget.

With the afternoon getting on, we hopped back into the plane and roughly retraced our journey back through the Main Divide. A right-hand turn took us up to where the wethers spend their summers, with Philip spotting tahr and deer on the ridges. You couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces if you tried as we helped Philip push the plane back inside the new hangar at the end of our flight.

The following day we hopped in Philip's farm truck for a more up-close look at the day-to-day workings of the station. First stop was the woolshed, and as I stepped inside, the distinctive smell from the wool immediately took me back to the many hours of my uni holidays spent behind the broom handle.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch back at the homestead, we sadly waved the Todhunters goodbye, promising to be back sooner rather than later. And why wouldn’t we? There’s something about the vastness, the silence of nature and the sheer scale of the high country that fills your soul. And Lake Heron Station is all that and more. The opportunities available to experience this landscape in so many different ways, along with the incredible hospitality that Anne and Philip provide, makes the trip up the Hakatere Heron Road a must for everyone.

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