Roaring Lion, Hidden Valley: More to Southland than meets the eye

by Mike White / 29 August, 2018

The Mud Hut on the Roaring Lion Trail.

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Mike White heads to the hills, valleys and hamlets of northern Southland.

Sometimes it’s so silent up here. So still the roar of stags drifts from ridge to ridge to ridge, and a shout hangs in the air with the hawks. So calm even the tussocks can’t be enticed to quiver, and snow falls secretly at night. In a hut high in Southland’s mountains, you see and hear these things.

The hut is made of mud bricks cut from nearby earth then baked by the sun. It was originally built by Chinese miners who were in charge of maintaining the 47km Roaring Lion water race that took water from the Nevis Valley’s upper reaches to a goldfield far below. Each raceman looked after 10km of the waterway, their huts providing meagre comfort at night.

This hut was restored in 1990 and the visitors’ book tells the story of those who’ve stayed here since. It’s a record of locals and those from further away who’ve climbed high to Welcome Rock, the sentinel outcrop overlooking the Mataura and Nokomai Valleys, carried on to the hut, sat in front of its fire, and curled up in its wooden bunks.

There are tales of 30°C summer days and 30cm of snow. Tales of deer hunters and wedding anniversaries. Someone quoted a Neil Young song. Someone else, James K. Baxter’s early poem “The Mountains” (“In this scarred country, this cold threshold land, the mountains crouch like tigers…”). Others, with less success, have penned their own verse.

In March 2000, a group of Girl Guides trekked here, and one wrote of wandering up behind the hut at dusk. “We got to Miss McNamee, our guide leader, who was sitting on the grass to watch the sunset. One bunch of clouds looked like feathers, another a cat’s tail. We saw Australia, angels and hawks, all bathed in pink, gold, blue and dark blue. It was like God had sent us a special thank you for caring for the environment so well. It was hard to decide where to look.”

The Roaring Lion Trail, looking down towards Slate Hut from Welcome Rock.

The hut is now a stopover on the Roaring Lion Trail, a 27km mountain biking and walking track an hour south of Queenstown. It was the brainchild of Tom O’Brien, whose family had farmed the high-country station across which the trail twists, for more than a century.

“As a kid, I used to wander over there with a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle and look for deer, and always come off second best,” he says. “I affectionately used to call it ‘taking my rifle for a walk’. But I loved just being over there.”

He eventually convinced his father to drag an old wooden shepherd’s hut by tractor to a spot near the tops, and O’Brien would stay there during school holidays. Eventually a fire swept through, destroying the hut, but O’Brien would still go hunting and think, “I know I’m biased because it’s home, but I wonder how many other people would enjoy this area?”

One day in Kingston, he met his sister’s neighbour, who turned out to be a cartographer working with a rich American creating private trails on his properties.

They took a trip up to Welcome Rock and it became apparent the old mining water race, with its gentle gradient around gullies and hill faces, would be an ideal route for a mountain biking and walking trail. But it needed to be widened, and another 10km completely built. So with WWOOFers helping him, O’Brien spent two years and 5500 hours cutting the track by hand, using little more than picks and shovels, in the same way the original water race had been created. In summer, he’d nap in the tussocks after lunch; in winter, they’d have to clear snow from the ground before they could start digging.

Whisky hidden in a crevice for walkers on the Roaring Lion Track to find.

Opened in 2014, the subalpine track mixes spectacular views with history, and lets users stay at three locations, including the old Mud Hut, which also has an outside bath.

O’Brien is gradually moving from farmer to tourist operator, with his Welcome Rock Trails business, and in doing so he’s part of northern Southland becoming a destination rather than a thoroughfare. On the route between Queenstown and Te Ānau, it’s only an hour from an international airport, but barely touched by tourism. Presently, tourists might catch a glimpse of the township of Garston, or Welcome Rock high on the horizon, as they drowse on their Milford Sound buses. Garston’s slogan, “More Than the Eye Can See”, seems to point to this challenge. But things are changing.

Inside the Mud Hut at night.

Kylie Sutton runs The Coffee Bomb food truck in Garston and says more and more people are coming to the area, rather than racing through. “There’s not so many people. It’s not Queenstown. It’s quiet. It’s pretty. It’s clean.”

Sutton and her husband own a 600ha farm, but she’s enthusiastic about the boost tourism can give the region, and says locals like Tom O’Brien are showing how to diversify.

Another example is her friend, Tabatha Dawson, who has opened a gift shop beside Sutton’s business, showcasing art and craft from Central Otago and Southland. Originally from London, Dawson now lives in Athol, 10 minutes down the road, where she has “an acre of land, lots of chickens, and rescue dogs. I absolutely love it, I honestly couldn’t think of any place better to be. If you want to party, go to Queenstown. If you want R&R and want to see real New Zealand, this is it.”

“Go past Queenstown,” adds Sutton. “Come down south – you get looked after much better.”

Kylie Sutton runs The Coffee Bomb food truck in Garston.

Jim was complaining he’d been looked after too well. Over from Sydney to fish the famed Mataura River, he was staying at Nokomai Valley Lodge, tucked away 12km up a gravel road few knew about. “It’s wonderful,” Jim said, hunched up in his too-small rental car with his mate Warren, fishing rods bent against the windscreen. “The only problem is there’s too much food – I can’t eat it all.”

Jim and Warren had been coming here for eight years and described the trout fishing as “blue ribbon” – some of the best in the world. Today wasn’t so good, the wind making it tricky, but they were off to try their luck in another spot upriver.

It’s mostly fishermen who come here. Cribs are clustered along the river, adorned with stags’ antlers and Sky dishes. They have solar panels and the cribs’ names above their front doors. Some also have inset paua shells – an oddity, considering nearby Garston is the furthest New Zealand settlement from the sea.

They mined gold in the Nokomai until the 1930s, and then again in the early 90s, new technology allowing them to get at a 3m seam. The first European runholders named it Glenfalloch, meaning Hidden Valley, and it’s still largely unrevealed. But it’s lovely. The late afternoon sun and clouds slow-dance, throwing shadows over the hills’ flanks and mountain tops. Falling willow leaves are swept up by the southerly and swirled into spindrift. Jim and Warren climb from their car, clamber over a fence, walk to the river’s edge and stand quietly staring into deep pools.

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At 11am on Thursday, 17 March 1983, Alistair Barr went to the bank. With him was Gibson Grace, and they walked into Lumsden’s BNZ wearing motorcycle helmets, dark glasses and wigs, carrying a sawn-off shotgun and pistol. After forcing the tellers to the ground and making the manager open the safe, they left with around $106,000. Some was spilt as they raced away on a large motorbike, and more notes were found by Lumsden’s milkman along their escape route. But other than that, none of the money taken in New Zealand’s biggest bank robbery was ever recovered.

The next day’s Southland Times had a photo of “a sombre detective” investigating the scene, and summed up the location when noting, “There was little action in Lumsden at the time the two men entered the bank.” A pub owner observed, “This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Lumsden every day.”

Community Council chairman J.E. Dore clutched at positives. “I only hope since they’ve got away with all that money, they’ve taken my mortgage with them.”

Barr and Grace almost got away with it. But the spot where Grace had been sleeping rough was discovered, along with the robbers’ helmets, which carried their fingerprints. Grace went to Auckland but started getting loose with his cash and mouth. He was eventually found buried under a Titirangi garage, having been shot twice in the head. After three trials, Barr was found guilty of the robbery, and also Grace’s murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Lumsden RSA.

The bank closed in 1996, and is now a cafe, Route 6, with the kitchen through the massive steel door that once led to the safe. Owner Rob Scott says the robbery has become part of the town’s folklore.

Scott grew up in Auckland but received an early taste of Southland when he was 15 and his father got a job in Gore. “I refused to move: I’d jacked up to stay with a mate in Auckland. There was no way I was going to dirty old Gore – ‘No way, I’m not going, I’m not going.’ But in the end, I went. And when they moved back to Auckland, I did the opposite. I said, ‘I’m not going back to Auckland, I’m staying here.’ I absolutely loved it.”

Scott eventually did return with his parents, but a few years later found himself in Wellington, developing software, “in the rat race, playing that game”.

He and wife Jane had started a business from their home, printing photos on canvas, and figured, “We don’t need to be in the big city to do this; let’s find ourselves a nice place to live.”

Jane says they were looking for somewhere small to bring up a family but somewhere that also had essential services, and Lumsden ticked those boxes. “We thought we’d give it a go here and see if it works out. We were only expecting to be here for a couple of years. That was 12 years ago.”

“We felt welcome right from the start,” remembers Rob. “When we turned up, we hadn’t met anyone, and we were unloading the truck and all the neighbours came over and helped carry stuff into the house.”

A sign in Garston.

Since then, they’ve had two kids and started several businesses; Rob is part of the local fire brigade, and into his third term as community board chairman. One of the controversial issues he’s had to deal with in that role has been Lumsden’s decision to welcome freedom campers, with a large carpark in the town centre and basic facilities being opened to vans, without charge. Some days in summer, they had more than 100 vehicles in what was previously an empty space.

“It’s brought in a whole economy to the town,” says Rob. “If you’re bringing in over 70 vehicles a night, with two people each, that’s 150 people a day. And if they spend 10 or 20 bucks each, that’s a considerable amount of money coming into the town. There’s this false stereotype out there that they’re freeloaders and spend absolutely nothing, and it’s definitely not the case. I’ve seen them come out of the supermarket with bags of groceries – they don’t live on air.”

Rob says it’s just another form of tourism, it’s growing, and it’s here to stay. “So you can turn your nose up at it and ignore it, or you can capitalise on it.”

He’s adamant northern Southland is going to take off as a tourist destination in the next few years, with attractions like Welcome Rock Trails, and the Around the Mountains Cycle Trail. And Lumsden, at the junction of a number of routes, is an ideal base, with Queenstown, Te Ānau or the Catlins all about 90 minutes away.

“It’s magic. Some of the scenery out here – there’s so much potential that people don’t even know exists. Even the [Ōreti] river. It’s just two minutes over there – we can go for a walk and you won’t see a single soul. You’re isolated, not shoulder to shoulder, bumping into others, trying to find parks and all that sort of Queenstown thing. Queenstown stresses me out when I go there now.”

Another view from the trail.

It’s so still down here under these hills sometimes, you can hear for miles. James McNamee grew up farming here and remembers one time mustering some sheep that had eluded them for several years up near Welcome Rock, with neighbour Tom O’Brien. “They weren’t as big as Shrek, but they were quite woolly.”

McNamee spotted the sheep starting to break, but O’Brien was over a spur in the Land Rover and couldn’t see what was happening. “I was yelling and screaming at him that the sheep were coming back,” says McNamee, “and I let roar, full-flavour language, as you do, and didn’t think any more of it.

“Then we sat down for tea that night, and Tom’s mum said, ‘Thanks for your help on the hill today,’ and put a plate of good, wholesome food in front of me. And then she said, ‘I’d just like to point out a couple of things, James. My son does have a father – he’s just over there – his name’s Desmond.’ She’d heard me calling, ‘Tom, you stupid bastard’ and it had floated all the way down the valley.

“I just laughed. What do you do? I’d been caught.”

McNamee lives up north now but still part-owns the family farm and gets back here for holidays. There’s an old ice-skating rink just up the road. It’s overgrown now, but there are still dozens of pairs of skates lined up according to size in the adjacent shed, along with a dusty old record player that used to provide music for everyone.

“I remember as kids we’d walk around from school and go ice-skating all day. Then the locals would come when the pub shut at 11 and have a skate.”

McNamee wants his kids to get a taste of the same sense of community he grew up with, which is still strong here – helping out your neighbour and looking after people. One day, he’ll end up in the Garston cemetery, he reckons, along with all the other McNamees. But for now he’s just happy to return to his roots every now and then, and gaze up at Welcome Rock.

“Oh, it’s good – I just love being up on top of those hills.”

Where to stay

Meadowbank B&B/Naylor House

Just out of Garston, wonderful host John McIver has three rooms in his own house, as well as historic Naylor House, a renovated stone homestead from the 1870s, which sleeps up to five. Rooms at Meadowbank B&B from $124, or three-bedroomed Naylor House is available for $250. Ph (03) 248-8809, naylorhouse.co.nz

Nokomai River Lodge

Set on a working farm, there are four farm cottages surrounding the historic homestead. Great fishing on the nearby Mataura River. All meals available. Ph (03) 248-8850, nokomai.co.nz

Five Rivers Retreat

Just north of Lumsden, this B&B has two lovely ensuite rooms with private entrances. From $270, with cooked breakfast. Ph (03) 248-7668, fiveriversretreat.co.nz

What to do

Welcome Rock Trails

A private, subalpine walking and mountain biking trail that weaves the history of goldminers and farmers with fabulous scenery. At 27km, it can be done in a day, but it’s worth staying overnight at one of three spots along the trail, including the historic Mud Hut. A unique trail, in a place few visit. Ph 027 239-2628, welcomerock.co.nz

Around the Mountains Cycle Trail

A 180km loop taking in Lake Wakatipu, Mavora Lakes, Lumsden and Garston. Allow three to five days; accommodation options en route, and transport and bike hire available. 0800 668 68246aroundthemountains.co.nz

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

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