5 ways to explore a highland station on the South Island

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A bathroom with a view. Photo / Mickey Ross

Highland stations have a very special place in the New Zealand psyche. These tufts of grass overgrown landscapes are at the same time the stuff of romance and harsh transplantation, immersed in colonial history and with views that will make your jaw ring.

The stations, which usually keep sheep and often cattle and deer, are known as highlands because they are located at great heights (more than 600 m above sea level). There are a few in the North Island, but most are in the South Island, which is scattered over the mountainous terrain that already attracts hikers, mountain bikers, and skiers.

The only indication of their presence as you drive through the Central and Lower South Islands are these humble yellow street signs. They indicate unsealed roads and have names that indicate majesty, exoticism and seclusion: Erewhon, Mesopotamia, Four Peaks, Glenmore. (“Hochlandstation” has the added bonus that it sounds much more romantic than “Bauernhof”.)

These stations may seem like places that only generations of the same families or ultra-rich foreigners can experience. But farmers are increasingly diversifying into tourism, offering travelers opportunities to explore these iconic landscapes.

The farm tour

Cruise Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 steamship that once linked remote farming communities to Queenstown, for a glimpse into working life at Walter Peak High Country Farm. The farm is located in the homestead block of the larger Walter Peak Station, which once covered 68,800 hectares; Māori camped on the coast when they went through on expeditions to hunt moa and collect pounamu.

This half-day excursion departs from Queenstown’s wharf and includes a farm tour, a sheepdog demonstration, the chance to feed farm animals, a freshly made morning or afternoon tea, and time to stroll through the lakeside gardens.

The helicopter hike

Located near Aoraki Mount Cook, Glentanner Station’s half-day guided tour means removing “flying a helicopter” from your wish-list and wandering from one dizzying view to another while overlooking the endlessly photogenic Lake Pukaki.

Starting from Glentanner Park Center in the Mackenzie region, circle over braided rivers and enjoy front-row views of Aoraki Mount Cook before landing at the top of the station and starting the way back through tan clumps and along the farm tracks. All you need is street-level fitness and the opportunity to stop taking pictures every now and then to just soak up the beauty of it all. Bonus: If you’re coming from Queenstown, you’ll travel over the dramatic Lindis Pass.

Aoraki Mount Cook as seen from Glentanner Station.  Photo / Mary de Ruyter
Aoraki Mount Cook as seen from Glentanner Station. Photo / Mary de Ruyter

The day trip

As part of its full-day Paradise Discovery Tour around the north end of Lake Wakatipu, Private Discovery Tours has exclusive access to parts of Mount Earnslaw Station (although you won’t enter the mountain yourself). Expect short hikes up Ari / Mount Alfred for spectacular views of Mount Aspiring National Park, a farm visit, a bit of bird watching, Lord of the Rings locations, and loads of stories. Owner Charles Fraser only takes small groups so you don’t have to jostle with the crowds.

Hiking Mt Alfred.  Photo / included
Hiking Mt Alfred. Photo / included

The Overnight

At Blackmore Station in Southland, you can walk or bike the 27 km Welcome Rock Trail in one day. But why rush through the landscape when you can linger? There are two simple huts along the way where you can bathe in an outdoor bathtub and lay your head at night.

The Slate Hut (which is actually made of wood) is at 1,100 m, just before the highest point of the trail and 2.5 km from the start, and overlooks the Mataura Valley all the way to the steep Eyre Mountains. The Mud Hut, 9 km along the route and with even more breathtaking views of the mountains, was built from clay sod at the end of the 19th century. It housed the men who built and then maintained a water race to direct the water to the Nokomai Goldfields, and was restored in 1990.

Tom O’Brien, who is the fourth generation of the country’s Kaitiaki, spent two and a half years hand-cutting the path through slate and slate. It’s one of those efforts that seemed like a good idea by the time he actually started the physical labor – but the bubbles were worth it. He created something really special, an opportunity for people to immerse themselves in the region’s gold mining history and enjoy the unforgettable scenery.

Slate hut, under the tufts.  Photo / Mickey Ross
Slate hut, under the tufts. Photo / Mickey Ross

Getting used to it

Take a few days and park at one of the many highland stations with overnight accommodation. Mesopotamia, Dunstan Downs, Mt Nicholas, Ben Lomond, Minaret … there is a lot to choose from. Choices range from off-grid huts and redesigned wool sheds to luxurious lodges, and activities like hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and scenic flights are never far away. And because of their remote location, they’re also great places to watch the night sky.

More travel ideas and inspiration for New Zealand can be found at newfinder.co.nz and new zealand.com



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