This Aucklander left the city to run a Central Otago motel - and hasn't looked back
In a beautiful slice of Central Otago nowhere, the Auckland rat race is but a distant memory for this publicist turned motelier.
Considering she spent a good chunk of her life peddling other people’s stories from one end of the country to the other, it’s perhaps no surprise that Jennifer Balle has ended up with a leading role in her very own fairy tale.
A star book publicist for what was then Random House Publishing, for 15 years Jen’s job was to promote authors and tour them from Whangārei to Invercargill. And she was jolly good at it – I know, because I was one of her authors. Born and bred in Auckland, she was a city girl who loved her job, but in 2016, “after many years of singlehood”, she met Christchurch-based Grant Childs and suddenly her world turned upside down.
“I wanted to be with him,” she says. Simple as that. If only long-distance relationships were ever simple.
“About that time, I went on tour with an incredibly inspirational man, Doug Avery, who was working in mental health in the farming community. We travelled through heartland New Zealand for three weeks, a long time on the road, and at some point he must’ve asked, ‘Girl, what’s your life plan?’ I talked about my situation and he said, ‘You only get one shot – go for it.’”
This advice, combined with an earlier tour with food writer Allyson Gofton for the Country Calendar Cookbook, got the wheels in Jen’s mind spinning.
“On tour with Allyson, we’d stayed at the Wedderburn Cottages, owned by the Duncans, an intergenerational farming family who diversified into accommodation for cyclists on the Otago Central Rail Trail. Hearing their amazing story about how they created a whole new income stream for the farm – from one or two cottages to something like 4000 people now staying with them every season – I loved the whole idea and it occurred to me that if we could find something on the trail, that could be our future.”
It occured to me...that could be our future.
Not long after, the Waipiata Motel popped up for sale on Trade Me. It was Grant’s 60th birthday, so – still separated geographically – they met up in Christchurch, then drove down to Central to give it the once-over, arriving at their accommodation “a couple of paddocks over”.
“In the middle of the night I woke up and could sense something,” says Jen. “I opened the curtains and there was a snowstorm blasting through. It was like in the movies when someone has shaken a pillow and the air is thick with feathers. In the morning we came to see the motel, with snow on the ground all around – it was so romantic.”
Jen immediately spotted the potential in the building – “a gorgeous, classic Lockwood” – which once upon a time had been a Wanaka motel before being shipped to Invercargill and eventually ending up in the tiny town of Waipiata. Sold!
Says Grant: “When Jen believes in something... I’d been through the quakes so was over Christchurch – I should’ve left years ago. But she was so motivated, so inspiring. What a dream. I thought, ‘Man, I’m in. I’m there.’ And she can cook!”
The Lockwood had its own hipster cool, but out went the polyester and in came natural fibres, mostly wool, with which Jen and Grant are undeniably obsessed – not just by way of motel furnishings, but also in the form of their pet sheep: Waipiata, Motel, Waip and Mt Buster, and newcomers Mt Ida, Komako, Kakanui and Hawkdun. And now there is Middlemarch the duck, sadly missing his paramour Daisybank, who was lost to a ferret, but living the single life of Riley in his wool-insulated duck hut.
Cyclists love the animal kingdom, but possibly not as much as the home-baked banana bread and picture-perfect breakfasts Jen leaves for her guests.
“The motel is nothing without their spirit,” she says. “They make it what it is. The moment they pedal up the lane, they’re tired – they’ve been hammering it out on the trail. They have a shower, then might migrate to the verandah and curl up in the afternoon sun, chilling with one of our books that celebrate Central Otago – Brian Turner, Fleur Sullivan, or one of my other high-country stories. Then they wander down to the pub for a fantastic meal.”
“Jen is such a star,” says Grant. “They love it all.”
And often they’re surprised, because your average New Zealand motel can be a disappointment.
“As a publicist, I’ve stayed in many, and it can be a needlessly underwhelming experience,” says Jen. “In fact, a lot of people tell me this is not a ‘motel’, and on one hand I agree, but on the other, why not raise the bar for motels? A motel signals affordable self-catering, within the nature of the way New Zealanders travel, but why can’t it be affordable and stylish?”
Why, indeed? Even being called a ‘motelier’ struck Jen as funny at first.
“I never really thought of myself that way. As a nurturer, I see my focus as looking after people. It’s what I did in my first job at Auckland Art Gallery – taking care of artists, making sure they had the best experience they could, sending their body of work out into the world. Fast-forward that to my role with authors. They’d already done the hard yards but touring isn’t easy, so my job was to make sure they were looked after, ate well, slept well and were ready for the next day, which is pretty much what I’m doing for rail-trailers.”
Despite the lack of international travellers, which made for a ropey 2020, this season has been a whopper on the trail.
“We get all sorts – singles, couples, families, a few neighbourhood groups who cooked up the idea over lockdown... The great thing about the rail trail is that it’s a bonding and reflective time – so many stories and memories – and we want to contribute to that story. There are all sorts of other holiday experiences, but the rail trail offers something truly unique."
"You’re unplugged, away from traffic, infrastructure, logistics – you literally arrive and you’ve got a week of a really special time. And the research confirms that people love the riding experience but equally they love everything else: the accommodation, the people, the conversations – a slice of New Zealand life you can’t find anywhere else.”
So would she recommend leaving town for the country to other urbanites?
“I sold an Auckland apartment down a right of way shared with 12 other properties for a motel on a hectare of land in the Maniototo,” she says with a smile. “But you can’t sugar-coat it. You need to do your due diligence, and there have been some curve balls.”
The geographic isolation meant it was hard for Grant to find sales work to suit his background, but now he’s learned to drive large tractors and does seasonal work for farming friends.
“And I naively thought I’d potter in the garden in the winter, but the ground is frozen solid,” says Jen. Early on, a hoar frost (-10°C) froze the pipes as well.
There’s not a lot of time off in the six-month season. Jen does everything herself, including the cleaning, “which I happen to enjoy”.
The vagaries of frozen pipes, murderous ferrets and making a year’s income in six months aside, there are no regrets.
“I miss friends and family,” admits Jen, “but we’ve found something here. This is our forever home. I just love what I do. I love looking after people.”
And so they lived happily ever after.
Waipiata is an hour and 45 minutes from Dunedin in one direction, or a little more than an hour from Alexandra in the other. Cross the rail trail near the pub and you’ll find Waipiata Motel. To book your Otago Central Rail Trail trip, look up Big Sky Bike Adventures.