Exploring Hurunui: Glamping, wineries and horse riding through the hills
She’s better recognised for her tasty novels set in Italy, but bestselling author Nicky Pellegrino finds plenty to write home about the east of our own Main Divide.
The last time I was in North Canterbury was on a horse trek that involved long days in the saddle riding across steep terrain. Very often I was sore and scared, but even so, on the final day, when leaving the mountains behind, a sort of sadness seemed to settle over me. I am the least ooky-spooky person you could ever hope to meet, but for a moment it almost felt as if the High Country was trying to tug me back again.
And now here I am, returned to Hurunui, that wide stretch of dramatic land between the Southern Alps and the wild east coast beaches.
I’m looking out over a valley with a braided river, and, further in the distance, dimpled hills and snow-dusted peaks.
This time though, my bottom isn’t being tortured by a hard stock saddle. In fact I couldn’t be more comfortable, because I’m glamping.
One secluded corner of Tawanui Farm has been transformed into a glamping site with two Lotus Belle tents for sleeping, a fully equipped camp kitchen, a proper shower and even a hot tub. Oh, and did I mention that it’s adorable? There are hand-crocheted rugs to cuddle into when you sit around the brazier under the stars, paddocks of waving grass and a just-right blend of rustic and luxurious.
Tim Loughnan is part of the fifth generation of his family to work this picturesque sheep and beef property just outside of Cheviot, using regenerative farming techniques that look after the land. A while back, after a three-year drought, the Loughnans did what’s now known as a “pivot”, welcoming visitors with tours and accommodation.
“It turns out Kiwis love glamping,” says Tim, and I can see why. Even with a north-westerly gusting away, there was something wonderful about lying in bed listening to the tent canvas luffing (at one point, I did think I might wake up in a different paddock, but all was well).
On summer weekends, what the Loughnan family love most is taking their jetboat for a blast up the Hurunui River and stopping on its stony banks for a barbecue. So Tim now runs Energy Jet, which offers visitors the same experience.
Covering 100km of the river, he skippers personalised trips, taking it more sedately for those who want to enjoy the scenery, or hooning through the narrow canyons and turning 360s for thrill-seekers.
“It keeps things exciting,” says Tim, who loves his life as a farmer but is clearly at his happiest out on the river.
Hurunui is full of people pursuing their passions with the same have-a-go mentality and Cantabrian grit. “It’s about wanting to do something and not being scared to give it a crack,” explains Raymond Herber. “You’ve just got to get stuck into it.”
Raymond is a particularly interesting character. He has single-handedly transformed a disused limestone quarry in the Waipara Valley into a sculpture park. Today his kinetic metal sculptures are dotted through the parkland and the old corrugated-iron buildings have been restored.
But when he bought Iron Ridge Quarry back in 1997, it was basically a pile of rubble. He brought in 350 truckloads of topsoil and set to work with a digger to create the little slice of paradise it is today.
Raymond used to be a welder but his creative side was always going to win out, and his sculptures range from whimsical to dramatic. He lives and works at Iron Ridge Quarry, where the centrepiece is a huge clear-coated steel horse that took five months of intensive and physical work to construct. “I got quarter of the way through, then thought, ‘I’m in for a big haul,’” he says dryly.
Weddings are celebrated amid the artworks, music festivals are held, and visitors are welcome to bring a picnic or just wander. For larger groups, Raymond can stage art demonstrations, and he’s starting to bring in work from other artists to display in the gallery and grounds.
A little way along the valley, on the south bank of the Waipara River, are more people living their dreams – although Jill Chapman says that when her family bought their land with plans to turn it into an olive grove and vineyard, it was more of a “hare-brained holiday idea”. That was back in 1999.
Now her son, Pete, tends the vines for Terrace Edge and husband, Bruce, looks after the 1700 trees that supply their olive oil.
Pete’s wife, Alanna, devised the gourmet toasties that can be enjoyed on picnic benches with a view, while Jill runs the tasting room.
The Chapmans didn’t dream only of wine and olive oil – they wanted to make a bigger contribution. So they’ve established a wine label, 27 Seconds, and give all of its profits to a charity that helps survivors of slavery.
The Waipara’s climate makes it ideal for growing a variety of wines, but many winemakers will admit that what they think it does best is riesling.
“That’s music to my ears,” says Kirk Bray of Georges Road Wines, when the first thing I want to taste is his aromatic German-style riesling. “It’s an underrated wine in New Zealand because we drank a lot of Liebfraumilch and Blue Nun back in the day.”
His riesling tastes nothing like the German plonk of my teenage memories, but if I had drunk too much of it, I could have availed myself of his Wine Pod – a tiny house deep in the vines, with a wood-fired hot tub, bicycles and a view of Mount Grey and the Three Deans Range.
This land was once covered in ocean, and you can still find fossilised oyster shells in its chunks of limestone.
It makes for a dry, bony soil that produces great pinot noir, and at award-winning Greystone Wines, they’ve planted a lot of it on the slopes of the Teviotdale Hills. This is the place to come for a wine-matched long lunch in the courtyard. Chef Mel Wright is a licensed forager, and the menu may well include mushrooms and herbs she stopped to pick on her way to work. The vintages you taste depend on what the manager, Fergus Winters, has plucked out of the wine library, but I can vouch for the 2015 pinot noir paired with tender beef brisket and creamy herbed polenta with a flavourful bite of horseradish.
While I’m on the subject of lunch, which I very often am, let me tell you about the menu at Black Estate. In this vineyard’s restaurant, head chef Grant Soeberg produces what I’m told is “humble” food. Miso-glazed carrots with gourmet mushrooms from local producer SporeShift; a floral asparagus salad with fried duck egg; cos lettuce blanketed with a tangy gribiche sauce... I’m not sure that Grant’s idea of “humble” tallies with mine.
And, yes, after all that indulgence and comfort, I did ride a horse through the High Country, with Pukatea Horse Trails, on Molesworth Station. The beauty of those bare hills, mountain streams, yellow splashes of broom and all that vast space is extra special when seen from horseback.
Owners Gary and Moira Hebberd are also people with big dreams. They plan to expand their herd and bring in a stagecoach for rides along part of the old stock route. Gary also offers freedom rides to experienced horsepeople, so they can take a couple of his standardbreds and head over the hills. I contented myself with a short guided trek.
I’ve never been much in touch with my spiritual side, but still, I can’t get those mountains out of my mind – and I know I can feel it, the High Country tugging me back.
Also, if I’m honest, I’d love a few more glasses of the Greystone pinot noir.
THINGS TO DO
- Energy Jet
- Iron Ridge Quarry Sculpture Park
- Pukatea Horse Trails
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Black Estate
- Georges Road Wines
- Greystone Wines
- Terrace Edge
WHERE TO STAY
- Georges Road Wines
- Tawanui Farm