Dan Steele is a farmer, conservationist, competitive axeman, hunter, historian, lodge host, rugby fan and romantic who never dreamed he'd turn into a bird geek.
But at the age of 21, while wandering up the banks of the Kaiwhakauka Stream at Retaruke Station, his parents' remote property on the Whanganui River, he spied a family of blue ducks (whio) and they unwittingly shaped the rest of his life.
"I love exploring and poking about up every stream; climbing every ridge. On this particular day I saw two adults with their five ducklings. The next time I saw them there were only three ducklings. Then there were none. I phoned the DOC ranger. They were endangered. It hit me; protecting the blue duck was part of the future of our land."
Our young eco-warrior-in-the-making then headed overseas for several years where he reviewed his life to date. There had been an agriculture degree at Massey University and a stint as a stock-firm auctioneer. Based in London, he worked at attaching steel grilles to the windows of buildings occupied by squatters.
"I thought about the poor buggers who lived in these spaces with the worst form of drug dependency, no goals, no passions. It was a real eye-opener. I realised the great contrast of places in the world and the quality of people's lives. Greece was a great party place but how could you compare a bunch of white houses on a rock with the beauty of the bush up the Whanganui River? And in Las Vegas every second person seemed to have a throat tattoo. I wondered about their lives. What were they thinking?
"I looked at New Zealand with fresh eyes. It gave me an appreciation of our natural environment and an understanding that it's slipping away from us. By the time I arrived home I was feverish to get back on the land and climb in amongst it all."
Back home he worked on his parents' farm with a burgeoning sense of conservationism.
Alongside mustering, drenching and shearing at Retaruke Station, Steele trapped rats, stoats and possums. He shot goats, wild cats and deer and mused about setting up a business model merging farming with a massive conservation project. He thought it might also tickle the fancy of travellers and tourists.
Seven years ago he stopped pondering and began practising.
A block of farmland came up for grabs across the Retaruke River next door to his parents' place, bounded by the Whanganui National Park. Steele secured the property and named it Blue Duck Station. Additional land has been added and he has hit his straps with a double-banger operation.
On one half of the 1440-hectare station he's a farmer, running 2500 ewes and 500 cattle.
"We're heading towards more environmentally friendly sheep that don't require dagging, dipping or drenching. We want to be kinder to the animals as well as to the land," he says.
"We are not organic because there's too much gorse and blackberry to nail but we have a minimalist approach. We match the stock to the environment and we intervene as little as possible."
On the other half he's a fervent conservationist. Even a bird geek. Eight hundred hectares of land have been left to regenerate, 450 predator traps are in full swing, 6 kilometres of fencing have been built along streams and rivers and a cluster of historic dwellings have been preserved.
Steele says the forest canopy and bush are reviving, water quality in streams is improving and natural wildlife is returning.
"The indicator species are bouncing up. We're seeing big flocks of tui and kereru again. I've seen 50 tui in a flowering kowhai." The station is now home to eight pairs of whio, one of the highest concentrations in New Zealand. It also has strong remnant populations of brown kiwi, native bats, native fish and weta.
While Steele is buoyed by the success at Blue Duck Station, he has a big-picture vision. He sees environmental protection as a hefty economic driver. "It adds value to every commodity we produce. We want well-heeled Americans, Asians and Europeans banging on the door for New Zealand cheese, lamb and venison because they know it's grown in a high-quality, sustainable place. That it's nutritious and not packed full of palm kernel. We are a smart, small, educated country. We can do this."
Doing the business is undoubtedly a Dan Steele approach. In his first year at the helm of Blue Duck Station he built a rustic, self-catering lodge in a clearing above the banks of the Retaruke River to accommodate guests eager for total immersion in heartland New Zealand. Hunting, horse-trekking, kayaking, biking and bush safaris were offered.
With nearby Whakahoro on the Retaruke River the entry point for canoeists starting the three-day Whanganui Journey Great Walk and the knowledge that the Mountains to Sea Nga Ara Tuhono leg of the New Zealand Cycle Trail network would cut through Blue Duck Station, Steele upped the ante. Several old cottages and the shearers' quarters on the property were renovated for guests and a purpose-built cafe opposite the Whakahoro Department of Conservation camp-site was added to the mix.
But something much bigger than a bevy of mountain bikers was on its way to Blue Duck Station. An international backpackers travel company approached Steele with the suggestion that its hop-on-hop-off Stray Bus should include Blue Duck Station en route from Auckland to Queenstown.
It had heard about his eco- tourism venture on the grapevine. "At the start I had no idea how to host a busload of young people. I had always relied on having a yarn and knowing that visitors would love the bush here and what we were doing. I can remember thinking, 'We've got 50 people for dinner tonight and we're out here in the middle of nowhere'."
Love the bush and the back of beyond they did. Twelve months after the first bus pulled up in the autumn of 2011, Steele heard that Blue Duck Station had been voted the best spot in the country by the company's young travellers.
"It's humbling that people like it here.
I think part of it is that personal connection. We're friendly, we talk about what we are doing and why. These kids are adventurous and eco-conscious, probably more so than young Kiwis."
These days Steele is married to Sandy and they have a 3-year-old son, Blue, and spend their working week between their homestead at Blue Duck Station and Snowy Waters Lodge, Sandy's guest accommodation venture in Raetihi.
Retaruke and Blue Duck Stations host up to 300 or 400 visitors each week, made up of Stray Bus visitors, hunters, canoeists, walkers, cyclists and nature and history lovers. Most of the young international guests stay one night but others return to help with jobs that include maintaining and resetting predator trap lines.
Blue Duck Station has won three Ballance Farm Environment Awards and a Department of Conservation Services to Conservation Award.
The couple have founded the Whanganui National Park Conservation and Historic Preservation Trust. Says Steele: "This is a good corner of the world. We have so much to do. We are just at the beginning."
Richard Steele, Dan's father, recalls how his then-25-year-old son would phone from all corners of the globe to say, "You must never sell Retaruke Station".
A pair of blue ducks on the Kaiwhakauka Stream and gratitude for a wilderness valley at the bottom of the world were never far from young Dan's mind as he traversed Europe.
Fifteen years on Steele is heading out the door to check weta breeding boxes, muster sheep and take the jet boat down the Whanganui River to collect six canoeists from the Bridge to Nowhere.
"Life's a work in progress. You are born, you work, you die and it's the bit in the middle that's interesting," says Richard.
"Every day here is an adventure, even for an old crock like me." For Steele and Sandy that "bit in middle" is chock-full of purpose and promise.
* Ann Warnock writes for NZ Life and Leisure, New Zealand's leading lifestyle magazine.
- NZ Farmer