Ingenuity boost couple's wild walks

CALEB HARRIS
Last updated 05:00 23/12/2013
Duncan and Sarah Furniss’s small tourism business offers a three-day self-guided walk with fully catered cabins on their 7000-acre sheep and beef property.
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TAKING THE WALK: Duncan and Sarah Furniss’s small tourism business offers a three-day self-guided walk with fully catered cabins on their 7000-acre sheep and beef property, Kawakawa Station, near Ngawi in south Wairarapa. The plan is to eventually lease the farm and live off the walking business.

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A former nightclub manager from Leicestershire has helped a traditional farming family make their business dream come true.

"They had the foresight, I just came in and picked up the slack and put the sparkly bits on," said Sarah Furniss, who with husband Duncan has run Kawakawa Station Walk on his family property south of Martinborough since 2010.

The combination of back-blocks ingenuity and urban customer service skills has seen the walking business double its revenue year-on-year, and on track to eventually replace the 7000 acre (2833ha) sheep and beef farm as the Furnisses' main source of income.

A pilot version was launched by Duncan's parents after they bought the property in 2000, with the family benching farm tracks and improving gradients in their spare time.

But since Sarah, a trained chef, arrived at Kawakawa after marrying Duncan in 2010, business has boomed.

"I just looked at how to make it more consumer-friendly," she said.

The Furnisses run some 3000 sheep and 450 cattle on the rugged coastal station, 5km from Ngawi and a two-hour drive from Wellington. There are eye-popping Pacific views, and walkers have seen pods of whales swimming below.

Difficulties have included inclement weather delaying building, working around a major farming operation and two young children, and getting the walk's accommodation - three comfortable cabins with hot water and "proper" toilets - ticked off by the district council, involving a fairly serious 4WD trip by building inspectors.

Duncan's father Alex has started a separate side-business, Canopy luxury camping or "glamping", which complements the walking venture while attracting a somewhat more indolent clientele.

The business fits naturally around the farming calendar, with the walking season of October 1 to April 30 restricted by higher rivers over winter.

The main requirement, a spectacular chunk of varied coastal terrain, with a mix of hills, bush, flats, views and open country, was already there; once tracks and huts were in place the rest is customer service, Furniss said. "But with the catering, dietary requirements and so on, you've got to be organised."

The couple employs a local chef, and if the walk grows as planned they will hire extra staff. Their goal is 200 walkers a month for seven months, which would enable them to lease the farm and live off the walk.

Proceeds so far have gone back into costs such as marketing, track building and cabin maintenance, but Furniss says profit is not far off.

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Duncan and his father walked other private tracks around the country, learning from the competition. The business philosophy is "under-promise and over-deliver":

"Bad word of mouth is not that flash - you've got to get it right first time."

They also strive to hit the right balance with accommodation - it has to have a rustic, remote feel, but with all the comforts of home.

Furniss values customer feedback and asks walkers to rate their experience. "Dealing with the public can be challenging; you need a thick skin."

Wairarapa Young Farmers Club does an annual test-run. "When you see it every day you forget what people can and can't see."

The couple, both 40, maximise their returns by renting out the three huts as B&B accommodation in the off-season. They have focused their limited marketing budget domestically, such as in walking magazines.

Despite the obvious advantages of diversifying their income stream and potentially finding a better work-life balance, Furniss said the best part was being reminded of their home's special qualities.

"You get a bit blase living here, but people come over and are wowed by it all; it reminds you it has a real wow-factor."

THE NUMBERS

Walkers per month this season so far: 40

Fully-catered cost per person $390

Includes: 3 nights' accommodation, all meals, luggage transport, wine, walk maps, two-way radio, track briefing, firewood. Nearly all walkers take this option. Self-catered cost per person $290. Includes all the above minus food. Walkers per group: 2 to 8.

- Fairfax Media

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