An air of secrecy surrounds a Hospice Marlborough home and garden fundraising tour.
Nine properties within a 23-kilometre radius of one another are opening on Sunday, December 2, for friends, neighbours and strangers. Entry is restricted to people wearing a $50 identity bracelet between the hours of 10am and 5pm and the property locations are revealed only to people who have bought one.
Jo Hill, however, is a nominated spokesperson for everyone and arranges a meeting at her and husband Steve's home near Renwick with hospice publicity officer Natalie Lawler.
The Hills' family home, Hillsfield House, is also a bed and breakfast facility so the welcome mat is regularly out for unknown guests. Sunday will be the first time time the Hills have opened their house and garden for "streams of people", though, and Jo admits to feeling nervous.
"It's a bit scary but you know it's for a good cause," she laughs.
The Hills' French-style house was built in 2005 to a design Steve did using an ArchiCAD computer program. The two-storey house stands in a stately manner amidst a formal English garden setting the couple designed.
She grew up in Scotland but that country's heathers and flowering thistles were put aside in favour of the neatly-trimmed buxus hedges dividing gardens planted with small shrubs and English perennial favourites. Gardens on one side of the property are a mirror image of gardens on the other, Jo says. Well, nearly.
"Some plants either died or decided they didn't want to do that sort of thing," Jo confides.
Beyond the garden boundaries, alpacas and miniature ponies keep grass on the two-hectare property neatly grazed.
"It used to take us three hours every weekend to mow the place," Jo remembers. Animals also keep the garden looking great by providing a continuous supply of manure.
The Hills had read how "easy-care" and "calming to be around" alpacas are compared to sheep, so they visited a property where some were to be sold so the owners could move to town.
It was love at first sight when they met one alpaca, Twiggy, Jo says.
"We had no plans to buy that day as we just wanted to find out more about them. However, we fell in love with Twiggy as soon as we saw her.
Twiggy arrived at Hillsfield House three days later, along with three alpaca companions.
"Well, we couldn't break up the family!"
That has since grown with the birth of a fifth alpaca, Milo. Three miniature ponies, Madam, Fudge and Guy, complete the livestock.
"I have been around horses for most of my life and when you don't have one, you miss the smell and the contact," Jo explains.
She has a soft spot for ducks, too, and the same female returns each spring to rear a new squadron of ducklings. A dozen have hatched this year.
"Soon they are going to hammer on the window and want to be fed," Jo says, looking out into the garden through the Hillsfield House living room's french doors. The ducks' regular requests for food start early in the morning and, between snacks, the birds are often dozing on the lawn.
Sunday's tour guests who pack a picnic are invited to spread out on the lawn, Jo says.
Similar hospitality will be offered at other locations on the tour, too, Natalie says.
Sunday's programme follows a similar tour organised in 2010 when $22,000 was raised for Hospice Marlborough. People who attended that, however, will be visiting completely new properties this year.
● Tickets are available at outlets in Blenheim, Picton and Nelson.
Visit the web site hospicemarlborough.org.nz for more information.
The Marlborough Express