The dreams of Lester Rowntree

00:43, Oct 13 2014
lester rowntree
Motueka farmer Lester Rowntree has a dream to bring the historic Otira Hotel in Arthur’s Pass back to its former glory.

He is a deer farmer from Motueka who has a long trail of dreams to his name. Charles Anderson catches up with Lester Rowntree at his latest venture - an old hotel in a blink-and-you'll-miss it town.

Lester Rowntree had a dream. He had a few, actually. There was his vision for the best ever flying fox in the world. There was the one for New Zealand's only ever grand scale agriculture show in Alexandra. Now there is Otira.

It's a 350km drive from his Motueka farm to the Arthur's Pass township of 40 permanent residents. Already he has brought down old farming machinery, old Cobb and Co wagons and dozens of old black and white photographs. Soon he will have a legion of old clydesdale horses all resting in newly refurbished stables just across from the old hotel.

lester rowntree
Lester Rowntree in about 2003, with the Riwaka flying fox hitting the water at 112kmh behind him.

"I've had a hell of a journey to get here but I reckon Otira needs me and I need it," Rowntree says staring out from the Otira Hotel's wooden verandah. "We have come together at last."

In 1998, Bill and Christine Hennah bought the hotel and town on a whim for $73,000. In 2010, they listed their property, which included the hotel, hall, fire station and 14 rentable houses on 20 hectares of leasehold land.

At the time, Christine Hennah estimated the total worth at about $1 million.

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Rowntree had stopped there very occasionally over the years. He thinks he must have been there as a child but can't remember the experience. He saw it advertised on television last year and resisted the temptation for a while.

"The draw was so strong."

So it was some time before he came along and decided he wanted to buy the place in the shadow of the hills where nothing much happens anymore. Rowntree wants to change all that. He wants to bring the place back to its former glory - a shining testament to days gone by when anyone with any interest of any kind had to pass through Otira to get from the West Coast to Christchurch. Kings and queens passed through here, he is quick to point out.

"This place has living history," Rowntree says. "It started in 1864 when they built that track over the hill and been going ever since."

Well, sort of. Most who travel through Arthur's Pass these days would not give much thought to old Otira. The hotel's original timber boarded up with pine, the playground a little run down. It's a forgettable place where the overwhelming thought is: "What sort of person would want to live there?"

Already those sort of people have come to settle into Rowntree's expanding empire. There is "Grey Beard" - a nomad, so named for his facial hair, with his two dogs and five chickens all living in the back of his truck. He met Rowntree in Motueka and the pair bonded over a mutual love of clydesdales.

There is "Steve", the galah, who has a cage inside the hotel's door and a perch outside if it's nice weather. And there is Dave Buchanan who was stranded in Otira one afternoon after bad weather closed the roads and, almost two months later, he is still there with his wife.

They are renting a place over the railway tracks and helping Rowntree refurbish the hotel. He swears by the place now. "Wouldn't live anywhere else," he says. "There is something about it. The air, the birds, all away from the hurly burly of the city. Why would you leave?" Which is how Rowntree feels.

"Its not a place for everybody. If you didn't like it you wouldn't be here. But the hustle and bustle of city life is getting harder and harder and being out here is just peaceful." His wife and son will move down soon and he says Otira will be back to a semblance of its former self by December.

"There is a lot to do by then and not a lot of time to do it in." Rowntree is 63 years old. He was born and bred in Motueka, the son of a tobacco farmer who ploughed the land with clydesdales.

Fourteen years ago he had an idea for a flying fox. He dreamed it up one day while wondering how fast one of them could go. He ended up creating an eight-person "space shuttle" in Riwaka that gets up to 112kmh before hitting water and slowing down. It's been closed the past year as he's had other distractions. For example, almost four years ago he had a dream of setting up a $4million agri-heritage attraction in Cromwell that would incorporate a 700-seat agridome and feature live re-enactments of a bygone farming era. The venture, however, fell over.

"It was great dream of mine but nobody else's - this here is a completely different thing." His uncles both were clydesdales contractors in the region. Its where his love of the animal came from.

"They are magnificent beasts," he says. "They are so placid and powerful and can do anything." They are the beasts that made the nation, he says. They helped make every road and till every field.

"They are a living connection to the past," he says.

And so is he, in his own way.

Lying on a windowsill inside the hotel is a photograph of two gentlemen circa 1880 alongside a pair of penny farthing bicycles. The caption says they rode through the pass on those vehicles with everything in tow - tents, cameras and food. "Come with me," Rowntree says. He takes me out to a shed at the side of the hotel filled with apples brought down from his Motueka farm. Behind the boxes near the back of the shed is a dusty black frame.

"I've tracked it down," he says. "It's the one from the photo." He found it in someone's shed in Canterbury. The man in the photo was the seller's father. "You can find just about anything in history if you ask the right people and follow it like a bloodhound." Rowntree's great-uncle was a Cobb & Co stagecoach driver on the Otira route, so "it's a bit like coming home," he says. He "lives for history" and it is that passion that most of Rowntree's plans for Otira revolve around.

"I just love the past and would like to show everybody how people used to live. It's important to me to show the young ones coming through how it was done." He owns a stagecoach, with which he plans to pick up TransAlpine passengers to take them for a ride up to the Otira Tunnel. People will have a chance to pan for gold, eat whitebait and take a look at the zig-zag route that was replaced by the Otira Viaduct.

He will provide free parking for campervans and room for truckies to pull in for a break. He also has deer and Himalayan tahr that he would house in a paddock where TransAlpine passengers would be able to see them.

Travellers heading between Canterbury and the West Coast may have already spotted "Sampson" the model clydesdale taking pride of place on State Highway 73.

Sampson is apparently so life-like that when a neighbour's horse escaped from its paddock it took after the model in a fit of rage.

"He went absolutely berserk," Rowntree says, the horse kicking at the model until help arrived to return the wayward equine home.

It will take time for everything to get rolling at Otira, but Rowntree plans to be in operation by December.

That will mark 200 years since the first horses arrived in New Zealand and Otira will host a celebration for the animal that helped pave the way for settlers.

The Motueka farm, now home to deer and fruit, will be rented out. The Riwaka flying fox might sit idle for another year. He wants to sell that - pass it on to another dreamer - because Otira is his home now.

He can see it all from the veranda - the visitors pouring off the TransAlpine and into Otira, the campervans pulling off into the car park for lunch and a taste of a time that once was. It will be a place on the map again, Rowntree says, because he can see it all - his dreams of the past, just a little bit into the future.

The Nelson Mail