B&B with rich history

Last updated 11:11 15/02/2014
Karetu homestead
Mike Crean/Fairfax NZ
HOME SWEET HOME: The Karetu homestead has been enlarged and much improved since it was built for Matt Forrester in the 1920s.

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When Bruce Forrester was four years old he left his trike beside the Waipara River, below the family's Karetu homestead. The river flooded and the trike was washed away.

Fifty years later Bruce noticed something reflecting sunlight in the shallows, 3km downstream. "It was a bit mangled but I recognised it instantly. It was my trike," he says. He waded in and pulled it out.

The Waipara headwaters, in the North Canterbury back country, shaped the Forresters' lives. Bruce and his three brothers grew up in relative remoteness until a bridge was built in 1980. This completed the back road link between Hawarden and Amberley.

Until then, drivers on the route through the Waipara Gorge had to tackle a ford at Karetu. The normally placid stream could be deceptive and many vehicles got stuck.

Bruce's father, Leicester, kept a tractor in a shed by the river for towing stranded motorists. Young twins Bruce and Mark saw a chance to make some money. They took over towing duties, charging $2 a time.

Their father responded by stopping their pocket money so they raised their towing charge to $5. It became a profitable venture but the twins thought they could do better. News of a car rally coming their way inspired them to dig holes in the riverbed to trap cars. But the rally drivers knew a bit about river fords and just sped through. The crestfallen boys were hardly cheered by their father's laughter.

Nature rubbed the lesson in further when, years later, the twins returned home late after a rugby match. Emboldened by post- match celebrations, they drove into the ford and became bogged. Their furtiveness in starting the tractor and towing the car out ensured their father never knew.

The Forresters had a private ford, in a shallower stretch of river, so were not always isolated. However, the river could rise suddenly and Leicester kept a car in a shed across the stream. They could reach it by cable car, a wooden crate suspended from a flying fox. This replaced a swing bridge that had been washed away.

The swaying cable car was their link with the world until the bridge was built. The cable car was then converted to a trailer deck. The steps to it were placed in the garden as a reminder of remoteness.

Bruce's grandfather bought the 2000-hectare Karetu on return from World War I. Leicester took it over in 1964. Bruce married Karen in 1986 and they lived in the farm cottage until Leicester's death in 1994.

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Town girl Karen recalls her first pig-shooting expedition, on the back of Bruce's motorbike with one pig over the handlebars and another across her lap - until she fell off, bloodied and bruised.

Leicester was proud of his Scottish roots and played bagpipes at many events. His four sons played too and often joined him in performing. He died suddenly in a back paddock. The family set a memorial plaque in a rock at the site.

Driving out to the rock, Bruce surmises what his father would think of changes since the 1990s, as hard times for sheep and beef farmers have forced diversification.

First, the sheep. Bruce has swapped corriedales for romneys, boosting lambing percentages from 80 to 150. Then the track. Leicester was a dedicated horseman and resisted having a track bulldozed to the back paddocks. He feared it would cause a rabbit migration. It hasn't, Bruce says. Next are the thistles. Bruce has given up grubbing them out. He is confident a weevil he has introduced will eradicate them fairly quickly.

As we drive back through the former holding paddock, he points to a pile of large stones. This paddock was useless in his father's time but has a good sole of grass now. Bruce paid thousands of dollars for removal of the stones. He improved the pasture. His father might have called it a waste of money but it was cheaper than buying land, Bruce says.

Another form of diversification has been led by Karen. As a registered nurse working in Christchurch, Karen tired of the daily commute (an hour each way). Then a bout of cancer brought her greater appreciation of life and the beauty of her surroundings. Their three children had left home so they had a large homestead and a cottage sitting empty. She convinced a doubting Bruce into establishing a bed-and-breakfast and farmstay business.

It has been fun and financially rewarding, Karen says. People come from all over the world and are charmed by the outback experience. Many extend their stays to several nights and keep in contact long after leaving.

She has plans to expand but, for now she counts her blessings: Good health, fabulous lifestyle and a bridge that has made it all possible.

- The Press


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