Motueka man falls for Otira - buys it

PERFECT ESCAPE: Otira Hotel in the heart of the Southern Alps.
PERFECT ESCAPE: Otira Hotel in the heart of the Southern Alps.

For four years the Otira Hotel and part of the township was up for sale, waiting for the right owner to see its potential.

The West Coast town clutching to the side of the Southern Alps has finally been bought, in increments, by Motueka man Lester Rowntree. Rowntree was still living in Motueka last year when media reports of the "town for sale" caught his eye.

"It got me thinking that maybe I should be looking at coming to Otira."

So he visited and fell in love.

"As soon as I got here to have a look, it just hit me like a thunder bolt . . . this is the place that I'd like to live the rest of my life."

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.

In May, Rowntree leapt aboard. He is in the process of signing all the paperwork to buy the hotel and in three years plans to buy the rest from the Hennahs.

Rowntree's great-uncle was a Cobb & Co stagecoach driver on the Otira route, so "it's a bit like coming home," he said. He "lives for history" and it is that passion that most of Rowntree's plans for Otira revolve around.

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.

Other ideas include a salmon pond that he would stock with commercial fish so people could try their hand at fishing.

He would 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 said, the horse kicking at the model until help arrived to return the wayward equine home.

It will take some 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.

Meanwhile, visitors can be assured there will be reason to stop in at Otira, "even if they just want to have a cup of coffee and swap a few tales with us," he said.

The Press