Living on the edge in the high country stations of the South Island

Current Erewhon runholder Colin Drummond returning to camp after a day's mustering.
David Hallett

Current Erewhon runholder Colin Drummond returning to camp after a day's mustering.

Many South Islanders go to the high country for the big lift it will give a tired city soul. Tourists visit to soak up the wild beauty and possibly glimpse Gandalf.

The air is so clean and clear - if you wear specs it's like your eyes are young again. Everything, has these sharp edges. In those alpine valleys and hills you'll find more variations of sensible beige and grey than you or Resene could ever imagine, plus gravel river beds, icy streams, scree slopes, tussock.

And the hills have that mana that comes from just being really big, really old and really permanent. Give or take the odd helicopter buzzing like a gnat in the valleys, the high country looks the same today as it always has.

On a fine day it feels like the best place in the world. But what about living there day and night, week after week, month after month, season after season?

Our human outposts in the high country are the great sheep stations and through tales of life on those stations the rest of us can glimpse a life lived away from it all.

We love these stories and publishers know it. Spring has brought three new books on famous stations which reveal different facets of a landscape where kea, not lawnmowers, call out on Saturday mornings.

Erewhon Station is situated in the remote headwaters of the Rangitata River in Canterbury. Photo: DAVID HALLETT

Yvonne Martin and photographer David Hallett's book Seasons of Erewhon is an in-depth, beautifully illustrated book that looks at all aspects of life at Erewhon Station at the headwaters of the Rangitata River 160km west of Christchurch.

The pages are full of hills, sheep, horses and dogs. But what about the humans, I ask Martin. Who wants that life?

"They are people who wouldn't thrive in the city," she says. "They think Christchurch is really, really busy and frenetic. They dread coming to town."

She travelled to Erewhon many times over a year to research the book and often frames it as "our world" and "their world". The border crossing of these world comes at Mt Somers when cell coverage fades.

"They thrive there, they are very purpose oriented. Every day there are jobs to do. I think they really love that. Every day they have mapped out what needs to be done. They are very season oriented, they'll say 'that happened in Autumn of such in such'," she says.

Early to bed, early to rise is reality at Erewhon and not a nursery rhyme. At mustering time the alarm goes off at 4am. The evenings might be card games, a few drinks and bed by 9pm.

Horse stud mustering at Erewhon station. Photo: DAVID HALLETT

"And what's really different is they love it in all weathers. Work still has to be done. They don't stop for a weekend like us, Martin says.

"And for them, a break and a bit of peace and quiet is loading up a wagon and going another four hours up the valley just to stay in total isolation."

In Snow on the Lindis, Madge Snow tells of her life on Morven Hills Station at Lindis, Central Otago. It was her family's farm and she and her husband Max farmed it for more than three decades up to the 1980s, raising three children.

Her isolated life in this high country world included an older world view of roles. Feminists look away: Max ran the farm and Snow ran the home, specifically the cooking.

"The heart of a country station is the kitchen. If you feed your men and look after them, then the farm runs smoothly. I think it is very important. I spent all my time in the kitchen and I loved it. It's what I wanted to do and that's what I did," she says.

But this was no cakewalk. She echoes Martin that a critical high country skill is organisation and planning.

"It's the same with everything in life. If you are organised, you are fine." She had to plan months ahead around feeding big mustering and shearing gangs. Her biggest fear was of running out of supplies because there was no shop to turn to.

The family was essentially self-sufficient, apart from basics such as flour and sugar, which was bought in bulk twice a year. Yet Snow could cook a different pudding every night for months.

Musterers working a big mob in the yard at Mt White Station. Photo: DAVID HALLETT

They worked hard. They relied on neighbours. They only went to the doctor 60km away in real emergencies. Snow says deals were done by word and a handshake, and they were honoured. In such isolation, it had to be like that for survival.

Snow says you need to enjoy your own company in the high country. But that isolation brought one regret - the children's education. They managed through primary school by offering board to bus-driving teachers, but boys had to leave at 11 for boarding schooI. "If I had my life over again, I would keep them at home," she says.

But the high country was wonderful for someone like her who was born to it. She needs the big hills near and that's why she lives in Wanaka. "I couldn't live on the Canterbury Plains, it's too flat. I love the hills."

Gerald Sandry's book The Legend of Mt White Station covers the history and the people who are part of the station in the Arthurs Pass foothills.

For some young people, he says living and working in the high country can become obsessive, "a disease".

Tussock scenes around Morven Hills Station. Photo: RUTH BROWN

"A lot of single folk find it very hard to leave. In fact that's why they are single. They haven't left to form other avenues in their life and the high country has continually drawn them back."

He says Mt White's isolation and mystique have always drawn men to work there and it has never had to advertise for staff.

Sandry says the workers who thrive at Mt White like their horses, their dogs and wide open spaces. "There is a wonderful freedom to it. You are part of a team and you have to do your job because if you don't someone else has to do it."

Madge Snow with "Dirty Dora, the old Shacklock range at Morven Hills Station that was a key part of her domain. Photo: RUTH BROWN

He says the isolation is hard on women and children's education is difficult. But those who like it, love it. In 157 years the station has only had six owners and six managers.

Sandry says he interviewed many former employees for the book - pack men, musterers, fencers -  "and not one screwed their face up, there was a smile and an enthusiasm".

"I spoke to one guy in his 90s who left Mt White to go to the war [WWII] and he can remember the name of every horse he broke in."

Like all the stations, Mt White offers a glimpse of the past. Things look and are done the same as they always have. They are New Zealand's pioneering beginnings frozen in time and set in one of the world's most beautiful landscapes. How can we help but be fascinated?

THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED: We have six copies of Seasons of Erewhon to give to our readers. Fill in the form below before 5pm Friday, 30 October. We'll contact the winners during the first week of November. If you are entering via mobile or tablet, please click here


Seasons of Erewhon: The enduring legacy of a high country station, by Yvonne Martin and David Hallett. $65.

Snow on the Lindis: My Life at Morven Hills Station, by Madge Snow with Bee Dawson, Random House NZ. $40.

The Legend of Mt White Station, by Gerald Sandrey. Mary Egan Publishing. $60.

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