Offbeat New Zealand: The man who all but bought a town
Glance down to hunt for a radio station and you could easily miss the tiny Otira township as you swoop down the gorge on the western side of the Southern Alps.
That would be a shame. While Otira has had many claims to fame over its wild hard-case history, at the moment it is fascinating because one person owns much of the town.
Lester Rowntree bought 21 hectares, including hotel, 18 houses, hall, fire station, a couple of years ago and says it will become his freehold property from May 1. A handful of properties, including the John Burns Gallery, an engineering firm and backpackers are owned by others
Rowntree's land has been Railways lease land, but he says he can really get things moving in the town when that's gone.
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Bill and Christine Hennah bought the Otira land for $73,000 in 1998. In 2010, they listed it again. Rowntree saw it as the perfect place to display his huge collection of historical memorabilia and create a new life for the town as a tourist and educational attraction.
What's it cost to buy most of a town?
"I'm not telling you," he says. "They were advertising it for a million dollars, but they didn't get that amount."
He's sitting there in the hotel drawing room on an old red leather couch he picked up from somewhere. The rooms are cluttered with an extraordinary collection of old artifacts, photos, antlers, stuffed animals and furniture.
I ask if owning most of the town means he gets to be mayor.
"My wife's the mare and I'm the stallion," he says with a big laugh. So no airs and graces then. It's a joke that would go well among the hard-bitten men who lived and worked in Otira digging the massive 8-kilometre rail tunnel through rock and running the trains that used the tunnel to the east when it opened in 1923.
Rowntree's particular love in all this epic transport and mining history is the stagecoach era. The trek over the alps between the West Coast and Canterbury on a track little wider than the track was one of the country's toughest.
The trains made it to Otira in 1899 and his hotel was then called the Otira Terminus Hotel. He's changed the name to the Otira Stagecoach Hotel. In 1908 they started digging the rail tunnel and the town's population boomed to 700. Meanwhile, the stagecoaches did the hard slog over the ranges while the work went on underground.
Rowntree talks poignantly of the day in 1923 when the rail tunnel opened.
"On opening day, five stagecoaches left this hotel and they never came back again. And that was the end. This was the very last place where commercial coaching was done."
Rowntree wants to bring those days alive again for visitors. He talks of a museum, of an auditorium with live shows. "We want to make this a journey to the past, we want to put a huge auditorium up here, and do a daily show, showing the building of the roads and the stagecoach time and the building of the rail tunnel."
He points to green fields in the distance in his town where this will emerge.
"I've got a real passion for history. I've got a Cobb and Co wagon and a lot of horses, carriages. I've got 75 horse-drawn vehicles and a lot of old artifacts and I am just bursting at the seams in my sheds at home [in Motueka]."
Meanwhile, it's worth stopping right now for a look. There is already plenty to ponder inside the upgraded 10-room hotel and in the grounds around it.
Outside you can spot, in no particular order, old farm machinery, an old wooden cart with a mock ape in a cage (a prop from Xena Warrior Princess), carriages from the Amish in America still in the shipping containers they arrived in, lots of hunting trophies, a homemade gun carriage and on and on it goes.
With some understatement Rowntree says: "We have a lot of quirky things".
But he nails it when he says: "This is absolutely the most interesting hotel in New Zealand. It's not the best, not the best hotel, but it is definitely the most interesting."
* This article has been updated to say there are other privately owned properties in Otira.