Athol’s Graceland: A Hand-Built Home Infused With Love

Outside view of Graceland B&B, Athol, NZ
Graceland B&B

What does it take to build your own house and home?

I’d guess at vision, perseverance and a whole lot of determination to get you through the many, many challenges that lie ahead.

Fortunately, Debbie Grace and Gerry Pearse have grit and determination in bucket loads. And that’s just as well because they certainly needed it to build their unique B&B home in Athol.

The vision came years ago in Melbourne, born in the lab where Debbie worked in medical research. Big-city living was taking its toll and a simpler, more connected life became the dream.

They had the skills. Gerry is a builder — Debbie was willing to learn. The land wasn’t a problem; it was waiting for them in Athol, next to Gerry’s father, Jem.

Time was the issue. It took years. Flying back and forth from Melbourne, snatching weeks here and there. Slowly the house took shape — every piece of it carefully crafted by Gerry and Debbie into their forever home. Finally, at last, they quit the city rat race and came permanently to live in Athol.

The Graceland B&B Vision

Debbie and Gerry wanted something out of the ordinary for their country dream. Their vision was clear: a house full of character, built by themselves with sustainable, locally sourced materials.

And that’s exactly what they’ve achieved. Graceland is simply infused with charm and personality. Every piece of the house, inside and out, tells a story.

Grit and Grind

This is one solid house, and everything was done by hand.

“Digging the foundations was one of the hardest things,” says Debbie, remembering just how difficult she found making the reinforcing for the 16 concrete pillars supporting the steel-framed building.

Gerry and Debbie did it all, learning lots of new skills in the process. Tiling, plastering, painting were just a few they needed to master. And sitting with them in the cosy living room, you can tell it’s all been worth the effort.

Wall featuring many hanging car registration plates.
The number plate wall.

Moya Moves In

Back in Melbourne, Moya Flancman was also tired of the big city life. A scientist, originally from Toronto, she too was ready for a move to the country. In her mind, a seed took root planted by conversations with Debbie about their shared dreams.  

“You might as well come and join us,” said Debbie one day.

So Moya did just that.

Uprooted herself from the pharmaceutical world and transplanted her life across “the ditch,” to the half-completed house where she threw herself into the build and the business.

Moya Flancman and Debbie Grace relax on their sitting room sofa.
Moya Flancman (left) and Debbie Grace (right).

Enviro-friendly 

Part of the dream — and the challenge —  was to build the house using sustainable materials. Debbie, in particular, spent hundreds of hours sourcing and collecting the right ones for the job. The locality was a prime consideration: they wanted as many home-grown materials as possible.

Debbie says she felt like a detective going on a treasure hunt as she pored over clues and followed leads to unearth forgotten gems from all over Southland.

They were very lucky with their wood supply. Much of it came from trees felled by Gerry’s father, which they then had milled.

Local rivers proved to be both a source of inspiration and materials, with stones and driftwood collected and used to form integral features of the house.

Barns, backyards, junk shops and more all yielded forlorn-looking treasures that needed a bit of love. Now each rests happily in just the right spot at Graceland.

Some came from further up the South Island. The reclamation centre set up after the earthquakes in Christchurch to store usable materials from damaged hotels in the city proved to be a treasure trove for high-end fixtures and fittings.  

Driftwood decoration hanging in a window.
There are many uses for driftwood in Graceland B&B.

Riverstone Bathroom

The guest bathroom is Debbie’s especial pride and never fails to elicit a gasp from first-time viewers.

Debbie built it out of river stones which she painstakingly cemented into place. She and Moya then spent hours sanding the cement back to reveal the subtle colours and textures of the stones. Lastly, they sealed all the surfaces to create a waterproof floor and walls.

A heater keeps everything toasty warm in winter, so it looks like you’re showering in a river bed, but without the accompanying chill.

Stone-walled bathroom.
The bathroom walls and floor were a labour of love built by Debbie and Moya.

Loving Touches

There are tender touches dotted throughout the house, reminiscent of meaningful people, places and times in its owners’ lives. Among the most precious in the guest bedroom are treasured paintings by Jem Pearse, who was such a talented potter and painter.

If you need a book to while away an hour, the full-size bookshelf has plenty to choose from. Maybe it’s Inspiration you seek? If so, you’ll enjoy reading the banners and quotes all around. At the other end of the scale, car enthusiasts will probably love all the rego plates dotting the fireplace wall.

Bed and painting in the guest bedroom.
The guest bedroom walls feature treasured paintings by Jem Pearse.

Country Challenges

Many city folk have dreams of a “simpler life” in the country but few are prepared for the reality. It’s definitely been an eye-opener and a challenge for these two ladies.

“We certainly have a new appreciation for water and warmth now,” they tell me as Debbie pops another log from their hard-won woodpile into the large wood burner in the lounge.

Getting water into the house was not just a simple matter of connecting pipes to a town supply. Like all Athol houses they were faced with two choices: a rainwater tank or dig a deep bore down to an underwater source and pump it up. Given the recent summer drought, the latter seemed the sensible choice.

Embracing the Self Sufficient Life

Both Debbie and Moya have thrown themselves into country living with gusto and this is reflected in their Bed and Breakfast hospitality.

Food is a high priority.  It was a shock, at first, to realise that country living means you can’t just “pop down to the supermarket every day.” A pantry is essential, and they’ve set about filling theirs with glee.

Reflecting their “self-sufficiency whenever possible” philosophy, the pantry is filled with preserves and juice, with most of the fruit gathered from trees around the local district. Their guests benefit from a choice of beautiful bottled fruits and jams for breakfast.

I can highly recommend a glass of Moya’s apple juice; it’s divine!

Outside, the ladies have established vegetable gardens and a tunnel house. Their lucky free-range hens have the run of the garden and a spacious henhouse which brought the phrase “hen hotel” into my mind. Lucky guests get to eat fresh eggs for breakfast and homegrown vegetables at night.

Pantry shelves filled with jars of bottled fruit.
Moya and Debbie’s bottling efforts: they gather the fruit from local trees.

Gizmo

Undoubtedly the star of the show is Gizmo, who is so popular with guests that he has his own Facebook page. And of course, he like his owners is thriving in Athol.

“This is the best playground in the world for Gizmo,” Moya told me.

It turns out that swimming is Gizmo’s favourite pastime and after his guest-greeting duties are done he gets a well-earned stroll down to the river. Even snow won’t deter Gizmo from his daily dip.

Head and shoulders photo of Gizmo the terrier dog.
Gizmo is very much part of the team.

Connection

Gizmo is part of the connection that guests love about Graceland B&B. Debbie, Moya, and Gerry love spending time with their guests. Their evenings are often spent chatting in the cosy lounge and connecting with people from all over the globe.

Sometimes guests have their own building projects underway and are fascinated with the details of Graceland’s construction. They’ve been known to sit far into the night, swapping stories and tips.

Final Thoughts

I had such a great time meeting Debbie and Moya for this article. Their enthusiasm and love for the house and business is infectious. The kitchen-living area alone is fascinating and there are myriad details to enjoy.

There’s the tale of the stunning photographs which immediately catch the eye (taken in Thailand). And the tale of how the window frame beside the fireplace came to be. Debbie’s latest art projects… Moya’s delicious recipes… fruit harvest stories… garden plans… joining the local volunteer fire brigade… there are so many stories to tell.

I could have spent many more hours in Athol’s Graceland, sipping apple juice and swapping tales, but all good things must come to an end.

A glass of fresh apple juice
Moya’s golden, perfectly clear apple juice.

If you want to connect with Debbie, Moya, and Gerry at Graceland Spa B&B you can find them on:

Facebook

Airbnb

Email: graceland.spa.bandb@gmail.com

Welcome Rock: Trails and Tributes

View of Welcome Rock from a distance.

A Rare and Special Building

There’s an old sod hut nestling high in the mountains above our farm. It’s part of the precious, beautiful landscape now known as Welcome Rock Trails, but it has a special place in our family’s history too.

Since the children were little we’ve made many journeys to this little hut. There’s evidence of our visits etched in the old visitors book: Steph’s 4-year-old handwriting; a long entry from the Brownies we took there on an overnight adventure; signatures from friends and family who’ve joined us over the years.

It’s not an easy trek to the lonely little hut. We could try a bumpy drive in the truck, up and over the rough farm tracks. Sometimes there’s the fun of a trek along the Welcome Rock Trail. But lately we’ve taken to hiking straight up over the mountain from our house to the little heritage hut.

Old Sod Hut on Welcome Rock Trails

Welcome Rock Memories

Every visit to the hut just has to include a trip down the track to Welcome Rock. This huge slate slab, is visible for miles on the mountain and from the valley below. It was once a welcome sight for early travellers and a meeting point for those coming over the mountains from the Nevis, Nokomai and Upper Mataura valleys. That awesome boulder still beckons adventurers today.

For us, there’s always been the thrill of a scramble up the steep sides to conquer the top.  It’s a bit easier nowadays. The lookout has been made safer for cyclists and hikers to climb and see the magnificent views.

There are dozens of Welcome Rock memories, but one special day stands out.  At the turn of the century we made the journey in the dark, all the neighbours gathering with Kit and Des to climb the Rock and greet the first day of the millennium. Solemnly we each pressed carefully-written notes into a Time Capsule, then turned and toasted the dawn. It was a magical morning.

Man standing on Welcome Rock

 

Gold Mining Heritage

There’s no gold in these particular hills, but nevertheless they hold a special place in the rich gold-mining history of the area. There’s gold to the south in the Nokomai Valley, and to the north in the Nevis. But our claim to fame comes from the water race, hand-hewn in the late 1800s to send water to the great sluice guns at the Nokomai Gold Mine. This was the reason Mud Hut was built.

The water race had to be maintained, so Chinese men were stationed in tiny huts at intervals along the way. For nearly 50 years they repaired breaches and rockfalls, stopped weeds from invading and kept the water flowing. Too far away for regular human contact, even with each other, they must have been so lonely perched above the world. For some of them, it cost their lives.

Sharing Past and Present

Dotted all along the remnants of the old water race is other evidence of New Zealand’s gold mining heritage. 150 years later this has become a unique feature of the Welcome Rock Trail, the hand-hewn hiking and mountain biking trail around the mountain top of the O’Brien family’s farm.

The desire to preserve and share the land in this way has been Tom O”Brien’s dream for years now. I remember so well talking with him in 2012 before work on the trail began; seeing the light in his eyes and hearing the passion in his voice as he described the mission he was about to undertake.

Back-Breaking Beginnings

And a mission it has been, make no mistake about that. 22 km of the 27 km trail was made with picks and shovels, a back-breaking job taking two years of effort by Tom and a stream of enthusiastic volunteers.

They came from many lands and all walks of life to join the job: conservation groups, mountain biking clubs, high-school kids, backpacking volunteers and friends. Lured by the promise of time in the high country, and the chance to ride the trail, more than 50 people eventually helped Tom to painstakingly create that first track on the mountain.

Welcome Rock trail goes between two boulders.

Labour and Debate

Can you imagine the blood, sweat and tears that went into building the Welcome Rock Trail? Tom and his co-creator, Gary Patterson spent hours on the mountainside, vigorously debating the merits of each small section.

“Gary would stand at one point,” Tom explains, “and I’d stand 20 or 30 metres away, peering at him through the clinometer (an instrument used to measure gradient.) “The prime considerations were gradient and what felt right in the landscape.”

Tom wanted it to seem like the trail had always been there: a natural part of the landscape. Gary knew that the trail’s gradient must stay between 3 and 5 degrees. The trail you see today reflects both desires, but it wasn’t an easy ride.

“After the shouting stopped, we would each tie markers to the tussocks, to show where we thought the trail should go. Then the problem solving began. Maybe there would be a swamp in the way, a creek to cross or a rock exactly in the wrong place and we had to find a way around, through or over.”

Often they had to compromise  and that’s where the heated discussion began. 

“We argued over every obstacle, each with passionate reasons why our view should prevail,” Tom groans. “Whichever solution we reached, I knew it meant extra hours of pick and shovel work for me.

The Future Beckons

Development of the trail and business still continues today.  There are now three places where you can sleep overnight and experience the charms of high-country life, the Red Barn on the farm and two little huts high in the hills. The original Mud Hut nestles beside the water race  and the new, purpose-built Slate Hut snuggles near Welcome Rock. Each gives a unique night’s stay to people craving peace, solitude and the chance to have a hot bath under the stars.

The outside bath at Slate Hut on Welcome Rock Trails.
All photo credits: Jenny McNamee

There have been plenty of hikers and bikers in the past four years. More Trails are planned, and race days too. The annual “Welcome Rock Brew Chop” race is always fun while November’s Trail Race is increasingly popular.

A huge opportunity’s coming  in 2019 for those souls who love the challenge of extreme adventure. Excitingly, the grueling “Revenant Ultra Run” will make its New Zealand debut at Welcome Rock Trails in January that year.

Thank You Tom

I love this family, and I love what they’ve done with the treasured land which has been entrusted to them. Years ago they protected it as a conservation block.  Now they’ve opened it up to those who want to experience the New Zealand high country for themselves. This is indeed a special piece of Southland. 

Hankering after time on the trail? Find out how to connect with Tom and Katie below:

Welcome Rock Trails  

Facebook

TripAdvisor

Photos (except trail map) from Jenny McNamee of Postcard Puzzles

 

Living The Dream At Craft Keepers

Craft Keepers Dream

We all have dreams, but not everyone manages to follow them quite as thoroughly as Tabatha Davison. Just three years ago she was working in Queenstown, travelling the weekend market circuit, and dreaming of life in the country. Today Tabatha’s the proud owner of Craft Keepers here in Garston, where she not only makes and sells her own jewellery but also houses a wonderful collection of arts and crafts.

Southern Made

Walking into Craft Keepers is a visual delight; your eyes are drawn to so many artfully-displayed creations it’s hard to know where to look first. What’s most appealing is the authentic nature of the crafts.

“Every piece is created in Otago or Southland,” Tabatha explains. “When customers ask about the maker, I love to tell those little details that make each piece of work so special.”

It’s hard to resist such enthusiasm so I dive in and ask. I collect gorgeous coffee mugs so naturally that’s where I begin.

“Isn’t it lovely,” Tabatha smiles, picking up a mug. “Even the clay comes from Southland. They are beautifully balanced and the colours are just gorgeous.”

 

Gorgeous Gifts

There is so much to choose from in this crafty converted container that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Created While You Watch

Not only is Craft Keepers a haven of lovely arts and crafts, it’s also Tabatha’s workshop and most days you’ll discover her creating beautiful jewellery there. I’m drawn to the delicate silver chains, but Tabatha’s favourites are the costume pieces.     

“I’ve always loved the flair and variety of costume,” she says. “It’s so easy to be experimental and out there.”

Tabatha’s customers certainly love the Craft Keepers experience. Locals pop in to buy gifts and tourists visit for the perfect NZ-made souvenir. There’s increasing repeat trade from those who regularly travel the busy Te Anau-Queenstown state highway too.

Tabatha Davison outside Craft Keepers.
Come on in.

See For Yourself

Tabatha’s got a great thing going at Craft Keepers. She’s brought the creative, collaborative vibe of the markets into the middle of Garston.  The next time you need a gift or souvenir with style, don’t rush to a giant impersonal store. Think small, think local and pop into Craft Keepers. You won’t be disappointed.

Find Craft Keepers

ON  FACEBOOK

AT: The Container, Garston-Athol Highway, Southland

 

 

 

You Can’t Beat A Great Coffee Bomb

The Coffee Bomb Food Trailer in Garston Village

The Coffee Bomb Dream

Kylie Sutton loves delicious food, cheerful chat, and great coffee, so when the chance came up to combine all three passions by buying the Coffee Bomb food trailer, she didn’t hesitate. Literally a small business — the whole trailer is only 4.5m long — the Coffee Bomb sits right in the heart of Garston. Travelling along the main tourist route of S.H.6 you just can’t miss it. In fact, its the perfect place to buy food-and-drinks-to-go.

Food Faves and Raves

The food in the Coffee Bomb cabinet has that homemade touch that’s hard to beat. Kylie cooks it daily right there in the Coffee Bomb’s tiny oven. Even the burgers have her famous home-style touch, with the gluten-free patties made onsite to delicious old-fashioned recipes. Add in slow-cooked lamb roasts and melt-in-your-mouth-tender pork belly — all cooked in the van —  and you’re in burger heaven. You won’t find burgers like these anywhere else.

“I’d have to say ‘The Bomb’ is our most popular burger” says Kylie. “Tabitha (from next-door Craft Keepers) and I invented it when we were cold and hungry one slow, winter’s day.”

Featuring fresh burger buns, pork belly & bacon, coleslaw, and dripping with tasty sauce, The Bomb has been a menu staple ever since. “There’d probably be a customer riot if we took it off the menu now,”

My personal favourites are the muffins. Kylie’s muffins actually taste as good as they look which, in my experience, is a very rare thing. Other locals rave over the homemade carrot cake, lolly cake, and of course, the locally-roasted ROAR coffee.

Village With a Vibe

But why would a former butcher, busy farmer, and volunteer fire fighter/medic set up a food stop in this tiny tourist town?

Kylie Sutton in the Coffee Bomb Food Trailer at Garston Villagef

“I love the vibe in Garston,” Kylie explains. “The locals are fabulous. So many people give us their whole-hearted support. The businesses complement each other too, and everyone is always willing to lend a hand. It’s great to have travellers who stop in on a regular basis, and of course the tourist trade is fantastic. We’re just in the right spot for a stop.”

But the Coffee Bomb vision doesn’t stop there. A boutique accommodation business “The Bomb Com” is planned for 2019. Watch this space, folks; with Kylie’s gift for customer service, it sounds like a winner to me.

Essential Links

FOOD MENU

COFFEE AND MORE

FACEBOOK

TRIP ADVISOR

 

Autumn or Fall

Yellow leaves frame a boat marina at Lake Te Anau.

A Breathtaking Season By Any Name

Autumn: It conjures colours in my mind. Deep reds, brilliant oranges and bright yellow; vivid hillsides or fiery avenues; these are the scenes that await in the South Island during March, April and May. Time to bring out the camera or the paint brushes. How to capture so much splendour?

Fall — the American name —  brings a later time to mind. Leaves gently floating, one following the other. Or a windy night, followed by a red-gold and brown crunchy carpet — all the leaves downed at once. This is playtime: children shouting, laughing, scuffing through the leaves and building great heaps to leap into and to toss in the air.

Autumn Down Under

In the Southern Hemisphere everything seems topsy-turvey to those from northern parts. When we have winter — you have summer; we’re in daylight — you’re in night. Ideally, Our houses face north, if they can,  because southerly weather in New Zealand comes from Antarctica and it’s COLD.

You might think that being such a small country our climate would be the same throughout, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Living here in Garston we are closer to the South Pole than to the equator, and the weather is quite different to that of New Zealand’s northerly provinces. So are the seasons.

New Zealand native trees are mostly evergreen so their colour comes from beautiful flowers and berries. But our English pioneers missed the trees of home and planted many, many deciduous trees, especially in the South Island where they’ve flourished.

A Stunning Season

So autumn is a beautiful season down here. The awareness that cold weather is on its way causes the deciduous trees to withdraw the green chlorophyll from the leaves back into the branches and trunk where it will wait out the winter, ready to be used come spring. Now it’s time for other pigments in the leaves to shine, and what a glorious show they make.

My Class Loves Painting in Autumn

I’m not a great artist myself, but I love teaching art to my class of 5 – 7 year olds at Garston School.  We love the autumn colours around our school. Last week we learned one way of showing reflections with autumn colours.

Here are 3 of my favourites:

Another post in the series Autumn Harvest on the Farm.

 

 

 

 

Piece Together a Picture of Paradise

 

Every December I have the same problem. Christmas Cards. I really want to send them, and I really, really want to include a letter as well.  After all, for some of my friends, this is the only time of year we’re in touch.

But, here’s the thing. The end of the school year is taken up with one thing, and one thing only. The School Production.  It consumes every waking moment (and sometimes sleeping moments too) as we work to get the big show ready. So, no time for letter writing there.  

And of course when it’s all done and dusted, so are my energy levels. Now I have the time, but my brain has shut down. Inevitably what happens is, the packet of cards sits on the shelf and stares accusingly at me, never to be sent.

So this year I did something a little different. Instead of cards I sent some postcard puzzles. Intrigued? I hope so. Here’s the article I wrote on my daughter Jenny, and her clever idea.

Piece together a slice of New Zealand

Young and carefree, Jenny McNamee loved to travel, working where she could and exploring the wonders of the world.  And even when she touched base back home in New Zealand, as a tourism expert she helped  travellers from all over the globe to experience the beauties of her own, lovely country.

But whether overseas or in New Zealand, the same problem always presented itself: Where to find that unique, small, lightweight, easy to pack or post, perfect souvenir?

Fast forward to 2017, and the arrival of baby Harvey presented Jenny with the perfect time to focus on solving the problem.

A search through her diverse collection of stunning photographs… the giant jigsaw on the dining room table… an exploratory click on the internet and “Postcard Puzzles” was born.

A jigsaw and a postcard in one, Postcard Puzzles solve the souvenir dilemma in a unique and playful manner.

You can break it up and do the puzzle yourself, or write on the back and mail it to family and friends.

All the photos are from Jenny’s own South Island collection. With four iconic images to choose from and more in the pipeline, postcard puzzles are available at selected outlets in Oamaru, Garston and Te Anau, or contact Jenny online through her Facebook page