Garston – A Place To Call Home

Overlooking the playground on the Green.

I’ve lived on a farm in Garston for 35+ years so that almost makes me a local. But my husband is truly Garston born and bred. His family were one of the first to settle in the valley when it was opened up to farmers in the 1860’s and the McNamees have been here ever since.

So for our family, the ties to Garston run very deep, and we’d find it pretty difficult to leave.

But what is it that makes this quiet country village so hard to beat?

Cycle Trail with distant mountains, looking north towards Garston.
The “Around the Mountains” cycle trail, heading North to Garston.

The View

Let’s begin with Garston’s location.

The village is set in the narrow Upper Mataura River Valley, and mountains range on either side, as far as the eye can see. Their beauty is different from the craggy splendour of Queenstown’s Remarkables range. Ours are “working” mountains; home to animals — farmed and wild —  rare bugs, mountain plants and above all, the golden tussocks which colour the landscape.

Above the village, hidden terraces slope in layers up to the foot of the mountains, and this is where our house can be found. When I step out of the back door for my daily walk there is not a soul to be seen. It’s just me, the birds and the sheep.

What a way to begin — or end —  a day.

A Tough Start

When Europeans first arrived they farmed the Upper Mataura Valley as one giant sheep station. But later on the area was divided into 200-acre sections and these were balloted out to small farmers and settlers.

And that’s where the modern history in Garston begins. Our family came from the lean pickings of the gold claims in the Skippers Valley to try their luck at farming. Others made money killing rabbits — a lucrative enough trade in those days to enable them to save enough to buy into a farm. Some came from family farms further north or south.

Life was pretty tough in those early days. The valley had very few trees back then and firewood was in short supply. The winters were brutal. There’s a famous tale of one long ago winter when the deep snow lasted for so long that the settlers had to use their carefully-hoarded fence posts for firewood just to survive.

Money was scarce too. The kids walked to school from farms dotted around the countryside whether they had shoes or not. My father-in-law used to say:

“We never minded stepping in a cow pat on the way to school —  at least it warmed our feet up.”

I still don’t know if he was joking or not.

Gold

There’s gold in them thar hills. Or at least there used to be.

Shortly after the settlers arrived gold was discovered in creeks and cracks all around, and life got busy as the gold miners flooded in. They came from all over the world to try their luck, set up camp for a while and livened up the area.

Eventually, the gold became too difficult to find, and the miners drifted away to try their luck elsewhere. They left reminders of their stay, with a little cluster of Chinese miners’ graves in the cemetery, and the great water races which they dug high in the mountains to supply water for the great sluice guns in the Nokomai Valley just beyond Garston.

Loving Reminders

Stone picnic table and seat in Garston.
The memorial picnic area north of the Garston Green.

John Newman

It’s easy to guess that Garston is proud of its history. One of the first things that stands out when you stop is the information booth, which was updated after much collaboration by local historians. And when you start to look around you’ll find caring memorials all over the Garston Green.

North of the shops is the picnic area dedicated to John Newman, a former owner of the Garston Hotel, who planted so many of the trees between Athol and Arrowtown. Take a stroll towards the tree-covered hillside nearby and you’ll find a gorgeous little walk called Newman’s Way which takes you up over the knoll to Garston School.

Newman's Way sign and path at Garston.
One of three entrances to Newman’s Way.

The Vital Rail Link

Further down the Green, you’ll find tributes to the time when the trains ran in Garston because when the railway opened in 1878 it was a huge boon to the area.

In those days before sealed roads, fast cars and huge articulated trucks, trains were the best and fastest way to travel the long distance between the “big smoke” of Invercargill in the South and Kingston — the gateway to Lake Wakatipu and Queenstown — in the North.

Farmers transported stock in and out of the valley by rail right up until the early 1970s.

Close up of a man guiding sheep onto a railway wagon.
Loading sheep onto the train at the Nokomai Siding, 1968.   Photo courtesy of Pam and Peter Naylor.

Even when trucks took over the job, the famous Kingston Flyer steam train ran through Garston as a tourist attraction until 1979, when floods damaged the railway tracks so badly that the whole line closed.


Garston doesn’t forget, though. On the Green, you’ll find tracks, trucks and a display of antique jiggers. There, too, is a loving memorial to Russell Glendinning, a towering figure in local railway lore.

The Russell Glendinning Memorial Seat.
Russell Glendinning was a hugely popular, expert train driver. He drove the Kingston Flyer on her last-ever trip through Garston.

Peter Rabbit’s Village

Peter Rabbit’s House has been a special secret in Garston for a long time now. It’s a bit of a  mystery; who did put out that little clothesline and Peter Rabbit sign next to the rabbit hole? Whoever it was, I hope they know how their whimsy brought smiles, and that gradually other, secret “rabbit paraphernalia” appeared.

Tiny clothesline and outhouse in Peter Rabbit's Garston village.
Some of the original pieces in Peter’s village.

Eventually, someone added a diary, and visitors started leaving Peter little notes.

The House expanded in 2017 when the Garston School children decided that Peter needed company, and made a whole replica gold-mining era village.

No one will tell you whereabouts Peter Rabbit’s Village is in Garston. To this day it’s still a delightful surprise to discover for yourself.

The River

Winding through the valley, the Mataura River is world renowned for its trout. People come from all over the globe to try their luck in the cool, clear waters during the fly-fishing season. Some eat their catch or mount it to sit proudly on a wall.

But others are simply there for the love of the fish and the sport. Those intrepid fishermen are found in the tricky “catch and release” sections of the river. Some of the fish there are huge — and wily — having been caught and released more than once over the years.

My favourite river memories are set in the 1990’s. Baking summer days, at the stony beach under the old railway bridge where all the local mums and kids gathered to cool off.

The children floated down the river on giant old inner-tubes from their dads’ tractors, jumped off the rocks and ate enormous afternoon teas. The bravest of them hung over the rail of the towering bridge above.

“Watch me! Watch me!” they’d yell and then leap down into the deepest pool below.

Stretch Your Legs In Garston…

Nowadays Garston is moving on and looking outwards.

Travellers stream through on their way to the glories of Milford Sound or Queenstown and many of them stop at the Garston Green for a welcome break.

Kids race to recover from their long journeys on the playground. Adults discover the delights of  The Coffee Bomb, Craft Keepers and The Hunny Shop.

…Or Stay A While

But some opt for more than a quick stop.

Fishermen, bikers, hikers and those who just want a slice of rural peace and quiet, can all find a bed at the Garston Hotel or at one of the lovely B&Bs dotted around the district.

There’s no denying that living in the country has its challenges. Farmers tend to work the daylight hours: short in winter, long in summer. And of course, in the spring lambing and autumn harvest seasons, work can continue well after dark.

And almost every trip requires a car: we’re simply too far from everywhere to walk.

But despite that, Garston is a special place to be. Friendships run deep and beauty surrounds us every time we step out the door.

I am lucky to call this little slice of New Zealand home.

Frontage of the Garston Information Booth at the Garston Green.

B&Bs in Garston:

The Red Shed

Southern Venues High Country Farmstay

The Naylor House

Menlove Homestay

Castle Hill Lodge

Anakawa

Meadowbank

P.S.

Eventually, I plan to have many more profiles of the enterprising people who live and work in Garston, Athol, Kingston and beyond.

If you (or someone you know) would like to feature on Time of my Life I’d love to hear from you.

Please contact me through the contact form below or message me through Time of my Life’s Facebook page.

If you live further afield in the South and feel your story would be a good fit for Time of my Life, I’m happy to help. Contact me to arrange a time to connect.

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