Wrapping Up The Revenant: A Legend Is Born

The very first Revenant Competitors have given of their best and the much-anticipated Ultra Adventure Run has come and gone.

It had drama and humour; tension and courage; camaraderie and respect. 
Watching it all unfold was unforgettable.

The Revenant Welcome Rock Whisky bottle close up.

Briefing 1: At The Garston Hotel, Thursday 16:00

When our dusty Mazda turned in, the hotel car park was already overflowing. In the bar I could barely hear the bartender as locals, supporters and racers mingled and mixed. The Revenant competitors were easy to spot; their common denominator was intensity.

You could have heard a pin drop when the briefing began. With no microphones, we had to listen intently to catch every detail.

This race is cryptic.

It was designed to be an enigma, so the race directors didn’t give everything away at the first briefing. Instead, throughout the evening they teased with a drip-feed of tantalising clues.

“You have 60 hours to complete four laps — and make damn sure you solve ALL the clues if you want to drink the whisky!”

Drink the whisky???

That’s your reward.

No glamour, no glitz, no money; just the ultimate satisfaction of knowing that you finished and added your number to the Revenant hall of fame.

Only you, the revenant, can open the coveted Welcome Rock whisky bottle and savour the taste of victory.

Revenant Competitors: One Race Number Forever

The Revenant Competitors group photo at the Welcome Rock Woolshed.
The Revenant Competitors lined up for a group photo – one of the few times they were all together.


“Your number is yours for life,” Leroy said. Whenever you return — your number will be waiting for you.

So in 2019, these names are forever etched on the Revenant Competitors roll:

Chad Wright 1

Shawn Webber 2

Leo Pershall 3

Jean Beaumont 4

Shaun Collins 5

Andrew Charles 6

Peter Donnelly 7

Tom Reynolds 8

Mathew Jeans 9

Bronwyn Mckeage 10

Angus Watson 12

Joel Thomas 15

Tony Sharpe 16

Dave Vitakangas 17

Tim Sutton 22

Matt Hamblett 24

Ian Evans 25

Alistair Shelton 26

Mike Field 27

Shane Tebutt 28

Bob Hun 33


So awesome to open such a heritage. How does it feel, Chad, being number one?

  • Maps distributed ✔
  • Numbers revealed✔✔

Just like that, Race Briefing One was done and dusted.

“Start plotting your course,” said Scott.

He could have saved his breath. Every competitor’s head was already bent over the maps they’d been waiting months to see.

Briefing 2: At The Woolshed, 21:00

A Revenant Contestant studies his map one last time.

The music was pumping in the O’Brien’s old woolshed. “Born to be wild” boomed Steppenwolf, and the wild ones gathered, eager for more clues.

No one really understood what they were preparing to endure, but one thing was already clear. The challenge would be monumental.

Every now and then the race directors revealed more vital info.

“Collect a numbered page from the book at each checkpoint. Keep the pages safe — if they’re wrong you’re out!”

“No mobiles!”

Solemnly, occasionally cracking a nervous joke, competitors dropped their phones into plastic postal bags which Scott sealed and handed back.

“These are for emergencies only,” reminded Leroy.

Maybe I wasn’t alone in breathing a small prayer that no-one would need to break that seal.

Race Start — The Adventure Begins: 23:01

Three competitors study their maps in the dark, moments before the race begins.
Almost time to go.

A nervous crowd gathered at the old tin hut which was Revenant HQ.

Shrouded in mountain mist Tim Riwihi’s haka rang through the dark, adding another spine-tingling piece to the Revenant legend.

Ko Ranginui te Atua, E tu nei. E au au aue ha, hi…Ko Papatuanuku te Atua, e takoto nei. E au au aue ha, hi…  Ko Tu Matauenga Te Atua…E au au aue ha, hi.

Without warning the race directors joined in then, suddenly, out of the darkness, the women sang. Romsey de Beer and Kowhai Riwihi were adding their own magic to the moment.

E whakatere ana koutou te hikoi  i te wa nei. Haere mai, kia ora, kia kaha kou tou

Navigate your way safely… Welcome … stand strong

This haka was specially written for the Revenant with words of challenge, respect and well-wishing.

It ended with a hongi between Scott, Leroy and each competitor — a “sharing of breath” which signified the transformation of the manuhiri (visitor) into tangata whenua (people of the land.)

It was the perfect way to start the race.

Ten – nine — everyone joined the countdown —  three – two – one – GO!

As one, the racers surged forward and disappeared into the fog. We wouldn’t see any of them again for a long, long time.

Race HQ: The Historic Ski Hut, Friday 0900

The Revenant tent and the Historic Garston Ski Hut disappear into the thick fog.
Race HQ, AKA the Garston Ski Hut disappears into the  thickening fog on Saturday morning.

All night, the organisers had been waiting-out the dark.

The HQ crew bunked in the ski hut, and out on the course the volunteers and marshalls were holed up at Mud Hut. There wasn’t much anyone could do before dawn.

But the competitors raced on through the impenetrable night.

Morning came, briefly clear… and then the blanketing mist rolled back in.

The tension at HQ was palpable. The marshalls were getting fleeting glimpses of an odd racer here and there and radioing in their sightings. Would anyone make it back to HQ on time?

Back at the ski hut the wait certainly wasn’t boring.

There were so many characters to meet. People had come from all over New Zealand and abroad, and from many walks of life to be on the mountain that day.

Countless others were following every Facebook update with bated breath.

Revenant Competitors' drop bags waiting for their return to HQ, the Ski Hut.
The Revenant Competitors’ drop bags, waiting patiently in the hut for their owners’ return to HQ.

The Forest Of Doom — Aka C.P. 8

Checkpoint 8 was causing navigational nightmares.

A tree in a clearing — how hard can that be? In the foggy Revenant country, it was causing chaos and despair.

One tree, a single clearing in a forest of trees on a slope so steep and cluttered with debris that every step was treacherous. If you navigated absolutely correctly — and had a little bit of luck — you’d go straight there (so Scott assured me).

Possibly, the competitors would beg to differ. 3 hours… 4 hours… more… they stubbornly searched, refusing to give in. The mist added an impossible dimension.

Finally, they teamed up and worked together, until, at last, they found that vital clue.

15 Hours In

Finally, finally, the sun came out and three tiny figures appeared over the skyline.

“Like a Revenant rising,” breathed Scott.

Angus (12) Tim (22), and Ian (25) were completing their first lap.

We supporters couldn’t contain our excitement and our cheers rang out. But once the men arrived at HQ, all the spectators fell silent.

While Scott and Leroy greeted, checked off the checkpoint pages and chatted to the racers, the rest of us listened… learned… and were too damned scared to speak in case we were accused of helping them.

The first competitors arrive back at the ski hut to check in after Lap 1.
The first competitors arrive back at the ski hut to check in after Lap 1.

We had their drop bags full of supplies out ready for them to dive into — race rules allowed that much.

And dive they did for food, drink, clean clothes and the all-important dry shoes and socks. These three were on a high: the first competitors in, and on time to boot.

But less than 30 minutes later, after a quick photo and hugs from their families they were gone.

Now we had three men on lap 2,  the clockwise circuit and everyone else still to come in on Lap 1 (the anti-clockwise loop.)

No-one knew when the next racer would appear, but everyone understood that there would be hours and hours of anxious waiting before the final runner made it home.

And so it proved to be.

One by one, in dribs and drabs, the racers arrived. A few came in determined to keep going: Shaun (5), Alistair (26), Mathew (9) and Tom (8) all set off on their second lap. For others, the time spent in the CP8 wormhole proved to be a gamechanger.

When The Expectation Is Failure, How Far Will You Go?

Now each racer knows what it’s like to run The Revenant.

Alistair Shelton, Number 26 set the bar when he tapped the bottle, the only one to complete two whole laps.

Every single person on this epic run is a legend in his/her own right. They are top athletes, used to endurance, suffering and giving it their all. But at the end of this day, the Revenant Ultra Adventure Run has won.

Who will be back to go further next year? Time will tell. For now, everyone’s learned a little more about what it will take before someone, finally, makes it home to drink the whisky.

Scott and Leroy, you’ve created an epic adventure which will become the stuff of legend. Congratulations!

I wanted more than anything to be fit enough, brave enough, (some would say MAD enough) to be a revenant racer. Coming down the mountain, returning to reality, I left a piece of my heart in Revenant country. Next year I’ll be back.

Revenant Race Directors Leroy de Beer and Scott Worthington check the Welcome Rock Whisky Bottle.
Leroy de Beer and Scott Worthington with the unopened Revenant Welcome Rock whisky bottle.

What was YOUR Revenant experience?

Whether you were a competitor, volunteer, supporter or avidly following on Facebook, I’d love to know. It’s easy to comment below, send an email, or DM me on Facebook.

It would be great to add your thoughts to this post.

More On The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run

Is This Your First Visit To Time Of My Life?

Discover the Who, What and Why of TOML.

Check out my home page here and my behind the scenes story here.

Running The Revenant – Men on a Mission

Revenant Ultra Adventure Run Course

I sat down with Scott Worthington of The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run to ask him about this exciting event happening here, above Garston, in January 2019.


Where the likely outcome is failure how far will you go?

SCOTT WORTHINGTON AND LEROY DE BEER

You’ve obviously got a huge passion for this race. What led you to create it?

I’m always looking for a challenge. Now there’s a race in the States called the Barkley Marathon and it’s something I’ve always looked at. It’s the ultimate running challenge and it’s a very quirky race; very difficult to get into.  It’s cryptic — you don’t even know when it opens — so even the entry process is sort of reflective of the challenge. I’ve tried three times to get in and have never had a reply.

So that’s really what created the spark. I thought; “We’ve got some pretty difficult and unique terrain in New Zealand so why not put something on here? So that’s really where it started.

Why is it called The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run?

I’ve always liked the word Revenant.

Obviously, a few people have said: “Oh you’ve named it after the movie.”

No, I haven’t!

A lot of people don’t know what revenant means but basically, it’s a spiritual thing — that’s one definition, someone’s spirit coming back from the dead.

But it’s also defined as someone who goes away for a long period of time and reemerges.

So it seemed that as we were creating a challenge where people would go off for a long period of time and there was a high probability they wouldn’t re-emerge (ie finish) anyone who did finish deserved a pretty good accolade.

I can’t think of anything better than being called a revenant, and that’s how we came up with the name.

What’s the race format and what will happen during the race?

The Revenant is a lap-based race. The competitors will go four laps and each lap is basically the same distance. They will have 60 hours to complete those laps. Each lap has to be done in the reverse direction and they will not know what the starting direction will be until they’re at the start line. So once we tell them what the first lap direction is they have to alternate after that.

Competitors also have to follow a set number of checkpoints which basically lead them around the course, but they get route choice in between. So they have to decide how to get from one checkpoint to the next.

At each checkpoint, there might be challenges or information they’ve got to digest and every time they come through they get the opportunity to give up or continue. Later in the race, there are time parameters which they have to meet. If someone’s got no hope of completing it in the time left we’ll pull them out.

The Revenant is an exciting innovation for Welcome Rock Trails. What makes this the perfect place to run an ultra-endurance event like yours?

A mountain ridge on Welcome Rock Trails, part of the route for  Revenant Ultra Adventure Run.
Is THIS part of the route for The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run?

When I first started thinking about this race I wanted to do it in a uniquely Kiwi way. The Barkley was just the beginning.

The terrain around here varies quite a bit but you’ve got to travel to get to different types like Fiordland bush, or high-country tussock. But a few years ago I did a running race that Tom put on and that’s where I saw the property.

Welcome Rock is the perfect place for The Revenant Ultra Adventure Run because within a loop of roughly 50km you can travel across just about every type of terrain that we have in the area; rocks, water, bush, tussock and more. That’s pretty unique.

Who’s running this inaugural race and what was your selection process?

The type of person that we thought would enter was going to reflect what we called the race. It’s called an Ultra Adventure Run for a reason, it’s not just 3 words strung together.

So, basically, Ultra — you’re looking for people who can do long distance; Adventure — that’s the map and compass type navigation and that’s adventure racing; And then the Run. If you’re going to finish this race in the time allowable then you’ll have to be able to run where the terrain allows.

So the people coming are a good cross-section. We’ve got adventure racers who are learning how to run. We’ve got runners who are learning how to navigate. They’re all on the fringe in terms of long distance.

Then we have the military aspect. Leroy, my partner who’s putting the event on, is ex-military and it was his idea to do that.

So we’ve got Navy Seals from the United States and some of our Elite Forces from New Zealand.

And that’s great because a lot of the fringe endurance athletes like to measure themselves and our people in the military are generally pretty good. So it’s a good measure.


Our goal is to create a bespoke, unique challenge that will endure.

What are your goals for this first event, and what is your vision for its future?

For this first event, our focus is really putting on the best event we possibly can.

We’ve got a great sponsor in VW Commercial, but we haven’t overly worried about how many people turn up and therefore the way we’ve publicized it has been fairly organic. We just want to make sure that the event we put on is the best it can possibly be.

And we think after that the rest will follow.

We want to establish this worldwide as a true adventure challenge.

How can people get involved in the build-up?

The race briefing and the start on January 18th will be the only times you’ll see all the competitors together.

VW Commercial has given us vehicles to transport people up to the start after the competitors have been taken up there. That’ll be a shuttle service, and that’s when we really encourage people to come — to the briefing at the Garston Hotel and the start on Welcome Rock Trails.

And how can we follow the race while it’s on?

We’ve opted not to go for live tracking because that’s notoriously unreliable, but also because of the nature of the event. The Revenant is really for the competitor, not for the supporter. It’s a bit of a back to basics sort of race.

However, we will have a live Facebook feed. There’ll be volunteers out on the course to keep an eye on things and they’ll be able to radio in snippets of information as they see the competitors go by. So that’ll be on the live feed, but you won’t be tracking individual people.


Personally, I think that this inaugural Revenant Ultra Adventure Run is an exciting new event for Welcome Rock Trails and for the village of Garston. You can be sure that I’ll be there at the start line to cheer the competitors on.   

WILL YOU BE THERE TOO?

Look out for future posts on The REVENANT

Find out more about Scott and his Revenant Ultra Adventure Run dream in Behind The Revenant: Scott Worthington

Dwane Herbert – A Spearfishing Legend

When Cobey Herbert arrived in my class as a skinny five-year-old, I sent home the usual note asking about food allergies etc. Back it came, duly filled in: Cobey can eat anything except paua.

“Paua?” I thought. “Who would give a little kid such an expensive shellfish? We won’t be cooking paua here, at the most inland school in New Zealand.” That was certainly way out of my comfort zone.

It wasn’t until Cobey’s dad arrived with undersea treasures to show the kids that I understood, because it turns out that Dwane Herbert, is a 7-times National Spearfishing Champion of NZ.

Dwane and a student inspect a kina.
Garston kids were fascinated with Dwane’s underwater treasures.

I had no idea what spearfishing was, so I went to visit Dwane, and his wife Annie, to find out.

Dwane’s Day Job

He may live near the most inland village in NZ, but in his day job Dwane Herbert is the skipper of a kina and paua fishing boat, working off the southern coast. If you’re thinking dredge nets or fishing lines stop now. There’s none of that in this niche industry — it’s all diving. What’s more, the divers only wear snorkels and masks. No oxygen tanks allowed.

The job is tough — and so are the crew. You have to be, in a job that’s weather dependent and involves a fair amount of danger. It’s certainly not for everyone but Dwane loves it. As he says:

“I’ve  done it all my life. I started at age 7, up in Whitianga, going out on the boat with my Dad — who’s one of the best in the business.”

But much as he enjoys the snorkelling and fishing, they are the daily routine stuff. Dwane’s real passion lies with spearfishing.

“Growing up, we’d always have to work first, then we got to play. The rule was fill your sacks with paua or kina and then we’d get an hour of spearfishing. That’s the hour I lived for.”

What is Spearfishing?

Spearfishing is a technique that’s been around for centuries. Simply put, it’s throwing a spear at a fish, but of course there’s a lot more to spearfishing than that.

Forget those movie images of spears hurtling towards far-off leviathans. You have to get in close to the fish with spearfishing. There’s a 3-4 metre rope which attaches the spear to the speargun so that’s the maximum distance you can shoot from. And once again, it’s strictly snorkels, masks and flippers in this sport.

It actually seems more like hunting, than fishing.  

Dwane says it’s important to identify the fish before you shoot. Each species has its own characteristics, and a good spearfisher has to know how a particular fish will react. If you know which way the fish is likely to dodge, you have a good idea whereabouts to aim for a quick, clean kill.

Spearfishing is an environmentally-conscious sport too. “We eat everything we catch,” Dwane explains. “That’s the rule. There’s no indiscriminate hunting and you don’t get the damage to other species that net fishing can cause.” Even the competitions don’t allow waste, with all the fish being auctioned off for charity.

“In NZ the fish still aren’t used to being hunted. Sometimes they’ll swim right up to you and take a good look.” That’s because spearfishing is a relatively new and small sport in NZ.

But in Europe spearfishing has been going on for centuries. It’s a big sport with big money involved. In European countries you can sell the fish you spear, so the top divers actually are spearfishing for a living. They do it day in and day out.

“The competitions over there are at a whole ‘nother level.” says Dwane.

Spearfishing Championships — New Zealand…

Spearfishing New Zealand Nationals are held in various locations around the North Island each January.

Competitors are likely to be swimming, diving and contending with wind, weather and waves for up to 6 hours while they hunt for specific fish on the competition list. One boat takes everybody out, and they all hunt within the same boundaries. It’s demanding and dangerous, which is why the NZ nationals are a team competition.

Divers work in pairs as a team, and both catches are weighed and judged together. They take turns at diving so that one is always watching to check the other’s safety.

Dwane and his family are regular attendees at the NZ Spearfishing Nationals. As he explains, “I’ve been to them for most of my life; it’s just what we do in January.”

Spearfishing Grandfather, sons and grandsons.
Spearfishing goes through the generations in the Herbert family and most summers you’ll find them at the New Zealand Spearfishing Nationals.

… And Beyond

But his passion for spearfishing has taken Dwane well beyond the New Zealand competitions. He’s a regular competitor in the Inter-Pacific championships and has even been the Australian Champion. Biggest of all, is the chance to compete at the World Championships, and 2018 will be Dwane’s third — and hopefully best — experience of that heady event.

“I haven’t had the best luck at the World’s,” Dwane admits ruefully.

His first competition was a sobering experience — or rather a non-experience.

“I had surgery on my ankle two days before we were due to depart and turned up on crutches. I thought I’d be fine.”

The team leader had other ideas, and Dwane spent the next fortnight as a reluctant bystander

Taking on the World

Competing at the World’s is a huge step up. It’s a completely different set-up to the NZ and Inter-Pacific competitions because divers work solo with a specific area assigned to each competitor. Each diver has a team on a support boat, who are responsible for his safety and catch.

Because the Competition is usually held in Europe, the list of fish is different and includes far more fish species. That’s partly because there are far more edible fish species in European seas. We don’t have that many edible species around NZ so the lists in our competitions are small compared to overseas ones.

Dwane has to memorise what each fish on the list looks like. He has to know their behaviours and likely reaction to being hunted.  European fish are used to being hunted. They understand that humans are dangerous and will scatter or hide as soon as the spearfishermen appear.

The sea presents a new challenge in Europe, as well.

Coastal waters around NZ are very tidal and can be rough, with less visibility, but they are also shallow by comparison. In Greece, for example, spearfishers dive to far greater depths without an oxygen tank. And of course the fish are very shy and hide away in holes and crevices, so you spend longer underwater looking for them.

So when Dwane took his family to the World’s in 2016, they found that the clear, deep water presented a new danger.

Scary Experiences

When I asked Dwane about his scariest moments, he couldn’t really say, but Annie was in absolutely no doubt. The deep waters of the Greek Islands provided a huge shock.

Two weeks before, while practising for the big competition, Dwane got the bends (decompression sickness.) Because he was diving for long periods in water far deeper than he was used to, nitrogen bubbles in the blood were trapped and caused a blockage in his brain which led to a stroke when he came up to the surface.

Dwane says “I wasn’t really scared”
But Annie counteracts.  “That’s because he couldn’t see himself — the rest of us were terrified.”

Fortunately a nearby Greek diver had an oxygen tank. Dwane was given aspirin to thin his blood and relieve the blockage, taken 10 metres down underwater and pure oxygen pumped into him while slowly bringing him up little by little. Once back at the surface, Dwane was rushed to hospital. Amazingly, there was no lasting damage and Dwane was fit and ready to compete by the time the Worlds began.

But then disaster struck when Dwane got a lung squeeze. He says…

“The lungs get compressed at those depths and a sharp turn or twist can cause a tear. You don’t feel it — it doesn’t hurt, but when you get to the boat you start coughing blood and breathing is hard. I knew immediately that was it and I couldn’t go on.”

Portugal

Dwane Herbert with a large fish caught in Portugal.
Dwane with a fish caught on the 2017 recon trip to Portugal.

This year the biannual World Championships are in the south of Portugal. Once again, conditions will be different, but this time around Dwane feels much more prepared. In 2017 he, and other members of the NZ team, travelled to the competition area to check out the water conditions and fish.

They discovered that Portuguese coastal water is not as deep as in Greece, so the fish stay shallow. On the other hand, the seas are quite murky so visibility can be very poor, making the fish even harder to find.

Hopefully Dwane’s luck changes this year and there are no nasty accidents waiting in the 2018 competitions.

Family

One of the best parts of Dwane’s spearfishing lifestyle is the opportunity to travel. It’s even better when his family can come too.

They love to travel with him and experience the lifestyle of different places.

“The Greek islands were so much fun,” says Annie. “We could have stayed much longer.  Everyone was very welcoming but what we found the most strange was how everyone was out and about at night. Even the little kids were out way past 11pm.”  

Just like Dwane, his boys have been in and around boats and fish all their lives. During spare weekends and school holidays it’s the family’s joy to take the boat away to remote waters and enjoy the peace away from daily chores. Cobey and Eli love spearfishing and have taken to it with a passion. They would love to follow in their father’s footsteps.

Dwane with sons Eli and Cobey in wetsuits with their fish.
Eli, Dwane and Cobey – a spearfishing trio.

I love learning. My favourite saying is “you learn something new every day.” So I found it fascinating to listen to Dwane and Annie’s stories of spearfishing and to learn a little about the fishing life.

Their life and experience is so different to mine, and yet we live in the same little New Zealand community. Thanks, Dwane and Annie, it’s great to know you a little better now.

Follow Dwane on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/DwaneHerbertSpearo/

Sponsored by Beuchat NZ                 

 https://www.facebook.com/BeuchatNZ/

More Dreamers and Doers…

Loved learning about a family who follows their dreams? Find out about other Southern Dreamers and Doers in:

A Hand-Built Home Infused With Love

Living the Dream at Craft Keepers

Athol Valley Market: A Delightful Day Out

Zara Glover: Highland Dancing To The Top

Shane Matheson: Training Horses With Love

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 gruelling “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:

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