Paula and Graham Grant still can't quite believe they were able to buy a piece of land they reckon looks like a national park.

Many visitors share their disbelief. A few leave still convinced the Grants are caretakers hired by the Department of Conservation.

The couple, originally from the Isle of Islay off Scotland's west coast, are the new owners of Wairere Boulders, a natural attraction near Horeke famous for its jumble of giant basalt boulders in a rugged river valley.

The property was bought in the 1980s by Swiss couple Felix and Rita Schaad, who said they had no idea of the valley's bizarre rock formations until Felix was chasing a feral goat and emerged from the bush atop a rock overlooking an almost Tolkienesque landscape. The boulders opened to the public in 2003.

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Rita's failing health, however, meant they had to move to Whangārei in 2017.

Meanwhile, Paula, a vet, and Graham, a farmer, had been living in France but wanted to go somewhere they believed agriculture still had a future.

Five years ago they moved to Raglan where Paula managed a vet clinic and Graham worked as farmer and vet technician. They had a lifestyle block but both were itching to farm again.

"But if you want to buy a farm in the Waikato you have to be a millionaire, so we started looking further afield," Paula said.

"We also knew with the capital we had we couldn't buy a farm that was just a farm, so we went looking for a property that had more than one income stream."

Paula and Graham Grant, the new owners of Wairere Boulders in South Hokianga, still can't believe they've bought a piece of land that looks a national park. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Paula and Graham Grant, the new owners of Wairere Boulders in South Hokianga, still can't believe they've bought a piece of land that looks a national park. Photo / Peter de Graaf

While in Northland a few years ago the Grants had been taken with the Hokianga, so when Wairere Boulders came up for sale one of their daughters – they have six children with one still at home – insisted they take a look.

"We came here in winter when it was pouring with rain. We made the real estate agent walk every trail with us. We were equipped for the weather, he wasn't and got soaked. We couldn't believe we could buy it, that it wasn't a national park."

They hadn't planned to leave Raglan so soon but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, Paula said.

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About half the 140ha property is bush with much of the rest covered in boulders.

"The farm is big enough that you have to know what you're doing, but not big enough to make money from so it had been on the market for a while."

The Grants spent the first few months catching up on maintenance and revamping the information centre. They added more signage to cater for overseas visitors' fascination with New Zealand flora, which meant Paula first had to school herself.

"It was frustrating at first. I have a good knowledge of European plants but then I came to New Zealand and recognised nothing."

The new owners of Wairere Boulders have replaced the previous herd of white-faced steers with miniature highland cattle, which are better suited to the rough terrain and poor grazing. Photo / supplied
The new owners of Wairere Boulders have replaced the previous herd of white-faced steers with miniature highland cattle, which are better suited to the rough terrain and poor grazing. Photo / supplied

The Grants stay in close contact with the Schaads, who are relieved the property is staying open to the public.

In January this year they opened a basic campsite geared at cyclists, campervans and car campers.

They also set up a caravan serving coffee and cake during the weekends and cut a new track to "the Magic Boulder", a hulking rock at top of the valley with views as far as the Hokianga dunes, and last week they opened a bed and breakfast they've dubbed the Boulder Bach.

New activities include guided night walks featuring glow worms and cave weta, and a chance to kayak downstream to historic Horeke Tavern.

They have also bought about 40 miniature highland cattle and are slowly building up the herd with plans to start selling "boulder beef" in a year or so.

Paula said they chose the breed because of their Scottish origins but also because they needed something "small and rustic" that could cope with the rugged terrain and poor grazing.

"Plus they're super cute and tourists love them ... the calves especially are tiny, adorable and hilarious."

The white-faced steers previously grazed on the property destroyed the ground during winter and didn't do well, she said. They hope to sell their beef on site and to Auckland restaurants.

"People are more conscious about what they eat and the amount of meat they eat these days. They also want to know the story behind their food. We have the right kind of people coming here every day – they're interested in the environment and where their food comes from."

Visitors to Wairere Boulders can now kayak upstream to the first waterfall, or downstream all the way to Horeke Tavern. Photo / supplied
Visitors to Wairere Boulders can now kayak upstream to the first waterfall, or downstream all the way to Horeke Tavern. Photo / supplied

After a slow start business was now starting to improve. However, visitor numbers followed no discernible pattern, which made business challenging and meant Paula had to keep her day job as a vet in Kaitaia.

"We know the best way to build it up is to be here every day and talk to people, but we can't do that yet."

There was still plenty of work to do but Graham said they had no regrets about moving to Hokianga.

"We love it. People say it's remote up here, it's not. I was brought up on an island with 100 people with three boats a week. Kaikohe is only half an hour away. This isn't remote."