High-country stations occupy a very particular place in New Zealand's psyche. These tussock-clad landscapes are at once the stuff of romance and hard graft, soaked in colonial history and with views to make your jaw clang.
The stations, which usually run sheep, and often beef cattle and deer, are characterised as high country because they sit at a high altitude (more than 600m above sea level). There are a few in the North Island, but most are in the South Island, scattered across the mountainous terrain already so appealing to hikers, mountain bikers and skiers.
Often the only clue to their presence, as you drive through the central and lower South Island, is those unassuming yellow road signs. They point up unsealed roads and bear names that hint at majesty, exoticness and isolation: Erewhon, Mesopotamia, Four Peaks, Glenmore. ("High-country station" has the added bonus of sounding far more romantic than "farm".)
These stations may seem like places that only generations of the same families, or ultra-rich foreigners, get to experience. But farmers are increasingly diversifying into tourism, offering ways for travellers to explore these iconic landscapes.
The farm tour
Cruise across Lake Wakatipu on the TSS Earnslaw, a 1912 steamship that once connected isolated farm communities to Queenstown, and get an insight into working life at Walter Peak High Country Farm. The farm occupies the homestead block of the larger Walter Peak Station, which once covered 68,800ha; Māori used to camp on the shoreline as they passed through on expeditions to hunt moa and gather pounamu.
This half-day trip leaves from Queenstown's wharf and includes a farm tour, sheep-dog demonstration, the chance to feed farm animals, a freshly baked morning or afternoon tea, and time to wander through the lakeside gardens.
Up near Aoraki Mount Cook, Glentanner Station's guided half-day trip means you can tick "flying in a helicopter" off your bucket list, and wander from one giddily beautiful view to another while overlooking the endlessly photogenic Lake Pukaki.
Starting from Glentanner Park Centre, in the Mackenzie Region, you'll circle over braided rivers and enjoy front-row views up to Aoraki Mount Cook, before landing on the top of the station and beginning the walk back down through tawny tussock and along farm tracks. All you need is street-level fitness and the ability to occasionally stop taking photos to just revel in the beauty of it all. Bonus: if you're coming from Queenstown, you'll drive through the dramatic Lindis Pass.
The day trip
As part of its full-day Paradise Discovery Tour around the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, Private Discovery Tours has exclusive access to parts of Mount Earnslaw Station (though you don't set foot on the mountain itself). Expect short walks up Ari/Mount Alfred for spectacular views into Mount Aspiring National Park, a farm visit, a bit of birdwatching, Lord of the Rings locations, and lots of stories. Owner Charles Fraser only takes out small groups, so you won't be jostling with hordes of people either.
At Southland's Blackmore Station, you can walk or cycle the 27km Welcome Rock Trail in a day. But why rush through the landscape when you can linger? There are two basic huts on the track, where you can soak in an outdoor bathtub and lay your head at night.
The Slate Hut (which is actually made of wood) sits at 1100m, just shy of the trail's highest point and 2.5km from the start, and overlooks the Mataura Valley to the precipitous Eyre Mountains. The Mud Hut, 9km along the track and with even more stunning mountain views, was first built in the late 1800s from clay sods. It sheltered the men who built and then maintained a water race to channel water down to the Nokomai Goldfields, and was restored in 1990.
Tom O'Brien, who's the fourth generation of his family to be the kaitiaki of this land, spent two and a half years hand-cutting the trail through slate and schist. It's one of those endeavours that seemed like a good idea until he actually started the physical work – but the blisters were worth it. He's created something truly special, a way for people to delve into the area's gold-mining history and appreciate the unforgettable scenery.
Set aside a few days and park up at one of the many high-country stations offering accommodation. Mesopotamia, Dunstan Downs, Mt Nicholas, Ben Lomond, Minaret… there are plenty to choose from. Options range from off-grid huts and revamped woolsheds to luxury lodges, and activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing and scenic flights are never far away. And, given their remote locations, they're also great places to watch the night sky.