Getting high in the Waitaki back country, hot-tubbing and gin - all the ingredients for a great girls' away weekend, writes Anna King Shahab
A couple of days in the Waitaki Valley, inland from Ōamaru provided the chance to follow the footsteps of those who farm our food, and to taste the fruits of the country's youngest wine region.
Our girls' weekend away had been built around a simple, wholesome concept: a walk on the farm. We'd booked in with new guided walk operator Sole to Soul Hiking – the passion project of Sally Newlands Juliet Gray, best friends making a living on neighboring farms in the Hakataramea Valley, a 50-minute drive inland from Ōamaru. The impetus of Sally and Juliet's business is to share the numerous benefits they experience daily when walking the high country they farm – a workout, yes, and also a connection with the land and environment, an awareness of where and how our food is raised, and a chance to practise mindfulness.
Our party of four meet Sally, Juliet, and their husbands Wade and Richard at the not-so-farmerish respectable time of 9.30am at Kurow cafe Waitaki Braids for a hello and pre-walk coffee. If you're stuck thinking you can't find decent coffee out of our urban centres, places like Waitaki Braids happily prove you wrong – our friendly barista had us caffeined-up like the best of them, with freshly baked cheese and date scones packed into paper bags for our hilltop smoko later on.
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In utes, the men drop the six of us 10km up the hill, close to the highest point of the Newlands' farm. Wade and Sally's is a nearly 3000ha high country farm, with 3500 ewes and at least as many lambs, and 100 cattle. There have already been some serious dry spells since winter and some of the stock are off on another farm to feed. Rabbits were once the big problem here – before calicivirus there were so many the hills appeared to be moving – but nowadays wallabies are the main concern; they damage the land.
After hiking up to the trig station, with a wonderful view over the morning's fog-filled cauldron of a valley, we commence our 12km walk along the Slip Block Muster – we're following the track the animals make, because their pathways make the most sense, generally. Halfway, we stop for a five-minute mindfulness break – each finding a spot to rest awhile and notice the sights (pretty spectacular when you're up there) and sounds around us. This three-hour walk was an up-close insight into the pretty tough gig that is high country farming – it certainly has me more appreciative of that Sunday roast.
After a dip (up to the ankles… it's only November and this is alpine water) in the Hakataramea River, the six of us head to nearby winery cellar door River-T for a late lunch. Biting at the heels of the much more famous neighbouring wine region of Central Otago, the east-to-west lying Waitaki Valley is building a name for interesting drops that are helped along by its limestone-rich ancient geology and weather patterns. At River-T, our tasting paddle of six wines includes rieslings, pinot gris, chardonnay, rose, and pinot noir. When owner Karen emerges from the kitchen with our platter ($25 per head), Crocodile Dundee's voice involuntarily enters my head... "That's not a platter… this is a platter!" It is ginormous and artfully arranged, bursting with local goodies – Whitestone cheeses, High Country Salmon from the pristine hydro canals near Twizel, Matsinger's famous strawberries, ham, salami, chutney, and more.
That platter may well have kept us going till morning, but after a long, lovely soak at Hot Tubs Ōmarama, our appetites reared up again and we grabbed a table at local restaurant The Pink Glider. Sitting on the wide deck, we tucked into hearty plates of breaded chicken with fries and sipped on G&Ts … any mention of gin and friendly proprietor Tanya will be more than happy to discuss her range and fix you something stiff. As if to match our sun, hot-tub, and gin-pinked cheeks, mountains in the background grew rosier by the minute until the light faded altogether.
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