Winter Escapes: Simplicity

31 July 2020
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From the Slate Hut you can enjoy the sun setting over Mataura Valley and the Eyre Mountains, with a 1000ha playground at your fingertips. Photo: Mickey Ross

Just outside of Queenstown is a 27km loop track dug entirely by hand. Tom O’Brien’s journey on the end of a pick mattock has led to an authentic high country experience. Words Shelley Robinson

The deep soul-crushing doubt struck three weeks in. But lasted just 20 minutes.

Tom O’Brien was heaving his pick mattock into slate rock and snow tussocks, painstakingly carving a track some 1100 metres above sea level on his parents’ farm. It was a beautiful “bluebird” winter’s day at Blackmore Station, Garston.

It was the look back that did it.

“I’d dug 25 metres and that’s when it hit me. ‘You know what? You’re potentially looking at hand-digging this thing for 22km. Is this really tenable, sustainable on any sort of level? Am I being irresponsible?’

“I just placed my pick down and sat on the ground and put my head in my hands,” Tom says.

A moment later, he looked up at the vast valleys and six distinct silhouettes of the Southland mountain ranges that surrounded him, and took a breath.

He picked up his pick and began again. And didn’t stop until he finished, some two years later.

***

He’s a bit of a wise sage, is Tom, cleverly disguised by his cracking sense of humour. If you were feeling a bit under the weather, you can imagine him being the sort of person to sit you down with a beer (his a Harrington’s Rogue Hop) and, after a natter, see you leaving with a smile on your face.

The idea of building a 27km track was brewed over the boundary fence. Tom was yarning to cartographer Gary Patterson, who has built an impressive number of cycle tracks across the world, including in the sub-Antarctic South Georgia, Macquarie Islands, Africa and Canada.

“Fast forward to him coming down to the property and saying this is a pretty special place, with amazing history, ecology, landscape and a river made by goldminers. Then he asked if I was interested in mountain biking,” says Tom.

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Tom and Katie O'Brien.

Tom admitted he was more familiar with Land Rovers and tractors and didn’t know the front end from the back where a bike was concerned. That soon changed, however, and Tom found himself with a new hobby.

A few months later, Gary made the suggestion. What about building a trail on the property?

“I asked him, ‘Well, what’s involved?’” Well, a fair bit, admitted Gary. He gave Tom a few books to read and Tom was hooked.

“I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He was a bit cunning really. I assumed I would be able to do a lot by mechanical means.”

But Blackmore Station was not just any piece of land. Not only is it where about 30 goldminers built a water race by hand 100-odd years ago, but is a nationally protected ecological area with a Class One Heritage Order from Heritage New Zealand.

In 1990, just after the period when accountants and bank managers would sit around the farm house kitchen table with bad news in the aftermath of soaring interest rates, and falling wool and dairy prices, Tom’s parents decided to put half of their farm, some 405ha, under a voluntary conservation covenant to allow it to regenerate.

“It was the perfect storm of economic times and they locked the place up. They were well ahead of their time,” says Tom, almost in disbelief.

Thirty years later, ecology surveys have shown a beautiful natural regeneration process, says Tom. The flora and fauna within 200ha of native beech forest are thriving.

And with all that, Gary though it was important to build the track by hand, says Tom.

“I said, ‘Alright, OK’. Clearly, I didn’t think about it too much, if I had of, I don’t think I would have done it!” he laughs wryly.

Ground was broken on June 8, 2012. Rakes, wheelbarrows and picks were broken until Tom found his “mainstay”: a five-pound pick mattock. He had help from a team of dedicated WWOOFers (international farm volunteers), drawn to the ecological and history behind the project, as well as a few mates.

Tom admits his wife Katie thought he was a “bit nuts” when he decided to build the track.

Welcome Rock Landscapes Hr (86)

“It was a relationship that revolved around, ‘Well he’s gone for the day, with the pick and international travellers. But they’ve got lots of food, a boom box, so I’ll just leave them to it and hope for the best,’” he chuckles.

For 5500 hours, they slowly dug out the 27 km track. Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. There was that time Tom read the clinometer wrong and dug 25 metres at the wrong angle.

But on November 30, 2014, Tom put down his pick.

“We’d come down this ridge and been digging away all day and had linked up to where the join was. I just kind of dropped my pick, looked around and just let out this really contented sigh. I just felt this really amazing sense of calmness.”

People now come from across the world to play, rest and experience the magic of the trail of Welcome Rock, the accommodation, recreation and event business Tom and Katie operate.

It seems only fitting that Tom, the great-great-grandson of the first person to farm the land in 1911, receives deep nourishment from the “absolute peace” ‘Welcome Rock’ brings its visitors.

“When you get here [to Welcome Rock] all you want to do is sit down in a bit of snow tussock and look out at the Eyre Mountains and just breathe, really. You won’t hear a sound.

“You’ve got this massive skyscape and landscape with the pure simplicity of being in a place that makes you feel what a human being should feel like; relaxed and ultimately energised at the same time,” he says.

True rustic high country accommodation is on offer. The Mud Hut was originally built by gold miners and restored by Tom’s family, and the Slate Hut has bunks and an outdoor cooking area. A renovated wool shed a bit more like a “studio apartment” also has a sleepout. All of them have outdoor baths.

Tom and Katie also host two events. A 47km cross country mountain bike race called The Brew Chop, where the entry fee is a warm beer and a cold chop and the first person home gets the honour of firing up the barbecue. But for those after something a bit more competitive, the Revenant, an ultra-adventure run, may beckon. In what sounds like a terrifying ordeal to the non-superhuman, competitors run 190km, including a 16,000-metre vertical ascent. Unsurprisingly, it is an event that attracts the likes of former Special Air Service soldiers, says Tom. Only three people have ever completed it.

Tom thrives on seeing people enjoying the land and meeting new people, which he say is likely due to his parents’ open-house policy after Sunday mass in Garston.

“I just have very fond memories growing up and engaging with these people from all over the world in complete wonderment. It installed in me a real love of wanting to know more and be curious,” he says.

Though that curiosity also got him in a bit of trouble, he chuckles. He was the type of lad who would get distracted on the way to school by the duck pond.

“She’d [mum] get the phone call, ‘Where’s Tom, he hasn’t shown up to school?’ And there I would be in the bloody duck pond, enjoying the birds and dragonflies because it was fun and cool and way better than school,” he laughs.

Time hasn’t really changed things, he admits.

***

The tussocks and valley in the distance are blanketed in snow.

Tom sits in one of the outdoor baths with an orange and tan crocheted beanie on his head and his Harrington’s Rogue Hop in hand.

“I do not have a care in the world. I’m sitting in a bath at about 1100 metres [above sea level], in the snow, enjoying a beer,” he tells his social media audience.

Simplicity. Just how a human being should feel.

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