SMALL TOWNS & TALL TALES
Jenny Nicholls takes a Victoriana-to-organics stroll through smalltown Wairarapa.
One of the first living things to make it over the Rimutakas in wheeled transport is still a resident of Main St, Greytown, in South Wairarapa. A huge mountain ash, Eucalyptus regnans, it casts shade over strollers who stop to read about it on the placard outside St Luke’s Anglican church.
Its remarkable story dates back to the middle of the 19th century, when would-be farmer Samuel Oates bought some land at Parkvale, near the spot that became the town of Carterton. At the time, he was working on a Wellington building site. His boss, who owned land adjacent to Oates’ new farm, asked him if he would ferry 12 pretty mountain ash seedlings over to the Wairarapa.
There was just one problem. There was no road over the Rimutakas in 1856.
But mere ranges weren’t going to stop Oates from getting to his new farm before winter. So he trudged over them, pushing an outsize wheelbarrow containing all his stuff,
and his boss’s precious seedlings. Lesser mortals might have waited for the track to open for carts, which it did three months later.
Oates’ trek was quite a feat, as a contemporary noted: “Twenty miles of the distance being then unmade road, and six miles of it a difficult and dangerous steep mountain path, suitable only for pack bullocks.”
The story of the ash then takes an unexpected turn. Somewhat knackered, not to mention thirsty, Oates threw himself down at the Rising Hill Hotel, in a Wairarapa hamlet then only two years old, called Greytown.
But after a beer or two, he strolled back to his wheelbarrow to find some bastard had nicked three of his employer’s seedlings. (The boss, by the way, whose 12 seedlings now numbered nine, was none other than Charles Carter: the man Carterton is named after.)
Poor robbed Oates may be forgiven for thinking the local Maori name for Greytown, Te Hupenui, or “fluid that comes out of your nose at a tangi” – aka “the big snot” – was not a bad description of the place. He departed with his wheelbarrow, without ever finding out what had happened to Carter’s seedlings.
No one knows who stole them, but in the next few years three Eucalyptus regnans – fancy that – flourished guiltily in Greytown
backyards. The largest was chopped down in 1939, and another, by then a lofty centenarian, bit the dust in the 60s. But the last of the stolen trees still adorns Greytown, long outliving both Oates and the Rising Hill Hotel in the thieving one-horse town he once passed through.
Today, Oates would have a hard time recognising the natty-looking village Greytown has become. Fortuitously, like Martinborough and Featherston – the other pretty towns of the South Wairarapa – Greytown avoided the fate of so many small New Zealand communities, architecturally devastated by booming local economies in the 60s and 70s.
Greytown, in particular, still boasts an almost unbroken string of Victorian pearls along its main street. These well-preserved old dears house a school of carefully eccentric antique and vintage shops. The visitor’s nose wrinkles with alluring scents – antique wood restorer, hot croissants, designer soaps and smelly candles (sample scents: “Blossom & Gilt”, “Parakeets & Pearls”), the tang of expensive linen and vintage shoes preserved with mothballs. The number of “old” buildings in Greytown is actually increasing. Canny owners, gripped by a Victorian fever that’s proved a lucrative draw for bigspending weekend tourists from Wellington, are converting squat, brick 70s howlers into grey and white Victorian darlings, which
look almost like the real thing.
Greytown is the shopaholic’s dream, straight outta Hampton, wellstocked with places to brunch, lunch and afternoon-tea between antique shop purchases and before dinner.
The ghost of Oates might choke at the Greytown cafe selling glutenand dairy-free gourmet dog biscuits for a dollar each, and the Trelise Cooper dress that, in his day, could have purchased the Greytown Hotel at the end of town several times over, with change. Still serving beer and grub to locals, the hotel proudly notes on its website that the building changed hands for £25 in 1860.
But Oates would appreciate the vast, well- established paddocks that roll away from the road on either side. Fat “beefies” and sheep are nose- down in plush grasslands in the rain-shadow of the Rimutaka Ranges in the south-west, to the Tararua Ranges in the west.
This is farming country, still, although boutique vineyards producing small, fine vintages of pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling have popped up on the stony terraces of the Ruamahanga River, near Martinborough. They favour an area known to winemakers as the “Martinborough Terrace” – barely a kilometre wide and 5km long.
The wild coasts, lakes, choice shopping and vineyards make the South Wairarapa a sort of Waiheke Island for Wellingtonians. Instead of a harbour moat, there’s a winding and vertiginous drive over the Rimutaka Hill. But what would Oates have made of the 8.8km Rimutaka Tunnel, punched through the ranges, which opened almost exactly 100 years after he pushed Carter’s seedlings up and down those untamed hills?
Today, the “Wairarapa Connection” is one of the few surviving regional passenger train services in the country, saved by the curliness of the Rimutaka Hill road.
Like all the greatest escapes, there’s a barrier that must be crossed to get here. It is a destination, not a drive-through – but these days, you don’t need a wheelbarrow and a stout heart to get there.
Left: Chef Miles Eckford and barista Seamus Flynn at Cahoots Cafe in Greytown. Top: Paul Broughton at C’est Cheese in Featherston. Middle: A historic timber house in Greytown. Above: Seamus puts the froth on a Cahoots coffee.
Above: Oates’ mountain ash on Main St, Greytown. Left: Farmland near Carterton, looking west toward the Tararua Ranges.
Above left: Artist Susan Jane Ryan in her shop, Mr Feather’s Den, in Featherston. Ryan stocks vintage homewares and art, along with carefully chosen comestibles such as chocolate and jam. Left: A taxidermy duckling in Mr Feather’s Den. Above right: The Clareville Bakery in Carterton was judged best pie maker in New Zealand, 2014, for its lamb cutlet and kumara mash pie.
Above left: The gateway to Greytown’s Memorial Park, which boasts a sports field, croquet green, tennis court, playground, camping ground and Memorial Baths. In 1922, 117 lime trees were planted here to commemorate the 117 soldiers from the area who died in World War I. Above right: Ruby Fisher in the kitchen at Food Forest Organics in Greytown. A grocery store and cafe with upstairs accommodation, it’s owned by Hollywood film director James Cameron, whose property portfolio includes the organic farms (converted from dairy) that supply it.