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.

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