How the land lies
It contains the country’s highest mountains and biggest skies and more rabbits than people while its heritage sites make a high-country-farm tour of Mackenzie Country a lesson in early New Zealand history
It’s early morning in New Zealand's Fairlie basin. Farmer Angie Taylor lies in bed. Drat, she thinks. It’s bucketing down outside – and has been for hours.
There’s a herd of 800 dairy cows to feed, a mob of pregnant ewes to tend and a coach load of international tourists due for a three-course lunch in just a few hours – provided Highway 79 doesn’t wash out. Without taking her head off the pillow, Angie’s got a pretty good idea of how this sodden, winter's day on Morelea Farm will play out.
She and husband Stan have farmed their 320-hectare property for more than 20 years. They’ve raised three children, Mitchell, Ben and Julia, here. Before that they were newlywed farmers in Cromwell.
Before that, they were a couple of fourth (Angie) and third (Stan) generation farm kids growing up on the Canterbury plains – Stan in Ashburton with Angie just 50 kilometres down the road.
So today’s relentless, icy rain doesn’t bother the couple too much. Stan will say there’s no use getting upset about these things. You’ve just got to work around it. Angie reckons storms are all part of their story.
Today it’s rain, with the likelihood of flooding. In a few months’ time the temperatures will reach 30 degrees and there’ll be drought. And, anyway, it’ll have nothing on the horrendous blizzards of 1992 and 2006 – or even last week’s storm, which dumped 300mm of snow on their doorstep and took out the power for four days straight.
Welcome to MacKenzie Country
Welcome to MacKenzie Country – a 7,300 square kilometre inland plain region 180 kilometres southwest of Christchurch that sits pretty much at the centre of New Zealand’s South Island.
This is rugged, isolated country where scenery dominates, large country sheep stations have been the norm for more than a century and very few people live.
There are not quite 4,000 people scattered among the region’s five main centres – Mt Cook (on the western-most edge at the base of the Southern Alps), Twizel, Omarama, Lake Tekapō and Fairlie.
Most MacKenzie people farm (sheep, beef and, more recently, dairy) or work in the hydro-electricity industry, which produces a large portion of the country’s energy supply. Increasingly, locals like Stan and Angie make at least some of their living from the region’s well-established tourism industry.
Arriving in Fairlie today, though, it’s hard to pick why more than 900,000 people visit the MacKenzie every year. A thick grey mist has muscled out all obvious clues. We’re told the skies of nearby Tekapō are a big attraction.
Most days these skies are blue. Infinite. Joyous, even. At night, they are said to be so clear, so unpolluted they’ve become a protected International Dark Sky Reserve – the largest such reserve of only four in the world and ideal for stargazing.
You wouldn’t know it today. But the Taylor’s farm is usually a plum spot year-round for relaxing on the front lawn and taking in the skyline ridges of Mount Dobson, Two Thumb Range and Fox Peak.
Angie knows our group will have to wait for today’s storm to pass to enjoy a moment like that. By then, we’ll be in Dunedin or Queenstown and another AAT Kings Southern Spectacular coach tour will be headed her way.
So the afternoon we arrive, Angie and Stan opt to change things up. Ushering us off the bus, shoes on, into their single-storey stucco home, the couple welcome us inside for a chat and a sit-down lunch by the fire.
There’s homegrown beef steak, sausages and lamb chops on the go. There’s salad from the garden, minted peas and home baked bread. Angie’s pavlova topped with cream and kiwifruit will finish us off.
Before lunch is served, Angie explains she and Stan will tend 3,000 sheep this summer once the lambs are born. In January, the four-month-old lambs will be sold live to the meat works in Timaru.
Until then, their flock will enjoy fresh farm air, water from mountain-fed streams, mum’s milk and green grass. It’s a similar story for the cattle, says Stan, although only a third will be killed for beef. The rest are dairy grazing stock and will return, well-fed and pregnant, to three nearby dairy farmers.
“For Kiwis, our story is quite typical I suppose. But for people from the big international cities of Asia and Europe, it’s something quite different,” says Stan.
"People love it when I come in from the tractor, with a bit of my knee out of my trousers, string trailing from my back pocket. They can see this is a real working farm and we’re real-life farmers.”
Change arrives in MacKenzie Country
Perhaps what isn’t so obvious to tourists passing through Morelea is the fact that life is on the change in this part of the world just like it is everywhere.
Stan says, “Having the bottom fall out of the meat and wool industry in the 1990s had a major impact on us.
You’ll see there’s a lot more corporate dairy farming in the MacKenzie these days and more pressure on farmers to convert to dairying. We won’t do it. But our son Mitchell who is taking over the farm may do so.”
The change has disrupted the social fabric of towns like Fairlie too, says Stan. There are more absentee farmers – business people who own or have shares in a dairy farm but don’t live locally, choosing instead to have a manager run the farm on their behalf.
Yet, says Stan, there’s not much use worrying about it and there’s still a wonderful high country lifestyle to enjoy.
Most summers he and Angie take their jet boat out on Lake Ophua where the trout and salmon fishing is good. One summer was extra special with daughter Julia coming home to get married at Lake Tekapō. Later in the year, they’ll follow the Fairlie rugby team. Stan was president of the club for several years and now Mitchell has taken over.
Often in winter, on a Sunday afternoon, Angie and Stan will rug up, grab a bottle of whisky and head to Tekapō for a couple of hours’ curling with friends – either at the new artificial ice complex or at their own homemade rink dug out at a secret spot about six years ago. The wives drive, so the men can play.
Stan says the competition starts out tough among the 25 teams who turn up each season. But, as each good stone is rewarded with a swig of Scotch, the game becomes more of a test of one’s constitution than one’s sporting ability. An old outdoor farm broom is the makeshift tournament trophy – and Stan’s pretty keen to win it this year.
Another draw card of the MacKenzie is its close-knit community, says Angie. Neighbours know one another well, socialise regularly and help each other out in tough times. And, while Angie regularly heads off to Timaru for the weekend farmer’s market or to Christchurch for some shopping, Stan leaves the farm only when he has to.
In many ways, he says, it’s all right here at their fingertips. And, anyway, why not stay put and let the world come to you?
This story was first published in Heritage New Zealand magazine.
MacKenzie Country, what's in a name?
MacKenzie Country is named after a Scottish shepherd and would-be farmer named James MacKenzie who allegedly pinched sheep from a large sheep run back in the 1850s. Said to be stronger than most and admired for escaping captivity three times, MacKenzie maintained his innocence, eventually becoming local folk hero.
If you go
AAT Kings six-day Southern Spectacular Tour starts in Christchurch, travels to Twizel, Dunedin, Te Anau and finishes in Queenstown.
It takes in several historic sites, including a stop-off on Pioneer Drive at The Church of the Good Shepherd, a small stone church on the shores of Lake Tekapō. The church was the first of its kind to be built in the MacKenzie Basin in 1935.
Today it serves as a South Canterbury memorial, commemorating the original European settlers of the area and their ability to brave the harsh alpine environment and establish high country sheep runs.
The writer travelled to the MacKenzie care of AAT Kings.