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Mike Yardley: High country escape to Lake Heron Station

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 27 Jan 2024, 12:18PM
Lake Heron Station From Above. Photo / Supplied
Lake Heron Station From Above. Photo / Supplied

Mike Yardley: High country escape to Lake Heron Station

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 27 Jan 2024, 12:18PM

Deep in the golden heart of the Ashburton District, the mountains rise up to meet you. Two hours drive from Christchurch, I turned off the inland scenic highway at Mount Somers, bound for Lake Heron Station. The sealed road ends by the historic Hakatere buildings, but the sense of heritage in these parts is rich. Turning off at Hakatere onto the graded gravel road to the lake, I’m rolling through a wide open basin of golden tussock and matagouri, bracketed by high, glaciated mountain ranges.  

Lake Heron Station is a magnificent high country merino station that’s been a going concern for the Todhunter family since 1917. The original Lake Heron run was first established in 1857, before RC Todhunter purchased the station 60 years later. Today, great grandson Philip and Anne Todhunter run the station, with merino wool remaining the mainstay, alongside the alluring hospitality venture. They are truly exceptional hosts, with that quintessential air of authentic, disarming and charming high-country hospitality. You’ll feel right at home. 

Anne and Philip Todhunter at Lake Heron Station. Photo / Supplied

Under a vast blue sky canvas, serrated by the soaring peaks of the surrounding mountains, Philip treated me to an illuminating 4WD farm tour across his vast, undulating backcountry realm, spanning 19,600 hectares and boasting 11,000 merino sheep, including a tour through the woolshed. Family farm dogs, Patch and Jan, came along for the ride. History runs deep at Lake Heron. To the west of the sparkling Cameron River, which tootles through the valley from Lake Heron to the upper Rakaia River, Philip pointed out the glacial lines conspicuously grooved into the hillsides above the Cameron. They denote the towering height of the Rakaia Glacier, before it retreated into oblivion at the end of the last ice age.     

Five original station huts still remain on the sprawling property, cherished totems to the past. These shelters were originally built to assist with the mustering of sheep. The names of musterers from yesteryear can be seen etched on the hut walls. Today the huts are still used for accommodation, like the New Hut, which was built in 1923 and is still the base for the 4-day autumn muster, in addition to accommodating guests seeking a backcountry escape.

New Hut at Lake Heron Station. Photo / Mike Yardley

The autumn muster involves a team of 6 men and 18 dogs, ushering thousands of sheep down to lower country before the winter snows arrive. The country is too steep for horses or motorbikes and the shepherds move by foot with their teams of working dogs, scrambling across scree and climbing up to 800-metres a day.  I was constantly stunned to see just how high these hardy sheep roam, easily mistaken for rocky outcrops on the high country slopes, before they suddenly move. 

Growing wool is still a major focus of the farming operation, with a large portion of the wool clip processed into active outdoor and leisurewear for Icebreaker. Icebreaker were pioneers in the merino field, being the first to successfully tailor this light-weight, breathable fibre into outdoor clothing built to last.  

The fleece from each merino sheep is spun into five garments a year, resulting in a natural, plastic-free product that’s cool in the summer and toasty in the cooler months. Angus cattle and lamb production also complement the farm business, too. Over a delicious dinner in the family homestead with Anne, Philip and their teenage son Oscar, we actually worked out that Lake Heron Station is the same size of Macau – or Paris. It is a kingdom unto itself! 

The vastness of Lake Heron Station. Photo / Mike Yardley

You’ll also be impressed by their dedicated commitment to being great environmental custodians. “Our vision has been to increase the farming production while at the same time not compromise the natural landscape,” says Anne. “We’d like to think that in 100-years people will look back on us and think that we farmed in a way that was positive for the land. It’s a balance; we’re farming on the edge of what’s possible and you have to be very respectful of the environment.” 

The wealth of activity options at Lake Heron Station is head-swirling. You’re spoilt for choice for when it comes to hiking trails. The vastness of the station means you can choose from a wide range of walking and hiking options. Anne and Philip will equip you with maps and directions, whether you’re up for a short and sweet walk or full-day intrepid adventure. Mt Sugarloaf is a prized hike – this is a roche moutonnée, a rock formation shaped and smoothed by the passing of a glacier – not dissimilar to Lake Tekapo’s Mt. John. 

If the weather is behaving, the jewel-like brilliance of Lake Heron deserves a dip. The lake mirrors everything around it, as flat as glass, rippled only by the surface trails of paddling birdlife. Life jackets, a small dingy and kayaks are available from the station. As are fishing rods. Lake Heron is well-stocked with trout, so why not try your luck for the catch of the day? The lake is a wildlife refuge and home to a wide variety of waterfowl, notably the Southern Crested Grebe. The station is involved in a conservation project to enhance the birdlife by eradicating introduced predators from around the lake. On the farm tour with Philip, I noticed the braided rivers also provide unique habitats for oyster catchers, black-fronted terns, banded dotterels and wrybills. 

Lake Heron. Photo / DOC

Another riveting option is to take to the skies with Philip, a commercial pilot with four decades of backcountry aviation experience both in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. He loves nothing more than taking passengers on a “flight-seeing” tour of the station and surrounding mountains. His Cessna 185 offers bespoke scenic flights, whether you want to head over the Main Divide to the glaciers and beaches of the West Coast, or even longer excursions to the Mount Cook region or north to Kaikoura. To immerse yourself in the glory of Lake Heron Station’s surrounding landscapes, take a 40-minute flight featuring the mountainous high country merino stations of the Upper Rakaia and Rangitata Valleys, including the glaciated peaks of the Arrowsmith Range and Mt Sunday, the site of Edoras in Lord of the Rings.  

West of the station, another great option is take the short flight to the Icefields. This 50-minute journey over the Arrowsmith Range takes you to the evocatively named ice fields of the Gardens of Eden and Allah. This is heartland wilderness country on a grand scale and the names of the features - The Warrior, Red Lion, Battle-axe Col, Sentinel Peak, Angel Col - indicate the resistance they put up to early explorers! 

On-site accommodation exemplifies the station’s deep commitment to repurposing and enhancing what their forebears left behind. Restoring station buildings for guests to enjoy underpins the accommodation offerings of Lake Heron Cottage and the New Hut, which can sleep up to 6 and 12 guests , respectively. I bedded down in the newest offering, the Fisherman’s Hut, which Philip tells me was a “Covid project.” Designed for a couple, this romantic hut is a fully self-contained one bedroom unit with a stylish kitchen, laundry, living area and ensuite bathroom. As with all their accommodations, it keeps the faith with the high-country aesthetic. Snugly ensconced in cottage comfort, huddled beneath those purple mountains, a chandelier of constellations carpeted the inky sky, as I drifted off to sleep, in the heart of hill country. 

Fisherman's Hut. Photo / Mike Yardley

Treat yourself to a heartland sojourn in style, at extremely reasonable rates. Lake Heron Station is a revelation, underpinned with affordable high-country hospitality in excelsis. www.lakeheron.co.nz 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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