The Otago Lifestyle


An irrigation canal took me most of the way to Albert Town where a new mall was just built, and dust from mounds of unlandscaped earth blew into a newly-opened bar. A nicely lettered sign hung there - IITYWYBMAD.

“What does that mean?”

“If I tell you, will you buy me a drink?” said a woman on a barstool, droll, dangling one shoe off her toe.

“Okay,” I said.

If I tell you will you buy me a drink,” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “I will.”

Yellow leaves slanted down to the river and were borne away. The trail between Albert Town and Wanaka was lined with poplars and overlooked the Clutha - not the longest, but in water volume the biggest New Zealand river. Even here, no more than a kilometre from its Lake Wanaka source it was a powerful river. I walked through the yellow drifts of early
Autumn alongside the broad flat expanse of the river, the swirl and tumble of it whenever the channel narrowed.

I came in to Wanaka through Penrith Park in the afternoon. On these outskirts Aspiring Real Estate and other agencies had staked out the
subdivisions. Further in a Jet Ranger helicopter sat on a lawn, and the house behind was long, low and heavy in the Frank Lloyd Wright style with wide expanses of glass and square chimneys.

Wealth had settled in here with houses of Otago schist, slate rooves, Cinderella gates and sweeping driveways. Or the dwellings were upright and clean-planed post-modern with cacti and yew trees, and names like Camelot. People were building their dreams here. It was architectural, it was arriviste. It reminded me of something - the blue sky, the rocky hills, the well watered lawns, the tinted glass - it was California beside a lake.The sunset came on. Red light painted the glass, the mountaintops and the huge smooth flanks of lenticular clouds. It was classic. It was picture window material. You could see the attraction of what the real estate signs called the Otago lifestyle.

The pink Hyundai circled in Wanaka’s main street, I touched a pole, and we went up to stay with local vet and photographer Gilbert van Reenen. He and his wife Robyn were putting us up in a town that was very short of beds. The three-day airshow Warbirds over Wanaka began the next day and the Catalina, the P38s, the DC3 were already droning in the sky. At the airport nearby they tested the PA with Vera Lynn songs.

Gilbert and I sat down that night to study the proposed Te Araroa trail around the Wanaka Lake Shore to Glendhu Bay. Ralph Warburton had pioneered the trail that began just out of town and headed for the bay. The Otago Regional Council had lately taken over, improved, and named
the Warburton Walk. But it wasn’t complete. The key was access across the station that began where the walk ended - Alphaburn. I took notes. The station was in the Crown Tenure Review process. In negotiation with the Commissioner of Crown lands, the sheep farmers on the big pastoral leaseshold properties were freeholding some of their land, but by tradeoff giving up those parts with natural or recreational values. Te Araroa Trust would seek, along with other groups, walking and cycling access round the lakefront to complete the walk.

I talked to Ralph Warburton by phone. He was an ex-Franz Joseph Glacier guide, a cross country skier now aged 83, and I tried to discern what drives a man to make a walk -

“I’m a nature lover,” Ralph said. “There’s no other way I know where you get closer to reality. Mooching along these trails you really have the time to absorb what’s around you and to let it seep into you. I’ve always felt that way.”

I walked his walk at evening looking back on the lights of Wanaka from the bluffs. I met a Swedish cyclist coming back the other way, and asked him where the track ended, and how best I might go on from there to Glendhu Bay. He didn’t hesitate. He’d been raised in the European tradition of freedom to roam.

“The track ends in forest. Its steep. It would be tricky. You’ll need to go over the fence a kilometre or so before the track ends and across the farms.”

I climbed the fence. I expected farmland and was surprised by a sudden vision of a tall house whose whole frontage was a glass atrium. Sited by itself on a bluff, faced out toward Mt Aspiring and far from the road, privacy was not an issue. Momentarily I felt like a spy, didn’t like the
feeling and beheld it only for a moment, remembered only its cleanliness, its fixing of lights and polish and crystalline things before I ducked away behind a hill, climbed carefully over electric
fences and passed a pleasure boat parked in a hollow. I made my way down to the highway and out to the campground at Glendhu Bay.