Omarama was a crossroads town. It had a motorcamp, a service station, two hotels, a cafe, a merino sculpture and a leaping trout. It didn't need a sculpture of the gliders - they just hung there in the sky anyway, silently turning. It was, said the sign outside of town, a Place of Light, and it was the place where Ross Kelman ran the Omarama Hotel.
Ross Kelman found me a cheap cabin at the back of the hotel, and Miriam went off to trace her mother's history at Waimate. I wanted to write. I wanted to be alone. A quick feed and then back to it. I'd done a story for the Sunday Star Times and my internet readership on the south walk had suddenly soared to 11,000. Ross brought his plate of bacon and eggs over to my table -
Aside from the sound of bacon and egg demolition, silence. Ross didn't so much eat his breakfast, as smash it with his mouth. He ate like a shearer. He was a shearer, a blade shearer. And a ex-slaughterman. He was whiplash thin. Everything he did was fast, and quick, and it was always one thing after another. Ross finished his breakfast and wiped his mouth with a napkin
"So you're into walking eh? A couple of us - "
"Hey that team's got more horses than the Budweiser Hitch," said an America sitting at the table alongside pointing to one of the historic photos that lined the wall in this beautiful old pub. Ross whipped around.
"Twenty of 'em. They're hauling fencing steel over the pass."
He whipped back.
"A couple of us are clearing out a walk up in the hills on Quailburn. You're the expert on walks, and I'd really like you to see it. Take an hour no more. Up there and back. Give us your opinion - would the tourists like it? What do you say? Take the dogs, give 'em a run."
"Around here was the last area developed for farming and it'll be the last area developed for tourism. I'm not talking a rope from a bridge," said Murray Waters as Ross threw six cans of Speights through the side window and piled the dogs in. "Nor the Asian market - you let them see a rabbit in a field and they're happy. I'm talking quality. I'm talking history." In the time it took to tell we'd sped out of the hotel yard and onto the highway. Murray gestured out the window towards Mt Benmore. "Up near the top of that hill there's a spring where I keep a bottle of whisky hidden. That's what the old Scottish shepherds did, and when I take my clients up in the 4WD, we stop for a nip."
Murray Waters was an ex-real estate man out of Christchurch and he had a small tourist business in Omarama. He did 4WD and bike tours in the surrounding ranges, but he was planning to expand the choices. He and Ross had explored the top of the Ahuriri River by kayak. They'd also looked at the Quailburn walk.
"Of course Ross won't be doing the driving," said Murray with one hand on his hat as the big Commodore sailed over small hills and swept along metal roads at the edge of a slide - "I will."
I guessed Ross' driving was a local feature. Nigel and Terry Cooke of the Quailburn Station were doing a stock count as we came past. We stopped briefly and Nigel warned Ross as we pulled out -
"Stock'll be on the road when you're coming back."
"You can afford to lose a few," said Ross.
We pulled up alongside Quailburn Station's old wool shed and went in.
"She's a classic," said Ross. "Not one straight line in the sucker. Everything's been reused for this that and the next thing. But the whole thing is as solid as a rock. The floor - she's up - she's down - up, down, up, down. And over here, look. One of the few sheds still using the old hand press."
We walked through meadow to an abandoned house.
"Be 60 or 70 years old at least," said Ross, slapping the walls. "Still nice and dry. This was the second cottage built on Quailburn, and here - " he gestured at a couple of fluffy fledgelings lying feet up and very dead on straw inside one of the rooms " - is the extinct Quailburn duck."
Ross hald sprinted up the hill and waited for us to catch up.The springs and seats of an old dray were sinking into the earth.
"Pretty good eh? said Ross, as he spun around and kicked at a nearby pile that didn't quite match the image.
"Car tires don't fit though - Murray'll get rid of those."
A pair of fencing pliers were stuck into a fencepost alongside and Ross smoothly adapted them into his historic walk -
"Antique fencing pliers - once Murray takes the plastic off."
We followed a stream up. Ross was waiting up ahead by trees fallen across the track.
"Shift this one. That one. Murray will bring the chainsaw up and sort this out. We do this one without Resource Consent. And round about here, Murray can plant the old bottles for the tourists to find"
"Tourists are smart," said Murray. "I don't ever try to pull one. They'll pick it. You need to know your history. But if I don't know I don't try to pretend I'm an expert."
"What's an expert but a drip under pressure," said Ross.
"This station was named for the quail they used to find here," said Murray "It was subdivided off from Benmore in 1916. I think the trees here are old. A lot of the country around here was set fire to by the Maori. Then the settlers did the same thing. But gullies like this were left unburned."
I listened. The trail had been well-used once, with concrete fill between some of the rocks. A farm trail, and if so, one destination was certainly the musterer's hut where I'd met the possum. That lay just two kilometres away over the hill, and had once been part of Quailburn. Twizel DoC planned to preserve that hut as a reminder of the old musterers' life and a link from the hut to this beautifully wooded gully and down to the old woolshed seemed a natural progression. It'd need permission from Quailburn, but it was a thought, and it occurred to me it would make an interesting leg for Te Araroa.