In 1991 Brendan and Philippa Kavanagh bought a 600 hectare farm on the Manganui o te Ao River, to the west of Ruapehu. Land in this area had been developed as rehabilitation farms for returned servicemen from the First World War, with each farm being 200 acres. The Kavanagh’s farm was composed of seven of these original lots, and the old house sites can still be discerned from the trees that were planted around them, and the daffodils which still spring up.
The Kavanagh’s farm had two houses on it, the family home and an original homestead that was being used as shearers’ and shepherds’ accommodation. In 2010, after months of contemplation and procrastination, the couple made the decision to go ahead with a complete renovation of the old homestead. The house was in a state of disrepair, having been empty for some time.
From shearers’ quarters to country lodge
The renovation took all of 2011 to complete. First in were the re-piling team who did an amazing job in straightening the whole building. They were followed by a highly skilled builder, Alex and his friend Sasha, a chef from Christchurch, whose restaurant had been destroyed in the earthquake. The pair recycled all of the available native timber and retained all the unique features which homes of this era possess. Family members took charge of painting the lodge inside and out, a useful way of making money during university holidays, and at times, a welcome break from sheep and cattle work on the farm. Philippa chose colours and selected furniture, with pieces inherited from her grandparents adding to the heritage feel of the homestead. A large log-burner and electric blankets were added to keep the house cosy in winter.
The Kavanaghs officially opened the lodge in February 2012, ecstatic with what they had managed to create. The lodge has room for twelve guests, who can explore the farm and surrounding countryside. In winter the lodge will be a base for visitors to the snow – it’s 20 minutes from Ohakune, 40 minutes to the skifield at Turoa and 55 to Whakapapa.
A farm to explore
The farm now has 300 head of beef on it and 3,000 sheep, with lambs to watch in September. There is grazing if guests want to bring their own horses. Alternatively, horses can be hired for short or multi-day treks with Waara Trekking, family friends of the Kavanagh’s.
About 120 hectares of the property is native bush, with the bush continuing further on the neighbouring farm. The trees are mainly kahikatea and tawa, with most of the mature rimu having been milled in the early 1930s. Much native birdlife has returned, after efforts to eradicate possums. Now dozens of kereru can be seen at a time, and tuis flock to the kowhai.
The Manganui o te Ao River: trout-fishing and native ducks
The beautiful Manganui o te Ao River, which runs through the farm, is fed with water from the bush-clad slopes of Ruapehu. The river is famous for trout fishing, with rainbow and brown trout running in the fast, clean waters. There are rapids to enjoy with kayaks or inner tubes, and still stretches for swimming. The river is also home to the endangered Whio, or native Blue Duck. The Kavanaghs have worked on predator control to help protect the Blue Duck, catching 26 stoats to date.
The couple have also created an 8 hectare lake and wetland, set in native bush at one end. They dammed a natural basin, fenced and replanted with flax and toitoi and their wetland is now home to dabchicks, a native species of grebe. In 2011 they won a Horizons Farm environmental award for habitat improvement, in recognition of their wetland.
The Bridge to Nowhere
In summer months the lodge can be used as a base by mountain-bikers wanting to ride the famous Bridge to Nowhere trail, which starts 24kms from the farm. The Bridge to Nowhere was built in the 1930s, for access to the Mangapurua Valley Soldiers Settlement – a rehabilitation scheme for ex-servicemen to clear and farm the land. Lack of access and falling prices led to the failure of the scheme, but the concrete bridge remains, surrounded by bush. Now it’s a scenic end to a great day’s mountain-biking, along part of the Mountains to Sea trail, which runs through regenerating bush, past historic relics, and ends with a jet boat ride along the Whanganui River. While the scheme for soldiers to farm may not have been successful, these days the area is a beautiful and atmospheric spot for a bit of rest and recreation.