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Flying high in the back country

Flying high in the  back country

When Philip and Anne Todhunter came to Lake Heron Station 27 years ago, it seemed natural to build up the tourism potential of the remote high country farm that stretches from 700m at the picturesque shores of Lake Heron to 2700m at the top of Jagged Peak in the remote Arrowsmith Range.

While the 19,600 hectare high country station has been in Philip’s family since 1917, Phillip worked as a helicopter pilot in New Zealand and overseas and Anne was a mountain climbing instructor and guide in the Mt Cook area, leading climbers across icy landscapes to hard-to-reach summits.

The couple now run 11,000 merino sheep and about 400 breeding cows and have slowly grown the tourism offerings from an existing heli-skiing joint venture.

Philip, with more than 30 years’ experience as a back country pilot in helicopters and fixed-wing craft, offers “flight-seeing tours” of the station and surrounding mountains or personalised flights to just about anywhere in Lake Heron’s Cessna 185.

The station also offers more conventional farm tours as well as accommodation in a farm cottages and more remote back country hut-style accommodation along with suggestions for walking and biking trails.

“We saw the potential to use our skills and grow something out of it,” Anne said.

The tourism side of the business grew organically in a low key way, renovating old buildings. This included doing up the farm cottages and three dilapidated back country huts.

One hut had to be totally rebuilt.

Anne said this allowed the station to offer a taste of the outdoors and New Zealand’s biodiversity along with an appreciation of old buildings and the history of why they were there.

The station caters to a range of visitors from individuals through to commercial 4WD trips and farm talks for groups interested in home and garden type tours.

Methven Heliski has operated on the station for 38 years. They take skiers in small guided groups for an exhilarating ski off-piste on the station’s high mountains. Skiers often stay at the station and board their flight from the farm.

Philip is the main helicopter pilot and there is a helicopter based at the station over the winter months, Anne said.

Lake Heron Station caters for the more discerning tourist who wants to do something off the typical tourist circuit, said Anne.

Prior to Covid-19 most of the visitors to Lake Heron Station were international tourists. With Covid, this changed to 100% local tourists and is now about half international and half local.

Anne said the station was only two hours from Christchurch which made it an attractive to locals who wanted to get away from town.

The Todhunters have a lot of plans and ideas, many of which have been suggested by visitors. This includes setting up to become wedding location and expanding to offer food and related services.

These would require a lot of research and investment, said Anne.

“Perhaps our children will take it to the next level.”

However, one new venture is set to take off next year. A local biking touring company plans to trial trips on the station to one of the 12-sleeper huts this coming summer.

Helpful Tips

Philip and Anne Todhunter have the following tips for farmers considering agri-tourism.

Understand what your market wants. Do the research and then just do it. “Be bold and just leap in,” said Anne.

Starting off can be daunting. It’s okay to start slowly.

Sometimes you need to have a few iterations before you get it right. A guided walk to backcountry huts that Lake Heron Station trialed turned out to be harder than most people wanted, Anne said.

Be authentic. Be yourself and exude the typical Kiwi natural friendliness.

You’ve got to enjoy what you do. There is no point being the front face of a tourism business if you don’t like people.

Overseas tourists expect a totally different level of service. They enjoy a personal welcome, regular interaction and farm tours.

By Sharon Davis