Ever since my first visit to Fairlie 50 years ago, I’ve had a mental image of it being the last outpost of civilisation before the great expanse of the Mackenzie Country. It was where the spread of early European civilisation stopped quite abruptly and said, ‘Whoa, we’re not going there …’

The Wolds (established 1876) mailbox near Tekapo

Fairlie is set in a green and pleasant landscape, quite heavily wooded with English trees, and rolling pasture. On a quiet day with the sun in the sky and birds singing, you can almost hear “… and was Jerusalem founded here, in England’s green and pleasant land …”. But 15 or 20 minutes later, after passing through the tiny hamlets of Kimbell and Burkes Pass, you crest a rise at the curiously named Dog Kennel Corner and explode out of that green and pleasant land into the stark beauty of the Mackenzie Country where, before the arrival of Europeans, there wasn’t a tree to be seen – just unrelenting emptiness.

But there were trees here, once: totara forests in the valleys and on the tops. These were burned by Māori when they hunted moa and they never returned.

Fairlie was, literally, the end of the line.

Poignant memorial to the soldiers that left the back country to go to war – some never to return

If you can remember back to the early days of television in New Zealand, when it was black and white and Ena Sharples terrified the drinkers at the Rover’s Return, there were two ‘fillers’ that we saw once a month or so. One followed the scow Tuhoe up the Kaiapoi River, and the other, the AB steam loco at the head of a train called the Fairlie Flyer as it chuffed and tooted its way from Timaru to Fairlie. These ‘fillers’ had no spoken words, but were accompanied by music that bordered on being musak.

The Fairlie branch railway line was opened in stages between 1874 and 1884, and for a while it was so well used that there was a dedicated daily passenger train, the Fairlie Flyer. This ended in 1930 when increasing numbers of passengers opted to travel by road, but a mixed passenger/goods train continued until 1953 when it became a goods-only line, and that ended in 1968 when the line was closed, the rails torn up, bridges demolished and stations removed – save for the 2.5 kilometre section into Pleasant Point from the east. This is now used by the local railway society which has a significant operation involving two steam locomotives, passenger carriages and a Ford Model T-based railcar.

It’s square and it’s the Pleasant Point Model T railcar

But, enough of the history, what of today? We’re about to find out.

My original travel plans were delayed a week by Cyclone Gita, but it was a bright and sunny Friday morning when I cleared Oamaru and headed up SH1 for Timaru, where I turned up SH8 at Washdyke, the real home of legendary racehorse Phar Lap.

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Pleasant Point is the first town on the route – a place that lives up to its name. There’s a broad main street, with enough shops and businesses operating to warrant a stop, and a curious mixture of street names that include Kabul and Afghan!

Your driver of the Model T railcar today is Mr Gordon Somerville

It’s also the passenger pick up and drop off for the ‘Pleasant Point Museum and Railway’ which is all neatly based in the lovingly restored railway station.

There used to be a factory in Pleasant Point that made slashers for clearing the country of gorse and broom – Lienert’s, but that’s long gone. The township suffered a devastating flood in 1986 that saw one fatality and caused $120 million worth of damage.

You pass the operating base and workshop for the railway at the eastern boundary of the town, with the 2.5km stretch of line heading arrow-straight for the station/museum. I see a sign stating that the historic Model T railcar is operating daily. “Operating daily?” Can it really be?

Mounted heads at O’Rourke’s in Pleasant Point

Yes it is. I see the dark-red, square box of the railcar parked on the lines by the platform, waiting for passengers. A man is standing on the platform, talking to someone inside the ticket box. He is today’s railcar driver Gordon Somerville, and the ticket person is Dilys Looms. Both are volunteers and both bemoan the fact it’s quiet. Gordon had a long career in radio as a copywriter, so we have plenty to talk about. He offers me a ride in the railcar, but I’ve done it before and I want to get to Fairlie.

Gilbert, Sharon and a motorbike. Shocks and Frocks in Pleasant Point

The railcar is a replica of a failed experiment for NZR back in the late twenties when three were built and used on the Waikaia and Glenham branch lines in Southland. I have no idea what prompted the Fairlie people to replicate a failed experiment, but I am glad they have because it’s (a) popular and (b) has preserved a link to a piece of history that would have otherwise been lost.

An acre of machinery at Sutherlands

Gordon and Dilys show me through the station with its many historic displays. This is worth stopping at when you visit Pleasant Point – and the monument to Richard Pearse is nearby, so you can also go and pay homage to him.

Small river stone church in Cave is almost hidden by trees

I head for one of the most famous – and fascinating – businesses in Pleasant Point, G D O’Rourke & Sons, Taxidermists, but along the way cast a sad glance at the old Post Office. Shearer Steve Casey and his partner, once created a wonderful café here called Legends and ran regular talent nights. I was asked to be the MC on a couple of them. Sadly, it’s now closed and washing on the lines in the courtyard indicates it’s now a dwelling.

I’m sidetracked before I reach O’Rourkes. An old garage fronting onto the main street has been given a new lease of life by Gilbert Bailey and his partner Sharon. Best way to describe the place is that it’s a man cave devoted to cars and motorbikes, with Sharon running a shop within the cave selling fascinating and collectable knick-knacks. The place is called Frocks and Shocks, sub-titled ‘Obsolete Iron Motors’.

The Memorial Church over the hill from Cave is a Norman-style church that is almost a museum

Gilbert’s ‘real job’ is as an engineer with PrimePort Timaru, but this is his passion and one day it will become full time. It’s a gathering place for like-minded people. Gilbert restores cars and builds motorcycles, including a Bonneville Salt Flats monster powered by two, three-cylinder Triumph engines. He’s been to Bonneville once and would like to get back again this year.

Almost next door is O’Rourke’s – probably the most famous place in Pleasant Point these days. The business was founded by Gerald O’Rourke almost 60 years ago and today is run by his two sons, Lance and Kerry, although the business itself was sold to local interests two years ago.

The Cave store – groceries, petrol – and ice cream

“We signed on to continue running the place for two years after the sale,” says the quietly spoken Lance. And when the two years is up in a month or two? “We’ll renew,” he says, with a laugh.

This is a busy place and it has an enviable record.

OK, some people aren’t going to be all that comfortable standing in a showroom surrounded by dead animals, but this is very much old, grassroots New Zealand – with the exception of a very large bear which has been in the showroom for years. How much does this sort of thing cost? A look at their website shows that ‘stuffing’ the head of an elk will cost $1795. That’s probably less than I expected.

Albury – a little-known part of South Canterbury

I gave half a thought to grabbing a bite to eat, but then thought of when I was younger – and slimmer – and decided to carry on.

Pleasant Point is indeed pleasant.

The drive out of Pleasant Point and on towards Fairlie is through unremarkable, if pleasant (that word again) farming country. Green is the dominant colour.

There are a couple of good, old time pubs in Fairlie

Next stop is Sutherlands – not much left here – just the old school set well back off the road, grounds which are now a paddock, and a war memorial to one side. The eastern neighbour is a man who collects machinery – he has an acre of fascinating looking stuff, including the boiler from a steam loco’ and some old Chevrolet cars.
I meet the neighbour on the western side – a young blonde mum in black shorts and gumboots. While the other neighbour has an acre of old machinery, she’s got an acre of grass – and she’s cutting it with an ordinary motor mower.

“Gidday,” she calls to me. “You’re another one. Lots of people stop and look at this place.”
“It’s the old school,” I reply, not sure if she knows that or not. But I have a more pressing point: “Why aren’t you on a ride-on mower with so much grass to cut?”

Locals having a yarn outside Fairlie’s Gladstone Hotel

“Oh, it’s my exercise,” she says, taking a last puff on a skinny looking rollie and stubbing it out. “I put the little one down and get stuck in to this.”

I run an eye over the land she’s got to mow – it’s a young farm and I reckon there’s half a day’s yakka here.
“We’ve had a bit of rain – makes it grow and I hate those,” she says indicating daisies and clover flowers. “They bring bees and I don’t want the little one stung.”

Even the horses are friendly in Albury

We say goodbye and I go and look at the war memorial.

On the way back to my truck, the young mum mower shouts out over the two-stroke roar, “Seeya …”
I wave back.

Up the road a bit you start to get into the trees. In fact the next place, Cave, is almost hidden in so many trees you could call it a forest. Cave’s tucked off SH8 in a dog-leg. I guess the old road followed this at one time.
I know a bit about Cave. Two friends of mine spent time here.

Old limestone building was almost certainly a hotel near the Albury railway station

Eoin S Young – known variously as ‘Buster’ and ‘Easy’ – who became one of the best-known writers this country has ever produced, grew up here. He started out being a bank clerk but ended up writing about motor racing, and in 55 years he produced thousands of syndicated columns and maybe a dozen books – all best sellers in their field. He was my mate.

And Brian Conroy, a publican from Timaru, owned the pub here once. He bought a Vampire jet fighter off the RNZAF when they sold them off at give-away prices and he parked it outside the pub, just because he could.
Both have passed on.

Ammunition storehouses on the outskirts of Fairlie – a reminder of a local industry in WWII

The pub still operates, but the Vampire’s long gone. There’s a shop that sells groceries, petrol and ice cream. It has a noticeboard outside as many country stores have.

I drive around the handful of back streets. This is a quiet, peaceful place of mostly older, modest homes, and it seems to have more churches per house that any other town in the world. Cave has one very special church, but it’s over the hill a bit on the back road and I’ll save that for the journey home.

Tekapo’s famous Church of the Good Shepherd - now with fence and gates

I drive on, into the thickening trees, under a blazing hot sun pouring out of a cloudless sky. I’ve left the dairy cows and irrigators behind and this is mainly sheep country – sheep and cattle – although I see free-range pigs and hens and grow to love this countryside. Traffic is light and I have the road pretty much to myself. I’m enjoying the drive so much, I switch off my iPod.

Next stop is Albury. Where Cave was small and compact, nestled in trees, Albury is scattered – and open. The pub, long closed, has reopened, but with restricted hours. I see churches. Struth! there seem to be more here than at Cave. Lots of churches in this area. The shop is now a house, and I spot what could once have been two garages. I wonder how many people outside South Canterbury have heard of Albury?

View down the side of Lake Tekapo towards the burgeoning town

Along the way there are remains of the old railway line – mainly concrete bridge abutments, but also the raised track bed. It’s a hobby of mine, visually tracing the route of old railway lines. About where I guess the Albury railway station used to be, is a limestone building that was almost certain to have been a pub for train travellers. Today it looks like it’s a holiday home. The end of this road ends in a thicket of willows and a couple of river fords.

On to Fairlie – the last leg – and I pass through quaintly named places called Cricklewood and Winscombe where there used to be towns – now they are just place names on the map.

Lake Alexandrina – idyllic, but spoiled by too many ugly signs

Because I’ve been here before, I know that if I turn left just before Fairlie, I will find an old ammunition dump – a dozen or more, squat and solid looking, windowless, red-brick buildings half buried on the hillside.

Perhaps because Fairlie was so remote, it was chosen as the place where an ammunition factory was set up during WWII, and the ammo was stored in these red-brick sheds before being taken off to the various theatres of war. The ammunition was made in a factory in Fairlie proper, which is now the museum and a café, but Bill Hamilton, farmer, racing driver, engineer and inventor of the jet boat also had an ammunition factory on his farm at Irishman’s Creek over the hill in the Mackenzie Country.

A treasure trove. The workshop of the late Ian Jones in Fairlie

Apart from the red-brick storage buildings, there are also a couple of very military looking weatherboard office blocks, one of which has been converted into rental holiday accommodation.

The arrival into Fairlie could be described as sensational. Or beautiful? I settle for the latter. Trees which have covered an increasing area of the landscape are suddenly marched into order lining the highway, and are so big and mature they almost touch and form an arch. This is Peace Highway, created after the ‘Great War’.

Fairlie is like a bigger Pleasant Point in many ways, but with that edge-of-the-world feeling I mentioned at the beginning. While there are still many of the businesses that flourished here in earlier days, looking after the wants and needs of farmers, some have closed and now the place is a curious but attractive mix of those old-style rural outfits and newer ones catering to a new gold rush – tourism.

The quiet run I’ve had on SH8 from Timaru is about to change for it’s in the middle of Fairlie that SH79 from Geraldine ends, and that means I’ll be joined by the tourist traffic heading to and from Queenstown on the Inland Scenic Route.

The Three Creeks in Burkes Pass is a fascinating stop

As I arrive in town, I see the red and blue flashing lights of a police car. It’s stopped and the officer is out speaking to a ‘client’. The ‘client’ is a bearded face under a cycle helmet, astride a push-bike with packs. I know we blame tourist drivers for bad behaviour on the roads – but cyclists? I wonder what offence this man has committed.

Later I pass him a dozen or so kilometres up the road; he’s pedalling furiously, teeth gritted, his forehead knitted in a scowl.

Fairlie’s most famous business these days is the new Fairlie Bakehouse which was established about 18 months ago, offering a vast range of designer pies along with other goodies. And the place has been a huge hit, with people driving from all over the region and then standing in line waiting to be served. In Fairlie! – where there have never been lines of people before. Except maybe at the annual A&P Show – which I have been to.

Last year, as a self-styled ‘Pie Expert’, I wanted to see what the fuss was about, but I was thwarted by a road rage incident when an angry woman threw a punch at me outside the shop!

The Burkes Pass cemetery is a fascinating place to spend half an hour, or more

On this mid-to-late Friday afternoon I look inside the bakery. Blow me down there’s a line of hopefuls waiting for the golden sachets of meat and goodness clearly on show in a huge pie warmer. I think of my figure and the fact that my evening meal is just a couple of hours away. So I decide to wait until the morning.

Some years back, encouraged by Eoin S Young, I visited Fairlie to see Ian Jones, a motor engineer who had ‘looked after’ Bill Hamilton’s racing Bentley. Sadly, Ian had died a month or so prior, but I was shown inside his workshop – all locked up and left like a shrine to a very clever man. Time capsule stuff with period spanners all neatly in their rightful place and, tucked away in a corner, something I was told was a motorised sled from the Scott Antarctic expedition. It certainly looked old, but Scott? I knew Scott tried sledges, but they failed, so he and his team marched into tragic history.

I call in at Mackenzie Country Motors, but Ian’s son, Paul, isn’t there. I learn that he will be looking after the service station in the morning. I want to talk to him about his father – and the sled.

Instead, I mooch around the town, looking here and there, all the time aware of the tourist traffic pouring off SH79 from Geraldine, turning right and beetling off for Burkes Pass and beyond.

Dotting the grass strip in the centre of town are trees (of course) and a series of stunning photographs of this region, for Fairlie is the centre of bureaucratic power for the Mackenzie District. There’s also a bronze statue of sheep stealer James Mackenzie and his dog.

Most of the shops have a history of the property displayed in their front window, giving information about the first and subsequent owners – very interesting. There are a lot of tourists enjoying the balmy late afternoon and patronising the numerous eateries.

Julie Greig – artist – and her husband Jan of Burkes Pass. And dog…

Time is slipping by, so I decide to press on over Burkes Pass into the wild beauty of the Mackenzie Country and take a look at Tekapo.

On the way I pass through Kimbell with its pub and camping ground and artists’ residences – again, lots of trees – and through Burkes Pass where I want to spend time tomorrow morning, exploring.

The arrival into the Mackenzie Country is breathtaking – and dramatic. Towering columns of white thunderclouds cluster around the horizon while the mountains fade into deep blue.

I mooch around Tekapo town for a while. The place is awash with tourists, and I am left with no doubt that Tekapo is going to be our next Queenstown. It has the lake, the mountains, breathtaking scenery, two ski fields, hot pools (heated by gas, not au naturel), an ice-skating rink and the developers are moving in. Mini suburbs of small, architect-designed houses, sitting on postage stamp-sized sections, sprawl up the hill, and there are plans for a lakeside resort.

Tekapo is at an uncomfortable spot in its history – some traditional Tekaponians feel intimidated and threatened by what’s happening, and the row over access to the famed stone church is representative of that. It’s been fenced and gated off with restrictions on access. You get the feeling that the juggernaut of tourist development is about to overwhelm the place.

Next morning I head off to visit the Mount John Observatory and have breakfast at the café, but I don’t want to spend the asked-for eight dollars to use the road to get there. That charge is new since I was last here. A pity, as the views from the top are incredible.

Instead I drive on to Lake Alexandrina, and here there is more evidence of the conflict between tourism and the locals. When I was last here five years ago, there was just a small collection of holiday homes at the outlet of the lake into Lake Tekapo. Now There’s a camping ground, which appears to be operated by the crib/batch owners, and it’s popular, but in this breathtakingly beautiful place there’s visual pollution in the form of proliferating ugly signs, most of which start with a huge black ‘NO’ then a list of things you aren’t allowed to do, ending with a row of exclamation marks.

There’s no indication which authority has erected these signs, nor whose rules they are; I find them ugly, bullying and unwelcoming in such a spot of paradise. I feel a bit gloomy about this and head back to Tekapo to buy some diesel before returning to Burkes Pass.

Here I visit the cemetery. It’s surrounded by trees (of course) with plenty of bunny holes pocking the hard earth. There is a mix of very old and quite new headstones – a fascinating place. One of the first headstones I read is a new one and I’m surprised to see it’s for William Apes – Bill Apes who was the local policeman for many, many years and was often in the news. Later I find a headstone to mountaineer Gary Ball who died on Himalayan Mt Dhaulagiri and who is buried there. He died in poignant circumstances – trapped by a storm but able to speak to the outside world by his satellite phone and to say goodbye to his wife.

Once someone lived here

Burkes Pass, as a village, has come and gone a bit over the years, and the fire that claimed the pub could have been the final act, but today it’s a must-stop place. Local boy Dave Taylor has created ‘Three Creeks’ here where he makes and sells a wide range of outdoor furniture made from macrocarpa, but it’s much, much more than that. It’s a small village of sheds, shacks, shops, garages, signs, cars – and a coffee shop. This is fascinating.

Across the road, in the old Burkes Pass Store is artist Julie Greig and her husband Jan. Julie’s stunning high-country art is her focus, but they also run a small block of three motels and they are busy, busy, busy. Julie created a high-country character called ‘Jason’ who features in many of her paintings – usually dressed in long waterproof shepherd’s raincoat with hat, and a dog.

I’d like to stay longer, but Julie and Jan are going out, so I say farewell and head back to Fairlie, anxious to try a Bakehouse pie.

By now it’s 1.30 and the place is bursting at the seams. I look at the menu and see among the designer-pie offerings, ‘silverside and creamed cabbage’; there is also a ‘normal’ pepper steak pie which is my idea of a pie. I size up the situation and decide to come back later rather than wait as long as it seems I will need to wait.
Instead, I go and see Paul Jones who is now looking after the Jones’ family service station. Paul is third generation in the business, and although he’s never married, his brother has and has a son, and so there will be a fourth generation.

I ask Paul about his father Ian, his relationship with Bill Hamilton, and the story behind the motorised sled.
Ian Jones did indeed maintain the Bentley that Bill Hamilton raced at Brooklands in England in the thirties and brought back to New Zealand. He also looked after several other important classic cars in the area.

Paul’s grandfather, Stan Jones, went to the UK with Hamilton when he raced the car, and it was Stan’s brother Charlie who built the motorised sled. It was built in the early 1930s, and it seems it was meant to be sent to the USA to see if Admiral Byrd would be interested in taking it on his Antarctic expedition. But something happened, Byrd didn’t take it and it was returned to Fairlie where it was used to deliver mail around the Mackenzie Country during a couple of winters when snow made wheeled transport impossible.

While we’re talking, the forecourt at the garage fills up with customers, so I say goodbye to Paul and head back to the Bakehouse.

Only a dozen people this time, so I order a pepper steak pie ($7) and a sausage roll ($4) and take them to a park table to sit and sample them in the sun.

I am joined by a couple from a campervan who are having a picnic lunch. They’re from Holland and I’m impressed with their preparations for this holiday in New Zealand.

“I looked at maps, Googled and came up with a route book of my own,” he explained. I asked where they’ve been and where they are going and he’d missed out nothing.

The verdict on the pie and sausage roll? The meat in the pie was sublime – big, tender chunks of steak in minimal gravy – but a bit light on the pepper for me and I didn’t like the oily, flaky pastry which made it very messy to eat. The sausage roll was huge, but the same comment applied to the oily, flaky pastry.

Thirty minutes later I was back on the road, heading to where I’d come from the day before, but turning off at Cave for the trip over the hill and back onto SH1 at St Andrews.

On the way I stopped at the Cave store to buy a bottle of water and there was a family of three girls, a mum and a dad ordering what surely must have been the biggest ice creams in the world. A couple of them were three scoops tall, with each scoop the size of a soccer ball. They were licking away to their heart’s content, obviously enjoying them.

I spent 15 years of my life, rolling ice creams in my parents’ store and that put me off ice cream in cones forever!

Just over the hill on the back road is St David’s memorial church, built in Norman style from river stones. This is a famous church, a work of hand-made art and a memorial to the early pioneers, but particularly the Burnett family, of Mt Cook sheep station fame, some of the original pioneers of the Mackenzie. It’s well worth the stop to look inside where it’s as much a museum as it is a church.

I stood in the sun and drank in the beauty of this place. The church on one side of the road and a magnificent set of stone gates on the other.

Then I spent an hour tiki-touring the back-country roads, through the Pareora Gorge where I spotted an old dam far below, water spilling over it, finally emerging at St Andrews and then a straight run back to Oamaru.

Great couple of days.