A new life in Central Otago
|At Home on the Range
As you descend the hill towards the historic Ophir suspension bridge – old cables strung between 130-year-old rock pillars over the Manuherikia River in Central Otago – look carefully towards the hills above. There, all dun-coloured horizontal lines amid the schist and broom, is Colleen and David Hurd’s new home.
It’s a world away from their frenetic life in Auckland, where they lived in a renovated Devonport villa. They raised three children, while David worked as a lawyer and Colleen managed a busy cafe. Now they have opted for a gnarled range of hills extending unbroken and seemingly undisturbed across the breadth of the Manuherikia plains.
It is very quiet here, apart from the song of a skylark in the distance. What strikes you most, however, is the scent. Open the car door and you are bombarded by the all-pervasive perfume of thyme in dusky purple flower, mixed with the sweet summer smell of yellow flowering broom.
At the Hurd house though, the smell of home baking takes precedence. Colleen is warm and welcoming – very much the homemaker – and the kitchen and dining area are centrally placed in Queenstown architect Michael Wyatt’s design.
David is away in Auckland. Still working as a barrister, he commutes “for the time being”. Moving to Central Otago was a return home for him – his childhood was spent just down the road in Clyde.
Colleen describes the day they decided to change their lives. In Otago for a family gathering in 2003, they had ventured up the road and crossed the Ophir bridge. It was midwinter, the fog hanging low – not the most inspiring of days. “I’ve always wished I had a bit of dirt down here; this has always been home,” said David. And Colleen answered: “Then let’s do it.”
Two years later, when they settled on the piece of land, a view of the historic bridge was judged essential.
Colleen hasn’t looked back since the move. “It’s easy,” she says. “The community here in Ophir has been fantastic. And there are so many other interesting people who have moved here for the same reason as us.” And that reason would be? She gestures towards the wall of windows and the vast sweep of rock and tussock outside.
The names of the ranges tally up like lines from a Brian Turner poem: Raggedy Range, Hawkdun, Dunstan, Blackstone, Old Woman Range and the unforgiving Leaning Rock. It’s a still day, with cloud over the St Bathans Range – big sky, big country. Outside, Honey, one of Colleen’s three SPCA-rescued cats, rolls on a rock.
The “garden” here is indistinguishable from the wider landscape. Thyme is dominant; the battle with broom never-ending. Red-flowering valerian and woolly mullein are scattered through the red-brown rock, with here and there the brilliant orange of wild poppies. “Our philosophy is to let it all grow back, except the broom and thistles,” says Colleen. “I don’t want it all kempt and controlled. I love the exposed fragility of the schist, how it simply flakes and crumbles.”
The lines of the house echo those of the layered schist and the remnants of stone water-races in the valley beyond. It’s simple, spare, uncluttered – Michael Wyatt wanted to build a house that in no way dominated the landscape.
The house is as simple inside as out, with polished concrete floors and pre-cast concrete walls offering a neutral decorative canvas, though nothing could be a match for the view outside. The roof’s parapet has been designed for shade in summer sun and to allow the warming winter sun inside.
Warmth is the key to the kitchen. Although Colleen left a lot “to the architects”, she had very definite preferences for this area – a strong red for the joinery (Resene ‘Dynamite’), a Victorian ash benchtop “and curtains, not blinds”.
Sheltered from the north-westers behind the main part of the house is a courtyard and a magnificent stone-walled vegetable garden – abundant proof of the hothouse effect of warm rock. Above the covered courtyard is a wide “sunshine” hole in the roof. “Michael Wyatt’s folly,” says Colleen. “It’s like a sundial. You can watch the oval of light changing and moving across the walls and tiles over the course of the day.”
Nestled like stepping stones further into the hill above the courtyard are the separate wings of guest bedrooms (sometimes used as B&B accommodation for the ever-increasing numbers of Otago Rail Trailers) and the garage.
We wander up to a ridge looking north to the Hawkdun Range, the cats following at a distance, scattering the skinks out baking between the rocks. Colleen pulls at a broom seedling and bemoans the lack of time for weeding. Something else will soon be filling her time anyway. In 2006, a year after they bought the house section, the Hurds bought the historic Pitches Store down the road in Ophir. When the renovations there are complete, Colleen will have six rooms of accommodation and a restaurant to manage.
For now, though, she and David wander the hills he scoured as a child, following the scars of water-races and goldmining trails, watching the march of clouds and winds across the arc of the Central Otago sky.For more images including web-exclusive images click on the "photo gallery" link above.
Best time of the week: Saturday, when commuting husband arrives.
And the worst time: When he leaves.
Favourite part of the house: Kitchen/dining area.
At the moment I am enjoying eating: Asparagus in salads and rhubarb from the garden.
And drinking: Hawkdun Rise Pinot Noir.
Happiest day in this house: Our daughter’s wedding.
A well-kept secret about this area: The local cemeteries.
Favourite local shop: The Barn in Ophir.
Best time of year to visit: Every season has its beauty.
Story: Peta Carey
Photographs: Jane Ussher