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High country on horseback

Trekking in the South Island high country is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We join Alpine Horse Safaris for a 12-day adventure from Hawarden to Lake Tekapo

Descending the steep side of the Coleridge Pass

Vast plains, steep shingle screes, snow-encrusted tussock bushes and majestic mountain peaks – welcome to Lawrie O’Carroll’s office. Lawrie has turned a love of horses and passion for the dramatic South Island high country into a successful trekking business, run alongside his farming operation at Hawarden in North Canterbury.

Lawrie and his wife Jenny make a formidable team. Together they have introduced thousands of people to the magic of the high country over the last 19 years, as well as farming at Waitohi Downs, a 932ha hill country property.

Alpine Horse Safaris offers a range of trips, from two hours to multi-day adventures. The longest trek, a 12-day trip to Lake Tekapo, is 400km and reaches the dizzying height of 7000ft. As far as they know, it is the longest commercial trek in New Zealand and the only one where pack horses carry all the gear and tucker boxes.

Lawrie has turned his love for horses and the high country into a successful business

The trekking business is based at Waitohi Downs, the property Lawrie bought from his father John in 1981 and which has been in the family since 1916. Lawrie never contemplated doing anything else and believes the pull of the high country is just something that’s in your blood. “I’ve always loved mustering, dogs, horses. I don’t own a motorbike and never will – I still do all my mustering on horseback.”

After leaving school at the end of fifth form, he spent 16 years working on high country stations, many of which he treks over today.

He and Jenny met on a blind date at the Hanmer pub and although Jenny was originally a city girl from Christchurch, she too grew up with ponies around – though it was more about showing than mustering. It is clear she would not be anywhere else either. “I think it’s a love of the land, love of the horses, love of looking after people,” she says.

Today the property is home to 2000 Corriedale sheep, 50 cows and 80 horses. There are no deer at the moment, but they usually run about 400 hinds. “The country was all coming away in scrub and matagouri so I got rid of them to spray it all. We will burn and seed and fertilise it and get back into deer.”

The O’Carrolls organise their lives so they can do both trekking and farming. They do not employ any workers on the farm, but usually have someone helping with the horses. “It does take a lot of planning; you can’t leave home on a ride when there are ewes to be shifted,” Lawrie says.

Aside from helping on the farm and taking the shorter treks, Jenny does all the accounts, bookings and cooking for trekkers – she’s baking for probably a good 10 days, day and night, before a long ride. Meals are carefully planned according to the huts and the facilities available. “When we have only a fire, we try to have something easy, a one-pot meal,” Jenny says. At other places, they cook delicious roasts with ‘the works’.

Descending in snow after riding over the Coleridge Pass, with Lake Coleridge in the background

The trekking season lasts from mid-October through to mid-May, and long rides take up about 120 days of the year. Commercial trekking started 19 years ago after someone asked to be taken on a ride through to the St James horse sale.

It is not surprising that they get a lot of repeat business – one rider on my trek is on her eighth trip. Lawrie and Jenny are very grateful to all the landowners, and say, “It is a privilege to be able to ride through people’s properties and show other New Zealanders the magnificent high country.”

Like most of the other first-timers on the trip, I had no idea what to expect. The brochure states: “You’re going to be in the high country on these rides – so pack accordingly. There aren’t going to be any showers, electricity or flush toilets. Also, the weather can be unpredictable in the mountains so on a fine day take a coat, on a wet day please yourself!”

“This isn’t a holiday, this is an adventure. It’s an experience,” Lawrie says to me on the second morning. And he isn’t kidding. Scrambling up bony peaks with loose metal underfoot, and inching your way down the other side leading your horse, riding through snow, bathing in freezing rivers, sleeping in tiny musterers’ huts on saddle blankets and cooking on an open fire; I can only describe it as an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The spectacular countryside ranges from broken rugged mountains which look like someone has gouged huge hunks from the sides, to flat, vast alpine plains, the shadows of fast-moving clouds leaping across them. Freshly shorn merino sheep dart amongst the tussock and the odd cow with calf at foot is spotted in the distance.

The beauty of the high country is hard to describe adequately in words – it needs to be seen to be believed and Lawrie reckons this is the main reason people trek with him. He estimates 80% of their clients are Kiwis, and tourists are more likely to do the shorter two- or three-day trips than the long treks.

A trek with the O’Carrolls is like living inside one of those glossy scenic photography books that sit on people’s coffee tables. Your horse becomes your best buddy and the other riders your new family. As I looked around each day I was more in awe of what an exceptional bunch I was in the company of. Of the team of 13 riders, only two were under 40 and most were over 60. We had three men over the age of 70 – two who had had double hip replacements. There were several cancer survivors, people who had experienced painful losses and a woman who had not ridden a horse for more than 40 years. These people proved that age and ability are not barriers; it’s all about attitude.

Bred at Waitohi Downs

The O’Carrolls breed their own horses, the classic station cross of thoroughbred and Clydesdale, and do all the farm mustering on horseback. It started when Lawrie was given three ‘dog tucker’ mares he then bred from.

Their first stallion was out a Clydesdale mare by an unnamed Turbulent colt. They named him Turbo Charge and all of the older horses in the current team are by him.

They kept a colt of his entire, and named him Nikau. Nikau also spent a season serving mares at the Bluff Station in Kekerengu with the Murray family. “In return for his services I saw a little colt up there, a hairy little thing, and that’s what we use (as a stallion) now.”

The horses are selected on their temperament and ability to walk fast. “All our treks are done at a walk because we have pack horses. All the horses are interchangeable – they can be used as pack horses or riding horses.”

The horses are handled as foals at weaning, and are broken in at two and ridden for a week before being turned out. They are brought back in as three-year-olds, when they start to partake in short treks. They don’t mature until they are about seven and Lawrie won’t take them on long trips unless they are at least five.

The smallest horses are about 16hh, the tallest is 17.3hh. “We breed them big, strong and bold for river crossings and weight-carrying.” People of all abilities can go on their treks, even the long ones. “The horses are placid and you can put a novice rider on, or an experienced rider – they’ve got gears and will adjust to the rider… as long as the people can sit there, I know the horses are going to get through.”

Incredibly, Lawrie says the horses only need to go on a trek once and they know the exact route. Several times during our ride, the older pack horses lead the way with no rider or guidance, even through snow. “Their radar is terrific. You only have to take a horse once and if they go back years later they will still find their way through. “Never argue with a horse, he has a better sense of direction than a human in fog or whiteout conditions. Well, never argue with these horses anyway.”

I was constantly impressed by the sure-footed ability of the horses to clamber up the steepest slopes with loose scree underfoot, power through deep rivers or just cruise along while I admired the view. I had complete faith in my mount.

The wellbeing of the horses is paramount. They are brushed each night before being turned out and again before they are saddled in the morning. Lawrie is out every evening meticulously inspecting each one for rubs or signs of soreness. He does his own shoeing and there was not one lost shoe on the trip.

What to bring:

Sleeping bag (can be hired), towel and toiletries, sunblock, camera and film, gloves, footwear (boots suitable for walking and light shoes for in the huts), warm clothing, swimsuit, insect repellent, flashlight, hat (for rain/sun) and warm jacket. They supply everything else (including horses, tack, helmets and wet-weather gear).

Riding ability:

Alpine Horse Safaris can cater for the complete novice to the most experienced rider.

How to get there:

Waitohi Downs is in Hawarden, North Canterbury. The station is about 1 ¼ hours from Christchurch, 1 ½ hours from Kaikoura and a short distance from State Highway 7. We were picked up from Christchurch airport and shuttled to the station. For more detailed directions, check the website.

Age, weight & dietary limits:

There is no age limit on the treks, but those under 16 years must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The weight limit is 120kg. Vegetarians and those on a gluten-free or dairy-free diet can be accommodated, but a vegan diet cannot be provided.


  • This story was first published in the July 2011 issue of NZ Horse & Pony
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