St Arnaud: magical gateway to magnificent wilderness
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 22 July 2017
Anyone who has ever spent any time at the alpine village of St. Arnaud, Lake Rotoiti, will already know what a special and captivating place it is.
Gateway to the Nelson Lakes National Park, St. Arnaud is a small community which is home to a few hundred residents at most. Straddling the divide between east and west, St. Arnaud has a wonderful alpine climate moderated by the higher rainfall areas to the west and the drier inland climate of Marlborough to the East.
The town was named after the mountain range that looks down on the settlement and Lake Rotoiti, although there is still animosity lingering from when the town name was changed from Lake Rotoiti and gazetted by the NZ Geographic Board in 1951. It all part of the history now, and for the record Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud was the French Commander-in-Chief during the Crimean War of 1853-1856. St Arnaud, the town, isn’t totally unique though because two other overseas towns bear the same name in Victoria , Australia and Algeria.
Ever since the early days of European settlement the area has been a playground for Nelson and Marlborough families and recreational sportspeople. Indeed, early explorer Julius von Haast recognised the potential of the area for recreation when he said “I am sure that the time is not far distant when this spot will become the favourite abode of those whose means and leisure will permit them to admire picturesque scenery”
Part of the attraction is Nelson Lakes National Park being right on the doorstep, or even encompassing part of the town. The National Park was gazetted in 1956 and covers more than one hundred thousand hectares of barren magnificent wilderness with silver rivers, high peaks and clothed in red, silver, and black beech trees. There are bountiful opportunities to hike, fish, hunt, enjoy water sports, and commune with nature in all of it’s glory. Best of all the gateway of St. Arnaud is only about an hour of driving from downtown Nelson City or Blenheim.
My personal association with the town goes back further than I can ever remember. As a boy I loved fishing and hunting the Travers Valley that drains into the upper end of the Lake. Travelling up the Lake in Dad’s aluminium dinghy we would camp overnight on the river flats and enjoy everything the National Park had to offer. Later, those early trips set the scene for becoming a fishing guide when I was employed by Sharon and Tony Entwistle of Nelson Lakes Guiding Services as an apprentice fishing guide in 1985. Exploring the area and learning my craft, I loved living around St. Arnaud township, meeting the locals and being indoctrinated in their ways.
I lived in the town for many fishing seasons, over decades, but eventually moved to Richmond for the benefit of family life. St Arnaud has always held a special place in my heart with Aimee and I even being married there in 1999, way up high near the upper Mt Robert carpark on a sunny October day overlooking the wide expanses of West Bay and the town of St Arnaud far below.
These days our kids love it up at the Lake and in the recent school holidays we spent a few days up at the family bach with my brother Scott and his family. All the kids have a great time together and although it is mid-winter there is always plenty to do.
Snow skiing has faced many challenges over recent winters with a general lack of snow being one of them. The climate is changing and the St Arnaud ranges don’t hold the winter snow they once did. When I first started fishing guiding, the Wairau river on Rainbow Station ran full with snowmelt until Christmas but now it is pretty much gin clear from the start of the fishing season on October 1st. The southerly winds and storms seem to have decreased too, and with it the snow pack. Alas this past school holidays Rainbow Skifield only had the learner and intermediate slopes open. Here’s hoping we get some really gnarly weather soon to pump up the snow pack and kick start the ski season.
Ice Skating is always fun and most winters the pond close to the village freezes thick and solid. Last winter we had some good ice fun but these past holidays the skating was a no go.
Mountain biking abounds to every point of the compass. The boys love racing around on their bikes and a favourite location is down Teetotal Rd, opposite the West Bay turnoff on the main road out of town. There are miles of tracks that suit all styles of riding and every age.
Bush walks are something we always like to do as a family. There are some extreme and remote tracks further out in the National Park but we often do the short, local ones for family fun and to get out of the house for an hour or so. Bellbird walk, Honeydew and Loop tracks are always good down on the lake front in Kerr Bay. This past trip we walked the Peninsula Track and also Black Hill. One of my favourite things to show visitors is the old railway tunnel walkway down the Buller valley at Kawatiri.
Cafes and Bars are also a St. Arnaud opportunity. There are lots of local businesses that cater to the tourism trade and remain open all winter. On our Black Hill family walk we made our way down to the Alpine Lodge and enjoyed latte coffee and bowls of hot chips outside in the warm afternoon sun. You could also try Elaine Richards fine café food at the General Store or enjoy lunch at the Clinker Café.
Accommodation options abound in St. Arnaud too ranging from lodge and motel accommodation, through to bed & breakfast, backpacker, or rent your own from the numerous holiday homes dotted throughout the village. St Arnaud is so close to the urban centres of Nelson and Marlborough that it is an easy task to visit for a day trip so cost doesn’t have to be an issue.
Water sports are a bit chilly in winter but our kids regularly kayak in the lake and at times have even indulged in mid-winter swimming. This past visit we played on the Rotoiti School grounds kicking around rugby and footballs as a family. During one breather from running around, I looked back toward Black Hill, a mound of glacial moraine left over from the last ice age, and visualised how Thomas Brunner and his Maori guides on their epic 1846 exploration ordeal, turned right and missed finding Lake Rotoiti before travelling down the Buller to South Westland.
On a wet day there are many more activities at St. Arnaud you could enjoy such as community activities at the Lake Rototit Community Hall, go to the Sunday service at the picturesque Rotoiti Chapel, or visit the Department of Conservation Visitor Center with interactive and educational displays. Our kids especially enjoy the unique movie of the lifestyle of the long finned eel, travelling to Tonga to spawn and ascending the Buller river as elvers to New Zealand’s most inland lake.
There are so many more wonderful winter opportunities hidden in the St Arnaud area but I’ve run out of space and haven’t even talked about trophy chamois, trolling for trout in the Lake, or tame eels off the jetties. Maybe you’ll just have to explore the potential of St. Arnaud for yourself.
A lifetime pursuit of the great outdoors
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 27 May 2017
The Mirfin sisters, Rosie and Charli with Mia Troy at the Anatori River, in western Golden Bay.
After a lifetime of outdoor pursuits, I figured out years ago that you can never do too much fishing or hunting.
It's a passion that is difficult to explain or articulate to unbelievers, but the unrelenting urge to get out in the boat, wade a trout stream, climb a high mountain ridge, or hunt a duck swamp is something ingrained and hard-wired within many of us.
Fortunately I've been able to turn my outdoor interests into an occupation for more than three decades, and in my earlier years was able to travel the world indulging my passion for freshwater fishing.
Charli and Rosie Mirfin at Wharariki Beach, Golden Bay.
They were great years as a single man, spending six months a year in North America, guiding on, and fishing, some of the greatest trout and steelhead rivers on the planet.
Later came marriage and children, responsibility, mortgages and seemingly never-ending bills to pay. It was inevitable that my outdoor wings would be clipped and that I would need to spend more time at home working on family life and running other business ventures.
Getting married in my 30s, I was a bit of a slow starter on the family front, but being the proud father of almost four teenagers has much to commend it.
Winter sport means four kids going in four separate directions every Saturday morning, and it is a special time whenever I'm able to watch all four young ones play football and hockey on the same day. The only downside being that it doesn't leave a lot of time to hunt or fish during a weekend.
The kids are also developing their own independence, autonomy, friends, interests, and are often not so interested in heading bush with dear old Dad.
In some ways, it is my own fault, because I was away so much guiding customers in their earlier years that I didn't have the time or resources to get the kids as enthused about the outdoors as I was, and now the boys are increasingly more interested in mountain bike riding and spending time at the Saxton hockey turf.
Lately too, many friends and acquaintances have been turning 50 years old. The big Five-O is a scary concept and one I'll face soon enough.
But many keen outdoorsmen just don't seem to get out fishing and hunting like they once used to. Many are so busy working to get ahead financially, and the general decline in outdoor resources both locally and nationally probably hasn't helped either.
I watch us all getting older, rounder, slower, and grumpier, and remind myself that I desperately need to get out fishing and hunting more often with my family, and by myself. It's an old cliché but all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
It's probably wise to have outdoor goals and aspirations, because it can help keep you young at heart, motivated, and invigorated away from the energy-sapping tedium of modern life. Getting outside regularly can recharge human battery cells too.
Prolific New Zealand investment author, Martin Hawes, wrote an excellent book called "Twenty Good Summers", because he figured at 50 years old he had about 20 good summers left to enjoy out climbing mountains.
While his book details ideas for structuring financial outcomes in those 20 years and planning to enjoy life, it did strike me that planning a 20-year fishing and hunting programme is not too dissimilar before time and gravity catches up.
"There are only so many opening days in a lifetime" was one of the best duck hunting lines in the latest Hunting & Fishing franchise catalogue, and it's absolutely true.
It got me thinking about how I'd like to cast a fly more often or pull the trigger on a few more game animals in my next 20 years, especially with my family by my side, or better still helping them to enjoy the outdoors.
I scribbled my own personal list of aspirational annual trips onto my office whiteboard, and it includes putting time aside to duck hunt opening weekend, have a regular autumn roar trip, perhaps a week on the alpine tops chasing tahr and chamois, a South Island fly fishing trip, and maybe even a week in Turangi fishing for fresh rainbows ascending the Tongariro.
Whether it'll happen or not is up to me, but in the short term there are always lots of short local family outdoor adventures to be had.
Recently I took advantage of a nice weather slot to take daughters Rosie and Charli over to Golden Bay for an overnight trip.
Rosie's friend, Mia came along for the ride too, and we had an awesome time exploring the wild west coast at Wharariki Beach one day and driving down to Anatori river the next.
Fish and chips for dinner, running down sand dunes, wading in the surf, it was all great fun. The girls decided they didn't want to trap possums or fish but that was OK because we were out there enjoying the outdoors together anyway.
The day I tried to take Jake, 16, duck shooting recently went a bit flat when my raft exploded beside the truck, with a perished tube.
Jake thought it was a huge joke, but it was a shame having to walk away from some fat mallards tucked up along a willow-choked river bank.
Luckily, I had a back-up plan and pulled out a flounder drag net at another location, and although the salt water was brass-monkey cold, the two of us working as a team, managed to catch a nice feed of fish to enjoy for a family meal during the week.
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 1 April 2017
Running wild in Taradise (aka Taranaki)
Somewhere in the western North Island under the shadow of a dormant volcano is a place that the locals call Taradise.
And after the week prior in the urban jungle of Auckland city on business with my brother Scott, Taranaki, as it is more commonly known, truly was heaven on earth.
Staying with friends Nichola and Kelly Finnegan of New Plymouth, we were joined by wives Aimee and Kirstie for a weekend of exploration and adventure.
Kelly Finnigan catches his first 'Naki trout, with assistance from Scott Mirfin and Andy Lamb, right.
New Plymouth is a wonderful town, and an almost undiscovered jewel of about 75,000 people living close to wonderful surfing beaches.
We enjoyed shopping, cafes and walking the coastal walkways and crossing Te Rewa Rewa bridge. Visiting Puke Ariki, the provincial museum we learnt much more about the region and also viewed exhibits from Aimee's great great grandfather O.A.Mullon's Opunake soda factory.
The arts and crafts scene is a very vibrant scene and we loved visiting the workshop and gallery of top Taranaki artist Margaret Scott, where we talked art and were educated about the local Maori community of Parihaka.
That's where spiritual leader Te Whiti founded a non-violent resistance movement in the mid 1860s to protest land confiscation and the government failure to put aside promised reserves after the Land Wars and armed conflicts that raged from about 1845 - 1872.
The resistance of Te Whiti and his followers sent shockwaves around the British Empire, and may even have inspired the non-violent civil disobedience success of Mahatma Gandhi in British-ruled India that eventually led to Indian independence.
Pukekura Park was another highlight with 52 hectares of gardens, flowers, and waterfalls in the middle of town, and the site of the annual WOMAD festival (world of music and dance), and also where parts of the 2003 Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai were filmed.
At night we enjoyed dining in the heart of New Plymouth but before we knew it the weekend was over and the girls were heading home to Nelson.
The next day was a public holiday being Taranaki Anniversary Day, so Scott and I thought we should take Kelly trout fishing for a day, and we were joined by mate Andy Lamb who came along for the ride around Mt Taranaki.
It was a bleak gloomy day but we had lots of fun together circumnavigating Taranaki, driving through the towns of Inglewood, Stratford, Eltham, Hawera, and Opunake.
Both Scott and Kelly were born in Opunake, and it was an eye-opener to check out our parents old house they once owned when Dad was transferred there to work by the Bank of New South Wales.
Actually the house and area looked more like something out of the movie Once were Warriors than anything else and it was apparent that many of these towns were in economic decline unlike the Nelson/Tasman region which is on the up and up.
Oil, gas, and dairy farming are the big industries of Taranaki but they may well have seen their heyday.
Fishing Taranaki was something I'd always wanted to do since I was a little boy and driving around the mountain for a day was something rather special.
First named Mt Egmont by Captain James Cook in 1770, Mt Taranaki at 2518 metres tall dominates the Taranaki landscape with rivers flowing to every point of the compass to the sea.
Known as the Taranaki Ringplain streams, there are more than 40 recognised trout streams originating on the bush clad slopes of the mountain.
The upper reaches of such streams are clear and pure but the middle and lower reaches are mostly degraded from extensive dairy farming and agriculture dating back to the 1880s.
Mostly inhabited by brown trout, there are apparently good rainbow trout fisheries in the Waingongoro and Kaupokonui streams although we struggled to find much good water after torrential deluges of rain the two days before that also blew out all Auckland city's drinking water supplies at the same time.
With limited time and high water, I rigged Kelly with a lure rod and soft plastic bait on an 1/8th ounce lead jig head. It worked a treat and Kelly soon had his first ever Taranaki brown trout attached to his line in the Manganui River. We caught more trout and enjoyed fishing the Waiwhakaiho as well but the streams weren't in the same class as the rivers we get to fish in the South Island.
Another evening Scott and I took an evening walk down to Lake Rotomanu where I caught some small redfin perch in highly polluted waters with regional council signage everywhere about high bacterial levels.
I'm just so glad many of our local Nelson-Marlborough rivers haven't reached this sad state of affairs but I would like to do more fishing in Taranaki into the future especially the rainbow lake fisheries of Lakes Mangamahoe and Ratapiko.
Our time in Taranaki had been a great success despite the limited time to fish. Sometime I'd like to visit Egmont National Park and climb to the summit of Mt Taranaki.
As it turned out, the only mountain we go to climb was on our last day which happened to be St Patricks Day. Finding a spare hour Scott and I powered to the top of Paritutu Rock which towers 156 metres above New Plymouth and Ngamotu Beach.
We even took our Paddy's Day attire for a photo op because we were doing a pub crawl with head Irishman Kelly Finnegan that night.
Downing pints of Guinness at Celtic bars and spending the evening enjoying top music at WOMAD capped off a wonderful week for two Nelson boys running wild in the 'Naki.
Summer: The perfect time for creating a lifetime of family memories
Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 20 January 2017
Five Go Mad in the Marlborough Sounds: Swimming is a favourite summertime activity with any kid.
Summer holidays are so much fun. In fact, I wish I could take the whole summer off work to have fun with my family.
Recently I enjoyed reading in the Nelson Mail about other people's recollections and memories of seaside locations such as iconic Tahunanui which Nelson-Tasman locals can visit any day of the week, every week of the year.
As a family, the Mirfins have always been very fortunate in the places we've been able to holiday. Whether it's the Marlborough Sounds, Nelson Lakes, or Golden Bay, we've had some great places owned by family and friends that they have been happy and generous to share with us.
Rosie Mirfin, 13, is a crack shot with Dad's .223
My parents Stuart and Sherry were always taking brother Scott and I on epic summertime adventures and now it is time for us to do the same with our kids. Fortunately our parents are still keen to be part of the summertime action and it's a win-win all round.
Raising bright-eyed kids who are excited about exploring the world around them is all part of our role as parents and grandparents, and summer holidays allow time to reinforce attitudes and actions that will last the kids a lifetime.
I've always believed that "I can" is more important than IQ in life's continuing journey and having fun together along the way is an essential part of living.
Three generations of Mirfin's go fishing. (Scott Mirfin, left , Jake Mirfin and Stuart Mirfin with snapper)
Sadly, in today's mad world of mass-consumerism, massive mortgages, split families, addiction and consequent modern health issues, many people are omitting the simple pleasures of summer holidaying beside beach, river or lake.
Maybe I'm imagining things but many holiday places don't appear to be as busy or manic as they used to be over summers past.
The weather probably counts for something and summer so far has been pretty sporadic with cooler temperatures and plenty of wind coming out of the westerly quarter. But there's always an adventure to have whatever the weather and sometimes you just have to go regardless.
It doesn't need to cost a lot of money either, it's all about family time together having fun.
We've been going down the Marlborough Sounds as a family for more than 40 years each summer and it has been an epic ongoing adventure that we are fortunate to still enjoy together. The photos on the wall don't lie and it's always special to show the kids the great times we had decades ago with valued friends and family.
Actually our kids have better opportunities than we had with access to better boats, better fishing techniques and equipment, better toys like inflatable biscuits, skis, wetsuits, masks, snorkels, flippers, mountain bikes ... the list goes on.
Their real asset though is their grandparents who took them down the Sounds to play while their parents had to work. I made it down to French Pass for the last few days and it was as special as always.
The winding road past Okiwi Bay is my favourite, with breathtaking world-class ocean views of foaming coast, azure skies, golden ridges and verdant green gullies of native vegetation.
Descending into paradise was just the start of the adventure where we fished for blue cod, tarakihi, snapper and gurnard, and also caught odds and sods like wrasse, eagle rays, mullet, and sharks.
Trolling for kingfish was to no avail one evening but at least we were out there doing it.
We had fun at sheltered Coppermine Bay snorkelling for kina and biscuiting behind Scottie's new 115 HP Yamaha outboard motor.
Shooting practice was also a big success with everyone hitting a few targets and cans with calibers ranging from .22 to .243. Charli, 11 was a bit reluctant at first but later couldn't wait to tell Aimee on the phone about her first shots with a .22 under the close supervision of Dad and Grandad.
Possuming with traps was fun but some of the best times were afternoon siestas, evening beers, afternoon tea on the deck overlooking cornflower blue skies and scenic D'Urville Island.
The badminton, cricket, and volleyball on the lawn was a big hit as well as reading bedtime stories after playing evening card games. Best of all we got plenty of new photographs for sister-in-law Kirstie's annual family calendar.
It's an old cliche, but families that play together – stay together. Our kids will be grown and gone before we know it. But in the years to come, the good summer times we shared together and the bonds we have built in fun, will be the future foundations of ongoing family relationships.
In the meantime, I can't wait to hit the road again early tomorrow morning for more family fun. Kurow and Twizel here we come.