For more than a century, nothing much changed in the Baton Valley, apart from the weather.
The valley runs roughly parallel to the eastern edge of Kahurangi National Park, carved out by water. Three rivers and numerous streams all flow into the Baton River, making it the aorta of the valley, and its flow dictates the lives of those who live here.
Two roads enter the valley, one from the north and one from the south, but they never meet—they’re on opposite sides of the river. Only the brand-new cycle bridge makes it possible to travel all the way through.
It’s a fine autumn day when I first head up the valley to join a gathering of people celebrating the bridge’s completion—I’m wondering what the locals think about the new trail. This is the Baton at its best: blue skies, no wind, no dust, slumbering sandflies. As I navigate the long gravel road—the first 13 kilometres now doubles as the cycle trail—I pass at least 20 cyclists, many dressed in high-vis clothing.
At the northern mouth of the valley, the residents’ letterboxes huddle together, and just a little further on, cellphone reception fizzles out. Pastureland gives way to pine plantations, which cloak rolling hills on either side of the road before the land narrows into a gorge. Kānuka, mānuka and beech trees blanket sheer cliffs that plummet to the river. Thick mist snakes between the hills and mountains. It feels numinous, timeless, a glimpse of what the valley might have looked like during early European settlement.
Then the landscape changes again: poplars, broom, cleared land choked with slash. Just before the road makes a sharp turn to the left, there’s a sign on a gate: “No hunting, dogs shot”. A white wooden house, looking at least a century old, perches on the edge of the road.
Blue signposts continue to appear: five kilometres to the Baton, four kilometres, three kilometres. The valley widens, revealing snow-capped mountains. Then the road sweeps at a 90-degree angle around to the west, and I get my first glimpse of the resplendent Baton House, with its five high-pitched gable ends spanning its east-facing façade. It’s a faithful replica, at least from the front, of the historical hotel that once stood on this spot. From here, it’s an hour’s walk west to the boundary of Kahurangi National Park, positioning the house on the doorstep of some of the deepest wilderness country in Te Tauihu, the top of the South Island. Being this close to one of the highest peaks in the national park—Mount Arthur—means the weather is often dramatic, and it can be cold in winter and hot in summer.
Perhaps it’s the weather that has deterred people from settling in the Baton. It’s a quiet place; it almost always has been. No archaeological evidence of pre-European habitation has so far been found, and Rōpata Taylor (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Rārua) tells me it’s very unlikely that his tūpuna ever lived up the valley. “We were nomadic people who moved to where the kai and resources were,” he says. “This meant we lived mostly on the coast. The common-sense side of me tells me they probably wouldn’t have ventured up those cold valleys.”The Baton has been popular only twice in recorded history. In the 1850s, John Salisbury was painstakingly cutting track up the valley through thick bushland when he found traces of gold on the shore of the river. For an extremely short time, the valley boomed. In 1867, Ann and John Taylor built the Baton Hotel—which was also the pub, restaurant, general store, and the place to sell gold dust. But the gold rush was anticlimactic, and by the 1890s, most of the miners were gone. Some stayed; the Taylors’ five daughters all married gold miners and settled in the valley. (Ann and John’s great-great-grandson, Dion MacLean, still lives here.) Eventually, the hotel was destroyed, probably by fire.
For most of the 20th century, there were just a handful of family-run farms in the Baton Valley—belonging to the MacLeans, the Lublows and the Bradys—and the valley slumbered on, until two hard-working hippies with some handy skills arrived, and it ended up on prime-time television.
Newcomers tend to arrive in the Baton in unconventional ways. Cheryl Dean and Brian “Woody” Woodward were no exception. In 1980, they moved to the valley on horseback, trailed by their goats, sheep, and cows. Striving for self-reliance, Woody made and sold musical instruments, and Cheryl ran a horse-trekking business, which attracted visitors to the valley who ending up staying longer. One of the newcomers was Fiona Simons, who heard about the trekking business, rode in on her Appaloosa mare, started working for Cheryl, and wound up marrying third-generation valley resident Richard Lublow. Another was Lucy Ulrich, who, after multiple horse-trekking trips with Cheryl, bought land and recreated the Baton Hotel. Ange Palmer, who fell in love with Cheryl’s lifestyle on a visit to the valley, is now the property’s caretaker.
People were intrigued by Cheryl and Woody’s unconventional set-up—Country Calendar visited the couple and their two daughters in 1992—but they were also drawn to the valley by the rivers, the landscape, the proximity to wilderness and the opportunity to live in harmony with nature. They stayed because they found community: an eclectic and unconventional group of people, all roughly the same age, all willing to lend a helping hand when needed. The rivers became their playground; every family had their own swimming hole. In summer, if someone wasn’t home, their neighbours always knew where to find them.
Cheryl might have driven the Baton’s second boom, but these days, she’s worried about tourism—the industry she pioneered in the valley.
“It came on the back of my growing concerns about how bad tourism is for the environment,” she says. “In the years since I stopped the horse trekking, in 2010 through to COVID, it had grown to be absolutely horrific.” The large numbers flying in from overseas, for only short stays in Aotearoa, particularly bothered her.
Fiona began offering horse treks after Cheryl retired, but when a group flew in and out of the country on a six-day trip, it became another reason to step back from the business.
Cheryl tells me of a recurring dream where she comes home to find people camping in her paddocks, moving in, talking about going rafting in the Baton River, exclaiming about the place’s beauty. In the dream, it feels like an invasion.Another person tells me they fear there may be up to 70,000 people a year passing through now that the valley’s segment of the Tasman Great Taste Trail is complete. Most locals hope that 7000 cyclists per year, or about 20 per day, will be the absolute limit. While it takes only two to three hours to ride through the valley, which means cyclists can easily pedal past, I get the impression the locals would prefer fewer visitors who are prepared to linger longer.
At the same time, the valley’s residents are getting older, and most of their kids have moved away to study or work. Eventually, they may need to explore new ways of making a living—ones that aren’t as physically demanding as working the land.
The cycle trail presents new opportunities for the valley. Currently, just four properties offer accommodation, but others are considering doing so.
And many people are hopeful the cycle trail will mostly attract travellers who will respect the valley’s way of life. Common sentiments include, “If we’re going to have tourism, cyclists are probably the best option,” and, “Well, it would be a bit selfish to keep it all for ourselves.”
Richard Lublow tells me that, while he was building a fence down near the new cycle bridge, numerous cyclists stopped to talk to him.
“I didn’t see any athletical superstars of the track,” he says. “Most of them have been old fogies like me who enjoy the ride out.”
Some might call Richard aloof, but it’s kinder to call him shy, the sort of shyness that inhabits a man who spends an awful lot of time by himself, with only farm dogs, cattle, and sheep to keep him company. He’s tall and slim, hardy: he runs a 180-hectare farm. But as soon as you ask him to tell a story or recite a poem, his countenance changes, and his eyes light up.
Richard was born in the Baton. His grandfather, a tailor, bought 400 hectares in 1906, then fought off a mining company’s attempts to exploit the land. Following in the footsteps of his father, a raconteur, Richard has become the valley’s resident poet—and he’s always been a cyclist. Once, he bicycled all the way to Nelson, a ride of almost five hours, to perform at the Nelson Live Poets Society. When I see him perform at Baton House, he begins by painting a picture of where in the world we are: beneath the hills and the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park, where there’s a lonely road, and a lonely few pan for gold or shift their livestock around. Not so long ago, the story goes, no one came to visit, other than the neighbour in his Ford Thames truck.
We did not have a lot to talk about
we had the weather and the government to chat about
’til out of nowhere came this joker on his motorbike
All dressed up in a black leather suit with a black hat on his head, you’d call it a helmet
now we had the weather, the government and that joker on a motorbike to chat about
Richard composes all his poems in his head and recites everything by memory. (Fiona says this means he talks more to himself than he does to her.) When we make special requests, he says, “I’ll try and get it back if you give me a minute.” Once, he composed a series of poems after he was hit by “an unprovoked tree” while cycling down the Baton Valley Road. A poplar fell on him, resulting in a fractured pelvis, an abundance of opioids, and the self-publication of a poetry collection titled My Tramadol Days.
Safety on the road is a big concern in the valley, now that the road has become part of the cycle trail. Multiple people tell me they hope it won’t be them who hits a cyclist. About four years ago, Fiona and Dion put up their own speed-limit sign, along with signs warning of one-way sections and tight bends. The council never took them down. More recently, the Nelson Tasman Cycle Trails Trust erected a sign at the beginning of the road advising drivers to give space to cyclists. Fiona tells me someone shot at it.
Meanwhile, Richard enjoyed chatting with the cyclists so much that the Lublows are now planning to build a little shop, “with sort of a museum theme”, at the end of their driveway, which is directly opposite the road that leads to the cycle bridge. The plan is to erect a kitset shed where they will sell ice-creams and cold drinks. Fiona has ambitions to one day run the smallest pub in New Zealand on the site, but that’s a way off yet. Right now, they are waiting for the weather to improve so they can lay the concrete pad for the shop.
In the meantime, they’re thinking about how to decorate. Fiona brought back a small cast-iron sign from her recent trip to the United Kingdom, which they will hang in the new shop. It reads: “In 1832 on this spot, nothing happened.”
An unexpected bonus of the new cycle bridge is that it has physically connected the valley. Cheryl is delighted that she can now ride to Fiona and Richard’s in about five minutes; driving there would take more than an hour.
And it might also foster connections of other kinds. Cheryl—who now lives alone with two horses, two pet deer called Dharma and Crystal, and goats she raises for milking and meat—hopes those who use the trail will not only form a connection with the natural world but will also learn from how this “phenomenal” community works.
“With climate change, it’s more important than ever for us to consciously weave together community,” she says.
Ange, the manager at Baton House, is keen to attract people to the valley who share their values and can contribute to their way of life.
“We’ve spent the last 100 years abusing and negating the whenua and I believe we need to spend the next 100 years repairing the damage that we’ve done,” she explains. “And we’re all going to need to help. It’s going to take a huge human effort to do that so for me, the opportunity that I see for this property and the valley is that people will come here, and come here on bicycles, and they’ll be a source of labour.”
Ange doesn’t want to run a hotel. She hosts retreats and accepts bookings from like-minded people who want to run their own events.
The kaupapa of the Baton House is to contribute some mahi when you stay, and guests usually help in the gardens, chop wood, cook, clean, and have even tanned goat hides. (Cyclists will be welcome to stay if they do the same.)
“What I’d like to think is that this will start happening more across Aotearoa, that people will go to rural properties and help to weed, and plant, and nourish and replenish and regenerate the whenua, because without that we have no future. And, in doing so, ka ora te whenua, ka ora te tangata—when the land is well, the people are well. So there is that beautiful, mutual reciprocity that occurs when people connect to the whenua, connect to te taiao, to nature; they themselves then become replenished and therefore, hopefully, inspired and will then take that enthusiasm, knowledge and experience forward into other projects, possibly in more urban areas, so that we actually cultivate a culture of people who remember, and know, how to live in accordance with Papatūānuku.”
Ange tells me there are many medicinal herbs—both native and exotic—in the valley. Hence, she has hosted South Island gatherings of the tiwaiwaka movement here. Tiwaiwaka began as an initiative of Rob McGowan (known as Pa Rōpata to many), recognised for his work in the restoration of rongoā Māori practice and traditional knowledge of native plants and medicines. His mahi has inspired the kaupapa for Ange’s work in the Baton Valley. She says her purpose for being here is clear: it’s about helping people reconnect with the whenua, to heal both themselves and the planet.
One thing is sure: the members of the Baton Valley community I meet are a resilient bunch who have had to respond to more than their fair share of setbacks and tragedies. In the time I spend with them, I come to realise there’s something about living in connection with the natural world that prepares them for change—perhaps it’s constantly having to respond, day by day, to the valley’s weather, or perhaps it’s to do with the creative and often unconventional ways they’ve made livelihoods for themselves, with a commitment to sustainability and regeneration that will endure for generations to come.
While many have mixed feelings about the cycle trail, they may be better equipped than other communities to adapt and work it to their advantage—especially as they intend to enfold newcomers in their own way of life. Travel up the Baton and there’s a risk that you’ll be invited to tan a goat hide, expected to plant a tree, or unwittingly become the subject of a poem.