Out on the Tora Coastal Walk. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

BECKIE WILSON

beckie.wilson@age.co.nz

Connecting others with New Zealand’s rural life is an integral part of the three-day private Tora Coastal Walk in South Wairarapa.

 

After 24 years in business, and with a booked-out walking season assured, co-owner, Kiri Elworthy, talks about the journey to success.

 

With the rugged coastline, open farm land, native bush and river valleys, all enjoyed with no cellphone reception and home cooked baking, it is no wonder the Tora Coastal Walk is booked-out this season.

“It definitely hasn’t happened by accident,” Kiri Elworthy, co-owner of the Tora Coastal Walk says.

Whakapata Cottage.

Into its 24th year, Kiri said the walk had been a “massive commitment” from the families involved, but she considered herself the lucky one.

The 40km fully-catered three-day walk is set on working farms just 40 minutes’ drive from Martinborough.

Kiri co-runs the walk with neighbour Jenny Bargh, who started it with Kiri’s mother-in-law, Jane, 24 years ago.

They started the business at a time when private walks were just starting to pop up around the country, such as the Kaikoura Coast Track.

When her mother-in-law left the farm about 20 years ago, Kiri got on board, and has not looked back.

This season is the first time in its history that its been fully booked.

Between October 1 and April 30, up to fourteen keen explorers complete the walk each day – except during a well-deserved Christmas and New Year break when it is closed.

Kiri said being fully-booked was a “new experience” for them.

“We are learning how to manage it in terms of the fact that people have missed out, and the added admin of running a waiting list,” she said.

However, due to a combination of reasons, last-minute cancellations can be filled overnight due to demand.

Homemade baking for the walkers.

One reason is recent media coverage which has given the walk a boost.

“But we have been around a long time, and I think the world-wide focus on authentic experiences is huge at the moment, and that has affected New Zealand,” she said.

“Also, a lot of people don’t have a connection with the rural world now.

“Gone are the days when an aunt and uncle were on a farm and the school holidays were spent there. That’s just not the case anymore.”

More than half of the walkers come from around New Zealand, with about 20 per cent from Australia and the rest a mixture of nationalities.

They are interested in the rural lifestyle, and Kiri said most walkers want to soak up as much information about the area, and what it means to live on a farm.

“It’s an insight into our lifestyle, it really is a highlight for people — it’s not just all about the walking,” she says.

“It’s full immersion into rural life.”

The three-day walk

Kiri and Jenny pride themselves on the diversity of the track, which has changed over the years.

The Tora Coastal walk is made up of three days and three nights: night one, the arrival night, is the Whakapata Cottage on the Elworthys’ 650-hectare sheep and beef farm, night two at the purpose-built Stony Bay

Stony Bay Lodge.

Lodge near the mouth of Awhea River, and the last night at Jenny and Chris Barghs’ 650-hectare sheep and beef farm at Te Awaiti before walking back to the starting point.

 

“We like to maintain the diversity, but it also has to be practical, you have to consider the difficulty of it and fitness levels.”

Kiri described the four-year-old Stony Bay Lodge as the “jewel in the crown”.

It was architecturally designed by Martinborough local and family friend Victoria Read.

The lodge has picturesque views of the sea, and because it was purpose built, the lodge has everything one needs on a walk, plus more.

In many ways, most walkers come out from the three-day experience as different people.

“We don’t always get a group who know one another, and they have all come together on one night, and they spend three days together,” Kiri says.

“By the end of it, that’s actually one of the things I find really rewarding. I’m down at the cottages when the group finishes and they’re swapping email addresses.”

Both Kiri and Jenny prepare food daily for the walkers, with the aim of using as much fresh, local produce as possible.

Stony Bay Lodge.

Employing locals is important to them.

On board this season is an employed cook at Stony Bay Lodge, and a couple of local women cleaning the accommodation each day, which is only recent.

“Before we got to this level of business we did it all ourselves,” Kiri says.

“I’d go down and clean the cottage for about two hours with toddlers running around behind me, then race home and cook up a storm — I just don’t know how we did it.”

Changes over the years

Many things have changed over the two decades, and Kiri and Jenny have had to keep up with that.

With the need for a social media presence, a website, TripAdvisor and new booking systems to keep a business running, Kiri said she had become the most tech-savvy she had ever been.

Other changes are also the demographic of walkers embarking on the three-day walk.

“A few years ago I would have said that we have a definite main demographic and that was women aged 50 plus, but I think we have really widened our appeal now and it’s great to see lots of families coming, and lots of younger people too,” she says.

The walk could be considered as quality family time, she said.

Sunset on the walk.

“You just don’t get that quality time anymore when — there’s no devices, you are all out getting exercise, and there is nothing to do but chat to one another and enjoy the views.”

Leading up to the sold-out season, Kiri said she was slightly concerned that the walker’s expectations “might be unrealistic”.

But in a humble way, Kiri said it had been quite the opposite.

“I think people have been even more blown away,” she says.

“The formula is the special thing – it’s the exercise, it’s the food, it’s the beautiful countryside, it’s meeting the farmers.

“There’s lots of different components, and so I guess with that there is going to be something to please everybody.”

It comes down to family

Running a successful business does not happen by mistake, someone has to be driving it.

Tora Coastal Walk owners Kiri Elworthy, left, and Jenny Bargh.

“It’s our whole families, they are so committed to this business,” Kiri says.

 

The truth of the matter is that the business is run by women, but they wouldn’t be able to do it without the small team behind them.

The men of the farm are in charge of track maintenance and transporting of the walkers’ luggage each day.

Kiri said her, and her husband James’ four children have grown up with it, and have witnessed how important the walk was to their wider farming business.

“They can see it’s such an integral part of both our farming operations, financially and everyday life, and they see the work that goes on in the background,” she says.

“There has been a lot of planning, and we definitely have had our challenges.

“But we reached a point about ten years ago, where we became a lot more ambitious with our intentions and started to be a lot more strategic with what we were doing,” she said.

Kiri says they were the lucky ones to have the business.

“We are thankful that we have got this, because all these people that come up our drive every day, we are just so happy that they come,” she says with a laugh.

“People that are inclined to come and do an adventurous thing like this are always great people.”

The pair hosted their first two Women’s Wellness Retreats in August, both sold out. The success story continues.

Tora Coastal Walk was the Love of the Land category winner in last year’s Enterprising Rural Women Awards.

This article is part of the rural series, ‘Beckie’s Block’, in each Thursday edition.