Sarah was recently appointed the new Property Lead to cover parental leave for Jess Armstrong. This role manages the team that cares for and brings to life the dynamic Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga property located at Oturehua on the Otago Central Rail Trail.
“People can be assured of a warm Central Otago welcome and the chance to enjoy an authentic, rustic experience,” she says.
“This place is real and ingenious. It was ahead of its time, and now stands within its time.”
The place she is referring to sits at the foot of Rough Ridge and was once the home and property of millwright and engineer Ernest Hayes. Today this Tohu Whenua has become a kind of living shrine celebrating the inventiveness and ingenuity of Hayes and his descendants with a still-functioning workshop originally used by employees to manufacture Kiwi farming equipment; products, like the now iconic wire strainer, which are still used on farms today.
Prior to her appointment, British-born Sarah has been visiting Hayes for the past six years.
“My ancestry has a long line of blacksmiths and coming to Hayes Engineering felt like home. The sounds and smell of the metal and machinery were very familiar to me,” she says.
More importantly was the strong sense of community which has embraced her, nurtured her creativity and given her a home. The support of local people is as integral to the success of Hayes Engineering as the quirky bottles of strategically placed oil that keep the wheels of Hayes’ machinery turning smoothly.
“Although I’m new in this role with much to learn, I really feel the warm support of this community,” she says.
“I also feel helped and supported by the landscape. I love this area! At the invitation of one of our local farmers, a group of us climbed to the top of nearby Rough Ridge recently and were able to see the tips of the Remarkables in the distance. It’s an amazing place.”
Inspired in part by the beauty and grandeur of the landscape, Sarah has taken up hang-gliding – a decision made all the more poignant given that her father died in a hang-gliding accident when she was only seven.
“My father was a hang-gliding instructor in the UK, and I remember him taking me flying when I was a girl. I didn’t have too much of our family history, so I reached out to British hang-gliders through social media and was amazed by the responses from people who are now in their sixties and seventies – their messages were eloquent and inspirational, and enabled me to learn more about my father.”
She describes her first hang-glider flight as an adult as a ‘spiritual experience’.
“I was flying with my instructor on a tandem hang-glider when we were joined by a kāhu (hawk). I’m not sure how often that happens but it felt like my father was with us watching over us.”
Although the location of Hayes Engineering is the picture of tranquility and peace, things can get full-on very quickly according to Sarah.
“We’re often extremely busy at times and we can have large groups of visitors rolling up on their bikes all through the day.”
Sarah and her team wouldn’t have it any other way, however.
“I have an amazing group of people around me – staff and volunteers. I believe we offer the best home baking for miles around and pretty much everyone hears about it on the rail trail as you can imagine,” she says.
“Our café staff are very versatile – their menu is inclusive and can feed a shearing gang or a group of vegan visitors. They’re incredible, as are our volunteers.”
Besides the regular cycle traffic on the Otago Central Rail Trail, Hayes attracts a wide range of visitors – particularly those who might be mechanically minded. Recently 35 members of the Southern Riders motorcycle group came through, and next month a convoy of vintage car enthusiasts will come for a refreshment stop and a tour.
More recently – and at the other end of the visitor scale – the Oturehua community hosted a writers’ retreat in what has become a regular annual fixture for New Zealand authors, including Sarah herself who took part in this year’s event. Several well-known writers live locally and some of their books are for sale in the Hayes’ well-stocked gift shop.
“Being on the rail trail means Hayes Engineering is at the forefront of the eco-tourism movement. Increasingly we are also becoming a destination of choice for a wide range of other people passing through this amazing part of the country,” she says.
“Booking numbers for the rail trail are already high – which is a very good sign. The word locally is that we are in for a bumper summer.”
Although Sarah lives in a schist cottage dating back to 1862 located on the ‘Pig Root’ – the road between Palmerston and Ranfurly on State Highway 25 – home for her during the working week is a campervan parked on a friend’s section at Oturehua. During the weekends, however, Sarah returns to her stone cottage to work on her own restoration project with the help of her partner and dog.