Property rights and owner responsibility

August 1, 2018

Initial reports about the access disputes through Lake Hawea Station  suggested that the owners and managers were being unreasonable.

Andrea Vance provides another perspective:

. . .In the distance, a figure emerges from the barn. It’s Taff Cochrane: he and his wife Pene worked the station for more than 40 years, before selling the pastoral lease to Lauer for a reported $13m in 2017. Their son Digby, and his wife Hannah, now run the farm.

“We were wondering if we were allowed to go along the track?”

“You can, you just have to be awfully careful,” Cochrane says. He returns immediately with a key to the gate.

The Cochranes run a log book. We fill in a form requesting our names, addresses, phone numbers – and the same details for a point of contact. 

Trampers and the family have been at odds over public access to the private road for years. Cochrane is weary of “the romantic argument out there.”

“We have only had one life lost in this valley in 45 years – that was a river crossing, a vehicle rolled while in the water and after that we started putting a lot of control on the road,” he explains.

He’s talking about Charlie Hunt, who drowned in 1997. He’d worked in the valley for 35 years and was trying to get to an autumn muster, when his truck was swept down a creek in full flood.

“Take a wee bit of understanding of why we have done what we have done over many years,” Cochrane says.

Legally, the safety of tourists and visitors is not his problem, but coming to the aid of stricken trampers and jet boaters is just human decency. However, rescue here is not easy: to get into the valley is a good five to six hour drive, and the family often do it alone, by truck, tractor or sometimes boat.

“We drag them out, that’s the problem. When something goes wrong, we have to go and get them. Rescue is not easy here, there is no cellphone coverage, no communications.

“It’s a responsibility. [The hiking groups say] we don’t have to – that’s what they are trying to argue. But it is a moral responsibility.”

Whn life is at risk and outside help could be hours away, how could a property owner say no?

They could be risking their own safety to do so and even if they aren’t, it would be costing them in time and money, but they still wouldn’t refuse to help.

Before we set off, Cochrane points out our road tyres aren’t suitable for the rough terrain. The road is set on the glacier valley floor. The lake often brims over – and the water left behind blisters frozen overnight.

“When it freezes it is bloody dangerous. At this time of year we don’t even go up there ourselves, we ride out July at least. 

“We get frights – we have been known to float down a river a few times. You learn the hard way.”

In the end, we don’t get very far. Once through the padlocked gate, we pass some cattle yards and immediately plunge down a steep bank into a torrent. The engine guns us through the freezing depths, but the track disappears into a rough, rocky creek bed.

The 4WD lurches and bumps along. Minutes later we reach a river – it surges into a fork – and the only obvious route seems to be straight into the lake. We give up and return to the farm-yard. 

Digby Cochrane offers to take us further up the track, the following day, in his own vehicle: a 2002 Landrover Defender. Most importantly, unlike our rental 4WD, it’s fitted with off-road tyres and a snorkel.

The river that stood in our way was actually Terrace Creek – which “blew out” a week or so ago, Cochrane explains. For a short time, the track is fairly smooth travelling: Cochrane explains Lauer recently spent $50,000 upgrading it.

On one side snow-capped Sentinel Peak towers above the station and the lake. Before long, the track climbs 500m with a sheer drop to the lake on the other side. It’s narrow, and as we plunge back down the other side, there’s no room to squeeze past a couple of wandering bulls.

How many vehicles and recreational drivers could safely cope with a road like this?

Over the next few kilometres we cross two or three more creeks, and some huts. Visitors can book them out for around $50 a night. Cochrane says generations of sons have travelled up the valley for fishing trips. One family visits from Australia every year.

“We manage it carefully. If we’ve got two or three of the huts booked out one weekend, we say: ‘the valley is full’,” Cochrane says. A guide also brings in horse-trekkers, and once a year around 700 mountain bikers compete in a round-the-lake race. Lauer no longer charges fees to the organisers. . . 

This doesn’t sound like unreasonable access.

. . . He’s frustrated his home has become a flashpoint. He remembers previous rows over access to the campsite – pointing out that it was his father and uncles who established and built it. “We could have just locked the gates altogether. We don’t want to stop people coming here – we just don’t want them to get hurt.” 

There are less treacherous ways up the valley, he argues. On the eastern lake shores opposite, a track also runs to the head of the lake. Walking access is easier from Landsborough Valley or the Ahuriri conservation park. . .

If a city section could provide a shortcut for visitors to a public reserve, would the homeowner be expected to let people wander through the property at will?

Of course not.

Why then do some people, and groups, expect access through farms?

Property rights and owner responsibilities don’t change with the size or location of the property.


%d bloggers like this: