Real Life

Kiri’s tramps & trials in rural New Zealand

Living her best life leading walking tours in rural NZ, a health issue has been a bump in the road

By Fleur Guthrie
She fell for the man first, then the land. In 1994, Kiri Elworthy was at Victoria University of Wellington completing a post-graduate diploma in museum studies when a tall, handsome stranger gatecrashed a 21st party she was at.
Yes, it sounds like a romantic cliché, she admits with a laugh, but after their eyes met across the room, she instantly fell "head over heels" with the aspiring young farmer. ("You don't plan these things!")
It was a "sliding doors" moment that saw Kiri's life take a different path – quite literally in the form of a remote rural trail.
Thirty years after marrying husband James, the affable 54-year-old now operates the popular Tora Coastal Walk in remote Tuturumuri, which was started by her mother-in-law. It's an adventurous three-day private trek across open farmland, through native bush and along the vast, rugged South Wairarapa coastline.
"I thought my career would turn out to be a curator at Te Papa Museum, but in my youth my dream was to be a farmer, so maybe I was always destined to be a rural girl," reflects Kiri, who appears on local TV series Shepherdess, which profiles rural women around the country.
"Private walks were just starting to catch on in New Zealand, and I was watching my mother-in-law hosting guests in our cottage and saw a real future in it."
Kiri and James on their wedding day.
After a few years, when her in-laws retired from the farm, Kiri took over the growing business. In the early days, she would host 10-plus walkers in her home every night while raising her young children.
"Our kids – Margot, Rupert, Guy and Flora – grew up with the walkers on the back doorstep. We learnt to share our lives with people and they saw us as we were – even if it meant the kids weren't bathed by 6pm when the walkers arrived."
The walk is now booked up months in advance as she coordinates a team of 12 staff. The business supports conservation and land-retirement efforts on their 1500-hectare beef and sheep farm.
"We currently have 38 people out there right now at three different locations," says Kiri. "The walkers spend three nights in our on-site accommodation and we feed them beautiful home-cooked meals from our commercial kitchen. They all tell us that spending time 'unplugged' out in the huge wide-open spaces is like a complete decompression from their fast-paced lives."
Views from the Tora Coastal Walk.
Not long after the couple had both celebrated their 40th birthdays, a different kind of personal challenge arrived. James (nicknamed Sky due to his 1.8-metre stature) was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson's disease.
The brain disorder causes uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination.
"It was the children who first noticed something was wrong with him," recalls Kiri. "Our eldest daughter came home for the weekend – she hadn't been home from uni in a while – and asked, 'Is there something wrong with Dad? He's just so slow when he makes a sandwich.'
"Then one day, he sat at the bench with his newspaper and it was the paper that I noticed shaking, not his hand so much."
The pair are grateful for the positive energy their guests bring, which helps them stay upbeat in the face of this challenge.
"There was definitely a grieving process in the early stages of the diagnosis," shares Kiri. "You're grieving your long, happy retirement together. But I'm pleased to say you get through that grief. James had deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery, which has been a game-changer. I'd hate to think what life would be like if he hadn't had it. We're really grateful for the public health system."
The neurosurgical procedure, which uses implanted electrodes to treat movement disorders, was primarily available due to James' young age.
"He went through vigorous testing to make sure he met the criteria," explains Kiri. "I remember the very last thing to give the final green light was an MRI in Auckland. We flew back to Wellington afterwards and when we got off the plane, my phone rang. It was the neurologist, saying, 'I need you to get James straight to Wellington Hospital.'
"The MRI had incidentally found that James had a massive cluster of aneurysms at the back of his brain. He underwent an eight-hour brain surgery and would likely be dead by now if he hadn't. I thought, 'There's no way they're going to do the DBS surgery now,' but they did."
The doting grandparents with Ralph (in the pram) and Bo, who they hope will follow in their footsteps.
These days, the active couple still enjoy a daily stroll and playing golf together. They have also recently become grandparents to 18-month-old Ralph and Bo, one, which they relish.
"They're divine," beams Kiri. "I look at them both and think they'll be the fourth generation to run the Tora Coastal Walk.
"I'm already grooming them too! When they're here staying, Grandma always takes them along to the guest briefings."
Watch Shepherdess on Sundays at 7.30pm on free-to-air Sky Open.
  • undefined: Fleur Guthrie

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