I was welcomed to Welcome Rock long before the trail of the same name appeared on the high-country hills behind Garston. It just so happened several years ago that our neighbour was the sister of the station owner, and she invited me to their farm after I returned from overseas cycling adventures. I soon learnt from meeting Tom and Katie O’Brien (the owners) that his father Des had the vision to destock a thousand hectares of their high-country land for a conservation reserve over 30 years ago. Their family had a dream that one day they could share their scenic highlands with others. After brief introductions, I was driven up the hill in a trusty old Landrover to assess the recreational potential of the area … and potential it had in droves.

A natural gateway on the water race before trail construction

Initially, I was almost literally blown away by the gales on the top, as well as figuratively by the grand views west over the Eyre Mountains. Then, upon cresting the Slate Range, I became even more excited by the snaking arcs of the historic water race, the original raceman’s sod hut, and the potential of connecting these features with a grand loop track. In Queenstown, downhill bike trails are more numerous than my digits, yet I could not point to a nearby purpose-built cross-country ride. I was hooked by the cycling potential of the O’Brien’s vast highlands. My head reeled late at night with the amazing possibilities of this tussocky clean slate.

Digging the first sod for the track just below the Mud Hut

I was not alone in my late-night pondering, and within a few months the O’Briens committed their all to the project. After working through the necessary consents, the pipe dreams of a couple of lads were unbelievably becoming a reality. So on one autumnal day five years ago Tom parked up the trusty tractor, gathered hand tools from the shed and headed for the hills. We were really starting! Looking back now it seems a ludicrous plan; a farmer with no trail-building experience deciding to use a shovel for two years to form a private 21-kilometre walking and cycling trail. What were we thinking? Sure, I could help out every week or so, but the reality of the enormous job was in the hands of my mate and a few willing workers. On day one of the build, after managing to grub out just 40 metres of a 20,960-metre half-marathon mission, I seriously wondered what Tom was thinking. His persistence in the days, the winters, and the years ahead to bring life to the Roaring Lion trail is legendary.

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