NZMCD overnight motorhome park in Mt Lees Reserve

Mt Lees Reserve: Exploring a Legacy

Jill Malcolm comes across a restored forest of surprising diversity.

An aspiring travel writer recently referred to the Mt Lees Reserve as a ‘hidden gem’. The term made me wince. Not only is this cringe-causing cliché a nonsense (if the writer has written about it, it’s no longer hidden), but Mt Lees is on a well-used road between Bulls and Sanson, and is one of the better-known parks in the Manawatū.

The only thing I found obscure was why anyone thought to call the place a mountain. Although the North Island’s south-western coastal plain ends near Sanson, and the land begins to rise into undulating folds, it hardly reaches giddying heights. But the real surprise was that in an area where forests are not common, the 29.5-hectare reserve is largely covered in trees and thickly carpeted with interesting undergrowth.

For a small donation, overnighting motorhomes and campers are welcome on the extensive grass or gravel areas between the old homestead and the road. Although I’m sure it gets busy at times, in early April the only other stayer was a man in a van. As the chewing sound from traffic abated and the last sunlight filtered through the oak trees near the grassy spot where we parked, the reserve became a serene and lovely place to spend the night.

By early morning the van man had vanished, except for his shoes which he’d left behind on the dewy grass like abandoned puppies. Magpies piped in the new day, invoking nostalgia for my rural childhood, and when the sun lit up the forest canopy we began to explore.

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Near the homestead we found a small toilet block, a tap for drinking water, a summer house with a rudimentary kitchen and tables set out on a patio for public use, and an adjacent tennis court.

The extensive homestead was a B&B until recently, but now awaits another purpose.

NZMCD Mt Lees Reserve old homestead
The homestead now stands empty and awaiting a new purpose.

All this was once owned by Ormond Wilson CMG (1907–1988) – a member of parliament, a farmer, an author and chairman of the Historic Places Trust. In 1972 he gifted his home along with a 30-hectare block of land to the Manawatū District Council, to be administered for public use. It was part of the 350 hectares that Ormond had inherited when it was a largely featureless stretch of land.

The native forests that once covered the area had long ago been destroyed by fire, and only straggling cabbage trees – and in the gullies some kahikatea, tōtara and mataī – were left behind.


Ormond was not only passionate about restoring the forest in the large valley near his home, he believed in nature’s diversity and set about planting a blend of native and exotic trees, shrubs and flowering vegetation.

NZMCD summer house garden at Mt Lees Reserve homestead
The summer house garden

In a silvery light we set off to walk the gentle trails that wind through the result of his labours. As well as exotics, Ormond planted 30 species of native trees and bushes. Tōtara, mataī, kahikatea and miro mingle with japonicas, camellias, giant Himalayan lilies, silver birches, oak trees and a grove of redwoods. And we passed some of the old survivors – a giant tōtara, a 600-year-old pukatea and a kahikatea that is an estimated 1000 years old, with axe marks around its trunk where attempts had once been made to fell it.

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There were interesting additions: a handkerchief tree from eastern China, named for its delicate white blooms; a dawn redwood species thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1941; and a plantation of bamboo so thick it formed a tunnel of gloom.

NZMCD Entrance to walkway at Mt Lees Reserve
The entrance to the 2.4km walkway through the forest.

We were not the only ones enjoying the 2.4-kilometre walk. A small assembly of fantails followed us, flitting through low branches to catch the insects that our footfalls had disturbed. Tūī piped from the canopy, and two kererū burst from a thicket and with distinctive noisy wingbeats headed skyward.

Because it was autumn, many of the exotic plants were shedding their foliage and showering the ground with colour. Apparently in spring there will be magnificent displays of magnolia flowers, blossoms, carpets of forget-me-nots, and in the open spaces spectacular displays of daffodils.

Mt Lees might not be a hidden gem but it is certainly a treasure.

NZMCD Start of the forest walk at Mt Lees Reserve
Signage indicating the start of the delightful forest walk

More information

Mt Lees Reserve is at 199 Ngaio Road, Halcolme, between Sanson and Bulls. It is an easy driving distance from Palmerston North and Feilding.

There is no charge but a small donation to help with upkeep is gratefully received.

The reserve is close to the Rangitīkei River for great trout fishing, and only a short drive from four rural golf courses.

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