Perhaps it was Penny Knuiman’s early grooming as a model when she was taught how to be powerful as well as feminine that stood her in good stead for the rugged Ruapuke lifestyle she leads today.

Whatever, the former international model cum horsewoman loves the contrasts that life with her husband Wayne and their three children offers. “It’s all about balance really, isn’t it?” she asks, already knowing the answer.

As she chats with the Chronicle at a Raglan cafe Penny is juggling three-year-old Star on her lap while Ziggy, 12, tries to cheer his little sister up after her late afternoon sleep. Meanwhile 16-year-old River comes and goes with her mother’s eftpos card. The family’s in town for Christmas in the Park, and Wayne is happy to take the photos as the interview winds up.

Penny and Wayne together have carved out a unique lifestyle for themselves over 15 years of living in the backblocks at Ruapuke, 18 winding kilometres from Raglan. They run Wild Coast cabins and horse treks from their home there and it’s one of only a few places in the country where the horse-mad can actually race along the beach.

In fact, says Penny, tourists from Europe take riding lessons specifically to come to New Zealand and ride on the beach — an indulgence prohibited by law on beaches in England. They are attracted to our “rugged, rough and beautiful beaches,” she adds, and at Wild Coast the couple reckon they’ve tailormade “the perfect ride and the perfect length”.
They’ve also built two Wild Coast cabins with superb sea views beyond a beautiful valley. Penny admits it’s a great lifestyle choice — “hard work, but what isn’t?” she asks.

It’s all a far cry from Penny’s earlier life as a successful international model which started in Sydney after first modelling in Auckland when she was barely out of school. Penny, now 42, attributes her success to two modelling courses she did as a 14-year-old through Doreen Morrison, a Melburnian who ran Morrison Models in Auckland for 20 years.
She says Doreen, who died in 2005, was “an incredible, wonderful woman teaching girls how to be feminine and powerful”.

From Sydney Penny’s flourishing career took her to Paris, New York, Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong and Japan. But every four or five months, she says, she’d return home to Woodhill, northwest of Auckland, where she’d grown up on a lifestyle block with enough space for a horse.

Meantime she’d also met Wayne. It was 1989 when they bought a housetruck and lived at Muriwai, where they also married 20 years ago. “[It was] easy for me,” says Penny, “to pack up and go overseas again. Wayne was working on yachts and we were both doing our own thing.”

But after a decade of modelling from the ‘80s to the ‘90s, Penny had had enough travelling and at 26 came home, pregnant with their daughter River. “We wanted property,” she says. They ended up coming to Ruapuke on a wild, windy day with River just nine weeks old and in a baby sling.

They bought their land, towed a caravan up the hill, tried living in it for a year — and have been there ever since in their own home built by Wayne, a builder. “We just love it,” Penny says. “It’s one of the most wonderful places.”
And despite the isolation, Penny’s given birth to both Ziggy and Star there. “I had to be at home,” she says, believing that’s where women are at their “most powerful”.

Now with 17 horses to groom and take trekking through the bush and down onto the beach, Penny reflects how they needed to create something to “make the isolation wonderful”. Wayne too had come from a background of riding and training horses so that’s exactly what he does, returning a little reluctantly to building when needs must.

For Penny, the lifestyle at Ruapuke seems to fit well with her other more glamorous pursuits. While to-ing and fro-ing over the years to Auckland for modelling work — which also led to a 12-episode stint as garden host and behind-the-scenes designer on TV3’s ‘DIY Rescue’ — she also teamed up at one stage with an old friend and together the two created their own label, ‘Flaxen’, in Raglan.

“It was so much fun,” says Penny. The pair did clothing parties and road trips everywhere before Penny opted out a few years ago. It was about the time Penny had Star and she needed to “re-evaluate” things and focus on her family.

But now there’s a decade-old dream to pursue, one which she says will come together early next year. Penny’s starting up a modelling school through an agency in Auckland. Teaching deportment, self-confidence and modelling — both male and female — Penny says it’s a way to give back to the industry that has supported her.

She’s looking forward to the challenge while remaining firmly grounded at Ruapuke. With her love of space and family it all “works perfectly”, she says.

Edith Symes