Ange Davidson encounters a taste of Eco-luxury in the New Zealand wilderness. For many, tramping in New Zealand conjures up images of red checked Swandris, muddy boots and a great deal of grunt, while hiking, an American term that is rapidly gaining a foothold in the kiwi vernacular, paints a far more attractive image. It suggests small packs, bear bells and sunny weather.
But there are blessed times when the best of tramping (the bush, birdlife, mountains, river crossings, multi-day trips) mingles with the refinements of hiking, and there is now a range of multiday hiking trips that don’t require the lugging of three days food, the cooker or even a sleeping bag.
We embraced this new regime on the Kaikoura Wilderness Walk in the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, the top draw of the private walk selection. The hike traverses Puhi Peaks Station, New Zealand’s highest privately owned land that peaks at 2438 metres with Te Ao Whekere, the mountain aptly named, “World of the Gods”.
Half of this sub-alpine 1618 hectare farm is under a QEII covenant called the Puhi Peaks Nature Reserve and it is home to Kaikoura’s endemic Hutton’s Shearwater, an endangered seabird that nests among the largely inaccessible crags of Te Ao Whekere. The Kaikoura mountains are the only place in the world that this small black and white shearwater breeds; the adult seabird will lay a single egg near the end of October in a burrow above 1200 metres. The species was once prolific, breeding high up in the Seaward Kaikoura mountains. But predators and natural occurrences have reduced the number of breeding colonies to two; Shearwater Stream on Puhi Peaks Station and a larger colony on conservation land at the head of the Kowhai Valley.
Obviously the bear bells aren’t needed here and the weather is anyone’s guess in New Zealand, nor are you required to climb the towering Te Ao Whekere, but with the accommodation at Shearwater Lodge sitting at 1000 metres, you feel very close to nature.
We are a convivial group of Kiwi’s and a German couple that meet in Kaikoura for the 40 minute drive to Puhi Peaks Station for a briefing in the woolshed by our guide Lance, a burly mountain man who epitomises New Zealand’s outdoors ethos.
As promised, our packs are light and after a gentle climb through stands of manuka and kanuka (with lesson on how to tell the two apart), ancient totara and beech forest, we get our first taste of luxury in the wilderness with a magnificent boxed lunch to enjoy on Totara Saddle, in full view of the Kaikoura mountains. From here Lance points out the precipitous bluff on which the Department of Conservation lands their helicopter in order to maintain predator control at the Hutton’s Shearwater colony. Later, in the thick of the forest, Lance has to speak up to be heard over the bird song. His interpretation is top notch and non-intrusive, and his kiwi bush lore great entertainment.
After winding through open fields of alpine daisy and celery pine, Shearwater Lodge is sighted but is still an hour’s walk away. Numerous red deer are also spotted, blending in well with the mountain rock and scrub. Lance returns a stag’s roar that fortunately fails to attract an altercation.
Owner and operator Nicky McArthur is waiting for us at the lodge where she has whipped up scones, a fresh fruit platter and plenty of liquid refreshments. With Cordon Bleu training listed on her resume (just below member of New Zealand’s triathlon team), the food throughout the trip is gorgeous, both in taste and presentation. Nicky is an engaging host and obviously delights in sharing this unique piece of New Zealand with her guests. Her commitment to sustainability is impressive and underlies every aspect of her business from the QEII covenanted land to the award winning eco-lodge, powered by its own small hydro-power system. All waste is transported out on a tough little Rhino 4WD, or flown out by helicopter.
“My vision is to leave a legacy for future generations to enjoy and I hope our guests take away some of our passion and insight, and put this into practice somewhere else,” says Nicky.
When Nicky purchased the station in 2008, the wilderness walk and eco-lodge were already a going concern, as was the Hutton’s Shearwater colony – one of just two left in the world. The commitment to preserving the colony in collaboration with the Department of Conservation has been a massive undertaking. Nicky is an inaugural trustee of the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust that fundraises for predator control, research and education. Local Kaikoura schools now have a Hutton’s Shearwater unit in the Year 6 and 9 curriculum thanks to the education arm of the trust.
We are learning all this as we lounge on the deck absorbing the powerful scenery, listening to keas calling from the rocky outcrops and keeping our eyes peeled for more deer and hopefully a chamois. Later we gather for drinks and nibbles, enjoy a delicious roast lamb meal with local wines, finish with a summer berry dessert and a comfortable couch by the fire before slipping between the crisp white sheets on the super-king in our ensuite room. This is where the plastic coasted bunks in a mountain hut and the dubious outhouse become truly incomparable!
On the back of a great sleep and fabulous cooked breakfast, Lance leads us up behind the hut through fields of sub-alpine plants until we reach Surveyors Peak lookout. The views are enormous and we can even see Bank’s Peninsula in the south. The mountains are powerful and tantalisingly close, and to the east, a long limestone ridge runs parallel to the coast, starting at sea level and rising to Mt Alexander at 1197 metres. No whales are spotted, only a family of feral goats reclining precariously on rock ledges.
Our descent is quick as Lance introduces the German couple to the joys of scree running. There is much whooping and hollering as we leap and scramble our way down. It is always exhilarating and may be the closest some of us ever get to flying unaided.
Nicky has restored an old musterers’ hut behind the lodge where she appears with another delightful jug of her much discussed fruit punch. The hut is part museum, part art gallery as Nicky miraculously finds time to explore her sustainable philosophy at the easel. We enjoy more fabulous food – local produce, fruits and cheeses – before heading back to the station’s woolshed as we opted for the two day walk. The idea of spending the afternoon draped over a large rock beside a crystal clear alpine creek with another night at the lodge is definitely the preferable option.
The track out follows a different course and after a few hours we are being transported back to Kaikoura. It has been a fully restorative two days amongst extraordinary scenery, rich flora and fauna and interesting people. It may be sometime before I choose to shoulder a large pack again.
Kaikoura Wilderness Walks operate from 30 September through to 1 April. NZ$1595pp, (child $1275pp) covers the 3 day, 2 night package including guiding, transfers both ways between Kaikoura and the track, luggage transport to Shearwater Lodge, all meals, a complimentary drink and accommodation. More info at www.kaikourawilderness.co.nz