Michael Ge­bicki drives New Zealand’s Alpine Pa­cific Tri­an­gle, a new tour­ing route on the east coast of the South Is­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

THE col­lie chained to the fence sets off a ruckus as we pull up at the farm gate and Bev For­rester bus­tles out to meet us. She’s wear­ing a poke bon­net and an apron that al­most cov­ers the checked brown skirt swirling around her an­kles. It’s an out­fit that sug­gests the milk churn, but there’s good rea­son. At her Black Hills farm near Hu­runui, an hour’s drive north of Christchurch, For­rester has a col­lec­tion of his­toric farm build­ings that of­fer an in­sight into pi­o­neer­ing life in the hill coun­try of North Can­ter­bury.

It’s also a work­ing sheep and cat­tle farm, with a side­line in horned Here­fords. From the pad­dock, a shaggy crea­ture am­bles to­wards us with a men­ac­ing look in its beady eye. Is that a horned Hereford?’’ I ask. No, that’s a sheep,’’ For­rester says. As well as the his­toric build­ings, tours, tapestry­weav­ing busi­ness and wed­dings she or­gan­ises on her farm, For­rester also de­signs a range of woollen gar­ments that are mar­keted in Bri­tain un­der the Black­Hills la­bel in Eng­land’s Ox­ford­shire. For a small and un­ob­tru­sive rural op­er­a­tion that most peo­ple whiz past, this is a sur­pris­ing place. Now, For­rester has to rush off. She’s catch­ing a flight to Welling­ton to at­tend a con­fer­ence.

I am on a fam­ily trip with wife and daugh­ter, and Black Hills Farm is our first stop on the Alpine Pa­cific Tri­an­gle, a new driv­ing route from Christchurch. It’s a part of New Zealand that doesn’t make the tourist brochures, but it is a per­fect fit for a fam­ily if you’ve got just a few days to spare. Dis­tances are short, it works in all sea­sons and, at the pointy north­ern end of the tri­an­gle, the town of Kaik­oura is home to a cou­ple of world-class wildlife ad­ven­tures.

An­other hour’s drive along the road takes us to Han­mer Springs, set on flats that slope down to the Hope River and ringed by the hills of the Han­mer Range. Ad­ven­tures come nat­u­rally in Han­mer. Parked in the main street is a cam­ou­flage-green tracked ve­hi­cle that prom­ises muddy fun and in the town’s park hik­ers have kicked off their boots.

White­wa­ter raft­ing, jet boat­ing, horserid­ing, four­wheel-drive trips and moun­tain bike tours are just some ex­am­ples from Han­mer’s out­door reper­toire. But Han­mer Springs is much bet­ter known for its softer side. The town’s ther­mal springs were al­ways used by Maori but it wasn’t un­til late in the Vic­to­rian era that a bath­house was built and the hot springs be­came pop­u­lar with tourists.

The Han­mer Springs Ther­mal Re­serve has seven open-air ther­mal pools, three sul­phur pools and four private ther­mal pools, where tem­per­a­tures hover at the 38C mark. It’s a fam­ily favourite, es­pe­cially at hol­i­day times, and the private pools are a bet­ter bet if you want to soak in seren­ity.

At one end of the pool com­plex, The Spa has re­cently been re­tai­lored, and it is beau­ti­ful. There’s a wall of ex­pen­sive mois­tur­is­ing prod­ucts, smells that sug­gest a Ti­betan lamasery and the kind of am­bi­ent mu­sic that dol­phins would prob­a­bly com­pose if you let them loose with a dig­i­tal syn­the­siser.

There’s also a se­ries of treat­ment rooms with a menu of pi­quant sug­ges­tions. I can have hot stones scat­tered across my back, have my face anointed with aro­matic oils and wrapped in hot tow­els or have my pelt descaled to un­leash the fresh and frisky me that lies within.

The Vichy shower sounds safe enough — an hour on a slab while a masseur plays a per­fo­rated wand of warm wa­ter across my back — and is sin­fully sat­is­fy­ing. The Vichy shower uses enough wa­ter to res­cue Aus­tralia from drought and flood the Murray-Dar­ling river sys­tem with a sin­gle treat­ment, but it’s all re­cy­cled, ac­cord­ing to my masseur.

The next day, while my wife and daugh­ter bask in the spa, I am re­cov­ered suf­fi­ciently to take a 4WD tour with Don­ald McIn­tosh of Rov­ing Ad­ven­tures (num­ber­plate: WEROVE). We head north to cross the Han­mer Range, then into the to­bacco-coloured hills along the Clarence River. This is part of Molesworth Sta­tion, once NZ’s largest graz­ing prop­erty be­fore it was taken over by the De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion.

It is bare and se­vere but lovely. Some of the hill­sides are noth­ing but scree, and so sharp that not even lichens can es­tab­lish a foothold. There are tall white gen­tian flow­ers erupt­ing from clumps of tus­sock and pas­ture grass, dan­de­lions, but­ter­cup, golden star lily, hebe and moun­tain flax.

As a re­tired farmer, McIn­tosh is mildly dis­ap­prov­ing of gov­ern­ment poli­cies that al­lo­cate vast parcels of land to the Con­ser­va­tion De­part­ment, which doesn’t have the re­sources to look af­ter them.

And so the pretty, yel­low broom bris­tles across the hills while the rabbits, flatweed and wild­ing pines flour­ish but, as McIn­tosh ad­mits, the Con­ser­va­tion De­part­ment cops a hid­ing from ev­ery­one. If the back coun­try hut is full when you ar­rive, if a for­est goes up in flames, if the road through a na­tional park is pot­holed, blame the de­part­ment. As a pin­cush­ion for Kiwi mal­con­tents, the de­part­ment is ri­valled only by Prime Min­is­ter He­len Clark.

Next stop is the coastal town of Kaik­oura, via a road that threads through the cleav­age of the Amuri Range. In the Maori lan­guage, Kaik­oura means to eat cray­fish, and while the town is still known for its crays, it’s much more fa­mous for its marine mam­mals. This is one of the best places to see sperm whales, the world’s largest toothed mam­mal, with a length of 20m and a weight of 60 tonnes. The rea­son is the abun­dance of squid, the whales’ favourite main course, in the deep trench barely a kilo­me­tre off Kaik­oura.

Th­ese seas also pro­vide a deep-sea larder for other marine life, es­pe­cially dol­phins. The area is home to a huge pop­u­la­tion of dusky dol­phins, one of the most ac­ro­batic and so­cia­ble of the dol­phin species, and the next day we are signed up for a swim ses­sion with Dol­phin En­counter. Kit­ted out in wet­suits and car­ry­ing flip­pers, masks and snorkels, we are trans­ferred by bus to the boat that will whisk us to dol­phin ter­ri­tory.

Within 10 min­utes we spot the dol­phins: it’s a magic mo­ment, spe­cially for the gen­er­a­tion Y trav­ellers who make up the ma­jor­ity of the pas­sen­gers. They are packed against the boat’s rail­ings, cam­era fin­gers work­ing over­time as they try to cap­ture the ac­ro­bat­ics of the

Main pic­ture: Photolibrary

Not in the brochure:

On the Kaik­oura Penin­sula, part of NZ cov­ered by the Alpine

Pa­cific Tri­an­gle

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