Southern stars in your eyes
A South Island road trip ends at a private retreat on the idyllic shores of Lake Pukaki for a spot of stargazing and curling, writes John Williams.
The Mackenzie Basin is a rugged and beautiful part of the country, especially at the time of year when the surrounding mountain ranges reveal themselves as sleeping white giants on every horizon.
An arid mosaic of scrub and tussock, the colourful jewel in the crown of this otherwise barren landscape is the iridescent Lake Pukaki, with its impossibly turquoise waters. Tucked away in a pine forest on its western shores sits Mount Cook Lakeside Retreat, its name perfectly describing my home for the next two days.
My hosts for the weekend are Kaye and Luke Paardekooper and their pair of boisterous springer spaniels, Max and Meg. Since purchasing the property in 2010, these former Wellingtonians have fought nature (and the local council) to transform their rambling 100-acre property into an idyllic retreat that has been ‘‘crafted’ rather than ‘‘constructed’’, with a vision of getting closer to the land … and the sky.
The 215-kilometre drive up from Queenstown had been quite eventful, not least by the distraction of the spectacular and ever-changing scenery that had me searching for a layby or driveway at regular intervals. The counterpoint to the views was the car I was driving.
I was told it is prudent to book a four-wheel-drive when visiting southern climes during the winter months, so I did – a Porsche 911 4S. I figured, as the South Island is home to some of the most beautiful drives in the world – this being one of them – it made perfect sense to match these wonderful roads with an equally spectacular car, and that’s exactly what Ignition Self Drive Adventures is out to deliver with its range of luxury sports cars and SUVs.
This car puts a childish grin on my face every time I turn the key and fire up the throaty 3.8-litre, flat-six sitting in the boot. But that’s just an overture to the driving experience. Sure, it’s an indulgence, a treat for special occasions, but it leaves a memory that will remain for a while to come – not to mention the reams of hate mail I’m receiving from my ‘‘friends’’ on Facebook.
On arrival at the retreat, I discover that icy gravel roads and Porsches don’t make good bedfellows. However, with care, the 1.2km drive is negotiated without damage to the car, or the nerves of the driver.
The Paardekoopers’ philosophy on running their property is based on discretion – to be there if needed, but to leave their guests to soak in the tranquillity of the place, if that’s what they choose. And that’s a skill.
I’m lodged down in the Ashley Mackenzie Villa, a generous twobedroom cottage that sits high on the cliffs above the lake. Three small outbuildings, linked by a covered boardwalk, accommodate a basic gym, a massage room, and a sauna. At the end of this row of little huts is a cedar hot tub that has to have one of the best views ever – one I was to soak up early the next morning.
Inside, there are ample supplies in the fully equipped kitchen, homemade and locally sourced, plus a range of resort-branded toiletries in the beautifully tiled, open-plan bathroom. It, too, has a great view from the clawfoot bath.
The nearby Pukaki Homestead can cater for up to eight more guests. It’s also the Paardekoopers’ thoughtfully crafted home. The design is based on memories of the farmhouses they stayed in during their travels around Europe. Tonight, I’ve been invited to dine with them at the homestead – it’s something they offer to all their guests, providing a relaxed opportunity to find out a little more about the retreat and the surrounding area.
It’s over a home-cooked dinner of locally farmed chinook salmon served with vegetables fresh from Kaye’s organic garden, washed down with a lovely pinot noir from local producer Ostler, that we get talking about the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve – the southern hemisphere’s only dark sky reserve, and the world’s biggest.
The reserve is something they’re clearly both passionate about, with Kaye serving on the International Dark Sky Board, here in the Mackenzie, and Luke having built a bespoke stargazing observatory, with adjoining wine/ whisky cellar – a perfect combination that he is keen for me to experience.
After dinner, we walk down to the observatory. From the outside it has the look of a disused World War II gun emplacement, which is different, but which I kind of like. Luke tells me it was built on site from solid concrete.
Inside, the cellar half of the building is cosy, but fairly straightforward – wine racks, barrels and comfy seats. It’s not until you step up to the telescope ‘‘room’’’, with its fully retractable roof, that the awe sets in. Luke explains that his telescope is quite special in the fact it can be programmed to point at any star, planet or constellation in the sky with just the touch of a button. Impressive.
It’s a cold, clear night, perfect for looking at the stars. Luke asks me if there’s anything in particular I wanted to look at. The week before, I’d been speaking with my father about my upcoming trip, and he said, ‘‘you must look at the Jewel Box’’ – a multicoloured cluster of just over 100 stars.
After a quick couple of button presses on the control pad, there it is in all its glory. Fabulous. Over the next half-hour, we look at a dozen or so parts of the night sky that include Saturn and Venus, and also a close-up of the craters on the moon. It is utterly enchanting, and I retire to my bed a happy man.
Aside from the observatory, my other attraction to this property was the fact that it has its very own curling rink. Along with ski jumping and tobogganing, curling has always been one of my favourite sports to watch at the Winter Olympics. Given the opportunity the next morning to have a go at this ancient Scottish sport, I jump at the chance.
First rule of curling, you have to wear a knitted tartan hat. Second rule, don’t drop the 20kg stone as you set it off up the ice – which I promptly do, several times, resulting in a few wee cracks appearing and water seeping over our boots. Sorry, Luke. Broken ice aside, my host is clearly a discerning man who can spot talent when he sees it, and invites me to the regular Tuesday night curling competitionat nearby Tekapo Springs.
So, later that day, obligatory silly hat donned and Mitre-10 brush in hand, I step on to the ice with my new teammates from the aptly named ‘‘No Idea’’. Everyone’s pretty much a beginner, so there’s no pressure. It’s a blast. With Celtic ballads and jigs blasting from the PA, and halftime marked with a couple of tots of whisky, what’s not to like. Proceedings come to an end by mutual agreement, and Team No Idea has thrashed Team Pukeko, 11 points to 4, with three of those points coming from yours truly. I’m invited back next Tuesday. I’m sorely tempted.
The writer was a guest of Eighth Wonder Travel.
The view out over Lake Pukaki.
John Williams’ ride on the road to Mt Cook.
The view from the one of the cottage’s bedrooms at Mt Cook Lakeside Retreat.