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.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

JOHN WILLIAMS

The view out over Lake Pukaki.

JOHN WILLIAMS

John Williams’ ride on the road to Mt Cook.

JOHN WILLIAMS

The view from the one of the cot­tage’s bed­rooms at Mt Cook Lake­side Re­treat.

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