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 - - WEEKENDER -

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

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

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