Author: Kendall Hill
Photography: julian kingma
The last place I expected to unleash my inner bogan was at a $950-a-night hotel in New Zealand. Yet just hours after arriving at Wharekauhau Lodge sheep station, on the North Island's southern tip, I was flogging a quad bike across the countryside like Ben Hur on a rampaging chariot. Eat my dust, little lambs!
A few days later, at Treetops Lodge north of Rotorua, I wedged a Beretta rifle into the nook of my right shoulder and blasted the hell out of a clay target. The experience gave me a sudden (and, thankfully, fleeting) urge to drink hard liquor and chase women. Who would have thought?
Prior to these exhilarating experiences my mental image of New Zealand's luxury lodges had been of genteel estates best suited to American magnates seeking a spell of deluxe R & R. I had no idea they were supposed to be fun.
But after a whirlwind tour of two of the country's top tourist addresses - Wharekauhau (pronounced forry-ka-how, or something like that) and Treetops - it was clear these high-end resorts are no stuffy, old-money establishments. On the contrary, they are microcosms of all that's great about New Zealand: effortlessly warm hospitality, cinematic landscapes and adventure on tap.
Wharekauhau is a picturesque 90-minute drive over the Rimutaka Hills from Wellington. Alternatively, it is a 12-minute, $1140 helicopter flight over those same golden, gorse-covered hills, from which you alight on the immaculate front lawn of a sprawling neo-Edwardian lodge. Much more sensible, if you can afford it.
From the moment you arrive, Wharekauhau managers Kristy and Nico de Lange supervise every aspect of your enjoyment. The couple have an excellent pedigree in guest pampering; California-born Kristy used to run Richard Branson's Caribbean resort, Necker Island, before relocating to Ulusaba, the Virgin boss's South African game reserve, where she met local guide Nico. Their careers have taken them to some of the world's most exotic places, but this spot, beside the shores of Palliser Bay, is the place they have chosen to call home.
It's easy to see the attraction. The landscape is superb; a 2225-hectare working farm of Romney sheep and Angus and Simmental cattle bordered by densely wooded hills of beech, rimu and totora and the black-sand beaches and wild seas of Cape Palliser.
Wharekauhau is the second-oldest Romney stud in the country, established in the 19th century by hardscrabble pioneers who herded stock around the coastline from Wellington to the Wairarapa Valley. A seaside plaque commemorates this legendary feat of endurance, praising the "courage, faith and resourcefulness of our forebears".
Just as compelling as the surroundings and history are the people who work here - wonderful locals who have a unique affinity with the environment and its heritage. People like Joe Houghton, whose father arrived here as a professional rabbiter in 1939 and left the property 45 years later. Joe himself dropped by to help out on the farm as a schoolboy in October 1956 and has been here ever since. These days, at 68, he leaves the youngsters to do the heavy lifting while he guides guests around the property by 4WD (beware his terrifying "vertical-drop driving" down hillsides).
Then there's the knockabout young shepherd Ryan Hansen and his dogs Trev, Tan, Zig and Jodi. ("Jodi's a nutcase," he confides. "Too much energy.") I meet them during a day-long horse ride through outrageously pretty countryside to the coast, where they are waiting to give us a demonstration of their skills.
Hansen explains that each dog is controlled by unique voice and whistle commands. "Most of the time they listen, but sometimes they think they know better." Different breeds have different tasks; the black-and-white crossbreeds keep quiet and herd the animals physically, while New Zealand huntaways like Trev and Tan bark commands to push the flock forward to lush new pastures.
To help me better understand how they work together, Hansen and his zealous pups disappear up the terraced hillside to round up some sheep. Perhaps five minutes later a wave of plump white creatures unfurls over a rise above the ocean, brilliantly choreographed by shepherd and hounds. (Guests can join in the mustering on horseback most of the year, except during the spring lambing season.)
The Wairarapa Valley is home to around a tenth of New Zealand's 40 million sheep, including, at Wharekau-hau, the elite Dutch breed called Texel. It's known as the Angus beef of sheep meat, with fat marbled through a double layer of muscle. "That makes it really tasty and tender because [the fat] is where the flavour comes from," Hansen says.
Texel is on the menu that night in the dining room, where 11 guests from near (Wellington) and far (Spain) gather at the communal table after introductions over cocktails and canapés (smoked eel sashimi, onion pakoras) in the lounge. Kristy is a sassy, sophisticated host, regaling us with marvellous anecdotes and displaying a daunting knowledge of television trivia and collective nouns for animals. The Texel lamb, served with eggplant and Middle Eastern spices, is perfectly tasty but - to be honest - not the finest lamb I've eaten. No matter. The company, conversation and excellent New Zealand wines chosen by sommelier Greg Woodham make everyone's night.
People are also a big part of the experience at Treetops, the only NZ lodge actually owned by a New Zealander - the business mogul John Sax. He bought this patch of wilderness outside the hot springs capital back in the 1970s as a hunting and fishing retreat.
The lodge and villas were built in 2001 using local stone and majestic timbers felled and milled on site. The result is a grand, cathedral-like structure reminiscent of a Maori marai, or community house, but with far more elaborate furnishings of possum-fur blankets, oxblood Chesterfields, crystal cabinets and an abundance of stuffed animals. There used to be many more dead deer, ibex and ducks decorating the various salons of the main lodge, but general manager Heiko Kaiser has toned down the taxidermy.
"When I started here everyone told me it was a hunting lodge, and that was a big marketing mistake," Kaiser says. Now maps of the property emphasise its 70km of hiking tracks and great fishing - gentler pursuits that appeal to a family audience and seem more in tune with the idyllic setting. (Wannabe Hemingways can still shoot their own deer and eat it for dinner, if they must.)
As part of Treetops' new focus on "eco-experiences" and cultural interaction, arriving guests come nose-to-nose in a hongi with Maori chef de cuisine Eru Tutaki. Dressed in a flax-leaf cape, he then tunes up his guitar and performs a traditional musical greeting, a mihi whakatau, with his silvery vocals. Tutaki is also in charge of the Maori food trail, leading me through a veil of rain into the surrounding forest to forage for endemic foods such as pikopiko, the young shoots of the moku fern, and horopito, a pepper-like leaf used as a seasoning. Afterwards we repair to the warmth of the open kitchen and he prepares an afternoon snack of chicken breast steamed in a pan with foraged herbs, and green beans and pikopiko sautéed with butter and salt - all the while explaining how his mother and grandmother used these foodstuffs when he was a child. He's terrifically engaging.
So, too, is Diddy Rice, a Maori elder and former lumberjack who works at Treetops as a cultural guide, leading guests on horse-riding expeditions through the 1000-hectare property ringed with volcanoes. "We are here to have a bloody good time, and that's what we do," he says.
Rice has been working with John Sax since the days when there was only a modest hunting lodge on site. "It was a lovely little macho thing that men did," the 82-year-old recalls of those testosterone-charged days. "We had a few drinks and did a lot of hunting and fishing."
Long before that, this was his people's land. Parts of it still are; Sax leases some of the property from the Te Arawa tribe. "This used to be the breadbasket for our tribe," Rice says. "It's a great place for an old fella to be out here and buggering around on horses. I love it. You get to meet so many new people too."
The actress Sigourney Weaver was one of his favourite guests. They spent three days riding together through this dazzling, diverse landscape. "That long-nosed bugger from The Piano" was also great fun, he says, referring to actor Adrien Brody from Roman Polanski's The Pianist.
Rice says the best time to visit is during deer-breeding season in April, a time known as "the roar" because of the earth-shattering bellows of randy stags. "It's just like a lion; it's a thrilling time to be here," Rice smiles. "I come out here with my wife Norma and we set up a picnic table right out the back here and we have dinner and a little vino and just listen to the stags."
Rusa, sambar and sika deer, buffalo, feral pigs, pheasants and peacocks roam this wilderness, lending it an unlikely exoticism. Populating beautiful countryside with beautiful animals seems to me a very sensible idea, especially after I wake one morning to the show-stopping glamour of a pheasant in my front garden.
It's futile trying to compare Treetops to Wharekauhau because their main differences are all positives. The former sits in a mist-shrouded Middle-Earth wilderness; the latter in an impossibly photogenic valley where the hills meet the ocean. The views at both had me staring out the windows, gobsmacked, for a very, very long time.
Both are remote, in their own way, but Wharekauhau more so
because the Rimutakas isolate it so effectively from the big smoke
of Wellington. The accommodation at each is that brand of
postmodern luxury - antiques and fine fabrics meet 21st-century
comforts - that will delight any well-heeled global nomad. And the
activities and adventures on offer are endless. Target shooting and
quad biking aside, the attractions at Wharekauhau include croquet,
golf, archery, jet boating, mountain biking and wine touring; at
Treetops, there's fly fishing, hot springs, birdwatching and
But for me, as I said, the highlight of my introduction to the country's lodges was the people who run them and work in them. I'm thinking Tourism New Zealand might like to change its marketing slogan. Out with "100 Per Cent Pure", in with "100 Per Cent People".
THE FINE PRINT
By Air Air New Zealand flies to Wellington from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (economy return fares from $540), and there are direct flights to Rotorua from Sydney (from $460). Wharekauhau Lodge is 45 minutes by helicopter from Wellington ($1140). Treetops can arrange helicopter transfers from any other New Zealand city on request. airnewzealand.com.au
Wharekauhau Lodge is 90 minutes from Wellington; Treetops Lodge is 30 minutes from Rotorua.
Wharekauhau Lodge and Country Estate
Cottages from $490 per person.slh.com/wharekauhau
Treetops Lodge & Wilderness Experience
Cottages from $390 per person. slh.com/treetops
Small Luxury Hotels of the World
1800 251 958 (from Australia), +65 6232 5060 (worldwide), slh.com