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To Hanmer Springs via the high road

"YOU KNOW what my husband likes best about this trip?" says Barbara Hellier.

Her dry-stock farming other half laughs. "No shopping malls for six days!"

NZ Adventures 4x4 High Country Heritage Safari is a journey to the heartland. The equivalent distance from Wellington to Auckland and back again with more sheep than people.

This is the countryside most New Zealanders see only in the movies. Suede-brushed hills and sentinel rocks. Views as far as your retina will stretch and your driving nerve allows.

It starts in Blenheim and finishes in Queenstown, via the farms, ranges and townships that populate our early history books: Molesworth, Arrowsmith, Orari Gorge, Black Forest, Michael Peak, Bannockburn, St Bathans, Bendigo, the Nevis and Cardrona Valleys et al. We'll cross 22 high country sheep stations in total, and, on the last day, climb 1964m to the top of Mt Pisa.

Here on the top of the world, the mountains wear corduroy brown. Actually, I stole that line from a potato farmer from Kakanui. Greg Wylie is the tall, affable driver, here specifically to chauffeur the Auckland journalist who doesn't even own a car. I'd call him "my" driver but that'd make me his gate lackey.

As it turns out, this is a job I will suck at. It's day two before I get serious gate duty. Somehow, I am supposed to use hand signals to indicate to the 14 other vehicles in this convoy that they need to slow down, veer to the left and be prepared for a half-metre drop. As the drivers of various brands of expensive all-terrain engines ignore me and plunge front-first over a concrete lip, I feel very very bad.

Here's the good news: despite the hair-raising terrain, this is the closest anyone will come to damaging their vehicle (and when I am told later some people simply didn't trust a journalist, my compassion dissipates).

The safari has attracted a good-natured, all Kiwi crew, mostly aged 50 years or older, who have left behind farms and office jobs, classrooms and hospitals.

John Hart, 66, is from Naike. "Everyone's heard of Naike," he says (30km west of Huntly for the geographically challenged journalist). Why did he sign up for this?

"I mustered down here when I was younger. It's a bit like coming home. I had my 21st down here, and they gave me the top beat that day."

He and his wife Sue have done similar four-wheel self-drive tours through Australia. "She was wanting to do another one, but I reckoned I'd seen enough gum trees and red dust."

In his youth, Hart got to these places on horseback and foot. Breakfast was at 2am. Any driving was in a Series One Land Rover with no brakes. This week, he's behind the wheel of an Overland 4WD Rentals hire vehicle. Breakfast is a fully cooked affair in three- and four-star accommodation at a civilised 7.30am.

"It's marvellous not to have to think about what to cook," says Ali Greville, 66. "It's an absolute holiday." Has she done any driving? "A bit but I get told off for going too near the edges."

Ironically, what she means is too close to the inside edge where sharp rocks can take out a tyre in seconds.

We're well and truly in the backblocks, but travelling only on formed roads. "If you can drive on the streets of Auckland, I'm sure you can drive in the South Island high country," says Malcolm Langley, tour leader. Most of the 30 or so people on this trip are driving their own vehicles the tours are generally designed for those with little or no off-road experience. NZ Adventures stays on the tracks because, quite simply, it's safer and causes less environmental damage.

Yes, says Langley, high-country four-wheel drivers have their critics. "Everybody has the right to go and see the back country ... and there are heaps and heaps of back-country places you can't get to in a vehicle, where physically able people can."

The company's reputation has grown to the point where landowners are now approaching it, offering up access. One of the highlights of the trip, says one farmer, is the opportunity to meet the people whose families have worked these farms for generations (I can also confirm the station lunches are everything you'd imagine and more).

To date, Safari has hosted an 81-year-old driver and passengers well into their 80s.

There is an official chauffeured option. Auckland sisters, Beryl and Rona Fairweather, recommend it. "Sheepskin seat covers and a bottle of wine," says Beryl. "It's brilliant, getting up so high, being able to go to places you know most New Zealanders will never see. And the information and commentaries are just out of this world."

Every vehicle is "connected" via portable radio transmitters and Langley delivers bite-sized facts about the properties we pass through: it's like a real-life slide show. It's also a good chance for a laugh. That weird, pale pink moon rock someone was coveting at the last gate stop? "That's a salt lick block for sheep," Langley announces. The couple who picked up the block look, well, sheepish.

We've just left Lake Tekapo. The spine of the South Island is laid out in early morning light. Geese fly in formation over the lake that ferrymen once allowed men of religion and prisoners free passage across. There's a photo stop at the Church of the Good Shepherd and then it's up and into the hills.

You know you're travelling with a kinder, gentler generation when someone pulls out home baking at the morning-tea stop. Helen Hermansen will gain legend status by journey's end, when she somehow convinces tourist hotels to let her into their kitchens to bake fresh scones, but today, it's the world's best shortbread: 340g butter, 340g flour, 170g icing sugar, 170g cornflour soften the lot in the microwave "and beat the stuffing out of it".

Smoko does not always come with a bathroom break. There are several opportunities a day to use public amenities, but resign yourself to at least one al fresco experience. Toilet waste must be buried, well away from waterways, tracks, campsites and huts the views, at least, will be spectacular.

Hanmer Springs, Methven, Lake Tekapo, Alexandra, Cromwell. We're on the road until at least 5pm every day. But this is not your regular tourist tour of New Zealand. There is a moment, as we climb out of Alexandra, when the air smells like Central Otago thyme, the rocks are straight from a Dr Seuss book, and the mountains in the distance are coal shovel blue, that I run out of superlatives.

"You come up to a place like this," muses a North Island farmer. "And you realise just how important you are ... "

It's not all about the scenery. At the Bannockburn Hotel, a turn-of-the-19th-century Dunstan Times article gives us a taste of days of old: "There was great excitement at Bannockburn on Saturday afternoon when the sad news came in that Mr John McKersie had been found murdered in Archie Blue's gut on the Carrick Range... Archie Blue was always thought by those who knew him, to be a little off his head. For years he has been a `hatter' and doubtless his solitary life led to an unhinging of his mind."

And up and up and up we climb. Past the old huts and water races built by the men who mined quartz for gold. On to the Nevis Rd, to the highest public access point of the trip where the signs warn this road "may be affected by adverse weather".

From Cromwell to Wanaka via the Pisa Range. I never thought you could stand this high in New Zealand and not see the sea. It's the moment where I feel compelled to phone my father and tell him I understand why he climbed mountains in his youth. Icecream headache cold, miles from nowhere and completely, absolutely exhilarating. I am grinning like I've climbed the bloody thing myself.

Of course, I didn't. I'm in an Overland rental too a three litre, inter-cooled turbo diesel Toyota landcruiser Prado worth $50,000 brand new. Gosh, I'm glad I'm not driving.

We spend our last night on this amazing mountain, courtesy of John and Mary Lee, founders of the Waiorau Snow Farm Lodge. It's a luxury eagle's nest, at the top of the road that hosts the annual Race to the Sky, that attracts international snow boarders in winter and is aiming to break into the summer mountain bike market.

Outside, much later, the only thing you can hear is the wind. I think you can probably see every single star in the world from here. At dinner, John Lee told our group, "I love this valley it's been my life." I think he is a lucky man.

Hanmer Springs Alpine Pacific Triangle

Nature on display in NZ’s South Island

We know of the attractions in Hanmer Springs. This from an Australian source...

Vincent Van Gogh could easily have been referring to New Zealand’s Alpine Pacific Triangle when he said: “If you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere.”

Situated two hours north of Christchurch and taking in the alpine spa village of Hanmer Springs, the whale watching town of Kaikoura and the Waipara Valley wine region, the Alpine Pacific Triangle offers the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure.

Hanmer Springs has been a popular destination for New Zealanders for generations with its natural spa pools, nestled between forests, mountains and rivers, offering the most breathtaking views as you ease away the aches and pains from a long working week.

There are 12 open air pools with temperatures ranging between 33-42 degrees Celsius and they are open all year round, including the snow season.

There is also the opportunity to really indulge and pamper yourself with body massages, pedicures and body wraps available from the on-site therapists on hand to care for your every need.

In addition to the pools, Hanmer has something for all tastes from horse riding, to a spot of golf at the village’s beautifully maintained 18-hole course and short walks around the forest tracks.

It wouldn’t be New Zealand if there wasn’t the opportunity to indulge in some thrill-seeking adventure and Hamner has plenty on offer from jet boating on the Waiau river to mountain biking and bungy jumping from a historic bridge.

There is also a small ski field perfect for families wanting to take advantage of the snow without wanting the madness of peak season in Queenstown.

One of the most enjoyable and fun ways to see the rugged terrain and woodland that surrounds Hanmer is in an all-terrain vehicle designed for off-road conditions and used by NATO, British and American forces.

Hamner has a whole host of places to dine with cafes and restaurants aplenty and the award-winning Malabar restaurant, offering a fusion of Indian and Asian cuisine with a contemporary touch is well worth a visit.

Ninety minutes north of Hamner is Kaikoura, a town boasting some of the most wondrous views in the world both in and out of the water.

Situated on a rugged peninsula and overlooked by Mount Fyffe and the Kaikoura Ranges, this tiny town is a haven for tourists who flock here to see the resident sperm whales, dolphins and fur seals.

The drive into Kaikoura is quite simply one of the best you will undertake anywhere in the world as the road opens up to reveal the stunning peninsula which the whales call home.

The whales are the focal point of Kaikoura tourism with cruises departing four times a day and seeing some of nature’s most magnificent mammals in their natural habitat is something only a few places in the world can offer.

In addition to the whales, fur seals are also omnipresent in Kaikoura and the opportunity to swim with these athletic, inquisitive and playful creatures was the highlight of the trip.

Be prepared for water that is freezing, even in a wetsuit, but don’t let it deter you. Seal Swim Kaikoura has been in the business for more than 20 years and offers an unforgettable experience to snorkel alongside the seals in the waters off the Kaikoura Peninsula.

There are also fishing charters, kayaking and the chance to see the whales from above via a plane or for those who enjoy walking, a fully-guided Maori tour of the area with a chance to learn about the town's history and culture.

Kaikoura offers a wide range of accommodation from backpacker hostels to upmarket establishments such as the Fyffe Country Lodge which not only has an award-winning restaurant but ample sized rooms and the friendliest staff to take care of your every need.

For the wine lover, no trip to this part of New Zealand is complete without a visit to the Waipara Valley which is rivalling Marlborough as the most prolific wine region in the country.

There are cellar doors aplenty with many offering a fine selection of local products and a diverse menu suitable to all tastes.

Hanmer Springs: Canterbury favourite

Hanmer Springs is a Canterbury favourite, and for good reason. A sleepy alpine town, forest walks and thermal hot pools that have been named New Zealand's best visitor attraction three years in a row mean there are plenty of reasons to swing by.

Just 90 minutes' drive from Christchurch, via the fast-developing Waipara wine region, it's no wonder well over half a million people check out this easy-to-access, quiet spot every year. There's plenty of ruddy-cheeked, dairy-fed local wallowers in the pools. With 65 per cent of the visitors from Canterbury and another 25 per cent from overseas, it's the rest of the country who are missing out.

Yet Hanmer Springs is an ideal weekend away, or as a stopover on a trip to the West Coast or Nelson. It can form part of a scenic inland loop from State Highway 1 to Kaikoura, but its main drawcard over the years has undoubtedly remained that it is an easy day trip from Christchurch.

As a child growing up on the flatlands, I took that trip north many times, delighting in the passage through Weka Pass, checking out Frog Rock, a massive outcrop over the road resembling you know what. Once we hit the sleepy hamlet, a walk up Conical Hill was obligatory; the forest track zig-zagging up between pines to a promontory built by an early runholder. From here, you can look down behind the township to where the road to Molesworth snakes up into the Southern Alps.

After some kiddy cross-country running down the hill kicking cones it was off for an icecream then a splash.

Not much has changed. Frog Rock these days does remind me of a Lord of the Rings set, the views from Conical Hill now take in growing subdivisions of holiday homes and the pools are altogether more enticing after major redevelopments in recent years, but the sleepy nature of the town still remains.

This is partly thanks to the tree-lined avenue of the main street, the parklands of the former Queen Mary Hospital and adjoining, splendidly scenic golf course. The hospital, once a residential alcohol and drug treatment facility, is now owned by dominant South Island iwi Ngai Tahu and sadly stands mostly empty. But its vast grounds, which back onto the Hanmer Springs Thermal Resort, are the leafy centre of a town that can get searingly hot in summer.

Thoughtfully, the 14 open-air hot pools where visitors spend much of their time come in many temperatures and sizes, including a terrific, cooler waterplay pool with slides for the younger set.

Facilities are modern with lockers and picnic areas. Grown-ups can adjourn to the charming wooden cafe at the heart of the complex or book some me time in the newly expanded $3 million spa - now the busiest in the country and offering, as well as the usual treatments, a range of water therapies such as Vichy massage.

The pools themselves have been open for more than 125 years and the springs were first discovered by Europeans in 1859. Like the spa they are owned by the Hurunui District Council and provide many jobs in a town of 1000 permanent residents, but which routinely plays temporary home to many more. Nine out of 10 visitors to Hanmer are reckoned to take a dip.

The more adventurous of them can also head off for anything from challenging back country tramps to easy forest strolls. Although at higher altitudes there are stunning native beech forests, in the town surrounds exotics are more common. But it's not all pine. The woodland walks include Douglas fir, poplar, redwood and larches.

Mountain bike trails abound and there's horse-trekking, bungy jumps over the Waiau River and jet boats on it. Families will enjoy the Wai Ariki Nature Park on the town's edge and there are several mini-golf courses and playgrounds.

The town's information centre is at the thermal resort's main entrance. There are plenty of motels and holiday homes in which to stay, though at peak periods it pays to book ahead.

Bakeries and cafes provide plenty of breakfast and lunch options and there are several fine dining options in the evening, where we found food quality excellent.

A few days puddling about Hanmer Springs is indeed the tonic the resort promises from its waters, but there's plenty to see on the way. Sleepy farming hamlets, such as Waiau to the north and Culverden - home of the delightfully named Three Bored Housewives Crafts shop - Hawarden, Waikari, with its nearby Maori rock drawings and Amberley to the south, can all be whizzed through, but a stop off will lead to the discovery of thriving cottage and craft industries.

The Hurunui Historic Hotel is also worth pulling over at for a pint - it's the country's oldest hostelry.

North Canterbury is known for some spectacular gardens so if that's your thing then check out what's open for public viewing at an information centre. The Weka Pass Railway is also one for enthusiasts of a different sort.

Local produce, including the excellent Rutherford and Meyer lines of fruit pates and pastes and Lowry Peaks preserves, are worth buying as a souvenir and if you're looking for something for the wine cellar, then Waipara is a must.

The wine district, which does a mean pinot noir and some excellent white varietals, is fast-growing a reputation as one to watch. From established names like Daniel Schuster to boutique brands, there's plenty to sample and a new wine centre helps point the way as do wine trail brochures. For casual dining for the whole family, Waipara Springs is hard to go past, and the wine's more than quaffable. Pegasus Bay is another reliable option.

All in all, a trip to Hanmer Springs with the odd detour is a delightfully relaxing journey.

GETTING THERE
Hanmer Springs, an alpine basin, is an easy 90-minute drive from Christchurch.

WHERE TO STAY

WHERE TO EAT

WHAT TO DO

Weka Pass Railway: Steam train rides from Glenmark Station (in the Waipara wine district) to Waikari on an 1880s line. Two-hour trips every Sunday in January and thereafter twice monthly, departing at 11.30am and 2pm.

Waipara Springs Vineyard: Open 7 days from 11am to 5pm.


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