Here he shares his experiences of life under canvas in New Zealand’s high country.
There is camping and there is camping. There’s the lumpy sleeping bag, communal toilets, horrid food usually eaten by the light of a flickering oil lamp and itchy ants type of camping and then there is Minaret Station camping. If you, like me, like your canvas and stout shoes getaway to be all about massive comfort, the open air accessed in splendid style and with accomplished guides and only six fellow guests then Minaret Station camping is for you.
This is champagne camping where you can have a massage on top of mountain and where the food, wine and outdoor activities will knock your socks off. New Zealand’s Southern Alps are where I am heading to check out whether I might be turning in to a glamper. Being a picky writer who favours glamour, high-end and sharp service but who does quite enjoy a bit of dirt I knew I’d soon be packing my (useless) outdoor boots, a couple of thick jerseys and a decent weather proof jacket when Minaret Station opened in 2010. They said to bring warm clothes and I always obey instructions when it comes to the weather. So it is off to stunning New Zealand.
I arrive at Minaret by helicopter (the only way in and out) 45 minutes from the lovely town of Wanaka and spread out below me as we land on a small wooden platform are four large tents, a cavernous main lodge, some outbuildings and further up the side of the mountain another building which I learn later houses a generator and water pump and all interconnected by a series of wooden walkways.
Matt Wallis, the owner of this 50000 acre sheep property, brings the chopper down gently and it is off to check out my tent. Ultra luxe camping I have read. OK. Canvas – check, umm flaps to enter – check and a big noisy zip. This is camping I discover, without the nasty stuff most usually those ants and terrifying holes in the ground. The tent is what is known as a static tent, constructed around solid timber frames so if the wind whips up – which it does – you won’t wake up in the small river that courses through the valley. Double ply canvas insulated by five mls of wool, separate bathroom complete with powerful shower, fat Sheridan towels, heated towel rails pumping out waves of delicious heat, fragrant accessories, thick woollen carpets, queen bed, crisp sheets, writing desk, comfy chairs and all heated (they love heat at Minaret and why wouldn’t they, it can be freezing) by externally flued gas to keep out any annoying cold air that might sneak in at night.
I head up to the main lodge via a wooden walkway and am met by Gerry and Shirl, no-nonsense Kiwis, who manage Minaret. We talk helicopters as I am quite taken by the way they are used here for virtually anything. Everything, literally, is dependent on them. We are far up a glacially-made valley and perched on the side of a mountain, snow capped peaks surrounding us. It would be a rather torturous hike to get out of here.
The main lodge, set above the four tents, is all about comfort and cosiness. Open fires are ablaze as the sun sets, canapés are served with a delicious Pinot Noir and I quickly come to realise that this is a very special place. It is the first of its type in New Zealand. There is a snug library with television and internet connection and deep sofas – perfect for aching, hike-weary legs. The owners, the Wallis’, are local farmers who decided to share this gorgeous, hidden albeit massive valley and so built this tented complex where there used to be a shepherd’s hut. Each of the tents is positioned with enough distance between them to allow for complete privacy. A wooden deck surrounds the lodge and I lean on the handrail and stare up the Estuary Burn valley to just glimpse lofty Mt Aspiring. It is breathtaking, especially as shadows cloak the valley at sunset. Minaret Station was named after the similarity of the highest peak on the property to eastern minarets and this station was named thus because as Matt explains, the stations in this rugged, isolated part of New Zealand are always named after the highest peak on the property.
The food and wine at Minaret leaves you in no doubt that Matt and his team are determined to present only the best. Crayfish is served. Prior to an exquisite Rippon Estate Sauvignon Blanc I try a local Wanaka beer called Brewski. Goodness, even brewing is proving a wonder when these whip-smart Kiwis put their mind to it. I am told the crayfish are the result of one of Matt’s expeditions – by chopper of course – down to the coast where he knows of some crayfish hidey holes.
The next morning it is off hiking or tramping as they say here. On go my gripless boots which as soon as they hit the snow slide sideways and send me tumbling. Gerry lends me his brand new boots and without delay Matt and I head off up the valley. The weather is on our minds. His keen eyes spot eagles, Chamois and other wildlife, largely unseen by my city eyes. Even with a telescope I find it tricky to pick out the difference between a deer and a slab of rock. The valley winds and bends toward cold, blue Lake Wanaka and after a couple of hours we stop at a shepherds’ hut, derelict and lonely and decide to turn back as the sky looks rather threatening.
The lights of Minaret appear tiny yet bright on the mountainside and soon we are shaking the snow from our boots and deciding that the aromas coming from the kitchen almost too much to bear.
New Zealand does high country outdoors like nowhere else. Maybe it is the pure, cold-snapped air, possibly the welcoming nature of Kiwis or the abundance of fresh produce and remarkable quality of the wines. What ever it is they do it well….. especially here at dazzling Minaret Station.
As for those woollens. I’m glad I bought them as New Zealand was lashed ruthlessly by a ‘Polar Blast’ the day before I left and I got out in the nick of time. But that is another story.