Christchurch, Hanmer Springs, Waipara
It was difficult to discern if our plane was flying lower over New Zealand’s South Island or if the mountains were rising up higher to meet us. The majesty of the Alps was vivid, nonetheless. The rich brown earth on these jagged giants was topped white where the recent snows had settled.
I was headed to the land of the long white cloud with my Samoan-born kiwi-raised workmate Phil, whose daily New Zealand updates eventually led way to a ‘screw it, let’s do an NZ road trip’ decision. The Cookie Time and Whittaker’s treats he regularly brought back were not enough of a kiwi dose for me. I wanted to be there and breathe it in.
So as I peered out the aeroplane window, giddy and excitable as an infant at the wondrous landscape below, Phil suddenly decided to play the ‘oh yeah, I guess enzed is quite beautiful’ nonchalant card (for the first time ever).
We arrived at Christchurch airport and after picking up our Ford Focus hire car at Apex Rentals, we took a drive through the centre of the city. The leftover destruction from the 2011 earthquake was a shocking thing to behold, even now.
Roadworks and construction were everywhere. Steel rods that were once the inner foundations of buildings were twisting towards the sky, breaking free of the crumbling concrete that once gave them purpose. Shattered buildings and collapsed carparks where once workplaces stood, were now no more than a daily reminder of the devastating event that tragically stole the lives of 185 people. Mother nature vs. human progress. What makes mountains shifts the earth.
As we veered north, the sun started to descend behind leafless winter trees that made silhouettes along the roadside. But we drove on swiftly knowing that our long traverse from Sydney was to be rewarded by a soak in thermal hot springs.
The temperature had dropped to a few degrees above freezing, a convenient time to change into swimmers. But as toes met 38° water at the Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa, and we lowered into the steam, winter near-nakedness seemed like rather a good idea. Visitors have been coming to the pools, a 90-minute drive north of Christchurch, for over 125 years. That’s many years of smart people, cause this was fucking great!
We hopped between the springs, of which there were 15, at varying temperatures between hot and even a little hotter (around 37-40°C). Some had massaging jets, some waterfalls that would flow onto your back or head, but all had a view of the starry sky. The Maori call the springs Waitipu, which means Sacred Waters, and whether spiritual or natural, I was feeling healed within a short soak.
Although we were there at night, not only were the springs open, but the rides were too, so we grabbed blow-up rafts and climbed the stairs to the tube slides. And then I squealed like a banshee as I disappeared into a spinning plastic cave rushing downwards. Phil laughed. But think about a spinning waterslide that disappears into complete darkness! Spinning. In the pitch dark. SOBER!
Our first night in New Zealand was spent at the Monteith’s Brewery Bar, drinking local cider and watching an All Blacks game. Slogans around the bar exclaimed ‘You had me at beer’, the smartarse ‘fresh beer’ and ‘Welcome to Beertopia’. Phil regaled me with some bullshit story about the Maori equivalent of Bigfoot called a tunny fa. I believed him (for days).
We woke at Rosie’s B&B to a view of pine trees and mist-covered hills. The owner Gary fussed over us at breakfast, all smiles and friendly conversation. It was my first time in a B&B and it felt like being part of someone’s living arrangement for a short stint, if there’s a way of making that sound favourable.
After checking out we went for a walk through a tree-lined track up to Conical Hill Lookout. There a small hut held vantage over ripples of pine-covered hills. The sun kept illuminating areas of the forest and my spirit at the same time. This was the New Zealand I had come to see. I had wanted to be a tiny little lost fragment in the big majestic land.
Hanmer is a desirable weekend destination for families – there are scenic parks, a mini golf course, and rides and kiddie pools at the springs.
So we left town to hunt down a winery.
The Waipara Valley, back on the road towards Christchurch (approx. 40 minutes north of there), boasts about 25 wineries, the most renowned of which are Pegasus Bay and Waipara Springs. But I had done a bit of foodie digging (or tweeting to be precise) and was recommended the newer Black Estate Winery. This was a social media win if you ask me, as everything from the chalkboard menu to the large open windows bringing the winery up close made this the ideal stop. We ate a puy lentil salad with roasted organic beetroot, goats cheese and spinach and a caramalised garlic and goats cheese tart, with sides of sage butter potatoes and leafy greens. All the while we drank the smooth pinot noir and Riesling from the cellar door.
One of Phil’s many New Zealand enthusiasms saw him trying to get all us workmates to try the New Zealand-loved and grown (though originally from Chile) fruit feijoa by way of feijoa-flavoured vodka one Friday afternoon in Sydney. Our boss almost spat it out. It’s been a bit of a payout on Phil ever since. So of course when we decided at Black Estate to order the crumble of the day it was feijoa and apple. I gasped. And just don’t tell Phil it was actually pretty delicious.
I left with a bottle of 2012 Black Estate Pinot Noir and the desire to tell everyone about this young trendy winery in the Waipara Valley. The road north had proved a worthwhile detour on this South Island journey and one I recommend. You can expect toasty hot springs, kick-arse pine-clad mountain vistas, and an outstanding new winery at the very least. And all in less than 24 hours.
Photographs by Katie Mayors and Phil Lemalu