Fleeing to the foothills to forget the city

EWAN SARGENT
Last updated 07:00 31/03/2017
Ewan Sargent

A stay at Montrose Estates by the Rakaia River

Ewan Sargent
Spectacular views from the dining room.
Ewan Sargent
An engraved seat by the main lake reminds you where you are.
Ewan Sargent
Three lodges share the riverside retreat of Montrose Estates,

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Pre-dinner drinks are a bottle of cheap Kiwi bubbly fast-cooled in the monster freezer. Two flutes are on the table on the outside deck and we just stare out in front of us.

Usually of course you look at a person when you talk. But here in the foothills of the Mt Hutt range it is automatically okay to chat sitting side-on while you soak up the view.

We have just come from inner-city Christchurch, so the contrast is particularly stark. After a half-day's work, we headed for the Montrose hills, stopping at a supermarket on the way to grab supplies (the lodges here are self-catering). 

So here we are just over an hour's drive from traffic noise, road cones, chaotic carparks, battles to turn right and in a place where the only sounds are birds and nothing has changed much since a glacier chugged forwards and backwards through here a while back.

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We look across a vast basin of fields, scrub, streams and river. There are little, medium-sized and biggish lakes, just like the three bears, and on the daddy bear lake black swans steam from one side to another, mooning us occasionally to bottom feed. 

You can follow the path of a spring-fed stream by the burst of happy bushes along its edge. Hundreds of metres away is the big Rakaia River and a look from left to right can cover two kilometres of its path.

But probably the hills behind the river, on the north side, are the most fascinating. Today they are in pure high country "variations of beige" summer colours. Part of one grey, glacial moraine hill has slipped into the river, and its scars change colour as golden replaces the harsh white light of the summer's day.

It is still and quiet. Our city eyes love it all. 

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Technically you can call Montrose Estate "high country" because it falls within the agreed boundaries - inland from State Highway 77 and above the Rakaia Gorge. But I think foothills of the high country is probably more accurate. In winter, you'd be glad of that.

And size, get this - the 230ha property, which is about one-and-a-half times the size of Hagley Park - was just a small chunk carved off the vast Blackwood Station a few decades ago. It was bought by a Dutch couple who built Paewaka, the house we are staying in. Later the property was sold to two partners who opened it up to holidaymakers last September.

Montrose leases 140ha to neighbours Cleardale Station to farm. The other 90ha is for the likes of us to roam over and for fish breeding, but more on that later. There are three accommodation options - the three-bedroom Paewaka House, which we are in, Te Ata, a two-bedroom cottage, and a new four-bedroom lodge Hoturoa.

​Paewaka comes, as the car people say, with all the fruit. It's a high-end model. Wi-fi, TVs everywhere, sound systems, wine cabinets, huge entertaining areas, spa bath, steam shower, double oven, on it goes.

But we never play a song or turn on a TV for the whole stay. You take what you want from a place like this, and some peace, views and fresh air is just fine, thanks.  

Dark wood panelling dominates but dotted here and there are rustic touches, like the obligatory stag's head, plus old boots, old boxes. and there's even a mini-library. I was startled to discover a dusty row of Arthur Mee The Children's Encylopedias that I haven't seen since my childhood.  

​​The estate manager is Robert Lavery. He's a friendly, open chap, a joiner who helped build Paewaka two decades ago and then returned to help build Hoturoa and stay on as the estate's manager.

The previous Dutch owners wanted a Swiss Chalet style place, and Paewaka has this heavy, dark ambience that is completely different to the all-light and maximum windows breeziness of Hoturoa out of site higher up the hill. Yet has its own charm, and Lavery says it's his favourite.

He is the kind of guy who is happiest in shorts and boots on a long hunting trip in the bush. He tells how Montrose has been "discovered" by the Sydney gay community and has already had half a dozen couples turn up for a stay thanks to word of mouth praise among the community. Paewaka can be booked as the whole place, or for cheaper rates, you can just use one room, or two rooms.

There are also tourists who have done a long haul trip through the country and want something really nice and isolated to finish it all with and of course there are Canterbury people fleeing the road cones who want a weekend break.

Like us, their first introduction to the the property will be turning off Blackford Road at the wooden Montrose sign, and dropping down a metal farm road into a cool, dappled-green forest tunnel.

You are actually driving through a big bunch of weeds. 

Lavery explains that the sycamore glade came from sycamore trees at the original Blackford homestead. The seeds blew over from the house and into this gully. 

"We've had DOC here to look at the broom problem and they come down through here and they say, 'that's all weed ... but it's so nice'. 

There are no plans to clean it out because the gully is trap. The sycamores can't spread any farther. Their bold bid for high country domination faltered and ended on their doorstep. 

Montrose guests however are very welcome to wander.

 At daybreak the next morning I walk 500 metres down a rutted track to the river. The track follows the path of the Montrose Stream, which is one of Canterbury's great salmon spawning streams. 

Being on a riverbank at sunrise is magical anywhere, but here at the end of February there really is a chance I might see the big bow wave of a huge fish pushing up the little spring creek to spawn and ultimately die. 

Many decades ago the Montrose area was home to a salmon farm. Two decades ago in a spirit of outdoors community goodwill, the property was made available to Fish and Game to run a hatchery operation for a peppercorn rental.

This hatchery supplies young salmon and trout to rivers all over Canterbury. I walk past a trap in the stream where salmon are caught to be later stripped of eggs and milt. These are raised to create thousands of fish where, left to nature, only a few would survive.  

It's one of the wild's great mysteries that a tiny fertilised egg can survive, leave here, go to sea for years, turn into a 5kg fish and then find its way back to exactly this stream and this spot to start the cycle again. 

I've brought a rod on my walk to the river and could try my luck on the roiling, turquoise Rakaia well away from the stream, but somehow it doesn't seem right. 

If a salmon made it here against all the odds, then I don't want to be one last "odd" to get past, though that's probably flattering my chances. Instead, I watch the sun rise and jetboats come past.

Back at Paewaka, with an excellent reason for why once again I haven't caught any fish, it is time for breakfast and another viewing on the deck.

Out in the fields spur-winged plovers are squawking, annoyed at a hawk circling overhead. 

The black swans on the big lake are settling in to another day's sailing, broken up by occasional territory spats and wing-flapping runs across the water. Preening, disputes, high speed dashes ... honestly it has everything you'd want from America's Cup regatta going on down there.

Later Lavery shows us Hoturoa. The lodge is a glitzy, airy modern version of Paewaka. The views are even better for being a little more elevated and the lake has more of a presence. 

While Montrose has its get-away-from-it all attractions, it can also be used as a home base for exploring nearby areas. 

It sits right on the edge of the Hakatere Conservation Park and all that offers. Mt Hutt is close by. Methven is just 20 minutes from for shopping and eating, and Lake Coleridge is a quick drive down to the Rakaia Gorge Bridge and back up the other side. There are also plenty of guilt-free fishing spots.

In the thick leather Paewaka compendium there's a cryptic list of suggested local walks with names such as Woolshed Creek, Rhyolite, Sidewinder Track, Pudding Hill. What odd names. They have this "you had to be there" feel about them for when they got named. Like a joke you don't get.

I'm rather taken with the idea of visiting "Terrible Gully" further up Blackwood Road. I'd love to know why it's so bad. Could I tell by just looking at it? Someone's had a bad experience and lashed out.. 

But the urge to explore never really takes hold. You walk past a Paewaka window and stop and stare like it's some rare painting. A moving painting.

On the big lake the swans are on a downwind tack. And Kevin the Kotuku, who Lavery told us has visited Montrose from the West Coast for five years now might drop in. It would be a shame to miss him. 

The sun's climbing. Another cuppa on the deck looks good. 

- Stuff

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