They say the guardians of the dead linger around Whanganui River Rd. Just past the village of Atene, where the Whanganui National Park begins, locals are known to nervously speed past, an eye out for the spirits that guard Maori burial caves in the hills above.
It's a rugged environment, but 10 minutes up the road, on the far side of the river, sits an organic, environmentally friendly retreat nestled among the trees.
The Flying Fox, named after the way visitors and their luggage are carried at least 30 metres above the river, is the epitome of clean living and cellphone-free bliss.
The 14-hectare spot is mostly native bush, but along its frontage are tidy lawns, gazebos and idiosyncratic buildings.
The two guest cottages – a converted farm shed named in honour of poet James K Baxter, who lies buried further up the river, and the renovated Brew House – have a rustic charm and sit under the shade of massive walnut trees planted at the turn of the 20th century by Anglican missionary Sister Elsie Smith.
There are all the modern conveniences you would expect with a B&B and some you would not – such as a record player and vinyls, and an iron bath, with a soothing river view. At night, you can hear the shrill call of kiwi and moreporks as the river calmly gurgles in the background.
Co-owner John Blythe's addiction to junk is reflected in the collections of coffee pots, Hindu statues, Buddhist prayer flags, and the occasional butter churn hidden in the garden. His design touches appear in the stylised koru carved into the cottage's furniture and window frames.
The place is steeped in Maori and Pakeha history. Ancient adzes have been unearthed near the river, and a ditch across the property could have been an old Maori fighting trench.
A wander along the riverbank leads to a dilapidated farmhouse that was once the local telegraph office, and posters on the Brew House walls recall the tourism boom in the 1920s, when people came for a paddle-steamer ride on the Whanganui River. The river is no longer the highway it was but jet boat and canoe tourists still call in for lunch.
The real stand-apart of The Flying Fox is that everything is certified organic, including delicious homemade kumara bread from a recipe by famous Wanganui-born chef Peter Gordon, and the milk, tea bags and chemical-free lemon and peppermint-based cleaners.
Annette Main – John's wife and a regional councillor – bought the property in 1990 with the idea of setting up something a little different.
The retreat was designed to leave as small an environmental footprint as possible, and use rain or dam water, solar power and gas. Waste is filtered through a grey system and there are hi-tech composting toilets.
"It's become very fashionable now to talk about environmental impact but for us it's not just about the environment – it's a social and cultural policy as well. We use local food, encourage local employment – that's just as important. And that's what people want to see – it's not just about putting in energy-saving light bulbs," Ms Main says.
With the difficulty of getting supplies and materials across the river, the recycling ethos has a practical side. It took Ms Main two years to bring the 1200 bricks that formed the Brew House floor across the river, and Mr Blythe built furniture and some of the buildings from trees he had felled in the bush or from trunks washed up by the river. He has used volcanic loam on the property in making his (Spanish architect) Gaudi-inspired workshop.
"It's certainly not a Holiday Inn; the buildings look like they came out of the ground, organic. But as remote as we are, we don't run out of stuff. Our shopping for Christmas looks like a UN food drop," he says.
What: The Flying Fox Where: Whanganui River Rd, Wanganui, tel: 06 342 8160, website: theflyingfox.co.nz
Basics: Retreat with two two- bedroom cottages, a one-bedroom cabin on wheels, and a camping area.
Cost: Packages, including accommodation, meals and canoe trips, range from $95 to $230 a night.
* The Flying Fox hosted Britton Broun.
- The Dominion Post