Retreat yourself in Rotorua
"I'm the patron of a West Midlands children's ballet school and I've created ballets for them," the great, grey-bearded man tells me with obvious pride.
"I aspired to be a ballet dancer, but you didn't talk about stuff like that in grammar school."
Professor David Bellamy, the celebrated Botanic Man of the popular television series, is a guest at Treetops Lodge and Estate in the Mamaku Ranges, south of Rotorua. He is accompanied by his wife, Rosemary, whom he met when they were 17 and on the cusp of separate academic careers.
He readily attributes his success as a university don to her persistence and says that meeting her was what sparked his passion for botany and academia.
We are about to enjoy an entree of venison carpaccio in the homely lodge dining room Eru Tutaki, "The Singing Chef", croons softly to the guests, while spicing up the dish with horopito native-plum relish.
Discussion around the dining table is lively, as the irrepressible botanist reminisces about his lifetime of protest, picketing and preservation of the natural world. He is in Rotorua for Whirinaki 25, a celebration of the quarter-century that has passed since conservationists won the right to protect the Whirinaki Forest Park from the wrath of chainsaws.
In a surprisingly deep, resonant voice, the animated conversationalist tells us that the salvation of this dinosaur forest was one of the greatest triumphs in his long ecological odyssey.
The world's best-known tree-hugger and eco-optimist, who believes global warming is "poppycock", has been a regular visitor to New Zealand, satisfying a deep fascination that began as a boy.
He tells us: "My uncle was a secretary in the New Zealand Embassy in London. One day, he gave me a postage stamp depicting Tane Mahuta, New Zealand's giant kauri tree. At that tender age, I had set my heart on being a ballet dancer, but my curiosity about that tree and the country's original lack of predators with teeth and hooves inspired me to become a botanist. When I started filming for television, the first place in the world I travelled to was Waipoua Kauri Forest in Northland."
As Bellamy beds in a rimu sapling - one of 70,000 new plantings on the property - beside a man-made trout fishing lake, Treetops manager Heiko Kaiser explains the property's history and eco-friendly philosophy.
Treetops owner John Sax created this boutique wilderness lodge and 1000-hectare game reserve under the Horohoro Bluffs of the Mamaku Plateau, 20 minutes drive from Rotorua.
As a boy, Sax had a dream not unlike Bellamy's. The Kiwi entrepreneur dreamt he would one day fish in his own trout stream and plant native trees. His father regularly took him fishing and hunting on the family farm. Thirty years on, the dream has been realised.
Everything about Treetops reflects the character of its creator. I sit in the Great Room and quietly absorb the decor. It is so utterly absorbing that the rest of the world soon ceases to exist.
The hand-shaped timber beams, table tops and carvings have all been felled and milled on site. The fossil stone floor is heated. The colossal schist rock fireplace is nine metres long.
Possum fur covers are draped over the lounge furniture, upholstered in deer hide from the game park. The effect is baronial manor meets hunting lodge, hand-crafted out of its own rugged natural environment and furnished with dignified taste.
I linger on the moat bridge that leads to the grand entrance. Rainbow trout slip quietly along the natural stream that flows under the main building and into an ornamental pond, to disappear into a deep gully of dark-green native bush. The building is full of character, but treads lightly on the land.
Wandering along a section of the 70-kilometre track network, which embraces seven streams and four lakes, I allow the sights, sounds and scents of New Zealand's native forest to flow over me. Within an hour or so, I pass scenic lookouts, waterfalls and giant podocarp trees that were spindly saplings half a millennium ago. It's 100 per cent pure New Zealand and feels like Jurassic Park, just a lot safer.
I pause under a tall rimu tree and look into the upper canopy. The sky is obscured by dense layers of foliage and clusters of epiphytes nestled in the branches. Only a few slanting rays of sunlight reach the forest floor. It's a joyous feeling to stop still for a time and listen to the silence and solitude of the forest - a tapestry of green fern fronds, dancing sunbeams and whispering spring-fed streams.
In the forest, as in the lodge, I'm far removed from everyday life. Staying at Treetops is a true Kiwi nature experience. I have the distinct feeling that I'm sharing the owner's dream just by being here.
But it's Bellamy who has the final word, of erudition and humour. "I'm the adopted grandfather of 102 walking buses in Kent, eliminating vast carbon emissions. When I ask the children what they would like to buy with the money they save, they reply - "a Lamborghini".
Treetops Estate and Lodge, Kearoa Rd, Horohoro, Rotorua. Phone 07 333 2066, visit treetops.co.nz.
WHERE IS IT?
South from Rotorua on State Highway 5, turn right on State Highway 30. Continue 10 kilometres into the Mamaku ranges and turn into Apirana Rd, then Kearoa Rd to the gate.
Local sightseeing, including helicopter flights to White Island, Mount Tarawera and the Rotorua lakes. Guests can also enjoy horse riding, archery, clay-bird shooting, fishing and guided hunting on the property.
The Dominion Post