Mackenzie mini-break

SERENE: Lake Tekapo at its wintry best.
Anthony Fau

SERENE: Lake Tekapo at its wintry best.

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions to take an overnight trip south to the Mackenzie Country.

A spontaneous adventure is so instantly appealing and the forecast was looking good - cloudy but clearing over the weekend.

We went online to check out accommodation, only to find Lake Tekapo was already booked out - a predictable hitch given we'd left everything to the last minute.

Undeterred, we chose an affordable family unit at Fairlie, Pinewood Motels. It had four-star Qualmark accreditation, free wi-fi and looked clean and tidy in the publicity photos.

Next day, having packed light after a leisurely breakfast, we took the scenic inland route past Mt Hutt and through the small Mid-Canterbury settlement of Mayfield. We were tempted to stop in Geraldine for lunch, but were curious to check out a café we'd spotted online the previous day called The Farm Barn.

Only eight kilometres from Fairlie, it involves a hill climb to get there. We ate tasty paninis and toasted sandwiches while enjoying the beautiful elevated views of hilly pastures and the mountains beyond. The café's giftware selection is also top notch (not least the good range of possum and merino knitwear, plus Icebreaker clothing).

One of the steam trains was running at Pleasant Point Museum and Railway that day, so we decided to shout the kids a ride. In truth, it was the O'Rourke's Bros Taxidermists premises across the road from the railway that immediately stole their interest. The wall of trophy stag heads made an impact as we pulled up to park. There was even a bear.

Once they had had enough of staring at stuffed animals, we were finally off on the train. D16, built in 1878 and one of two steam locomotives at Pleasant Point, produced impressive clouds of steam as we chuffed along through the town and back.

The other - Ab699 - used to run on the 39-mile Timaru to Fairlie branch line before it closed in March 1968. What used to be the Pleasant Point railway station has been converted into a museum.

One of the displays described the country's worst rail disaster at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve 1953 when the Wellington-Auckland night express plunged into the flooded Whangaehu River with the loss of 151 lives. Newspapers from the time, reproduced in the display, were an effective touch that caught our imagination. The grief that must have followed that disaster must have been immense.

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On our way back to Fairlie, we made a detour at Cave to drive by St David's Pioneer Memorial Church. I've long had a soft spot for this church, which opened in 1930 and was constructed without the use of nails. There is a crazy paving aspect to this building pieced together with stone. It really is a striking landmark in the area.

In Fairlie, we checked into our motel, which turned out to be quiet, clean and spacious; everything we had expected. Proprietors Alvin and Brenda Lord filled us in on the town's dining options, including where to find the best fish and chips in town: the Fairlie Hotel.

I suspect the hotel has not changed much in the past 20 or 30 years. There is a time-warp feel about walking into the old bar to order, yet the fish and chips produced by the hotel are beyond reproach, and how often does fish come with lemon slices these days?

On the walk into Fairlie township, we found the site of the long-since demolished railway station, now a grassy park. One of the shop windows in town had photos of when the station was still in operation and passengers would have made a beeline for the Gladstone Grand Hotel across the road. It was once a favourite resort for tourists on their way to Mt Cook, but seemed fairly deserted on the evening we were there. The hotel is still a grand old building.

Another landmark in Fairlie is Sam Mahon's 2003 statue of James Mackenzie and dog. The legendary sheep rustler was caught in a pass in the upper Waitaki River basin with 1000 stolen sheep in March 1855. He denied the theft, escaped, and was then recaptured and sentenced, before escaping again and eventually being pardoned in January 1856.

Pastoralists were quick to appreciate the significance of the pass where Mackenzie was nabbed with the sheep and the region was subsequently dubbed the Mackenzie Country. It is worth taking a few moments to appreciate Mahon's striking depiction of one of New Zealand's enduring folk heroes.

Driving to Lake Tekapo that night to soak in the hot pools at Tekapo Springs seemed like a good idea, but as we headed through Burkes Pass it began to lightly snow. By the time we reached Tekapo, temperatures had plummeted. None of us fancied the idea of stripping down to swimwear, even with the lure of hot pools, so we decided to leave that experience until morning.

Back in Fairlie, we settled for a quiet night in and were comfortably warm overnight in our unit.

Starting fresh the next day, we stopped for breakfast muffins at the award-winning Fairlie Bakehouse. It has won the people's choice award in the South Canterbury Business Excellence Awards for two years running. Another tempting breakfast option, had we been in the mood for eggs benedict, was Eat Deli & Bar, also conveniently located on Fairlie's Main St.

After breakfast, we took the road to Lake Tekapo and were pleased the sun was out for the day ahead. Overnight, the weather had cleared; a magical landscape, glittering with a light coating of snow, unfolded as we neared the lake.

Once in Tekapo, we stopped at the Church of the Good Shepherd to admire the lake and mountains and took the short walk to the nearby statue of the dog, commissioned in 1968 in dedication to the working dogs of the Mackenzie.

A few tourists approached us to take their holiday photographs against church and lake. It is easy to see why this is a compulsory stop on the tour-bus itinerary.

However, there are other pretty lakes nearby, where the buses don't usually go. Following the road around the base of Mt John, we soon reached the beauty spots of Lake McGregor (Otetoto) and Lake Alexandrina (Te Kaupururu).

These two lakes are magnets for both fly fishers and artists. A few years ago, veteran Canterbury artist Ray Hastings told me how he and fellow water colourist Aston Greathead used to stay regularly at an RSA fishing crib at Lake Alexandrina, painting for half the day and fishing for the other.

With a light powder of snow underfoot and the sunshine sparkling on clear waters, we stayed for a while to appreciate the pristine environment of Lake Alexandrina before heading back to Tekapo for the hot pools.

Tekapo Springs also has a winter Snow Tube park and a skating rink used for ice skating, curling and ice hockey. From next month, these winter options will be replaced by a summertime line-up, including the world's largest inflatable water-slide. We opted for the pools only, although various combo deals are available for people wishing to do more than soak at the springs.

Each of Tekapo Springs' hot pools is shaped after the region's lakes, Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo. Bathers can lie back and look up at slopes of alpine forest or out to Lake Tekapo and the Two Thumb mountain range.

All three offer plenty of bench seating and there are thoughtfully placed massage jets to soothe away any aches and pains. Waterfall and rock features help to keep children entertained while the adults marinate.

It was a novelty for the kids to scoop up handfuls of snow and watch it melt away in the hot water. Some pamper time at the Tekapo Springs Day Spa would have been the icing on the cake - maybe next time.

Before leaving Tekapo, we drove up to the Mt John observatory, which sits 300 metres above Lake Tekapo. The panoramic views are incredible. Of course, the site was originally selected because of the air clarity and the high number of clear nights, away from bright lights.

Aoraki Mackenzie is a gold-rated dark sky reserve, in recognition of the quality of the almost light-pollution-free skies here.

Astro-tourism brings a steady flow of visitors to the observatory for both day and night tours. On the day of our visit, a queue had formed for a chance to view the sun through a solar telescope set up outside the popular Astro Café. We settled for hot chocolate with sprinkled-on chocolate stars, looking out over Lake Tekapo.

Homeward bound, there was time for one final lunch stop at the Fairlie Bakehouse for delicious bacon and salmon pies.

Retracing our journey of the day before, we were back in time for tea after a very relaxing trip, the mountains and lakes of the Mackenzie Basin still crisp in our minds. We had managed to pack a lot into our mini-break.

One night away felt as good as a week and was certainly a good deal cheaper. Hopefully, it won't be long before we get similarly inspired to head off on the road again.

 - Stuff

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