Canterbury Tales – The revival of Otahuna

For Queensland Homes - Gold Edition

There’s no second chance to make a first impression and at Otahuna Lodge, tucked discreetly away in the backblocks of outer Christchurch, one certainly knows when one has arrived.

Jack, our taxi driver and Christchurch native, turned off the meter as we poked about the Tai Tapu hedgerows in search of this mysterious mansion. “That looks like a pretty fancy one over there,” he says excitedly, indicating a substantial modern home of about six bedrooms.

“I don’t think so,” I replied kindly, remembering the image from the website, “That’s it over there.”

I’d just caught a glimpse of a gabled roofline beyond some magnificent, semi-wild woodland trees. A remote controlled gate was our only clue. After a rudimentary introduction via the intercom, it swung open to reveal a winding track through imposing gardens. “Oh, my!” said Jack as if plunging into some Lewis Carroll scenario. Eyes like saucers, he drives carefully up the oak and acacia-lined carriageway until we arrive in the forecourt where Head Guest Host, Belinda was waiting. With an enormous smile, we’re met with a simple but effective; “Welcome to Otahuna!”

Seeing Jack struggle with our excess baggage, Belinda announces, “I might just get Jeremy to help with this one.” Sous-chef Jeremy Scheiblauer is filling in for executive chef, Jimmy McIntyre, famed for his wondrous five-course degustation menus. Jeremy’s about the right size to handle our portly port, and it’s up the hand-carved kauri staircase - with rimu detail - and into the luxurious Rhodes suite before you can say “Scallop Ceviche”.

Maybe I’m easily impressed, but to call Otahuna a ‘lodge’, is akin to calling a Bentley a ‘sedan’. To me at least, it’s every bit the manor house, with a history to match.

Built in 1895 for Sir Heaton Rhodes, a wealthy and influential Canterbury businessman, long-term parliamentarian, military officer, stockbreeder and keen horticulturist. The name “Otahuna” is Maori and popularly translates as “little hill among the hills.” The homestead, again excuse the understatement, sits atop a small hill, between the rocky outcrops of the Banks Peninsula, with expansive views of the gardens and across the plains to the distant Southern Alps.

Following their wedding in 1891, Sir Heaton Rhodes and his wife Jessie honeymooned in Japan, perhaps the first New Zealanders to visit Japan as tourists. They took in exotic sights including Shinto shrines and Sumo wrestling.

Taken with the architecture of Japan, Jessie persuaded Heaton to incorporate a subtle Japanese influence when they built Otahuna four years later. This octagonally-shaped structure adjacent to the Drawing Room and now serves as one of the Lodge’s several private dining areas.

After the venerable Sir Heaton passed away in 1956 at the ripe old age of 95, a bonfire raged on the lawns for the next week as his personal records and books were burned. There’s some mystery as to whether this was an instruction in his final will or some act of spite by his last housekeeper, Olive Nicholas, who would withhold Sir Heaton’s nightly whiskey if the mischievous, fun-loving old gent misbehaved. She was apparently left empty-handed in the final accounting while all other employees, relatives and charities received generous payouts.

Now heritage-listed, Otahuna became a monastery then a hippy colony in ‘70s with over 40 residents, half of whom were children.

Current owners, Miles Refo and Hall Cannon, discovered Otahuna while investigating an escape from Manhattan where they’d lived and worked for eight years. Barely in their 30s, the young lords fell under Otahuna’s spell after their first sighting in May 2005.

“When we first saw Otahuna, we both thought ‘wow, what an amazing house’,” recalls Hall, “but it just needed so much work. Daunted by the task, we just kept driving – all the way to Canada!”

“We came back in January 2006 and decided we’d live here in New Zealand, somewhere on the South Island and came back to see the house to cross it off our list once and for all. But it had us under its spell and by August, we owned it.”

Despite extensive structural renovations over the preceding five years, the property still needed much internal refinement. The duo hired Auckland-based interior designer, Stephen Cashmore, known for his sympathetic treatment of historic properties. New colour palates, fabrics, furnishings and bathroom enhancements were added. Several lost treasures were recovered and returned to their rightful place, like the antique mantle clock now in the ballroom.

Hall relished the opportunity to exercise his love of art and worked closely with Queenstown-based consultant Pauline Giles. Works from noted artists Peter Beadle and Anna Caselberg were added along with several from as yet unknowns.

The imposing portrait of Maori war hero, Ngati Maniapoto, takes pride of place in the entrance hall.

But beyond the Queen Anne-style home itself, 30 acres of botanical gardens were subject to their own extensive restoration and remain as a lasting legacy from Sir Heaton. 19 acres are devoted to natural produce including an orchard, potager and Dutch garden. In a touching gesture, Hall and Miles have revived the three acre paddock of daffodils, opening it up to the public each September just as Sir Heaton did, using the proceeds to fund local initiatives like libraries, schools and hospitals.

With a house of such character, I’m tempted to ask the obvious question, “What about ghosts?”

“You know,” says Hall with a curious squint, “I’ve heard stories of ghosts, but no-one has ever reported anything to me since we’ve taken over. Certainly I’ve never sensed anything.”

With Otahuna, arguably the most significant private residence in New Zealand restored to a glory even beyond Sir Heaton’s lavish tastes and appetite for fine living, perhaps his ghost is just quietly enjoying a spectral whiskey in the billiard room finally freed from the disapproving gaze of wicked Nurse Nicholas?

Australia's Kimberley: On Wandjina Time

Roderick Eime traces the path of Australia’s forthcoming epic motion picture through some of the oldest landscapes on Earth.

He stares down on me as if from the heavens, mute and limbless, his power over the elements is total. The Wandjina are the spirit gods of the Kimberley who control the weather and their images abound throughout the caves and craggy overhangs of this rugged and foreboding corner of Australia.

For countless thousands of years the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley, with such evocative names as the Ngarinyin, Umida, Wunambul and Unggarangi, kept watch over the Wandjina figures, just as their spirits kept watch over them. Today, privileged visitors can still see these images in all their mysterious glory gazing imperiously down from their cave ceiling frescos.

The landscape of the Kimberley is among the oldest formations in the world, dating back some 1.8 billion years.

“Where are the fossils?” I innocently enquire of Carly, my naturalist guide at the El Questro Wilderness Park.

“There are none,” comes the matter-of-fact reply, “these rocks were formed before there was any life to fossilise.”

It takes a moment for me to compute that data and I return my gaze to the deep orange hues of the ultra-hard sandstone cliffs along Chamberlain Gorge. The namesake river, replete with fresh, crystal clear water is home to a seemingly endless supply of mighty Barramundi, guarded by a permanent squad of freshwater crocodiles.

Just over one hundred years ago, white Europeans brought cattle to the Kimberley from the east in search of new pastures. Pioneering drover, the Irish-born Patrick Durack, established Argyle Station in 1886 after bringing 7000 head from Queensland and arriving with about half of them. If ever a harsh and unforgiving land epitomised the bush spirit of early European settlement, it is the Kimberley. Blessed with clean, permanent water, but cursed with oppressive heat and humidity, the Kimberley tolerates man’s presence, but offers no comfort.

The sprawling, 400,000 ha El Questro Wilderness Park is still a working cattle station and provides a range of accommodation options for intrepid visitors. From humble, riverside camping plots to the iconic, ultra-chic El Questro Homestead, visitors can indulge their outback passion no matter what their budget.

In 2006, the rumour mill erupted with word that acclaimed film producer, Baz Luhrmann would be filming an epic Australian film in the region and for several months in mid-2007, the area was swarming with cast and crew filming key scenes for the forthcoming production.

Now the secret is out and the film, ‘Australia’, with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman is set for release in November. The movie traces Kidman’s character, Lady Sarah Ashley, as she arrives from England in the 1930s in search of her renegade husband and his cattle station. The movie culminates with the dramatic bombing of Darwin some ten years hence.

A few kilometres south of Wyndham along the King River is the unassuming Diggers Rest, a knockabout homestead that was home to 90 crew during two months of filming. Now reverted to its regular persona of quaint fishing camp and simple lodge, the tiny bar and games room still bears the evidence – dozens of autographs scrawled on the wall above the flat screen TV.

“We had some pretty wild nights here,” confesses Alida Woodland, who runs the property with husband Roderick, “we put almost one hundred tents out the back and built that new ablution block. It looked like an army camp here for about two months!”

A few kilometres down the Karunjie Road are the wide mud flats used to film some of the stock mustering scenes. With the ample Pentecost River to the west and the vast Cockburn Ranges to the east, the scene will contrast the harsh territory and stark beauty of the Kimberley.

At the other end of the rough track is Home Valley Station, another site frequented by the cast and crew both on and off duty.

“Baz just loved the view across the (Pentecost) river toward the Cockburn Ranges,” says Nicolle Fenech who manages the station with husband Chris, “so he spent a lot of time filming the vistas and sunset panoramas you’ll see in the movie.”

Home Valley Station is a recently refurbished destination property offering visitors quality accommodation, food and even conference facilities. Owned by the Indigenous Land Council (ILC) on behalf of the Balanggarra people of the East Kimberley, Home Valley is an accredited TAFE training college where locals learn the art of hospitality as well as pastoral skills.

There’s a lot riding on Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’, including a major international marketing offensive for Tourism Australia designed to re-route the wayward “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign.

Meanwhile, the Wandjina cast their hollow eyes down impassively on those below, their task long pre-defined in the Dreamtime, their destiny beyond our reach and comprehension.

Fact File:

Regional activities: Fishing, 4WDing, trekking, flight-seeing, camping

El Questro Wilderness Park (Google Map: -16.01, 127.98)
08 9169 1777
110 kilometres west of Kununurra by road

Home Valley Station (Google Map: -15.722, 127.82)
120 kilometres west of Kununurra by road
Phone: +61 (8) 9161 4322

Diggers Rest Station (Google Map: -15.64, 128.08)
(08) 9161 1029
37 kilometres south of Wyndam

Nearest Airport: Kununurra (KNX)
Serviced by Qantas, Skywest, Airnorth

Tom Butler: Mountain Man

The rugged high country of New Zealand's Southern Alps is no place for lightweights. The weather can be ferocious; windy and icy cold in winter and baking hot in the summer months. But none of that was going to stop mountain man, Tom Butler, from fulfilling his dream of a picture perfect guest lodge amid the stunning, blockbuster scenery.

Still in short pants, young Tom helped family friend and then owner, Oliver Newbegin, create his vision of an ideal rural retreat near the foreboding Arthurs Pass, 160 kilometres west up the steep glacial ranges from Christchurch. After school, Tom would head up to the site where the historic homestead was being painstakingly restored. His duties were modest; digging, shovelling and carting material from site to site.

Dating from the 1870s, the original structure was built by Arthur Hawdon, one of the Canterbury region's pioneer settlers. The house and the landholding passed through a century of convoluted transactions to Oliver in 1988. Over the years, the property had bred beef cattle, fine merino wool and deer for venison and continues to do so today with the working portion of the land leased out.

Despite the inauspicious beginnings, Tom was already well familiar and deeply fond of the area around the tiny, former fettlers' village of Cass, one stop before Arthurs Pass on the famous TranzAlpine Railway that cheerfully lugs tourists between both sides of the South Island to Greymouth on the West (wet) Coast.

With obvious affection, Tom shows lodge guests around what's left of Cass, pointing out the 'batch' (shack) his family regularly visited while he was growing up.

"Mum and Dad would bring the whole family up for weekends of tramping (hiking), fishing and later, hunting," recalls Tom, still an enthusiastic and expert hiker, climber and kayaker.

After the bulk of the work was finished and the homestead began welcoming its first guests, Tom set off for the UK and later returned to finish his university studies. Proudly clutching his new degree, Tom was quickly back at the lodge to exercise his new management qualifications. Things went well and Oliver gracefully faded into retirement, leaving the running and ownership of the lodge with Tom and another local business partner.

All staff, including Tom, live fulltime on the property attending to guests whims around the clock. The lodge is continually being added to and improved with the original homestead rooms converted to spa treatment, dining and relaxation areas. Accommodation for the maximum of twenty guests is now in brand new suites, a cottage and chalet that attract the highest echelon of luxury and affluent travellers from all over the world. Tom is not a name-dropper like some, but with a little prompting will divulge some of his celebrity visitors.

"I'll always remember Billy Crystal as a regular, down-to-earth guy who mixed with the other guests and was gracious and uncomplicated," says Tom, "he and his wife did like to dine alone in the cottage, but otherwise he was another guest enjoying the experience."

The much-revered and anonymous luxury arbiter, Andrew Harper, rates Tom's lodge as one of his favourites in New Zealand, describing it "a sensationally sited high-country hideaway that luxuriates beneath some of New Zealand's most awesome alpine scenery "

"Mr Harper has been here three times now," says Tom with a curious twist, "but I've never met him. He always books under a pseudonym and keeps a very low profile."

Then there's the story of the Texas oil baron who, obviously charmed by Tom and his ranch, bought two acres from a sub-division on the property after dinner one night.

Now, if you've followed the story so far you are probably wondering what the name of this esteemed lodge is. A member of both Select Hotels and Small Luxury Hotels, it consistently rates among the top luxury properties in Australia and New Zealand, gathering awards and accolades each year.

The retreat is Grasmere Lodge and its overwhelming success is the result of a bloke who displays vision and foresight beyond his years. Girls take note, Tom Butler, athletic outdoorsman, entrepreneur and lover of life is still in his early 30s and very single.

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