Diane Armstrong finds tall tales, Middle-Earth beauty and remote luxury on the South Island.
'Here's a good survival tip if you ever get lost around here," says Dick Watson as the Land Rover lurches over the stony track of the Rees Valley. "Take lots of pepper."
I think I must have misheard him. Or perhaps it's that Kiwi accent.
I'm still trying to work this out when he points at the narrow tracks worn into the steep slopes on the mountain side.
"Possum runs." He spits the words out with distaste. "What you do is sprinkle pepper at the base. It'll make them sneeze so much, they'll fall over, hit their heads on the rocks, knock themselves out and then you'll have one [to eat] in the morning."
Possums are not his favourite animals and that's because more than 70 million of them have devastated the vegetation of the landscape he loves.
Watson, the only operator who offers tours of this remote, rugged terrain, is known as the Crocodile Dundee of Glenorchy. That's not just on account of his weather-beaten face, dry sense of humour and love of the outdoors. It's also because of the anecdotes he has gathered during a life of adventures. One of them is a James Bond-type interlude in Turkey, when he was shot at by an army helicopter while skippering jetboats.
Our tour begins in Glenorchy, at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand's South Island. As we cruise along its quiet main street, past the factory that turns possum fur into hats and gloves, I wonder whether these possums were trapped according to Watson's instructions.
Past the waterfront, where sheep were once loaded on to steamships for points further south, Watson points to what looks like an overgrown football field. "Have you heard about our famous Glenorchy horse race?" he asks.
The first race was about 40 years ago and there has been one on the first Saturday after New Year's Day ever since. This year 3000 people came to watch 60 horses race. These aren't races for the fainthearted, though anyone can ride provided they wear a helmet.
Unlike most other racing events, the spectators are corralled inside the enclosure while the racers – locals riding their favourite horses – gallop 2 times around the outside.
Watson was one of the event's instigators. Being a young daredevil, he rode and won.
As we leave Glenorchy on what Watson calls his "road to nowhere", we follow the glacial rivers and valleys of some of Otago's wildest terrain. There's a picture-perfect coating of snow on the jagged peaks surrounding the Rees Valley. There isn't another vehicle or human in sight as we follow the braided Rees River, with its wide shingle deposits. The only sound is the slurping of the stream, an occasional flurry of wings as geese fly across the water and the chattering of chaffinches in the beech trees.
As puffs of cloud shift, the snowy peak of Mount Earnslaw and the gigantic Mount Head glacier come into view. This brooding mountain was the location Peter Jackson chose for the fortress of Isengard in his Lord of the Rings movie and it comes as no surprise to learn that Watson was one of the extras. He played a horseman racing to join Gandalf in the first part of the trilogy.
An alpine scene unfolds around a bend in the narrow track. Cows are grazing in an emerald meadow beneath snow-covered mountains. It could be Switzerland and, in fact, this is the scene featured on the wrappers of Milka chocolate.
The track grows rougher and, in awed silence, we survey the mountains that dwarf everything in the valley. As we ford foaming streams and bump over ruts and rocks, Watson talks about the history of this lonely region. Here, near the fast-flowing Oxburn River, the Maoris set up camp while searching for greenstone.
As the vehicle plunges into McDougalls Creek, spraying fountains of water up to the windows, he points out the Invincible Mine. This rich gold reef, discovered accidentally by a shepherd in the 1880s, proved all too vincible and was swallowed up several years later by an earthquake.
Watson scowls as a black shag flies across the valley. Shags spread the water weed called rock snot, which chokes and pollutes the rivers. He is an ardent conservationist whose deepest hatred is reserved for stoats and weasels. He tells us they were introduced to control rabbits but have been responsible for the extinction of more than 40 species of birds in New Zealand.
We stop for morning tea across from the Lennox Falls, which spill down the mountainside like a perpendicular river. While I clamber up the rocks to gain a view of the narrow chasm below, Watson boils the blackened billy. By the time we return tea is brewing and we sip cups with slices of date loaf, surrounded by beech forests and soaring mountains.
Our days in Otago are spent exploring remote valleys, spinning and whizzing down the Dart River in the longest, most scenic, jetboat trip in New Zealand, and hiking along mountain trails and lakeside tracks. And at night, we stay in the luxury of Blanket Bay Lodge.
In this isolated corner of New Zealand, without another building in sight, we have wilderness, adventure and indulgence.
With its huge schist fireplaces, stone-enclosed balconies overlooking the lake and mountains and cathedral ceilings supported by heavy timber beams, Blanket Bay Lodge is an architectural masterpiece. Three timber craftsmen were flown from Mexico for the project, for example; their sole job was to age the Tasmanian oak doors so they looked like they had been here for 100 years. Helicopters land regularly on the rolling lawns to fly guests on view glaciers on the way to Milford Sound.
From the design and decor to the understated but polished service, everything here is top quality.
One of the pleasures of staying at Blanket Bay Lodge is to gather in the bar as the sun sets and chat with German, Belgian, Canadian and American guests. Cocktails are followed by a five-course dinner created by chef Mark Sycamore. His juniper-flavoured beetroot soup and delicately flavoured lobster are the stand-outs.
Although fly-fishing is one of the activities offered by the lodge, trout doesn't feature on the menu. So I have to content myself with Watson's tip for catching wild trout: wait until a black shag dives for one and grab the trout by the tail just as it's about to disappear down the shag's gullet.
On second thoughts, perhaps it will be easier to stick with the lobster.
Diane Armstrong travelled courtesy of Blanket Bay Lodge.
Air New Zealand has weekly non-stop flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Queenstown for about $339 one way including tax. Qantas flies non-stop from Sydney for $346, while Melbourne passengers pay about $365 with a change of aircraft in Sydney. More airlines fly to Christchurch, from where you can fly or bus to Queenstown.
Blanket Bay Lodge is located at the far end of Lake Wakatipu, 50 minutes' drive from Queenstown. The tariff starts from $NZ950 ($770) a couple and includes a gourmet breakfast, pre-dinner drinks and five-course dinner. See blanketbay.com.
Dick Watson's tour costs $NZ245 a person for a half-day. See mountainlandrovers.co.nz.