When you're at Moonlight Lodge, the hubbub of Queenstown is one mountain and seemingly worlds away. The peak of Ben Lomond stands guard at the end of the valley, rising between us and New Zealand's hectic adventure town. It's like a dam wall holding back the floodwaters of tourism as we hike alone through the mountains.
Moonlight Lodge sits at the heart of Ben Lomond Station, a working property with 300 square kilometres of mountain farmland and just five people on it this day – the three hikers in my group and property owners John and Ginny Foster. In a straight line, Queenstown is just 12 kilometres away.
The Fosters came to Ben Lomond Station as managers in 1986 and purchased the property in 2002. Across its tussock slopes they run 6500 superfine merino sheep and about 100 breeding cows, but they've also recently opened it to an exclusive hiking trip run by World Expeditions.
"Mum and dad were great trampers, and there's a sort of mystique in New Zealand about high country like this," John says. "I thought we just had some magnificent country."
The hike begins in Arthurs Point, a satellite suburb of Queenstown split by the Shotover River. High above the river, we set out walking on the Moonlight Track, which cuts across slopes covered in yellow alpine tussocks, though the real story here is gold.
The Moonlight Track was first cut for miners to access the glittering waterways tucked behind Queenstown. The Shotover has been called the richest river in the world, and once there were 2000 miners working along Moonlight Creek, where we'll spend much of the next four days. The point at which the two rivers meet, deep below us as we walk, was known to miners as the Jewel Box for its quantity of gold.
On the Shotover River this day, Queenstown frantically goes about its business. Two rafts float down the river, and from the opposite bank there's the distinct whoosh – and accompanying screams – of a body cutting through the air on a canyon swing. Atop the cliffs above us, a pair of wild goats tussle noisily for supremacy, their skulls crashing together as they butt heads.
Partway along the Moonlight Track, our route deviates, taking us onto private farm tracks and across the rushing Moonlight Creek. Ahead of us is a series of interlacing valleys that fork and then fork again until it seems as though I'm lost in a natural mountain maze. The land is intermittently devoid of trees and then suddenly smothered in beech forest - the all-or-nothing of New Zealand mountains.
Poised at the edge of a terrace high above the creek is Moonlight Lodge, the hike's stylish and spacious base camp. With its high ceiling and vast windows filled with mountain views, it has more the feeling of a wilderness lodge than a farmstay.
Bedrooms run in wings off the large lounge and dining room, which is wrapped around a fireplace built from local schist rock. Dinners might be wild venison or goat from the property, while a spotting scope by the windows provides detailed mountain viewing or the chance to seek out Blanco, the wild white deer that's hung around the station for years.
Mornings at the lodge open to a soundtrack of helicopters flying overhead towards Milford Sound – Queenstown is awake and active before we are. This morning we're heading back to the Shotover River, climbing over a ridge behind the lodge and dropping into Skippers Canyon, downstream from where we began the hike.
Atop the ridge, it's hard to believe we're on a farm. Beside our feet, cliffs plunge away hundreds of metres, and mountains encircle us. Were it not for the sheep grazing the slopes below us, it could easily be a wilderness area.
The descent from the ridge is along an old pack track first used by gold miners and then by horses supplying musterers in Skippers Canyon. Today it's little more than a faint crease in the grass, where marjoram grows wild, scenting the air as we step through it.
Like the packhorses of a century before, we emerge above Skippers Canyon, which remains about as busy as it was in gold-rush times. Buses wriggle along the remarkable road across its cliffs, and helicopters shuttle rafters to their launch point inside the canyon.
Perched on a ledge above the canyon, staring across the river to the road and Coronet Peak, is the 110-year-old Blue Jacket Hut, a former musterers' hut that will be our home for the night.
The corrugated hut is bare-bones basic, but has the sort of views on which a resort would build a reputation. By evening all traffic has gone, and the canyon feels as though it belongs to us alone. Soon a curry is bubbling on the stove, and on a crisp, clear night I drag a mattress outside and fall asleep beneath a ceiling of stars.
Things get very Queenstown the next morning as we rise early and descend steeply through the cliffs to the river, where the Skippers Canyon jet-boat awaits us. Soon we're hurtling upstream, skimming past canyon walls and wrecked gold dredges on a stretch of river that featured in The Lord of the Rings and Mission Impossible: Fallout. Five kilometres up the canyon, the boat drops us at Maori Point, one of the first spots where gold was found in the Shotover River, and the walking begins again.
Heading along benches of land barely as wide as the track, we follow the course of an old mining water race that all but overhangs the deep chasm of Stony Creek. It's vertiginous, dramatic and wonderful. Rain is forecast to march in behind us, but the sky is as clean as a new page.
Through a series of valleys and thick swatches of beech forest, we return to Moonlight Lodge, where the classically Queenstown nature of the walk is to continue the next morning, with a helicopter booked to deliver us onto the slopes of Ben Lomond. From here, we'll hike across the mountain to finish in Queenstown.
By morning, however, the land is obliterated by mist. Hours pass at the lodge as we wait for the cloud to lift, though time seems immaterial as nature slowly goes about its business.
Finally, after midday, there's a break in the cloud cover. A helicopter arrives on the lodge's lawn, and we are away, heading for the rarely trodden northern ridge of Ben Lomond. With cloud already sinking over the mountains again, the pilot lands us below the ridge, on a spur so narrow that the helicopter's skid pads hang off its either side.
We scramble out of the helicopter and ascend 300 metres to the crest of the ridge, looking up to the tip of Ben Lomond and down onto Moke Lake. A few steps from the summit, we merge with the crowds on one of Queenstown's most popular day walks. We're among other hikers for the first time in four days.
Atop the mountain, all eyes gaze out over Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu, but I can't help but turn my back. In the opposite direction, far below me, Moonlight Creek slices through the mountains and an extraordinary station sprawls across the landscape. Queenstown can wait.
FIVE OTHER PRIVATE NZ WALKS
New Zealand's oldest private track is a three-day loop through farmland and along craggy coastline on Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch. See bankstrack.co.nz
KAIKOURA COASTAL TRACK
Combine a long beach walk with inland hill climbs, while being hosted at night by farming families on this two-day hike. See kaikouratrack.co.nz
HUMP RIDGE TRACK
HURUNUI HIGH COUNTRY TRACK
Three days of hiking through a high country station north of Christchurch, taking in farmland, forest and subalpine ridges. See walkingtrack.co.nz
TORA COASTAL WALK
Three-day walk beside the Martinborough wine region, staying in a beautiful range of accommodation, from refurbished shearers' quarters to a purpose-built lodge at the ocean edge. See toracoastalwalk.nz
Air New Zealand flies direct to Queenstown from Melbourne up to eight times per week, and from Sydney up to nine times per week. See airnewzealand.com.au
World Expeditions runs the five-day Moonlight Valley and Ben Lomond Backcountry Hike, starting and finishing in Queenstown. Prices start at $2990. See worldexpeditions.com
Andrew Bain was a guest of World Expeditions, Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand.