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Hanmer Springs News

Explore Hanmer Springs

THE collie chained to the fence sets off a ruckus as we pull up at the farm gate and Bev Forrester bustles out to meet us.

The enchanting forest environment at Hanmer Springs can be explored on foot, bike or horseback.

She's wearing a poke bonnet and an apron that almost covers the checked brown skirt swirling around her ankles. It's an outfit that suggests the milk churn, but there's good reason. At her Black Hills farm near Hurunui, an hour's drive north of Christchurch, Forrester has a collection of historic farm buildings that offer an insight into pioneering life in the hill country of North Canterbury.

It's also a working sheep and cattle farm, with a sideline in horned Herefords. From the paddock, a shaggy creature ambles towards us with a menacing look in its beady eye. "Is that a horned Hereford?" I ask. "No, that's a sheep," Forrester says.

As well as the historic buildings, tours, tapestry-weaving business and weddings she organises on her farm, Forrester also designs a range of woollen garments that are marketed in Britain under the BlackHills label in England's Oxfordshire. For a small and unobtrusive rural operation that most people whiz past, this is a surprising place. Now, Forrester has to rush off. She's catching a flight to Wellington to attend a conference.

I am on a family trip with wife and daughter, and Black Hills Farm is our first stop on the Alpine Pacific Triangle, a new driving route from Christchurch. It's a part of New Zealand that doesn't make the tourist brochures, but it is a perfect fit for a family if you've got just a few days to spare. Distances are short, it works in all seasons and, at the pointy northern end of the triangle, the town of Kaikoura is home to a couple of world-class wildlife adventures.

Another hour's drive along the road takes us to Hanmer Springs, set on flats that slope down to the Hope River and ringed by the hills of the Hanmer Range. Adventures come naturally in Hanmer. Parked in the main street is a camouflage-green tracked vehicle that promises muddy fun and in the town's park hikers have kicked off their boots.

Whitewater rafting, jet boating, horseriding, four-wheel-drive trips and mountain bike tours are just some examples from Hanmer's outdoor repertoire. But Hanmer Springs is much better known for its softer side. The town's thermal springs were always used by Maori but it wasn't until late in the Victorian era that a bathhouse was built and the hot springs became popular with tourists.

The Hanmer Springs Thermal Reserve has seven open-air thermal pools, three sulphur pools and four private thermal pools, where temperatures hover at the 38C mark. It's a family favourite, especially at holiday times, and the private pools are a better bet if you want to soak in serenity.

At one end of the pool complex, The Spa has recently been retailored, and it is beautiful. There's a wall of expensive moisturising products, smells that suggest a Tibetan lamasery and the kind of ambient music that dolphins would probably compose if you let them loose with a digital synthesiser.

There's also a series of treatment rooms with a menu of piquant suggestions. I can have hot stones scattered across my back, have my face anointed with aromatic oils and wrapped in hot towels or have my pelt descaled to unleash the fresh and frisky me that lies within.

The Vichy shower sounds safe enough -- an hour on a slab while a masseur plays a perforated wand of warm water across my back -- and is sinfully satisfying. The Vichy shower uses enough water to rescue Australia from drought and flood the Murray-Darling river system with a single treatment, but it's all recycled, according to my masseur.

The next day, while my wife and daughter bask in the spa, I am recovered sufficiently to take a 4WD tour. We head north to cross the Hanmer Range, then into the tobacco-coloured hills along the Clarence River. This is part of Molesworth Station, once NZ's largest grazing property before it was taken over by the Department of Conservation.

It is bare and severe but lovely. Some of the hillsides are nothing but scree, and so sharp that not even lichens can establish a foothold. There are tall white gentian flowers erupting from clumps of tussock and pasture grass, dandelions, buttercup, golden star lily, hebe and mountain flax.

As a retired farmer, McIntosh is mildly disapproving of government policies that allocate vast parcels of land to the Conservation Department, which doesn't have the resources to look after them.

And so the pretty, yellow broom bristles across the hills while the rabbits, flatweed and wilding pines flourish but, as McIntosh admits, the Conservation Department cops a hiding from everyone. If the back country hut is full when you arrive, if a forest goes up in flames, if the road through a national park is potholed, blame the department. As a pincushion for Kiwi malcontents, the department is rivalled only by Prime Minister Helen Clark.

Next stop is the coastal town of Kaikoura, via a road that threads through the cleavage of the Amuri Range. In the Maori language, Kaikoura means to eat crayfish, and while the town is still known for its crays, it's much more famous for its marine mammals. This is one of the best places to see sperm whales, the world's largest toothed mammal, with a length of 20m and a weight of 60 tonnes. The reason is the abundance of squid, the whales' favourite main course, in the deep trench barely a kilometre off Kaikoura.

These seas also provide a deep-sea larder for other marine life, especially dolphins. The area is home to a huge population of dusky dolphins, one of the most acrobatic and sociable of the dolphin species, and the next day we are signed up for a swim session with Dolphin Encounter. Kitted out in wetsuits and carrying flippers, masks and snorkels, we are transferred by bus to the boat that will whisk us to dolphin territory.

Within 10 minutes we spot the dolphins: it's a magic moment, specially for the generation Y travellers who make up the majority of the passengers. They are packed against the boat's railings, camera fingers working overtime as they try to capture the acrobatics of the dolphins as they explode from the water, turn somersaults, leap four abreast from the water and ride our bow wave.

We've seen a video back at Dolphin Encounter reception, so we know what to expect, but it's a pale shadow of the real thing. According to our on-board naturalist, there are about 500 dolphins in this single pod.

Despite the 12C water temperature, my daughter Isabelle has to be restrained from leaping in before the boat has stopped. Visibility in the water is no more than a few metres and the dolphins materialise suddenly from below and behind, give us the once-over from little more than an arm's length away, then are gone. We discover you can prolong the encounter if you make interesting noises, and so from our snorkel tubes comes a weird chorus of honks, chirps and moans.

Within 10 minutes the first session is over. The boat sounds its horn and we clamber back on board and set off to intercept the dolphins again. Four more times we repeat the process. It's a class act, from Dolphin Encounter as well as the dolphins.

When we peel off our wetsuits, there's a warm water hose-down, and on the way back to the dock we pass a fur seal whipping a large fish from side to side to break it up and, hovering above, an albatross, gulls and an Australian gannet competing for the crumbs.

The next morning, we are booked for an excursion with Maori Tours Kaikoura. The rich marine resources of the coast supported a population of several hundred Ngai Tahu, as the local tribe is known. During the past 15 years, the Ngai Tahu people have used a land claims settlement from the NZ Government to establish the Ngai Tahu Holdings Group, a multi-faceted operation that returned a net surplus of more than $NZ80 million ($72.6 million) during the 2006-07 financial year.

Maurice Manawatu and Alisha Thomas, his young relative, pick us up in a van from the parking lot of the local tourist information centre. Manawatu can trace his Ngai Tahu ancestry back 22 generations, a lineage that takes him back when his ancestors arrived in NZ.

We spiral high above Kaikoura to visit the remains of a pa, a Maori fortified hilltop, one of several in the area. Thomas must sing a karanga, a Maori women's song of introduction, before we can enter the pa. We seal the introduction with a hangi, the pressing of noses, and we are given Maori names. Maori is an oral culture and oratorical skill places you several rungs up the status ladder.

Taking turns, we introduce ourselves by describing the geography of our birthplace and our family, the linchpins that give us identity in the Maori world.

We stroll through a forest and learn about the kawakawa, source of a medicinal tea; the totara, the canoe tree; and the ponga, the silver tree fern. Under Thomas's tutelage, we weave flax, the Maori's multi-purpose fabric and construction material. We also sing. Maori have wonderful voices that make them naturals for the church choir. In such a choir in my youth, I was told just to keep quiet and move my lips. The Maori song that Manawatu teaches us may be mangled, but we sing it with feeling.

It is time to head south; a little more than an hour from Kaikoura and we are among the vineyards of the Waipara winegrowing district. Separated from the ocean by the Teviotdale Hills, the Y-shaped Waipara Valley turns out exceptional pinot noir and riesling. There are those who say that Waipara is where the action is in the world of NZ pinot noir, and we are just in time to stop at Pegasus Bay and load up with bottles.

"Good day?" asks the cellarman, and I am tempted to make a crack about wine, women and song, but even I know better than that.

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