In an isolated Wanaka valley, family-run Minaret Station espouses the beauty of solitude.
Dusted with otherworldly peaks and valleys, the South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand is famously an adventurer’s playground. Look down; there, gathered to the base of one of her ranges lies Queenstown, a small but energetic lakeside town, where after days of bungee-jumping and canyon swings, students fleeing Auckland for the weekend and resident European backpackers alike, gather in pubs away from the main promenade. It’s fall when my girlhood friend, Nat, and I visit, among the tourists who betray themselves by form-fitting activewear and puffy outer, the locals only too happy to go about in tees and shorts, immune to the chill biting at their limbs.
Despite the region’s reputation for adrenaline, only an hour and a half’s drive away is a quieter pace that we have come to experience for ourselves; a single night at Minaret Station Alpine Lodge, hidden deep in a secluded valley. As the story goes, Sir Tim Wallis, a pioneering businessman, aviation enthusiast and beloved son of Wanaka, would often fly through these valleys since the early 1960s, and through his helicopter windows, see the area where the lodge now sits; the same twin waterfalls, streams and sun-flecked ridges. He had to have it, and in 1995, decades after the love affair began, seized the opportunity to execute his deeply-held vision for a luxury lodge and helicopter experiences, when the property became available.
I live in the suburbs skirting the outside of my beautiful home city of Sydney. She’s so beautiful, more beautiful than most — but there is a constant exchange of energy demanded of you in the harbourside city, which sustains, which motivates; but also, requires periods of respite from.“The famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, once said that, ‘We play in the inferior function’,” psychotherapist Mitchell Smolkin would say, when I return home, days later, and ask him about the beauty of solitude. “What he meant by that was that if we are prone to live our lives in an extroverted way, constantly energising ourselves through others and in social contexts, that investing in the opposite — in this case, a kind of solitude — could be highly beneficial.”
The alpine lodge is not accessible by any other way but helicopter, and as we fly away from the local airport, the cabin is quiet. It is hard to fathom that this is the commute taken by Minaret Station staff, when I have all but memorised the different blurs created by the buildings and tunnels that Sydney trains take me past during the week. The route is directly in the path of Wanaka’s beautiful farmlands, plots of green lined with yellowing pine trees. Streams of the most azure blue wind through the valleys and pass under us, before we summit the range of peaks that have been approaching ahead. According to Māori legend, the Sky-father, Rangi, and Earth-mother were torn from each other’s embrace by the eldest of their six sons, Tāne, to allow light to reach earth; this light now turns the lake spread before us, beyond the peaks, into a most beautiful glass ornament.
Flying into the valley where the lodge is nestled, our pilot takes us close to a neighbouring waterfall, before carefully setting us all down at one of the few helicopter pads. Our luggage is kindly unloaded for us, and then he is off again; only Nat, myself, and three of the lodge’s waiting staff, alone together.
For those whose horizons stop as soon as the neighbours’ nearby fence, or the shop fronts on crowded city streets, to look upon the distant valley walls is a welcome mental respite. It is a wonder that brings guests back once, twice, sometimes annually to look upon. As Smolkin comments: “In some sense, it goes back to this idea of homeostasis, where the body and psyche compensate for being too polarised and return to a good enough balance, such as in the small range of body temperature that allows a human being to survive.” Here, rather than having solitude forced upon us by feverish bodies that have to lay in darkened rooms to recuperate, we joyfully drink wine from the region on the main lodge’s deck, watching as the dancing light traverses each ridge and centuries’ old tree, made possible by Tāne’s determination.
The warm guest services associate who takes care of us during our stay originally hails from the United Kingdom, but shares how the pristine landscape and warmth of Kiwis have turned this country into her home. “Kiwis are known for their kindness and generosity, which is why I personally felt at ease and accepted once settling here,” she says to us, likewise born to another country but hopelessly enthralled by this part of the world. “The combination of breathtaking natural beauty, welcoming culture and high quality of life, inspired a sense of connection and belonging that I have never felt visiting another country, and is why I am now proud to call New Zealand home.”
We’re served canapes in the main lodge’s library, a wallpapered room with fireplace, generously sized armchairs and soft furnishings. The first is a light and fresh prawn rice roll; the second, tuna tartare served with radish and avocado. As we eat, we thumb through the pages of the leather-bound guest books, one of the many sweet messages proclaiming their stay as “one of the best days of our lives!”. Penny Stevensen, the company’s general manager, affirms the connection shared with every guest that visits, so unique is the property. “We have guests enjoy our place from the world over, but the sense of coming together over dinner, and sharing conversation around the long dining table, also reiterates the high country hospitality and warm family environment we like to share.”
Meals, prepared on location by Ivan Savae, the lodge’s resident chef, are designed with mindfulness of the seasonal and varied produce sourced from local suppliers. The menu is different each day, catering to individual needs; and the freedom to create what he desires is what Savae says he loves most. “Having the connection with the farm is important to know where our meat is coming from. It’s important to us that we create menus that showcase our product we have at the farm such as venison, beef, and Lumina lamb,” he comments. “Our focus on food is being creative, simple and elegant, modern, tasty and presentable.”
We move to the dining table for dinner, a long farmhouse table that runs down the centre of the space connecting the library,`1` and a cosy living area where we’ll find ourselves nestling morning coffees during a game of chess the next morning. Placed between a light and elegant fish dish, and a desert course of vanilla ice cream served with rhubarb, lamb is served perfectly medium rare, with lightly charred onion, baby carrots decorating the plate. “[Lumina lamb is] so succulent and rich in nutrients. So, when creating components and flavours to accompany this tasty piece of cut, I look for something creamy, not too rich,” Savae elaborates, illustrating his obvious connection to local produce. “It can be a root vegetable or some sort and a bit of sweetness with lightly reduced red wine jus and seasonal charred greens. Simple, elegant, and tasty.” He concludes, much in a way expected of a heartening place, region and country such as this: “Cook with your heart.”
After dinner we retire to our private chalet — for which we’ve kindly received turndown service — making use of the hot tub on our deck, filled daily with fresh mountain water; a gentle way to ease our way to sleep. Though we set an alarm, my body wakes me before it goes off, as if telling me, don’t miss this; you don’t want to miss this. I lay in bed for a while, watching the light change on the tree-laden valley walls ahead, before both Nat and I jump up and throw on coats before running outside; torn between the sense of calm and, conversely, feeling of awe, which can both be devoid from everyday city life.
In our conversation, Smolkin reflects on the ways that his own work as a psychotherapist is its own kind of shared isolation, especially over the years as the four walls around two people contain a kind of privileged relationship. “We like to feel seen as individuals, and this is not an easy task,” he says. “Shared isolation could promote a kind of knowing that would bond two people or a larger group to each other.” Like a family on an expansive farm, bringing the beauty of their country to travellers; like a small team running a secluded homestead, with each other to rely on. Like two girlhood friends, who share memories of first heartbreaks and final exams, and now, a sunrise walk along valley floors, culminating in the arrival at a private waterfall, never to be seen but by the guests who visit here.
In the legend of Tāne, the Sky-father and Earth-mother never recovered from the sorrow of their parting. As New Zealander author, Edith Howes MBE, recounted,”Often in the night Rangi’s tears fall upon the Earth-mother’s garden; men, seeing these tears, call them dew.” Together in an alpine valley in Wanaka — before a helicopter ride back to a lakeside town of tourists; before the eventual resumption of city train rides of passing blurs — it seemed that we alone were there to witness their beautiful heartbreak. “He looks fondly down upon her from the sun and moon, which are his eyes; she sends up soft sighs of mist to tell him of her never-dying love. Yet they are not quite separated, for their hands, outstretched, touch each other on the low horizon.”