Hanmer: Into the wild

Just a short walk from civilisation, Fergus Blakiston discovers a wild landscape shaped by snow, ice and heat.
Tourists enjoying hot pools in Hanmer Springs. Photo / 123RF
Tourists enjoying hot pools in Hanmer Springs. Photo / 123RF

We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

The falcon comes straight at me. I can see its big eyes fixed on me as it approaches on a dead level and silent flight path, like a feathered attack drone. Its mate screeches from the jagged top of a broken pine tree: a shrill kree-kree-kree of strike co-ordinates.

I am standing on an eroded clay outcrop halfway up Conical Hill, which overlooks the spa town of Hanmer Springs. The winter air is so cold it hurts to breathe. Frost clings to every branch. Wreaths of wood-smoke hang in the valley bottoms. I have climbed the hill to photograph the town from above on this frosty June morning. But in doing so I unwittingly strayed into the falcon's airspace.

At the last second the bird flares its wings and tail. I glimpse wickedly sharp talons and a cruel hooked beak. I feel the terror a small mammal must experience during the same crowded moment.

As I beat a hasty, undignified retreat, I slip and fall down a bluff into a jumble of branches. I scramble out of the icy wilderness and limp downhill to the comfort of a latte and Wi-Fi.

Hanmer Springs (known locally as plain Hanmer or, by the annoying mispronunciation "Ham-na"), nestles under the lee of the Southern Alps in North Canterbury. Encircled by a skyline of jagged mountains, and surrounded by deep green pine forests, Hanmer owes its existence to a series of hot springs that emerge from a fissure in the Alpine Fault, which runs down the spine of the South Island.

The town emerged briefly shaken but largely unstirred from the recent earthquakes in the area.

Well known to early Maori, the springs were "discovered" in 1859 by Thomas Hanmer, a local run-holder. The therapeutic properties of the hot, mineral-rich springs were quickly recognised and from 1879 onwards, tourists began visiting Hanmer to "take the waters".

Today, Hanmer is a busy spa town. There are all sorts of adventure activities - bungy-jumping, heli-skiing, mountain-biking and an assortment of other hyphenated action sports - and great cafes. Dozens of holiday cottages are available for rent during winter, and there's a selection of boutique hotels. But to me, the real joy of Hanmer is the ease with which you can leave the bustle of town and escape into the wild.

Waiau River from Riverview lookout, Hanmer Springs, Canterbury. Photo / 123RF
Waiau River from Riverview lookout, Hanmer Springs, Canterbury. Photo / 123RF


Northwest of Hanmer, Jacks Pass Rd climbs a steep, heavily timbered ridge to a scrubby saddle then descends into the valley of the Acheron River. In just a few minutes (my takeaway latte from the Powerhouse Cafe is still untouched) I have swapped the bustle of Amuri St for this vast, empty space.

A battalion of pylons, slung with a tracery of silver cables, marches through the valley, carrying electricity from the turbines of the southern lakes to the heat pumps and appliances of the northern cities. The lines fizz and crackle as the energy within them leaks into the frigid air. The surrounding peaks stand aloof in their white glaze of snow.

A skein of freezing mist hangs over the water. The edges of the river are rimmed with ice and clad with swards of snow tussock rigid with hoar frost. Sleek herefords exhale clouds of vapour as they mooch the river flats. A 4WD laden with black and tan huntaways climbs a zig-zag track into a valley locked in permanent winter shadow.

The old Acheron Homestead stands on a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Acheron and Clarence Rivers. Built in 1862, the homestead was used until 1932 as a boarding-house for travellers on the inland route between Nelson and Christchurch. The thick cob walls are rounded and organic. Inside, it is quiet and cold; the dusty timber floors creak underfoot.

Below the homestead, the opaline waters of the Acheron meet the equally clear and blue Clarence River. Overhead, the azure sky is dotted with lenticular clouds, the outriders of stormy weather in the High Country. I return to Hanmer over the rough Jollies Pass Rd, through basins of running shingle and narrow gullies thick with olive beech forest.

Next day, the foretold change in the weather arrives. The incoming front is heralded by wisps of cloud pouring like dry ice over the passes. The air in the valley is so clear the mountains seem magnified. The bare limbs of the poplars and birches begin to stir as a cold South wind sweeps down from the tops.

By mid-morning, it is snowing: big, wet flakes falling from a leaden sky. The snow clings to the trees and tumbles in blackened lumps from passing cars. I sit in a warm cafe and watch the snow soften and round the landscape. Later, muffled in waterproof gear, I hike alone through a forest of pine trees where the only sound is the creaking of snow-laden branches and the soft tap of dripping meltwater. The storm passes as quickly as it arrived. By late afternoon chips of pale blue sky are showing through the cloud. Warmth-less sun shimmers momentarily, then dips behind the rim of the hills.

In the evening, I retire to the sybaritic warmth of the hot pools. The 40C water fell as rain on the Hanmer Plain a century and a half ago. Heated in subterranean chambers, it percolated through the rocks until it re-emerged, smelling of hydrogen sulphide, to be filtered and sterilised and presented in a blue pool for me to relax in.

I lie back, gazing at the stars. The Southern Cross gleams. A ghost moon bathes the mountains in monochrome light. Up on Conical Hill, the falcons will be maintaining a vigil over their frigid domain. Steam rises from the pools and makes its way upwards into the frosty air: back into the water cycle, back into the wild.

CHECKLIST

Accommodation
Heritage Hanmer Springs has a special offer on the 'Plunge' package to stay before January 31 and receive a 10 per cent discount. (Promo code Hanmer)

- NZ Herald

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