City dweller Janna Hamilton gets out of her comfort zone, spending a weekend getting wild in Poronui - albeit with a large dose of luxury.
I don't kill things, I just eat things that have been killed by someone else. I'm perfectly comfortable with that, and thankfully the Ready for the Wild weekend hosted by larger-than-life celebrity chef Al Brown was more for the foodies than the hunter-gatherers among us.
Battling the southern motorway on a Friday night was tempered with the knowledge that in just four hours I'd be driving through the gates of Poronui wilderness retreat in the Taharua Valley just outside Taupo, glass of pinot noir in hand and taking my seat at the banquet table ready to be served a small feast by Brown.
The inaugural weekend had attracted 12 couples from around the North Island to the 16,000-acre slice of wilderness, all keen to test their outdoors prowess and devour delicious wild food delicacies washed down with a plethora of fine wine.
Brown addressed the guests with a toast, hinting at some of the weekend's adventures that lay ahead. We were to be split into teams of six to compete in a series of Masterchef-style wild food challenges.
He assured us that no one would have to kill, maim or shoot anything. Perfect.
Despite a few cargo pants and camo jackets, as I looked around the room my concerns of arriving at Poronui for a weekend with a bunch of mercenary-style, army surplus enthusiasts were soon dispelled. Still, though, nerves were setting in about how little I would have to offer my team in the podium stakes.
The nerves were soon quelled back at our luxury accommodation thanks to a roaring fire and a spot of port. Set on a plateau overlooking the Taharua River, five-star Blake House is a 7km journey from the dining lodge deeper into the Poronui wilderness. Featuring four ensuite double bedrooms, an eight-bed bunk room, library, cigar room and spacious lounge, it was easy to kick back and wonder what on earth was in store the next day.
At any time of the year, guests come to Poronui to enjoy its seclusion and world-class hunting, fishing and hiking, complemented by experienced Kiwi guides. And after a big day in the outdoors you can relax and indulge in the luxury accommodation ranging from the iconic Lodge, the Stables, stately Blake House to an evening under the stars at the Safari Camp on the edge of the Mohaka River.
Unofficially, the first challenge of the day was convincing two team members from Katikati who, skilled in the art of all things hunting, sensed they'd lucked out with a bunch of city slicker teammates. Within the first five minutes of piling into their Land Cruiser en route to our first challenge, a question from the back seat - "Is that hay, or is it just long grass?" - invited the first "bloody Aucklanders" remark of the day. Ah, but the pleasure when my teammate responded "Nope, I'm from Wellington, actually".
But we all soon bonded into what would become a winning combination. Together we cooked glorious wild boar pies, plucked a duck, dissected a hare, rustled up tasty stuffing, sliced the back straps off venison, shot clay pigeons, fired arrows at (fake) deer, tied trout flies, fly-fished for (fake) trout, foraged in the wild and seriously heaved with laughter in the fresh oxygen.
As a credit to their professionalism, Brown and the Poronui team never raised an eyebrow at our amateur antics.
Walking alongside Brown en route to the clay bird shooting range, I asked: 'So what exactly is a clay bird? And do you use a real gun?' This was the part of the day I was dreading.
Suddenly it was my turn. Ear muffs on, double-barrelled rifle in hand. First shot, clay bird obliterated! A safe distance away, my team rejoiced. Second shot, feeling confident, I pulled the trigger. But the gun kicked back, sending me flying into my guide. In a state of shock I decided I was finished with this game and would never pick up a gun again. Ever.
Walking away, Brown said: "Well, at least you tried". I must have been bad.
I was relieved to hear it was time to head to the last challenge of the day, housed in the 10,000-bottle wine cellar for a tasting challenge. Hallelujah.
To our team's surprise, after an exhausting, thrilling day of competition, somehow we'd won. Bloody handy Aucklanders.
But nothing could beat finishing the day off hovering around Brown in the open plan kitchen as he cooked our seven-course wild food feast including such gourmet delights as Poronui venison, wild boar, hare and duck.
I was sent home the next day with a chilly bin of fine cuts of hare and venison back straps, an antler trophy, a matai chopping board and an arsenal of hilarity. Amazing what you can pack into two days when you head south.
Getting there: Distance: 325km. Driving time: 4 hrs 45min. Directions: From Taupo, drive 25km southeast on SH5 towards Napier (45min), then right on to Taharua Rd for a further 21km. Or: Poronui offers a helicopter service and a landing strip for light aircraft.
On the way: If going via Matamata, stop for coffee or lunch at the Kaimai Cheese Company Cafe and Store, Waharoa, open 7 days 8am-4pm.
Accommodation: Costs range from $565 per person per night, for a private room with ensuite, all meals, house wine and beer, same day laundry service. Special packages available for short or long stay visits and group bookings. Ph (07) 384 2080, poronui.co.nz
Things to do: Guided fishing for brown and rainbow trout; guided hunting for free range sika and red stag, game estate trophy hunting for red stag, fallow buck, sambar, rusa; hiking and guided walks; horse riding; mountain biking; field archery; field target shooting; sporting clays; massage, sauna and beauty treatments.
Coming events: Poronui's fifth Annual Food and Wine Weekends will be held on October 1-3 (Geoff Scott, owner/chef of Vinnies restaurant in Auckland with Warren Gibson of Trinity Hill Winery); October 8-10 (Martin Bosley and Tim Heath of Cloudy Bay) and October 15-17 (Al Brown and Duncan Forsyth of Mount Edward). The weekends are strictly limited to 11 couples. Tariff is $1650 per couple and includes two nights accommodation in a private room with ensuite bathroom, all meals, including cocktails and canapes, followed by a relaxed dinner on Friday night at Poronui Lodge, the Gala Degustation Dinner on Saturday night with matched wines in the Wine Cellar, country breakfast each morning and picnic lunch on Saturday. For inquiries, call Eve (07) 384 2080, or email firstname.lastname@example.org