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A trip to the Mackenzie Country, staying in luxury accommodation in Lake Pukaki and Twizel, made Catherine Pattison realise how long it had been since she last took the time to stare up into the night sky.
When did you last lie back and look at the stars?
Before children, stars were romantic things to be slept out under, partied beneath at heaving, outdoor dance parties and faint beacons fading into daylight as we bright young things made our weary way home.
A decade on and spending significant time with stars is a distant memory. Cue heading away for two nights with my man but minus our two little girls into a region known as the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve. This 4300sq km area has held this rather illustrious title since 2012 and light pollution is now strictly controlled there. It is the only dark sky reserve of its kind in the southern hemisphere, and one of only eight in the world.
First stop on the itinerary is the incredibly scenically positioned Lakestone Lodge, built by Kiwi couple Mike and Anna Bacchus. Perched on the hill, it offers six bedrooms looking across Lake Pukaki and is entirely off the power grid.
Water comes from a well, which is pumped up to the tank, and 8kW solar panels backed up by batteries provide enough energy to power a commercial kitchen that feeds the lodge’s guests.
Many passive features create a year-round consistent temperature in the lodge, which recorded lows of -20degC during its building phase. The ceiling insulation is 40cm thick, with 20cm in the walls. Concrete walls and tiles have been strategically placed throughout the building to absorb the sun’s energy.
They allow 100% of the winter sun into the building but come summer, none of the rays make it inside. A wetback fire to help heat the lodge’s water and a heat transfer system complete the
picture. The Bacchus’ had lived nearby and had long coveted the land the lodge is built on. In 2013, the opportunity to buy it came up and a 14-month build process followed, bolstered by working bees involving family and friends. Lakestone Lodge opened in 2016 and there has never been a shortage of guests, right from the start.
"Our first summer was pretty much full. You couldn’t dream of that," Mr Bacchus says. The couple live in their own wing of the lodge with their two young children and take turns hosting the top-notch, restaurant-quality dinners and breakfasts. Their two chefs are rostered to ensure there is weekly family time available and help minimise the possibility of the Bacchus’ suffering hospitality burnout.
Mr Bacchus is on dinner duty while we are there and after two courses of a delicious three-course meal, he suggests some pre-dessert star-gazing. Rugged up in jackets, hats, gloves and provided with head torches, we take a short walk up into the hills with our fellow guests — some warming their hike with an optional mulled wine — to a high point. Here we find an ingenious hammock station, where we each hook up a temporary bed.
Supplied with a blanket and snugly cocooned in the gently-swinging hammock, gazing up at the stars evokes a profoundly blissful, peaceful feeling. I ask myself for the first time this weekend, when did I last take the time to lie back and look at the stars?
The planned scenic helicopter flight is no longer an option due to the wild weather and after a delectable breakfast we decide to walk it off on the nearby Department of Conservation Baikie Hut track. Ringed by mountains, the trail takes us 8km into the heart of the Mackenzie region while the weather does its New Zealand best to provide four seasons in the 16km round trip.
Sweaty, snowed-on and slightly muddy, we head to the SkyScape office on the outskirts of Twizel, where we meet the owner-operators of this innovative accommodation experience, Bevan and Bridget Newlands. They escort us out along the farm track that leads to a gloriously secluded dwelling.
The grass-roofed back side of the building greets us before the breathtaking view out over completely unpopulated farmland, framed by snow-capped ranges, captures our hearts. Built over 11 months by the same Twizel builder, Colin Hunter, who was responsible for the construction of Lakestone Lodge and designed by Oamaru architect Ian Perry, SkyScape’s crowning glory is its glass frontage, which extends up over our heads forming a see-through roof.
Like Lakestone Lodge, SkyScape makes the most of thermal mass, with concrete floors and walls retaining heat during the day. Once the temperature dips below 19degC, a gas califont kicks in and heats the radiators, ensuring a snug stay, whatever the weather.
The nfour-year process to gain consent to build on the Omahau Hill farm, that belongs Mrs Newlands’ parents, Elaine and Mike Lindsay, has been worth the hassle.
The average occupancy of this enchanting getaway is up to 85% since it opened in February this year. Word of its extraordinary location and ability to star-gaze from the comfort of your bed (or outdoor bath) quickly reached countries where the stars are simply not visible due to light and environmental pollution. A recent visitor from Hong Kong "organised her whole trip around coming here," Mrs Newlands reveals. It is easy to see why. Nestled down below ground level, the accommodation encourages the feeling that you are at once part of the landscape and, courtesy of the abundance of glass in front and above, enveloped by the weather.
"It’s amazing how much it changes. Not day by day but hour by hour because of being so close to the Southern Alps," Mrs Newlands explains. Indeed, the snowstorm on our arrival peters out by the time the two-person bath has filled and as the weak evening sun colours the evening sky purple and pink, the first twinkles begin to dot the sky. Later, they provide a full celestial canopy above our heads as we drift off to sleep.
There is not another dwelling in sight, let alone a restaurant, cafe or even a dairy, which is part of the isolated beauty of SkyScape. The Newlands supply a generous dinner platter of local delicacies, including salmon and cheeses. With continental breakfast stocked in the fridge, there is no need to worry about venturing out to forage; simply lie back, listen to the whispering wind and revel in that glorious outlook.
After somewhat reluctantly leaving Skyscape, we catch up with Jill Jenkins, of Lakeland Explorer, in Twizel, for a guided trip around the Mackenzie Country. She conducts small, personalised tours including star-gazing outings and provides us with a knowledgeable, friendly tour around Lake Pukaki, Twizel and Lake Ohau. We visit the lakes, hydro systems, canals and the area’s farming stations, hearing about their history, Lord of the Rings claims-to-fame and the backgrounds of some influential founding figures.
Ms Jenkins loves living in Twizel and accessing the 5665ha of conservation land available to the public to ride or hike through. She talks about the open spaces, the golden tussock country and the ever-changing drama in the landscape. She talks about how much her star-gazing groups love to lie back in the tussocks and look at the uninterrupted night sky.
Ask yourself when you last did something similar and if, like me, the answer is too long ago, book at trip to the Mackenzie region and remedy the situation.