Helicopters, volcanoes & the haka

Heiko Kaiser, the General Manager of Treetops, tells the story of a young family who came to stay. Each morning after breakfast the mother, father and son came to the Great Room and sat in a row on one of the oversized sofas. They each set up their screens; the mother had an iPhone, the father a laptop, the 10-year-old a Nintendo device. They happily sat for hours, each engaged in the business of their own screen, occasionally exchanging comments.

On the third day, Heiko suggested he take the boy into the great outdoors fishing from the bank of one of the property’s lakes. The boy was keen and the father thought he should go along too. That, the story goes, was the end of the Great Room sofa morning line-ups. Each day of their stay thereafter they set off from the lodge on a new outdoor adventure. When they arrived home in New York the mother wrote to Heiko expressing her gratitude for what their time at Treetops had brought to her family.

I chose this story because it was the shortest, but Heiko has a few stories on the same theme as this: family life made richer and deeper connections forged through the shared outdoor experiences arranged and hosted by Treetops. No one would suggest that if a family spends a lot of screen time on holidays there’s something less than rich or connected about it, but who needs a reason to spend a few days at a luxury lodge, getting out in the fresh air doing fun things together.

When the conversation is about helicopters and volcanoes, you don’t have to try much harder than that to distract a five-year-old boy from his game boy. So when the helicopter pilot joined us in the conservatory for coffee towards the end of our breakfast to talk about where we might fly that day and which local volcanoes we would see, our five-year-old was paying attention. We took off from the helipad on the Treetops Estate and flew to the top of Tarawera volcano and could have landed and walked along its crater if we’d been more adventurous.

We watched others who had climbed the high sides to do just that. We landed on a thin strip of sand on one of the hot beaches of nearby Lake Tarawera, itself the crater of a volcano. We were warned that some sections of the sand were so hot that if you stood in the one spot for longer than 30 seconds the soles of your feet would blister; such an exciting prospect for a kid. Although it was winter, a local family was swimming in one of the lake’s natural spas in bubbly water as warm as a bath. We joined them but not for long; our fishing boat had been waiting for us to board since our arrival on the beach.

Rotorua fisherman John Hamill would be our captain and coach for a trout fishing trip on the lake. All aboard, we headed to a fishing spot in the middle of the lake where he put on an electric jug and rigged up our lines. There’s a ban on commercial trout fishing in New Zealand so the only way you can eat trout is if you catch one yourself or a friend gives you one. Lake Tarawera is stocked each year with freshly farmed baby trout for tourists to catch in the following years. The number of trout in the lake is constantly monitored by a local authority and during our visit, the catch rate was on average one trout per fisherperson every 1.5 hours.

We sipped our tea, dunked Nice biscuits, relaxed into the calm and breathtaking beauty of the lake, chatted quietly and waited. Heiko from back at the lodge called the boat phone to ask if we’d caught anything yet. We’d had one false alarm before I felt the big tug and reeled in a three-kilo trout. John could tell its age by which fin had been cut off; alternative fins for each year of release. Given the current catch rate, it really was only a matter of time and my trout came about 50 minutes into the fishing trip. John told us to turn our heads, then clubbed and gutted it and slipped it into a vacuum-sealed bag on ice for the homeward boat ride. On the wharf we were met by one of the lodge’s chauffeurs in a four-wheel-drive BMW and the trout was transferred to another esky in the boot. The next time we saw it was on the kitchen bench at Treetops where the chef was suggesting he dress it in herbs for dinner that night.

Treetops is set on two-and-a-half-thousand acres of wilderness land and the hosted activities at the lodge are all about ways to get out amongst it. One way is on horseback.

Diddi Rice, a Maori elder and long-time friend of the lodge owner New Zealand multi-millionaire John Sax, runs the stables at Treetops. He’ll saddle up the right kind of horse for the skill level of the rider and lead a ride through the property’s paddocks where he points out wildlife, tells stories and whistles loudly to himself. Our ride was a slow walk while Diddi held the reins of our five-year-old’s horse. We rode along trails that wound through native bush and across open grassland and saw a rushing stream, deer, buffalo and huge, grunting bush pigs.

Instead of riding back along the same route we were met in a clearing by Eru Tutaki, a young chef from the lodge who took us for a Maori Indigenous Food Trail walk. For 800 years before the arrival of Europeans Maori harvested the forest here for food and medicines and as we walked Eru pointed out the traditional plants. We arrived at a spectacular waterfall deep in the estate where Eru unloaded a gas cooker from his backpack and prepared a lunch using some ingredients he’d harvested on the walk and sirloin he’d prepared earlier. It might have been the uplifted feeling apparently created by negative ions in the air around the waterfall, or that our morning horse ride had created hearty appetites but I swear, the lunch we shared with Eru was one of the best I’d ever eaten.

And then, deep in the New Zealand wilderness, on a rock ledge with the rushing waterfall just behind us, Eru performed a spirited Haka in praise of the NZ landscape. He looked every bit like an All Black from the TV. Our little boy was elated.


Lounge fireplace | Treetops Lodge & Estate

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