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 flightpath, 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. 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.
I am standing on an eroded clay outcrop halfway up Conical Hill, which overlooks the spa town of Hanmer Springs. I had wanted to photograph the town from above on this fine January morning, but in doing so I’d unwittingly strayed into the falcons’ airspace. As I beat a hasty, undignified retreat, I slip and fall down a bluff in a jumble of branches and brambles. I scramble out of the wilderness and limp downhill to the comfort of a large latte and some 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 which emerge from a fissure caused by part of the Alpine Fault which runs down the spine of the South Island.
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 recognized and from 1879 onwards, tourists began visiting Hanmer to “take the waters.”
Today, Hanmer is a busy spa town. As well as the springs themselves, there are great restaurants, all sorts of adventure activities – bungy-jumping, jet-boating, mountain-biking and an assortment of other hyphenated action sports – and some great cafes. There are dozens of holiday cottages for rent, and 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.
Northwest of Hanmer, Jack’s Pass Road 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 Café is still untouched) I have swapped the bustle of Amuri Street 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 appliances of the northern cities. The lines fizz and crackle as the energy within them leaks into the hot air; beneath the pylons, flights of bumble bees buzz in indigo groves of borage.
The road undulates along the eastern bank of the river. Sleek Hereford cattle graze the swampy flats. A 4WD laden with black and tan huntaways crosses a ford and climbs a zig-zag track up the flank of a muscular hill. Swards of snow tussock wave in the breeze.
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, whitewashed against the heat and glare of the sun, are rounded and organic. Inside, it is quiet and cool; the dusty timber floors creak underfoot.
I wander the empty rooms imagining the lives of the people who lived here through baking summers and freezing, snow-encrusted winters. The coal range in the scullery is rusting into oblivion; the walls are papered with pages from a magazine published in 1895. In a lean-to out back a brick oven once baked bread for weary travellers. Some backpackers in a van are cooking their lunch beside the stables.
Below the homestead, the opaline waters of the Acheron meet the equally clear and blue Clarence River. A fly-fisherman flips a gleaming filament of line into an iridescent pool lined with emerald-green willows; overhead, the azure sky is scored with high white streamers of cirrus cloud. I return to Hanmer over the rough Jollie’s Pass Road, through basins of running shingle and narrow gullies thick with olive beech forest.
The next day brings a change in the weather. The incoming front is heralded by lenticular clouds, the outriders of stormy weather in the High Country, hanging above the hills. Wisps of cloud pour like dry ice over the passes. The air is still, and so clear the mountains seem magnified. The sky fills with cloud and a cold South wind sweeps down from the tops.
By mid-morning, rain is falling in torrents. It beats a tattoo on the rooftops and runs in rivulets down the streets. I drive out into the pine forests and hike alone through a dripping valley to a waterfall thundering into a punchbowl of black rock. The viridian forest clings to the valley bottom, heavy and dark. Every leaf and branch drips; shadowy birds flit through the green gloom.
In the evening, I retire to the sybaritic warmth of the hot pools. The 40° 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 sterilized and presented in a blue pool for me to relax in.
I lie back in the water reading a book as the night draws in. Up on Conical Hill, the falcons will be maintaining their vigil over their domain. The lights of town begin to gleam. Steam rises from the pools and makes its way upwards into the darkening air: back into the water cycle, back into the wild.