A Mt Lyford eco-lodge earthquake survivor is now a refuge for city dwellers.
written by KIM NEWTH for Avenues Magazine May 2017
A hut tub awaits after walking one of Mt Lyford's trails.
For our family escape to the high country north of Waiau, we are packing with warmth in mind. Our destination is Mt Lyford, so we are anticipating cooler temperatures with overnight bags of vests, thermals, coats and woolly hats.
By the time we have finished loading the car, we know we've packed too much. The boot is heaving with stuff and it's for just one night away. We are almost ready to go when my husband, Chris, dashes off to fetch a telescope, which he somehow manages to manoeuvre on top of everything else.
At last, only half an hour after our intended departure time, our adventure begins. It is a fabulous day with a clear sky overhead and we travel at a leisurely pace, passing through Woodend and Amberley before taking the State Highway 7 turnoff to Weka Pass. This is the main road to anywhere at the moment, so we are sharing the trip with lots of other vehicles, including big long-haul trucks. It looks like it's going to be a slow trip, but we're in no hurry.
In orderly fashion, we and our fellow travellers wind our way through limestone country to the top of the pass and on through Waikari.
An open-plan living area is perfect for relaxing and enjoying the mountain views.
We slow for roadworks near the Hurunui Hotel, red-stickered after November's Kaikoura earthquake. Sadly, this category-one heritage-listed building remains off limits until an achievable repair plan can be found.
Over the Hurunui River, where former forestry land is giving way to dairying, the air is tinged with the smell of smoke from rural burn-offs. In Culverden, we stock up at the tearooms for an impromptu picnic in the busy domain. Fellow travellers have paused for a bite in Culverden, too. Today, it feels like a mini boom town.
Soon after the State Highway 70 turnoff, we encounter more roadworks and I start to feel nervous about what lies ahead. The highway was pretty knocked about by the Kaikoura earthquake, whose brutal impact is obvious by the time we reach Waiau, where so many homes are damaged. The Waiau Lodge Hotel took a real hammering, but there is a hopeful roadside sign that reads "Waiau Tavern coming soon". (It has since opened.)
The award-winning Kowhai Eco Lodge has three comfortable beds upstairs.
As we bump along the Inland Road, we can see how the earthquake has scarred the hills with slips, but the road itself is in remarkably good shape. A bailey bridge over the Wandle River, flowing south from the slopes of Mt Lyford, is a sturdy temporary replacement for the quake-damaged bridge.
Half an hour after leaving Culverden, we reach Mt Lyford Lodge and turn up the unsealed road towards the alpine village and ski field. Five minutes later, we reach Kowhai Eco Lodge, our home for the night.
Built on a five-hectare section as a twin for Kanuka Eco Lodge, the accommodation is part of the Mt Lyford Holiday Homes stable, which also includes a range of self-contained log chalets.
The eco lodge has a secluded outdoor dining area and a hot tub.
We make ourselves at home, quietly appreciating the spacious and well-appointed feel of the lodge. It has a large open-plan living and kitchen and three comfortable bedrooms upstairs. Owners Ross and Claudine Barnes have thoughtfully left a box of chocolates for us on the coffee table, where there is also a generous range of games, puzzles and magazines. The lodge is well-equipped for families, having also a TV/DVD, good wi-fi connection and a selection of paperbacks on a corner wine rack (sorted idiosyncratically on shelves labelled pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and merlot).
Sheepishly, we begin to question our decision to pack so many warm clothes, because it feels deliciously warm inside. Downstairs, the flooring is finished with large dark tiles that catch and hold the heat of a low afternoon sun.
Outside, we discover a sunny outdoor area with a picnic table and, up a path, a wood-fired tub that is already filled with hot water and ready to go. The award-winning chalet is on a block of regenerating bush and the hot tub is well positioned for views within a natural setting.
The hills around Mt Lyford offer plenty of challenges for walkers.
Sitting on a deep foundation of crushed recycled glass, stones and concrete, the chalet building has high-grade insulation around the perimeter of the concrete mass to hold in heat, eliminating the need for any powered underfloor heating. The environmentally friendly design also includes roof-mounted solar panels to heat the water, while wastewater goes to a worm tank. Large north-facing double-glazed windows maximise solar power, so the clean-air log burner with wetback is almost surplus to requirements. Ross and Claudine have planted trees on the block as a sustainable source of firewood. The chalet interior is finished with New Zealand-grown pine and huge douglas fir beams, while stained pine board and battens complete the exterior.
We are a little too early for the ski season, which means we can drive our two-wheel drive car to the top of the village without any difficulty, something that would not be advisable or even possible in the depths of a snowy winter.
Making the most of the fine weather, we choose a short mountain trail to pretty Lake Crystal. The track is relatively steep, but the effort is well rewarded with breathtaking views. Sections of the walk pass through quiet beech forest, where we are accompanied by inquisitive fantails and the call of bellbirds. Lake Crystal lives up to its name, reflecting its surroundings like a mirror. We soak up the scene, before heading back downhill as the sun begins to slip towards the horizon.
Journalist Kim Newth checks out the off-road trails within easy reach of the Kowhai Eco Lodge.
Back at the chalet, our two girls make a beeline for the hot tub while we prepare dinner and sip wine. We are cosy and warm in T-shirts and bare feet; the eco chalet's smart design is certainly delivering in terms of heat retention. Chris lights the fire on the off-chance the place might cool down later, but this never really happens.
After dinner, Chris and I slip out to the hot tub and catch the twinkling stars as they come out. The night sky is really something else out here. We float in the warm water, count shooting stars and listen as frogs croak in the dark.
Finally, we make the short cold sprint back to the warm embrace of the chalet.
Later, the telescope emerges and we head outside for a close-up look at Jupiter and its moons, then a nebula of newly hatched baby stars. Wonderful though it is to be spending time exploring the galaxy above us, the warmth of the chalet is too tempting to resist for long.
Upstairs, it is toasty warm. We drift off to a brilliant view of stars in the night sky and wake the next day to bellbirds singing in the trees as the sun sends golden rays across the mountain sides.
There is time for a leisurely breakfast before Claudine and Ross drop by. We learn the couple met at Mt Lyford and share their alpine lifestyle with their 13-year-old daughter, Celine. Ross farmed at Cheviot before embracing the mountain and bush lifestyle and building a home at Mt Lyford in 2000. About the same time, Claudine immigrated to New Zealand from the Netherlands in search of a new way of life and found work in the hospitality industry, first at the ski field and then Braemar Lodge in Hanmer Springs. Ross built the Kowhai Eco Lodge five years ago.
Between them, Ross and Claudine have developed a package of year-round accommodation at Mt Lyford and continue to enjoy their lifestyle there, in spite of the recent upheavals. It is remarkable how the eco lodge came through the Kaikoura earthquake almost unscathed. The ground around it has clearly sunk – part of the concrete pad is now exposed – but otherwise it has barely a scratch. The tennis court out the front of the lodge is badly damaged but can apparently still be used as a winter ice rink.
Ross and Claudine's own home in the village also survived.
Claudine says their usual stock of holiday accommodation is down by about 30 per cent as a result of earthquake damage and also because some homes are now occupied by quake-displaced farmers and village residents. Road workers are also staying during the week.
At the time of the earthquake, holiday bookings dropped away, but demand picked up again over Easter, so Ross and Claudine are confident weekend bookings are steadily returning to normal.
"In fact, we are desperately short of accommodation right now," Ross says. "We are planning to go through the consent process over winter so we can get under way with building another eco lodge like this in the spring."
We wish them well for the future and head home feeling rested, reinvigorated and inspired by the wonders of thermal mass, still carting the boot load of warm clothes that were never needed.
Kim was hosted by Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism.