The helicopter was already waiting when we finished our hike in the Wilkin Valley. The pilot sat in the cockpit looking at his watch, stern and schedule minded, but not annoyed. We took off from a grassy patch next to Route 6 in Makarora, flew over a large swath of Lake Wanaka, and then turned west over Minaret Bay, over farmland and up into Southern Alps, mountains covered in beech forest and, higher up, with ice. We crested one of the peaks and dropped down into the valley at which point we could just make out a small network of cabins in the distance: Minaret Station, named for three peaks in the range that from the southwest looking northeast resemble the spire and conical crown typically seen atop mosques.
Minaret Station, we’d heard from Crazy Pete and other Kiwis, would be the highlight of our adventure in New Zealand: high living in one of the most beautiful settings on earth, complete with hardcore guides experienced in fly fishing, hunting and hiking. It’s so remote that the only way in or out is by helicopter. But Pete is a loon and I’m a skeptical person — so I was apprehensive. It’s glamping, I thought, and in a pinch I bet an avid outdoorsman could swim the width of Lake Wanaka and then hike in. I wasn’t prepared to buy into the hype. But as our helicopter set down next to the main lodge and we were offered espresso and a plate of charcuterie and cheese in the lodge, my attitude softened.
Located just east of Mount Aspiring National Park in the South Island, Minaret is arguably the most exclusive — and certainly one of the most expensive — accommodations in New Zealand. The property has just four rooms, known here as alpine chalets, which amount to luxury structures (two tents, two with hard walls) complete with lush beds, sheepskin carpets, a spacious bathroom, a private deck with a hot tub and some standard amenities like a Nespresso machine and mini bar (the water is bottled right from the nearby waterfall). They’re anchored by one central cabin with an open kitchen, dining room and lounge area. One night here costs NZ$2,000 ($1,515), plus the mandatory NZ$1,800 ($1,363) per person for the helicopter transfer from nearby Wanaka or Queenstown. Guests here don’t balk at a $10,000 long weekend.
“They would fly a helicopter along the side of the mountain”, Wallis says. “Then someone would jump out, grab a deer and roll around on the ground until one of them won.”
Kiwis, though, are known for their pragmatism and “can-do” attitude. It’s described colloquially as the “number 8 wire mentality”, taking after a gauge of wire used on farms and ranches — known as “stations” when they’re in high country, like here — to fix pretty much anything. And that attitude seems to apply to other areas of life. There aren’t a lot of boutique or five-star luxury hotels in Auckland, Wellington or Queenstown; what few exist aren’t on the same level you’d find in major cities elsewhere. We didn’t see a lot of designer clothes, expensive cars or restaurants with tasting menus. Measured by the amount of extravagance, it’s just not a very luxurious place.
Although Minaret is luxe, it feels a bit more Kiwi when you consider the whole operation, which settles as more blue collar. Beyond the four alpine chalets, it’s a 50,000-acre working high-country farm with roughly 10,000 deer, 7,000 sheep and 1,000 cattle. The venison, sold domestically and in export markets, is one of the main streams of income for Minaret, and it’s an important part of the station’s origin story. Minaret is owned and operated by the four Wallis brothers: sons of Sir Tim Wallis, who gradually began using and ultimately owning the land in the 1960s. Tim was an early adopter and importer of helicopters, using them to capture deer, first to cull the population and later to sell as food. Tim’s novel approach to hunting was typical Kiwi can-do.
“They would fly a helicopter along the side of the mountain”, Matt Wallis, one of the brothers, says. “Then someone would jump out, grab a deer and roll around on the ground until one of them won.”
Men and helicopters suffered from this novel but primitive approach, and wrestling deer gave way to tranquilizer-loaded syringes, Tasers, darts and ultimately net guns, which are still used today. The bizarre story of capturing deer illustrates a larger point about New Zealand, which is that helicopters are extremely well suited to a country with lots of natural roadblocks like lakes and mountains — not just for farming, but also for skiing, hunting and fly fishing. This is the particular appeal of Minaret Station.
While you can go there for a quiet week in the mountains and nightly meals of crayfish and paua (abalone) pulled from the ocean that morning — and anecdotally, some guests do — a more compelling reason to go is for the tailored, one-on-one guided trips to wherever you fancy going. Guides will take you out to the craggy west coast to retrieve those very crayfish and paua; they’ll take you hunting, Wallis-style, for red stag, elk bull, bull tahr, South Pacific goat and Aarapawa ram; in the winter guests can chase pow in the ski fields. We spent a morning hunting rainbow trout in what felt like our own personal river, with a guide who knew their movements as if he’d spent time living beneath the surface of the water. It’s Choose Your Own Adventure and your helicopter awaits; when you get back there will be some canapes and a glass of very good pinot noir.
So sure, it’s glamping, but Wallis isn’t shy about that. “Until we put a hydroelectric power system and luxury lodge up here, it was limited to people who spend a lot of time in the mountains”, he says. “But once you’ve got a certain level of comfort up here, you open the doors to people who are quite urban who can now wake up in the morning to what the soft light looks like in the middle of the mountains, and the same thing in the evening, and it gives them the confidence to come.”
For those urban folk with generous salaries or large trust funds, this is an attractive proposition. It’s easy to see how others might find it a little cringe-worthy. While there’s certainly a tradition of high living in remote places (British campaign furniture of the Georgian and Victorian periods comes to mind), part of the allure of the great outdoors is that you have to work a little harder and tolerate more spartan living conditions to get the best views. Flying in the heli and bathing under a rain shower, well, that’s cheating. But deep in a valley in the mountains, with no noise, no extraneous light, a universe of stars to yourself — and, okay, a hot tub and a generous board of charcuterie and cheese on demand — it’s hard not to like Minaret Station.