The snowcapped mountains gave way to hills covered in gold-hued grass. A clear, ice-blue river sped through a narrow gorge that still bore the remnants of the 1860s gold rush: a miner’s hut, a hill of stone tailings, and winding footpaths. My guide led me on horseback over trails that snaked through an emerald beech forest seemingly untouched by time.
This place, Mahu Whenua, is a 136,000-acre plot comprising four high-country sheep farms between Wanaka and Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. Beautiful as it is, mining, farming, and an influx of non-native species hit the area’s flora and fauna hard. But thanks to the vision of its owner, South African record producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, Mahu Whenua is on track to be one of the most ambitious conservation projects in the country.
Having acquired the land between 2003 and 2011, Lange partnered with the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust in 2015 to ensure that 90 percent of it will be protected in perpetuity, effectively making it New Zealand’s first private national park. To date, he has overseen the planting of 1.36 million native trees and grasses, as well as the implementation of breeding programs for local bird species. “With a property of this size and significance, I saw an opportunity to make a difference on a large scale,” says Lange, who produced best-selling albums for AC/DC and Bryan Adams. He began buying land in and around Queenstown in the 1990s with his then-wife, singer Shania Twain, and in 2007, built the property’s home base, Ridgeline Homestead, as his residence. Last June, he opened it as a four-suite hotel.
New Zealand is known for its exclusive lodges, but in terms of sheer scale, Mahu Whenua is unrivaled. At the Ridgeline Homestead, panoramic windows, earth tones, and sheepskin rugs bring the outdoors in. An asymmetrical deck stretches forth like the prow of a ship, with commanding views of Lake Wanaka and Mount Aspiring National Park. It also has an outdoor pool, stables, and a restaurant that combines seasonal produce with global flavors in dishes like smoked salmon with herb labne.
But the main attraction is the surroundings: Guests can go on a fishing expedition to one of the area’s many rivers, streams, and lakes, or try heli-skiing on the property’s own slopes. Everywhere you can see how the land has been transformed: forest where mines used to be, replanted hillsides, revived wetlands (Mahu Whenua, in Maori, translates to “healing the land”). The real sense of wonder here comes from seeing conservation at work. Rooms from $1,320; mahuwhenua.co.nz.