The narrow road out of Kumara, on the wild west coast of New Zealand, twisted through a forest of trees with Maori names: Rata, Totara and Rimu, the gangly red pine with branches that droop like a shaggy dog's tail.
"Lake Brunner--23 Kilometers" was written on a small white sign. That was the first posted reference to the South Island fishing lodge that was my destination.
Soon, a reed-wrapped lake shimmered ahead, like a coin drenched with sun. I slowed in search of a settlement. Yellow wooden markers, nailed to a fence, pointed to Rotomanu and Inchbonnie. As I got out of the car to puzzle my position, a golden retriever bounded up in welcome.
She had come from the porch of a rambling frame building, with four chimneys and odd pitched roofs. It had been hidden by shrubs. This was Lake Brunner Lodge, and she was Blondini, the resident wonder dog.
Love the Outdoors
Over the lazy days, Blondini and I became friends. Neither of us fished for trout, but we both loved the outdoor life. On the first morning, she led me up a mountain trail shaded by tree ferns to a quiet place of waterfalls and deep, still pools. She paddled in after the sticks that I tossed, and then shook herself dry at my feet.
On the hike back, we paused on a sturdy log bridge to listen to the haunting trills of the soft green bell bird and the black and white New Zealand tui. Their pipe music filled the glen.
Later, my golden pal led a sundown romp over the raised boardwalk that skirts the lake and forest as far as Bain Bay, racing ahead and then stopping to tilt her head back as if to make sure we were having fun.
After supper we joined other guests in the cozy lounge: fisherfolk from Auckland and Bavaria, Coeur d'Alene and Capetown. They talked of stalking the wily brown trout in these clear streams and rivers. Some had caught four fish that day; the record was more than eight pounds. Blondini yawned. I did not. I liked their stories.
With the crackling fire and the glasses of port, it seemed hard to imagine that this had been a run-down roadhouse with rooms of many uses when New Zealander Ray Grubb and his Dutch wife, Marian, came upon the property. Ray was working at a government desk in Wellington; Marian was employed by Shell Oil. They left their jobs on a bit of a dare and plunged into the world of innkeeping.
Guest Rooms Restored
Now roses bloom beneath bay windows and old wood gleams. The kitchen is fragrant with whitefish fritatta, and other culinary triumphs from Marian's deft hand. Eight guest rooms have been handsomely restored; mine, at the western front, was the original pub.
The mood at Lake Brunner is low-key and comfortable. While most guests come for fly fishing, nothing is mandatory. Trekking and reading and resting are draws, as are the diamond stars of the Southern Cross that hangs in the black velvet sky.
"We have only about 2 1/2--maybe three days--a year you can't fish because of heavy rains," Ray Grubb said quietly as he settled into a chair near the hearth. A tape by guitarist Christopher Parkening followed the piano of Horowitz.
"Our rivers clear quickly because we are in forest land and there's not the muddy run-off from sheep paddocks that you have in much of New Zealand."
This is gentle wilderness, along gorse-ridged country roads that could be part of Scotland. A train comes west over steep Arthur's Pass from Christchurch to little Inchbonnie, where Ray and Marian fetch guests who choose not to drive. There is talk of arranging amphibious plane landings on the lake by the front door.
Yet I am glad I approached by car along the crunchy gravel road from Kumara. I am glad I did not know quite what to expect because surprises never ceased.
On the day of my departure, Blondini and I walked the path to the lake and stared dreamily over the water. A voice reached out on the wind: "Are you Judith Morgan?" As I tried to remember, the young woman introduced herself as a photographer from Alabama and said we'd met before. She had just arrived in New Zealand. We traded news.
I filled her in with hearsay reports on the wily brown trout of Lake Brunner Lodge. She shared U.S. college football scores.
As I drove away, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and smiled. Blondini was nuzzling the photographer's hand. I knew that before long they'd be off for the waterfalls.