Shaun Barnett meets the owners of the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge
Twenty years ago, Sera Kuhne went tramping with her father and sister to Lake Dive Hut, perched on the southern slopes of Mt Egmont/Taranaki’s Fanthams Peak. The tramp was part of completing her gold medal for the Duke of Edinburgh scheme.
The family arrived to find two other trampers in residence, who were playing cards. Sera, whose father comes from Switzerland, immediately recognised that these were not conventional playing cards, but from a Swiss pack (the Swiss play a game similar to 500, but with trumps consisting of shields, roses, bells and oaks).
One of those trampers was Swiss national Markus Hojdelewicz, in New Zealand on a hiking holiday, and an evening playing cards and conversing in Swiss-German followed. From that chance meeting, romance blossomed, followed eventually by marriage and two daughters.
Early in 2014, the Hojdelewicz couple took over management of the Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, up-market accommodation at the Dawson Falls car park. This historic lodge was built in 1896, even before Egmont National Park was formed, in an effort to encourage tourism on the mountain, along with others at Stratford Plateau and North Egmont.
The lodge has provided quality accommodation for more than a century now, but its outward appearance gives little hint of the wonderful Swiss chalet interior.
When I stayed at the lodge last November, before a tramp to Lake Dive, Hojdelewicz showed me around all 10 guestrooms. In the main lounge, there’s a Swiss Alphorn spanning the length of one entire wall, a line-up of colourful shields representing every county of Switzerland and a large open fire. Each guestroom has its own distinctive style, with handcrafted wooden paneling. In the hallway hangs a large dinner gong, while a giant cowbell adorns the foyer, and paintings of Taranaki feature in every room. The time chimes from a grand old grandfather clock.
Curiously enough, the lodge’s Swiss interior owes its origins to New Zealander Keith Anderson, who ran it between 1973 and 1983. A craftsman and artist, Anderson painstakingly converted each room to give its present mountain chalet décor over a period of years. By chance, Anderson employed a young Swiss woman, Berta, as a cook, and romance blossomed for them too. Keith and Berta ran Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge for a decade before moving on to manage the nearby Stratford Mountain Lodge. Many of the pictures hanging at Dawson Falls are the work of Anderson. In a horrible irony, Anderson died on the mountain road when his car collided with that of two Swiss tourists.
Although people of Swiss descent form only a small minority of New Zealanders, Hojdelewicz tells me that several Swiss societies exist in the country, notably at Auckland, Wellington and – less obviously – at Kaponga, where there is a society hall. The Hojdelewiczs are members of the Kaponga Swiss Society and say that fondue evenings can attract up to 200 people.
The couple provide hospitality at the lodge, and also operate a café. Sera says that despite its age, the building has, as yet, no Historic Places rating. Its historic significance extends to the local hydro generator, one of the oldest operating in the Southern Hemisphere, which meets about eight per cent of the lodge’s power needs.
Markus and Sera are also inheritors of a large ledger that contains possibly the most extensive collection of newspaper items on Egmont National Park. Begun when the lodge was built, the 700-page ‘Wilson & Horton’ hardback accounts book contains such clippings as an 1896 Egmont Star article about the opening of the lodge, an item about the ‘First Outing’ of the Mt Egmont Alpine Club, founded by Rod Syme in 1928, and a 1930s account of the debate about removing the toll on Dawson Falls Road. There’s also mention of the new Syme Hut opening in 1988, and in 1993 an obituary for Keith Anderson. It’s a treasure trove of information, with the latest item about Markus and Sera taking over the lodge to begin a new era of Swiss-style hospitality.
The couple had been living in Feilding, where Markus worked in their butchery and Sera was employed as a nurse. Entering the hospitality business was something they’d always wanted to do. In previous years, absentee owners had managed the lodge, which had become a bit run-down. After months of work, Markus and Sera – with the help of Markus’ parents – had the place once again immaculate, and running like a Swiss clock.
They work hard, but have the satisfaction of living in a national park and waking up to birdsong every day. Daughters Kaylen and Alena go to school at Kaponga, only 15 minutes’ drive away.
Dawson Falls gets a significant amount of rain, and if the weather is too wet for tramping, I can think of few things more enjoyable than a night at Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge, sitting by the fire and poring through that huge ledger.