The glorious Haast Highway, a pitch-perfect road journey, was the last mountain pass to be constructed over the Southern Alps, and still exudes a “final frontier” sense of escapism. Connecting Central Otago with the West Coast, the Haast Pass wasn’t completed until 1966 and only received its complete tarmac surface in 1995. The pass route had had long been used by Maori on greenstone (pounamu) gathering trips, across the Main Divide, into Westland. Julius von Haast named the route after himself, after successfully crossing the pass in 1863. Interestingly, he wasn’t actually the first European to do so – a gold prospector, Charles Cameron, achieved that feat a few weeks earlier.
But for the next century, narrow bush tracks were the only means of passage, until the highway officially opened in 1966. This magnificent 140km-long alpine route is a panoramic marvel. The highway wends its way in fine fashion, twisting and turning through soaring mountains, gushing waterfalls, sprawling valleys of Switzerland proportions, primeval rainforest and raging rapids. I’ve just completed another trip through the pass in early summer, and although the beating sunshine is warm and welcoming, the alpine aesthetics are certainly accentuated when the cooler months cloak the peaks in snow. That being said, the higher peaks, are still snow-topped.
So what are the signature sights along the mountain highway? Starting from southern entrance in Wanaka, pass by the cobalt- blue expanse of Lake Hawea and the Heidi-country deliciousness of the Makarora Valley before stopping by the Blue Pools. The easy 30 minute return walk threads its way through silver beech forest, across boardwalks and a swing-bridge to the iridescent pools in the Makarora River. These beautifully still azure pools are a feeding ground for large brown and rainbow trout, which you can spot with crystal-clear precision from the bridge.
Thirty minutes down the road, amidst the seraphic landscape of towering peaks and ancient podocarp rainforest, stop off at Fantail Falls. Despite a plethora of native birds whooshing and trilling overhead, this waterfall doesn’t take its name from the birdlife, but because the base of the fall splays out in a triangular fantail-shape. Apparently, these are the most photographed of all the falls on the Haast Highway, but I think the Thunder Creek Falls, a further thirty minutes up the road, are photogenically superior. Hurtling down into the Haast River from a 28 metre high drop, it’s a spectacular, gushing and noisy spectacle. The waterfall height also serves as stark lesson on just how high the glacier field was during the last ice age, 12,000 years ago.
For more aqua magic, Roaring Billy is a 25 minute return walk, through a densely vegetated forest grove of emerald-coloured tree ferns – an absolutely enchanting walk that Weta Workshop could not improve on.
But the trump card, heralding your arrival into Haast and the West Coast, is the ominously named Gates of Haast. This narrow crossing over the Haast River, hemmed in by vertiginous rock walls and gigantic boulders of tumbling schist, is a striking sight as the surging waters thunder through the gorge like a freight train.
The biggest mistake many visitors to these parts make, is to rush from the West Coast to Wanaka. As they hastily transit from the great glaciers to the southern lakes, they completely miss all of the enticing delights that fringe the Haast Highway. Break up the trip by staying the night in Haast, to give you time to explore nature’s rampant artistry in this true wilderness region of New Zealand. Haast township was originally a Ministry of Works camp for the road construction workers. It is now principally a service centre with an excellent DOC visitors centre and a long-time beacon of West Coast hospitality, the Haast Heartland World Heritage Hotel. With the Southern Alps and the lush rainforest at your doorstep, the hotel is the ideal resting place for travellers, comprising 54 cosy rooms including family units and budget lodgings. Despite the primitive location, they don’t extort you for wi-fi. The hotel’s Frontier Café & Bar is cheerful, relaxing and toasty. True to its West Coast spirit, the great-value menu includes hearty local fare including Westland rib-eye steak, Mount Cook salmon and Jackson Bay seafood chowder, but the great fame to claim is undoubtedly West Coast Whitebait, freshly captured from the upper reaches of the Haast River.
Plan an epic encounter with State Highway 6, traversing the rugged, untamed awe of the Haast Pass. Thrifty offers plenty of handy pick-up and drop-off locations including Christchurch, Queenstown, Dunedin, Invercargill, Greymouth and Hokitika.