Saturday, June 7, 2008

Haast Pass Trip

We decided to give the knees some time to heal and headed out in the car towards the West Coast, or at least as far as Haast Pass which is the main route from here to the West Coast. We have been intending to come out here by bike, but Makarora itself is about 60 kilometres from Wanaka so I had been trying to save it for better weather and fitness.

Taking the car meant that we could just throw our raincoats and the camera in the back and head off without too much preparation. The route we took is shown in green on the map and I have labelled each place we stopped with a number.

Simon drove from Plantation Road all the way to Thunder Creek Falls with just one stop alongside Lake Hawea for me to get a quick photo of the lake. On the drive we passed two major sets of road works where the road has been undermined by flooded streams, it looks as though there is still some pretty serious work to be done there.

We drove through Makarora past the DOC1 office and Makarora Tourist Centre2. Our custom wasn’t missed by DOC as the office was closed despite it being 11:30 on a Saturday morning. The drive up the Makarora valley and over Haast Pass was suitably scenic and when we got over the top of the pass we were immediately in some serious waterfall territory.

The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is famous for the quantity of rain and the waterfalls show by their number rather than their size just how much rain and snow these mountains have received recently. The road becomes narrow and treacherous past the pass with numerous warnings of slips and runaway cars to unsettle drivers.

Our first stop was at Thunder Creek Falls where a two minute walk takes large numbers of tourists down to look at Thunder Creek falling in to the Haast River. The falls are very spectacular and popular. There were several cars and a tour bus stopped at the falls while we were. SH6 is the main route taken by tour buses making a loop journey around the South Island and we saw more buses in the course of the day then at any time since leaving London. The tourist season has not really started here so I guess we will need to get more used to them. I took over the driving for our return journey to give Simon a chance to admire the scenery. I still have a huge dislike for driving but I am trying to make sure that I drive more regularly to give Simon a chance to watch the scenery rather than the road.

Our second stop was the Gates of Haast Bridge where the road crosses the river above a steep gorge. The bridge, like all the bridges we cross today is a one lane bridge, which for anyone who has not seen one is just a bridge with one lane. These are always marked as to which traffic direction has to give way but as they are unknown to many tourists there is always a lottery feel to them. We saw the aftermath of a number of one lane bridge accidents on the way to Cardrona this year. There are a couple of paths leading down towards to river from just before the bridge so we managed to get a couple of good pictures of the river. When you look at these pictures it is difficult to get a feel of the scale as the boulders in the river are immense.

Third on our list was the Fantail Falls also just a couple of minutes walk from the road side, this was not turning out to be a very athletic day at all. We managed to spend a few minutes looking at the waterfalls before the arrival of several cars and another tour bus (that nearly boxed us into our parking place).
In an effort to avoid any more tourist buses we decided to visit the Blue Pools next. The Blue Pools are a fifteen minute walk from the road and across a suspension bridge over the Makarora River. The title is a bit misleading as currently it is only one pool, this pool is scooped from the Makarora riverbed by the Blue River and is a large quantity of deep, clear and very blue water with several large, sleepy looking trout swimming in the bottom. There is a track from the Makarora River leading up to Camp Flat on the Blue River and the four hour walk may be worthwhile one day in summer if we take a fishing line.

By the time we had finished these visits it was after two o’clock and we were regretting not packing any lunch. We drove back to Makarora and stopped at the Makarora Tourist Centre to get some food. The tearooms were just emptying after serving lunch to a tour bus of tourists and there wasn’t much food left in the sandwich counter or pie warmer but Simon selected a bacon and brie panini and L&P3, while I got a cheese scone and a coffee. Lunch could not be said to have been an unqualified success as the cheese scone was stale so I swapped it for a fresher date one and the panini had so little filling that Simon was unable to confirm even what type of cheese it was. The setting at Makarora is beautiful and there is a ready made market with all the people from the campground and cabins but it is a food experience that I will not be repeating and I don’t think I am alone in this.

We drove home along the shores of Lake Wanaka just stopping once to see what the facilities are like at the Boundary creek campground. It may be better to stay here than at Makarora as it is cheaper, right on the lake and the food at Makarora is not enough to draw us back there.

Driving back along the edge of Lake Hawea I had one of those driving experiences which are a big factor in my dislike of driving. Earlier I mentioned the bits of road that have been washed away and road works along the road and you can see from the map that the road stays close to the side of the lake. This means that the road is fairly undulating and has several sharp corners. I’m not a particularly fast driver at the best of times and tend to obey the speed limits and corner speeds on unfamiliar roads. The scene set, you can now imagine me driving cautiously along at just below the speed limit in our lumbering old Terrano when the driver of a ‘Kiwi Experience’4 bus decides I am not driving fast enough and drives right on my bumper along this road. The road is too narrow and windy for overtaking and my usual approach would be to pull over at the next safe spot and let them past. I can’t do that this time as, because of the corners, we cannot see an appropriate stopping place until we are almost past it. The bus overtook me in the middle of the intersection into Hawea instead. Enough of my terrible driving, we arrived safely back in Wanaka with me determined to make our next journey by bike.

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