Haast Pass, NZ


Aspiring ride

It can get lonely, way out west

I have to admit that I was mildly concerned when the rusty, dented Mark II Zephyr swerved into the layby where I was parked, on my way up to Haast Pass.

Well, okay, a little more than mildly. It came in without slowing down – the driver didn’t apply the brakes until all wheels were off the tar – and finally stopped side-on to the road in a cloud of fine, white dust. All windows were open, which was just as well or the cretinous doof-music that was pounding out of the cheap stereo’s speakers would probably have pushed them out.

The driver, a skinny, tattooed youth with a severe shortage of front teeth, was engaged in an even louder altercation with a young woman I took to be his better half. She certainly outpointed him in the number if perhaps not the variety of tattoos.

I left them screaming at each other, the car rocking from a combination of “music” and barely contained violence and eased my way back out onto the road along the Landsborough River. I wanted less than nothing to do with this pair. This was, after all, the West Coast of New Zealand – a place where elderly farmers come home one day and waste their entire families with Cousin Twelve Gauge.

And I must admit that I was a bit spooked anyway.

To someone like me, sharing a city with more than 4 million others, emptiness is pretty unusual. But the West Coast is lonely in a way that even the Australian Outback can’t quite manage. It’s not that there isn’t anything there; there’s plenty. This is one of the most beautiful places in the entire world, and there is something worth looking at wherever you turn your eyes.

No, somehow it’s an emptiness of people. The roads are good, except for the occasional road-and-rail bridge that you have to share with railway tracks. But there are so few people, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason why there aren’t more. Well, unless those old farmers with the shotguns have been even busier than the papers report.

I can’t really explain it, and you may not feel like this at all. I certainly didn’t feel it anywhere else in New Zealand.

I had filled the tank at Fox Glacier, so I just stopped in Haast to pick up some basics for a picnic lunch somewhere on the road across the Southern Alps to Wanaka. The township of Haast is a short detour off State Highway 6 and offers all the usual services, including a tavern and accommodation. The owner of the shop has severe allergies; read the sign before you enter. No, seriously. I’m not taking the cat. The puss.

The road up river is excellent, well laid out and surfaced and with a wonderful view of the mountains. Waterfalls are accommodated very nicely with small bridges and there are lots of laybys like the one in which I encountered the Mark II with its tattooed crew. After a while the road begins to climb and the corners become more interesting. I must say I don’t necessarily agree with the brochure writers who tend to refer to Haast Pass as “precipitous”. It’s actually quite gradual, but no less fun for that. And it is certainly hugely scenic. Mt Brewster, when you can see it through the cloud, is most impressive as it bulks to the north of the road.

A substantial part of the pass road lies in the Mount Aspiring National Park and I can see why people want this country preserved. Mind you, nobody seems terribly keen on settling it anyway.

Just over the pass, Makarora has all the usual services as well, including a well-presented national parks information centre. The road onward, first along Lake Wanaka and then Lake Hawea, is like some sort of idealised Mediterranean route. All the scenic beauty and then some, without the litter and polluted water and countryside. Great. And the road, hugging the hillside and twisting with it, is a high-speed hoot.

Lake Hawea township is a little off the main road again and there isn’t a great deal there, but if you’re looking for somewhere quiet to stay it could be just the go. Otherwise just carry on the remaining 15 kilometres to Wanaka and settle in on the lakefront with a coffee. The West Coast seems many miles, and many years away.

But it’s just over the range. Haast is only 141km to the north-north-west. You can tackle the road again any time you like. New Zealand’s great.