From Fox Glacier we headed back over the mountains to Queenstown, following the coast to the Haast river mouth, then going up over the Haast Pass. From there, we’d drive along the shores of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea through to Queenstown.
Taking photos from a moving vehicle isn’t easy at the best of times but it’s even more difficult when it’s raining. The landscape slipped by in shades of grey. The human eye does a better job of sorting out what it’s seeing than even a modern camera, which can’t fill in the gaps with memories and expectations like we humans can.
At the mouth of the Haast River a number of our party went off on a jet boat ride (optional extra) while the rest of us boarded the bus and drove to the finish line to wait for them. I was sorry I didn’t go. The vessel is all enclosed so there were no nasty cold wet surprises, but they had fun doing doughnuts as well as learning about the river. Here’s the website (with photos at brighter times). The best I could do was a walk on the riverbed. Like most of the NZ rivers, this one is like a loose braid, with a number of channels crossing a wide, rock-strewn bed. Walking over it is like walking in deep gravel. I suppose when it really buckets down the beds would fill. I was after a photo of a waterfall, but I’ll admit slogging through gravel in the rain isn’t the best experience in the world.
When the others returned, we carried on through the Alps, using a route first mapped by Julius von Haast and known as one of New Zealand’s most dangerous highways. Haast didn’t ‘discover’ the route – he asked the local Maori. They’d been using this track for centuries, one of the few passes across the Southern Alps. Arthur’s Pass is another.
Back at the Haast Pass, the narrow, two-lane road winds its way around mountains covered in dense rainforest. Looking to one side the rainforest crowded close; to the other a sheer drop disappeared into misty darkness.We weren’t the only travellers. We passed the occasional camper van coming the other way. There’s water everywhere. Streams and creeks chuckle in the gullies. Waterfalls cascade from the mountain sides. We went past two cracks in the mountain chain, fault lines of the Southern Alps, humorously named Trickle 1 and Trickle 2. Both had raging torrents in their depths. At the top of the pass we crossed a bridge over a glacier-filled torrent which would become the Haast River. That distinctive aqua hue is a mark of glacial water.
As he drove Dave pointed out scars in the rainforest, the bare rock now covered in mesh. The trees are not well-anchored in the shallow soil so landslips are not uncommon – and that means the road is closed until the rubble is cleared. We were told about one such slip when a couple in a van happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The vehicle was caught in the slip and swept away into the river far below. The smashed van was found but it was three or four days before the woman’s body was discovered. The young man’s remains were not found for seven years.
We descended into farmland. New Zealand is known for its beautiful sheep, but it supports even more cows, mainly dairy herds, as well as various species of deer. Imported here from Europe and allowed to roam and multiply, they’ve been domesticated. It’s easy to pick deer paddocks – they’re the ones with the two-metre fences. It’s proved lucrative for NZ farmers. Venison appeared on the menu several times during our stay and most of NZ production is exported to Germany.
We stopped for lunch at Makarora, what we would call a roadhouse in Australia, then set off for the final run to Queenstown past Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Although it’s mainly pastoral land these days, the area was opened up by gold miners. We’d be hearing more about that in the next few days. Dave also told us some Maori myths which seem to have had a lot to do with somebody making off with somebody else’s wife. This is the origin story of the much-prized greenstone, pounamu. And this story is about the origins of Lake Wakatipu.
We reached Queenstown in the late afternoon. This would be our one ‘free’ night in the whole trip, when we’d be left to find ourselves food, so Dave gave us a quick tour of the CBD, pointing out places where we could eat. The hotel itself was a couple of kilometres away from town but the hotel provided free passes on the local bus to get to the CBD. The bus stop was outside the hotel and the bus ran every fifteen minutes. If it hadn’t been cold, dark and drizzly we might have taken the offer but by the time we’d run the cvonvoluted gauntlet of getting to our room, including a walk between buildings with an umbrella, we decided to eat in. I have to say it was the worst meal we had on the trip. The seafood chowder was watery, pleasant enough but not at all a chowder. My fillet mignon came without the bacon wrapping, the meat was nice but on the raw side of medium for my taste, and the few vegetables were on the raw side of al dente. That said, the room itself was positively palatial, with its own kitchen area. We watched a bit of TV and called it a night.
At least the weather gods had taken pity on us. We might get to see some genuine sun on the morrow.