One Drive, Two Climates

A drive from Lake Hawea over the Haast Pass.

The wind is still blowing strongly over the lake. The waves still make it sound more like the seaside. We set off and drive over the long unsealed road (dust-track) into the small township of Hawea.

The town is quiet, as usual. I don’t think it’s ever much else. We drive onto Highway 6, the Makarora road. The landscape around the lake is rugged. It’s a larger scale Lake District. Just to put it in perspective Hawea has ten times the surface area of Windermere and is five times as deep. The high peaks at the west end of the lake reach to over seven thousand feet.

There is a long drive up to a saddle and then you are into the northern part of the valley of Lake Wanaka. Clouds were low over the lake with the sun breaking through at times, providing very dramatic views. The road becomes more winding and steeper. This seems to be a common fate of roads in New Zealand as once you start driving along them.

After a while we are in a large, flat river valley. Very green, obviously farming country. High above us the peaks, streaked with snow, are draped in cloud. We stop at Makarora. It’s centre seems to be the campsite which has a sizeable cafe stroke gift shop attached. There’s a Wild West flavour about it. We’ve frequently found this in outlying places. There’s a wooden ranch house feel. Hunting trophies. A rather macho tone to it all. There’s the usual New Zealandry on sale, kiwis, tikis, silver ferns etc. The guy running he place seems friendly offering advice on the local walks, treatment for sandfly bites and so on.

We take his advice a little further up he road by walking towards the blue Pools. These are just sections of deep water on the river. They have the strong aquamarine tint we’re becoming familiar with in this glaciated landscape. The walk takes us down through the native bush. We are aware of the change in the atmosphere as soon as we enter it. It’s still, cool, green You’re surrounded by bird calls and the faintly resinous sweet smell which is partly blue gum (eucalyptus) partly something we’ve not identified yet. And there’s the song of the tui. Bell-like and flute-like and captivatingly melodious. It’s the sound I think of as New Zealand.

The track takes us over a wooden suspension bridge, another kiwi hallmark. There’s an interesting resonance as we walk suggesting that if we get the rhythm just right we might be making an unscheduled bungy jump over the side. Minus the rope of course. The track runs beside the river. It is very up and down. There are lovely ferns growing in fresh green masses all through the woodland. Eventually it opens up into a wide meadow between thickly wooded hills. The grass is long, lush, very green. It is thickly strewn with buttercups. The cene looks very like England, once again a bit souped-up and is oddly incongruous given the terrain we’ve driven over to get here.

We drive on and the road once again gets steep and twisty. The clouds close in again. Without realising it we go over the top. The Haast Pass. We’ve crossed the Southern Alps and, as a large sign informs us, are now officially in Westland. It has been drizzling for the last couple of miles. Now it’s raining quite heavily. It feels wetter, colder. we’re definitely in a different climate.

Where we have stopped is a waterfall. We go down the Haast road for mother couple of miles. We stop again. We are overlooking a vertiginous drop into a gorge. The clouds are all around us, the streaky snow still visible through the clouds in the sunlight above. We can see the road snaking downwards through the dark green, wet woods and clouds.

We decide to call it a day. It’s getting late and we feel that we’ve got the gist of the landscape.
We make one more stop by the ‘Fantail’ pools, another waterfall. It’s force was utilised when he pass road was being built to generate electricity. The road building sounds like a tough old job.

We cruise back over the pass and back through Makarora. We’re back in the dry climate again. The weather is much clearer too so we get grand views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. We pick up fish and chips at the shop in Hawea. A national dish in NZ along with bacon and egg pies. On arrival back at the bach we discover the chip portions are Hawea-sized. We could have dined on them for a week. Both items are decent quality though.

The wind blows on and the waves crash endlessly in the sunset.