An Unsung Road Trip Through The Glacier Country

23 March 2015

The welcome plunge in petrol prices has reawakened  the allure of a classic road-trip.

Hop across the Tasman, and you’re blessed with a spoil of scenic choices. One of my all-time favourite Kiwi road excursions tends to be mistakenly overlooked by many self-drive tourists as an unsung feeder route, stitching the West Coast’s Glacier Country to the adrenaline rush of Wanaka and Queenstown.

 Gateway to the pass

Rushing is the problem. Anyone who races through the ravishing Haast Pass Highway will feel cheated, ruing not having set aside the time to devour its epic glories. As the last mountain pass to be constructed over the Southern Alps, and only sealed in 1995, this 140-kilometre-long panoramic alpine pass still exudes a 'final frontier' sense of escapism.

The pass route had had long been used by Maori warriors and greenstone (pounamu) gatherers, as they traversed the alpine bush.

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That Shameless Man Who Named The Pass

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The prolific Silver Fern was traditionally used as their navigational guide, as the underside of the frond is indeed silvery and glows at night, making for a trusty nocturnal marker.

Julius von Haast, a rather ego-centric surveyor who crossed the pass in 1863, shamelessly named the route after himself, despite being beaten to the punch by a gold prospector, Charles Cameron,  who achieved the feat a few weeks earlier.

For the next century, narrow bush tracks were the only means of passage, until the shingled highway officially opened in 1966. I’ve just completed another trip through the pass in the beating summer sunshine, although the alpine aesthetics are certainly accentuated when the cooler months carpet the peaks in snow. That being said, the higher peaks that scratch at the sky, are still snow-dappled.

 The Thunder Creek Falls

So what are the unmissables along the mountain highway? Starting from southern entrance in Wanaka, pass by the cobalt- blue expanse of wind-whipped Lake Hawea, bracketed by undulating hills of swaying golden tussock,  before enter the Heidi-country deliciousness of the Makarora Valley, where the colour palette swiftly shifts from sun-scorched gold to verdant green.

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Feeding Ground For Large And Visible Trout

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Take the Makarora Bush Walk from the roadside, an easy 15-minute loop circuit that passes through an introductory patch of ancient podocarp forest. Admire New Zealand’s tallest timbers, forest giants that reach back to the Jurassic age of dinosaurs, like the 60m specimens of kahikatea, matai and rimu.

Once you’ve had a taste of the podocarp tall boys, head to the Blue Pools, accessed via an effortless 30-minute return walk through silver beech forest, across boardwalks and a swing-bridge to the iridescent pools in the Makarora River.

These serenely still azure pools are a feeding ground for large brown and rainbow trout, which you can spot with crystal-clear precision from the bridge. The glacier-fed water is so translucent, the resident fish seemingly appear to be suspended in air.

 The Blue Pools are home to trout

Thirty minutes up the road, amidst the seraphic landscape of towering peaks and rainforest, welcome to a wonderland of waterfalls. My previous nonchalance about falls was upended by the Haast Pass offerings.

First up, 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. This would be quite the water feature, to impress tour guests in the garden.

Apparently, these are the most photographed of the area’s smorgasbord of falls, but it’s Thunder Creek Falls, further up the road, that strike me as the pixel-burning king . Hurtling down into the Haast River from a 28-metre drop, Thunder Creek is a boastful, riotous and rowdy exhibitionist. 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.


You'll need some music. Catherine Britt’s Driving Songs For A Journey Through The Country

Discover more road trip gems. Top Fly Drive Holiday Destinations


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Mountain Flowers Defy The Odds

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Above the treeline at Thunder Creek, clinging implausibly to the vertiginous slopes, you’ll notice gardens of snow tussocks, dainty flowering herbfields and mountain buttercups sprouting, flourishing against the odds.

For more vertical aqua magic, Roaring Billy is a 25-minute return walk, through a densely vegetated forest grove of emerald  tree ferns - an absolutely enchanting walk that Weta Workshops could not improve on.

 Roaring Billy, reached by an enchanting walk

But the highway’s most theatrical trump card is the ominously named Gates of Haast. This narrow highway crossing over the Haast River, hemmed in by canyon-like cliff walls and gigantic boulders of tumbling schist, is a striking sight as the surging waters thunder through the gorge like a freight train. Adding to the scenic medley, the foaming surf of the Tasman coastline shuffles closer into view, as the highway skirts undulating forests that appear to float in the tea-stained waters of the lowland swamps.

Break up the trip by staying the night in Haast township, giving you room to roam nature’s rampant artistry in this World Heritage-protected wilderness region.

Adding to the drama, the nation’s beefiest earthquake belt, the Alpine Fault, courses through the town. With the Southern Alps and the lush, primeval rainforest on your doorstep,  could there be any better way to start your day refreshed, soundtracked to the morning oratorio of the kaka, kea, kereru, tomtit, fantail, tui and bellbird in song? This is a roady in excelsis.

Mike Yardley

Ever since he memorised the Air New Zealand domestic timetable, at the age of 10, Mike Yardley has been travel junkie. After 20 years as an award-winning New Zealand talk radio host, in 2012, Mike embarked on a career change into travel media. He is now a full-time travel writer and correspondent for a variety of outlets in print, digital and on radio.