I left Wanaka in the late morning after a spectacular drive over the snow covered Crown Range from Queenstown. Little did I know that the scenery was about to get even more beautiful.
To get to the rugged and remote West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island means driving one of the few roads through the Southern Alps. From Wanaka, this road takes you over the Haast Pass, through some of the most beautiful and pristine scenery in the country.
I drove east from Wanaka and took the turn towards Albert Town, driving north-east across the river. In a short time, a spectacular vista unveiled itself in front of me. The blue water of Lake Hawea was calm and majestic, with mountains rising up above, dusted with snow while clouds tried to cling to them underneath an otherwise blue sky.
Looking north along Lake Hawea
The road led me along the western shore of the lake for a while before following along its western arm, almost connecting onto Lake Wanaka at a short strip of land known as The Neck. Driving up and over this crest, Lake Wanaka again made a jaw dropping appearance. This time, I was able to look South towards where the town of Wanaka would be, though I couldn’t see it from this point. More snow covered mountains towered above the lake, and looking north, I was excited about the road ahead.
I found a nice picnic spot on the shore of the lake to stop for a break, making a cup of coffee and a sandwich in my campervan, and then sitting on the lake’s shore and wondering if there could possibly be a more beautiful place in the world. If I had more time, I would have stayed there for the night, but the road beckoned, as did my time restraints, so I was soon back behind the wheel, this time heading north towards the mountains.
From the northern end of Lake Wanaka, the road to Haast Pass follows along the majestic Makarora River, with fields of lush green grass where sheep and new spring lambs grazed happily on the flat areas where the river flowed, while on either side the mountains rose up quickly, the green grass replaced with thick, almost primeval forest.
The road to Haast Pass
New Spring lambs
The mountains ahead grew nearer and soon the green fields were gone and I was driving in the forest itself, the road winding up towards the pass, following the path of the river. The forest was beautiful and mysterious, with moss covered logs and twisted tree trunks, untouched by man apart from the road carved through it.
Eventually I reached the point where a sign marked the top of the Haast Pass, altitude 564 metres, which felt a lot higher. From now on, everything would lead downhill to the West Coast.
I stopped for a break at Fantail Falls and took a walk through the peaceful forest to the upper reaches of Haast River, where a picturesque waterfall tumbles down a forest covered rock face from the mountain above. Apart from the odd car going past on the nearby road, there was nothing but the sound of the forest and the water tumbling down the rocks.
Fantail Falls, Haast Pass
Path through the forest, Fantail Falls
Not far from the falls I reached the gorge known as Gates of Haast, where a one lane bridge has somehow been built across the raging white water of the river below. From here, the road quickly wound its way down the mountain range, following the course of the Haast River. Snow capped mountains still unveiled themselves with each new change in direction, while the surrounding forest scenery was breathtaking. I could have stopped every five minutes to take photos, but I still had a long way to go.
The one lane bridge at Gates of Haast
Gates of Haast
Eventually the land began to level out and there were no more mountains head of me. I followed the now wide Haast River out over the short plain that sits between the mountains and the sea, reaching the remote town of Haast in the mid afternoon.
From Haast, the road heads north-east, following the rugged, spectacular coastline. The drive was stunning, the road clinging to the steep hillside that rises straight up out of the Tasman Sea.
Driving along the West Coast
Eventually, the road went inland again, passing through seemingly untouched forest with mountains rising up to the east. I had to cross rivers that flow from these mountains regularly via narrow, one-way bridges, often having to wait for other cars to come across first. It was now late afternoon and I would soon be running out of light, so I continued on without stopping until I reached my destination for the night at the village of Fox Glacier.
It was a huge day of driving through some of the most spectacular scenery I have seen in the world. If I ever do it again, I would split it up over two or three days so that I could stop more often to explore the sites and walks along the way, and of course, take thousands of photos. I’ll just use that as another reason to go back to this beautiful part of the world.