We left Lake Wanaka behind and headed into Haast Pass. This is the southernmost of the passes over the Southern Alps and also the gentlest. Most of the pass is covered by the Mount Aspiring National Park. We had a plan to visit a selection of the roadside features; sadly the longer, higher trails up in the mountains themselves were out of our scope this trip.
After driving alongside Lake Wanaka for a bit, the road slowly rose into dense forest, a first for this trip. Cruising under the trees was a welcome relief from the sun which was out in full force today. We’d heard about the notorious bad weather of the West Coast, where we were headed, but here in the mountains it was a beautiful day.
At the visitor centre in Wanaka we’d picked up a handy map detailing the stops along the highway through Haast Pass, and we soon reached the first one of interest: the Blue Pools. The map promised “an easy walk through silver beech to a swing bridge overlooking the pools at the mouth of the Blue River,” with a highly exaggerated return time of 1 hour for 1.5 kilometers. We thought this sounded easy and attractive, and as we approached the stop, it became clear that many other people thought so as well. We were lucky to find a parking spot and, after dutifully applying sunscreen, we set off.
The walk was nice and flat, the temperature was pleasantly cool under the beeches and we started hearing the pipipi, a new bird to us, but not all was well. I had foolishly worn sandals and shorts for this outing and the bane of the West Coast, the sandfly, was out in force. Before we’d gone more than 10 minutes, I’d collected multiple bites on my feet and legs from these annoying bugs. Luckily, as long as we weren’t standing still gawking at birds we could outpace the sandflies, but the damage was already done.
After crossing a bouncy suspension bridge, we arrived at the Blue Pools. The pools, like much of the water around here, were a brilliant clear blue. Some people dared to swim in the water, but it was even colder than Lake Wanaka so we were not tempted. The area was crowded with both people and sandflies, so we soon headed back towards the car.
Feeling peckish, we next stopped at the short trail to the Cameron Lookout, hoping for good views with our sandwiches! This was a wooded, shady trail which was welcome change from the constant sun. However, we didn’t get too far along the trail before thoughts of food were interrupted by motion in the trees. After squinting into the trees, we finally saw some tiny birds. They were riflemen: the smallest birds in New Zealand at only about 8 centimeters long and weighing 6 grams, they are named after the green on old NZ army uniforms. Though they live on the North Island, we’d never seen one before. Soon, we spotted the whole family group hopping about the tree, peeping at each other.
Continuing on, we encountered a few additional groups of riflemen, as well as a friendly fantail who accompanied us along the trail for a bit. Fantails eat bugs stirred up by people passing through, and while I’d put hiking boots on, the sandflies were still following us. Unlike the riflemen, who were a bit shy, the fantail was unafraid of us, often flitting to within inches of us as he escorted us through his territory.
We reached the lookout and had a peaceful lunch, surrounded by birds and the occasional sandfly. After lunch, we headed back to the car and continued on our trip through Mount Aspiring National Park. We decided to be more ambitious with our second hike, which was a 3.5 kilometer return trip that climbed above the bushline to a viewpoint. The trail was consistently steep but the view at the top was completely worth the effort.
While we admired the view and caught our breath, we heard a loud, clear warbling and saw a flash of yellow dive into a bush next to us. A few others followed and we realized that these were yellowheads, or mohua. These birds are uncommon South Island residents and several people, including at the visitor centre, had said we’d probably not see them. Yet, here they were! They flew off before we could get a picture, but we were quite happy.
After heading back down the trail, we made a few more quick stops at three waterfalls, none of which were more than about 10 minutes away from the road. The first was Fantail Falls, named for its shape:
The next was Thunder Creek Falls, which are 28 meters high. We asked a guy to take a picture of us in front of it, but our camera frustrated him as he (and us) couldn’t figure out how to turn on the flash.
The last walk took us through a forest of tree ferns to the Roaring Billy Waterfall. Though it had the best name, we thought it was the least impressive.
Finally, we reached the tiny town of Haast and our hostel for the night. We raided the local supermarket/laundrette/fastfood place/post office for dinner, but the small size and lack of holiday deliveries meant we were forced to fall back on our emergency soup. Before we did that we decided to have a look around the area. The town was tiny (it even lacks cell phone coverage) so we quickly ended driving out of town and to the beach. Sadly, while the view of the sunset was beautiful the beach had an abundance of sandflies that chased us away fairly fast with their bites.
That night, the sandfly bites I’d accumulated over the day really started to burn and itch, making it almost impossible to sleep. With nearly 10 bites on each foot and several on my legs, every move aggravated them and lotion, the only relief I had, only helped for a minute or so. This sleepless night did have one benefit: as I lay awake at 3 a.m., I heard the distinctive call of a kiwi outside!