HAAST TO WANAKA
Mark Brownlow - February 9, 2007
After a whistle stop tour of the west coast and glacier country, it was time to wave goodbye to the Tasman sea and move off inland. But peeking blearily out of the hotel window, the weather looked suspiciously uninviting for a summer's day. Dull and cloudy skies held little promise of sun and, as it turned out, the morning had only two types of weather...rain and "about to rain".
Skipping breakfast and keeping one eye on the oppressive cloud cover, we rolled up the car windows and headed away from Haast Junction. Our target was Wanaka in Otago on the other side of the southern alps, reachable on Highway 6 via the Haast Pass.
Just about everything in the area bears the Haast name. Further investigation revealed why. It seems a certain Julius von Haast played an important role in opening up the region to settlement and science.
The German-born scholar was a prolific explorer, geologist, paleontologist, educator and all round clever chap of the type you often find in Victorian novels. He named the Haast Pass somewhat self-indulgently, claiming to be the first non-Maori to cross it, in 1863 (though that claim to fame is now accorded a gold prospector named Charles Cameron).
In a nice historical coincidence, von Haast received a knighthood from the same Austrian Emperor whose name graces Franz Josef glacier just a few dozen miles further up the coast from Haast. No coincidence actually, since it was von Haast who named the glacier!
Moving on around 140 years and we became the latest expedition to head for the gap in the mountains that van Haast named with such self-confident insouciance. Mind you, we had it slightly easier than Sir Julius. When you're driving along a wide tarmac road in an air-conditioned 4WD hire car, it's easy to forget just how treacherous transalpine conditions used to be.
Although we left the sea behind, we stayed close to water. The Haast river followed Highway 6 for many miles, then swapped duties with the Makarora river. This in turn merged into Lake Wanaka, whose southern tip hosts the town we were headed for. But before reaching Wanaka proper, the road first wandered across to the shores of Lake Hawea before turning back to our final destination.
But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Our drive towards the Haast pass was uneventful, with barely any traffic on the roads and low cloud largely obscuring what might have been wonderful views.
There was little to break up the monotony of the drive; few junctions, no traffic lights, nor any settlements to catch our attention. Even road signs were as rare as a sunbathing Kiwi. This rarity extended to petrol stations, too. Which is why we filled up at every opportunity on our South Island trip, never knowing quite when the next fuel stop might come.
Only the one-lane bridges that take the road over the numerous creeks that feed the main rivers intruded on our relaxing driving experience. You can't guess who has priority on these bridges until you reach the relevant warning sign, so you actually have to pay attention when approaching each bridge.
Despite the apparent weather-induced monotony, there was much to be said for driving alongside the rivers. With a dry spell behind them, the waterways were not bursting at their rocky seams. But we still found many a waterfall or whitewater passage to admire.
The first major one of these was Thunder Creek Falls, a short walk from the road and a chance to stretch our legs before continuing to cross the Haast Pass itself.
Our second stop was just beyond the Gates of Haast bridge at the end of the Pass, where there are super views of the raging torrent below. Like many scenic stops en route, there was no barrier between visitors and the sheer drop to the rocks of the river bed. Not a play area for small children.
Dulled by the weather, we were keen to reach the indoor delights of Wanaka so didn't stop at any of the other traditional tourist sites along the route. Those in less of a hurry should take in more of the wonderful water features the area has to offer.
The Fantail Falls, for example, are very close to the pass and just a short 2-minute walk from the road. Like the name suggests, these falls form a broader cascade than Thunder Creek Falls.
Another must-see are the Blue Pools; perhaps the most famous attraction along the route. They're further south of the pass along the Highway toward Lake Wanaka. A longer walk through silver beech forest and over a swing bridge crossing the Makarora River eventually takes you to - as the name hints - crystal clear pools of bright blue.
As we drove over and out of the pass, the landscape began its transformation from mountainous territory to the flatter country of Otago. Rocky canyons eventually gave way to flat grassy plains and hillsides with clumps of conifers. All very reminiscent of Scottish uplands, but without the kilts.
Once we passed through Makarora we were in lake country, first driving along the northeastern shore of Lake Wanaka before shifting to follow the southern arm of Lake Hawea. Ironically, the low cloud actually added to the atmosphere of the lakes, contributing a dash of "mist"icism to the scenic surround.
Driven on by the prospect of lunch in Wanaka, we left Hawea behind to enter the town shortly after. It was now late morning, and the skies began slowly clearing.
Despite the improved weather we decided to stick to our plan of exploring some of the indoor delights offered by Wanaka. The first of these was Puzzling World, located on the lefthand side of the main road taking us into town.
The complex was impossible to miss, with its curious leaning towers and bright colours, and the eccentric exterior design certainly tweaked our curiosity. Unsure of what we'd find inside, we wandered in to be greeted by a most welcome sight...a self-service cafe.
So before tackling the puzzle rooms and maze that make Puzzling World so famous among New Zealand's manmade attractions, we tucked into pie and cake.
Just sitting down in the cafe gave us a good feel for what to expect from Puzzling World. The ceiling has angled mirrors to give a kaleidoscope effect. And each table features a selection of little wooden and metal puzzles to keep you busy while you wait for your tea to cool. Needless to say we failed miserably at solving any.
That feeling of intrigued bemusement would follow us around for the next hour or two as we walked through the puzzle rooms. There are four main rooms within the complex, each designed to surprise, amuse and confuse you with optical tricks, traps and illusions.
So we passed through a display of impressive holograms, visited a tilted room where you'd swear water ran uphill, and watched ourselves apparently grow and shrink on video. The highlight though was the disturbing experience of having hundreds of faces follow you round in the appropriately named Hall of Following Faces.
There is something distinctly unnerving about watching the heads of historical greats like Abe Lincoln and Beethoven turn to follow you as you circle the room. Perhaps not a place to lose yourself in at night. Which brings me nicely to the second part of our Puzzling World experience: the great maze.
Fiendish is the right word to describe it. The uniform wooden fence panels, never-ending paths, towers, stairs and two-lane bridges would be challenge enough. But wait...there's more. The maze is arranged so that aerial views from the towers or bridges give you little help in finding a route around. And keeping right or left only leads you round and round in circles.
I'm ashamed to say we found only three of the corners (reaching all four corners is the challenge set at the maze's entrance) before we made use of an emergency exit for a premature end to the experience.
Before we left, we took a trip to the toilets. Not something I'd normally mention in a travel diary, but this is no ordinary toilet. Like the rest of Puzzling Word, it has an optical illusion in it. Stand in the right place and you'd think you were sharing the room with some ancient Romans.
Relieved, baffled, stimulated and entertained, we moved on to the next stop on our Wanaka entertainment tour. This involved a quick car trip back out of town on the road to Cromwell (actually the continuation of Highway 6). That's where Wanaka airport is located.
The airport is busier than you might expect. As well as a scheduled flight to Christchurch and regular charter trips for skiers and holidaymakers, it's the starting point for scenic flight tours, helicopter charters, skydiving and parachute trips, pilot training courses, agricultural flights and military exercises.
It's most famous for the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum and the associated "Warbirds over Wanaka" International Airshow, which attracts around 100,000 visitors every two years.
But none of this troubled us as we had other destinations in mind. The airport and its environs happen to be home to other tourist attractions, including a brewery, a toy and transport museum, and the Have-A-Shot shooting facility.
Have-A-Shot is exactly what it says it is, a place where you can "have a shot". And that shot might involve a rifle, bow, shotgun, sponge ball cannon or golf club. We gave ourselves a go on the small bore rifle range. The New Zealand military need fear no competition from us. Next time I think we'll stick to the golf driving range.
Across the road from Have-A-Shot is the Transport and Toy Museum, an eclectic and eccentric collection of, well, toys and vehicles.
This is not a multimedia museum designed with an eye to corporate outings. Imagine a child's bedroom at the end of a rainy day. Now imagine that bedroom is about the size of three aircraft hangars. That's the Wanaka Transport and Toy Museum.
It's a huge display of toys old and modern, cars, trucks, aircraft and other vehicles. There is some order in the arrangement, but it's none too obvious to the uninitiated.
It felt like we were taking a tour of someone's private collection (which is what the museum is, really). A collection put together lovingly by a genuine enthusiast who can't bear to miss out on a new acquisition, even when there may be no time to restore it or display it properly.
There were surprises around every corner, with a rickshaw parked next to an army van, a fur-covered VW beetle, a life-sized model of Jar Jar Binks from the Star Wars films, a fire engine from Japan, and much much more...delightful and confusing in turn.
Still, time waits for no man, particularly when he's hungry, so we hurried through the display hangars and drove back to Wanaka late-afternoon for a rest and dinner.
After checking in at the hotel, I took a walk along the lake and around the town. Wanaka had a very different feel to all the places we'd visited to date. It's hard to put a finger on it, but the place was more "alive" than the west coast towns we passed through or stayed in.
There was a more of a modern, dynamic feel to the place. More traffic. More younger people. More dynamism. And less wilderness. Ornamental trees graced the roadside and I saw several restaurants featuring international cuisine rather than just another take on the traditional lamb and fish menu.
That's not to knock the west coast. Wanaka was just...different. In fact, we ate our evening meal in a Japanese restaurant. That seems trivial, but it was a big deal. Even after just a handful of days we found New Zealand to be very isolated. In the sense that it was hard to find any outside influence. Up until Wanaka it was all frontier spirit and glaciers. So a Japanese restaurant was kind of refreshing. Not better, not worse. Just refreshing to remember that it's not all Kiwi fruit and number 8 fencing wire.
With full stomachs and tired from another long day of travel, we fell into our beds. Tomorrow would take us back full circle to the east coast and Dunedin.