Cruising the wild, wild West

Native forest cloaks  the distant hills in the Unesco World Heritage area. Photos: Rebecca Nadge
Native forest cloaks the distant hills in the Unesco World Heritage area. Photos: Rebecca Nadge
The dogs were disappointed not to be invited into the jet-boat.
The dogs were disappointed not to be invited into the jet-boat.
I stopped frequently in the Haast Pass to admire the gushing waterfalls.
I stopped frequently in the Haast Pass to admire the gushing waterfalls.
The mighty Tasman Sea smashes  against the rocks with great force.
The mighty Tasman Sea smashes against the rocks with great force.
We zipped past  whitebait stands  as we cruised down the river.
We zipped past whitebait stands as we cruised down the river.

The wild West Coast becomes a favourite of former Allied Press journalist Rebecca Nadge as she explores the rivers, forests and hospitality of the Haast region.

"This is life in the Haast lane!’’ my travel guide Tanya shouted from behind me, and I laughed as I put down my camera and tried to imprint the moment in my memory forever.

I was on the wild West Coast — in a jet-boat, more specifically —  tearing down a river at a terrific rate of knots.

It was  one of those rare perfect days: the combination of good company and a spell of glorious sunshine had banished all my troubles, and I decided the "last frontier’’ was one of my favourite places in the country.

I had arrived in Haast two days earlier to cover the annual whitebait festival, and had tried to make the most of my time in the area by cramming in as much sightseeing as possible.

After stopping by the impressive Haast Visitor Centre to get my bearings, I had made my way to the charming fishing village of Jackson Bay, where every house and structure  seemed to feature  nautical relics, and I drove to the end of the road before making my way along the rocky bay.

I’d been told I might see some penguins if I was lucky, and so I eagerly followed the Wharekai-Te Kou Walk through the peaceful forest.

It was an easy walk, and I stopped frequently to photograph shafts of sunshine that lit up the trees as a small creek gurgled nearby.

The Ship Creek walks offer an easy stroll through the sheltered forest.
The Ship Creek walks offer an easy stroll through the sheltered forest.
Within no time I had arrived on the rocky beach, and I scurried over the rocks before plonking myself down and looking expectantly out to sea.

I desperately wanted to see a penguin — I tend to rate my trips according to the number of interesting plants and animals I come across — but it occurred to me I hadn’t paid much attention to where I should be looking, and I instead had to listen to a nearby family who were also keeping watch.

No penguins came that afternoon, but I was more than happy to watch the fierce waves smash the rocks before making my way back through the secluded forest.

The following morning was spent learning everything I could about whitebait, and after a briefing in the pub with the most genuine locals I’d possibly ever met, I set off to Ship Creek to take another stroll.

I had spent a large portion of my life near the sea, and I was hit with a wave of nostalgia as I was greeted by the immense ocean stretching as far as the eye could see.

I had so dearly missed the coast, and I felt at home as I walked along the beach and admired the coloured stones beneath my feet.

Ominous clouds began to gather over the Tasman but I couldn’t resist soaking up more of the briny air as I stood on the shoreline and watched the waves rhythmically rise and fall.

The massive body of water was all that stood between me and my home country, and I listened to the waves crash as I closed my eyes and conjured home.

My thoughts were sharply interrupted by a splash of rain, and another, and I quickly abandoned all sentiment and instead hurried back to shore as the heavens began to open for the umpteenth time that day.

Sunlight illuminates a tree during a walk through the forest near Haast.
Sunlight illuminates a tree during a walk through the forest near Haast.
The downpour soon passed and I resumed my wanderings, this time to the Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk.

If anything, the rain made the forest look more impressive; droplets glistened on the overhanging leaves and everything around me seemed frozen in time.

Indulging my inner child, I looked around to make sure I was alone before attempting to balance on the raised edge of the boardwalk.

It was good practice for slacklining — at least that’s what I told myself — and I triumphantly remembered my friend warning me just last week that I would one day fall if I continued my antics.

He was wrong, I smirked.

He was right, of course. Seconds later I slid off the wooden side and buried one leg calf-deep in the sticky forest floor. I hauled myself back up but the damage was done. My hiking boot was drenched in mud and my pride had suffered enormously, and I  hoped I wouldn’t come across anyone else as I continued on my way, this time sticking to the centre of the track.

But now I was in the jet-boat, hanging on for dear life with Haast locals Tania Frisbee, Vicki Cain and Lisa Glubb as local salmon farmer Ben Monk tore across the water with expert precision.

He had warned me to hold on tight, "real tight’’ in fact, but I was still almost left behind as the boat surged forward with a burst of power.

We whooped as we shot down the river, dodging the overhanging branches and passing whitebaiters  along the way.

Life in the Haast lane was pretty sweet, I decided, and I pulled out my camera once more and laughed aloud and the boat bounced and spun.

It was the ideal way to experience the area. I watched the whitebait fishermen adjust their makeshift shelters and admired the dense forest that coated the distant hills.

Haast seemed wonderfully removed from the rest of the world — it really was the last frontier — and I could see why the area had Unesco World Heritage status.

I imagined trekking through the dense forest away from all civilisation, and I made a mental note to do some research and devise a multi-day tramp in the future.

We eventually turned back to shore and I thought back to the pub the night before, where we had sung along to the visiting band and devised the plan to hit the water.

Everyone I had met had a certain lust for life I had  only ever found in country towns. Nothing was too much trouble, no-one was a stranger to hard work, and generosity seemed to be a way of life.

Arranging the jet-boat ride itself was no mean feat. Organiser Vicki Cain had borrowed a car to reach us, before we took  another vehicle half an hour up the road to Ben’s property. I was later  presented with a container of freshly caught whitebait.

I remembered how I had previously dismissed stopping in Haast when I was travelling to what I thought were bigger and better things, and I was glad I  had the chance to properly explore and meet the people who called the area home.

- This trip was made possible thanks to the Heartland World Heritage Hotel. The jet-boat ride was supported by Ben Monk, of South Westland Salmon Farm, and Tania Frisby, of Haast River Motels and Holiday Park.

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