South has road trips for all

The road meanders along the Haast River. PHOTOS: JANE KING
The road meanders along the Haast River. PHOTOS: JANE KING
If finding something to do during the holidays is getting a bit difficult, how about taking a road trip? During the next few weeks we will feature some southern journeys to fill in those summer days - starting with Haast to Hawea and, if keen for a longer drive, Hawea to Geraldine through the Mackenzie Country.

From Haast, the road meanders alongside the Haast River with trees and mountains to keep you company along the way.

As we drove along the river, we were struck by the number of places to stop for short walks. The first of these was the Roaring Billy Falls. It's about a 25-minute walk there and back and your stroll will reward you with a 30m cascade that tumbles down over massive boulders and into the almost impossibly clear waters of the Haast River.

A few kilometres up the road is the confluence of the Haast and Landsborough Rivers. Here, the road follows the Haast River and takes a sharp right-hand turn up on to Pleasant Flat. This is a lovely spot to sit a while and take in the views of Mt Hooker, which towers over the Landsborough River valley.

Between Pleasant Flat and the summit of the Haast Pass, you've also got the options of visiting Fantail Falls and Thunder Creek Falls. As we'd mucked around for a while at Roaring Billy, we decided to keep heading towards the top of the pass.

Just past Thunder Creek, the road crosses the bridge at the Gates of Haast. The river here squeezes through a narrow gorge, making for some spectacular views of water thundering down over the enormous boulders littering the riverbed.

The hot tubs in Omarama
The hot tubs in Omarama
At 563m, Haast Pass is the lowest of the South Island's mountain passes. Compared with the neck-straining peaks that surrounded us, it seemed even smaller than its half kilometre above the sea.

After crossing the summit of the pass, the road drops into the Makarora River valley, where it crosses Kiwi Flat and Cameron Flat. There's a quite noticeable sense of the landscape here feeling more like the Southern Lakes than the West Coast, which, of course, it is. This is probably because, for the first time on this trip, we found ourselves in beech forest.

At the southern end of Cameron Flat is the car park for the Blue Pools, which are a half-hour walk from the road. These pools are almost impossibly blue and are a magical spot - if they're not too busy.

This is very firmly on the camper vanner must-do list, so be prepared to share the place with swag-loads of bridge-jumping backpackers.

From the Blue Pools, the road towards Lake Wanaka continues along the river and the valley gradually opens out into broader flats as it follows the path of an ancient glacier, eventually bringing you to Makarora. There's quite a bit of accommodation here, coupled with a restaurant, bar and shop, so it's a good place to stop if you're needing a bit of sustenance.

Makarora is also home to Wilkin River Jets. These guys have been taking people out on the rivers here since the 1960s so they definitely know the best spots. Sure you can spend your hard-earned cash on the jet-boat rides out of Queenstown, but you'll just be seeing what thousands of other people do.

Lake Hawea at sunset.
Lake Hawea at sunset.
With these guys, you get to explore reaches of the Makarora and Wilkin Rivers that very few people get to visit. You'll see more in a hour-long trip here than you would in half a day on other trips.

Driving out of Makarora, it's only a few minutes until you reach the top of Lake Wanaka. From here it's still 50km to Hawea, but what a spectacular drive it is. There are plenty of places to stop and take in the view and take heaps of photos.

After crossing The Neck, the road traces the banks of Lake Hawea, and it's quite high up on the lake's edge, so the views are great. There's a lookout about halfway between The Neck and Lake Hawea township that's well worth stopping off at. By the time we reached there, I was itching to get into my togs and jump into the lake.

It was only a quarter of an hour until we were in Lake Hawea township so I had to learn some patience. There was a skittering of snow on Sentinel and Terrace peaks, but that didn't put me off. We rolled into town and I was straight into the lake - and it took all my strength not to come flying back out again.

It was freezing. Properly cold - the average water temperature is, I'm told, about 10degC. But the water was so clear I could see the rocks on the bottom of the lake and the cockabullies swimming around in the shallows, so I managed about 500m before I lost the feeling in my feet, and boy did that make me happy.

Once I'd got my blood circulating again, there was dinner to be found. There was only one thing for it - Sailz Cafe, Restaurant and General Store. That's the kind of place Hawea is - everyone here is so laid-back that they only need one stop to get everything that they need. Any more than that would be just too much work.

Given how relaxed it is, it's hard to believe that it is only 15 minutes away from the tourist bustle of downtown Wanaka - but thank goodness it is. Blue cod and chips watching the pale pink glow of sunset over the lake was the perfect end to a glorious day.

From Hawea, there are several options for routes you can take. Either head over the Crown Range (stopping at the famous Bra Fence and the Cardrona Distillery) before dropping down into the Wakatipu Basin and then heading off on a Southland road trip.

Another option is to make your way through the Lindis Pass to hook up with the Waitaki Valley section of the Central Otago road trip. Option three is to head back to Christchurch via the Mackenzie Country.

If you decide to head up the eastern side of the Southern Alps, make sure you book accommodation in advance as it is on the main tourist route and beds are often at a premium. Here are a few highlights that are well worth checking out as you go.

There's a back road from Hawea that will take you along the eastern side of the Clutha River and into the township of Tarras. The most famous resident of the town is Shrek the Sheep, who, until he was discovered, lived a quiet life on nearby Bendigo Station. Here there's a Shrek-themed park with a massive bronze statue of the hermit sheep.

From Tarras the road winds over the Lindis Pass, where you'll likely see an awful lot of bad driving and really wish that you had mobile coverage to call it in. On the other side of the pass is Omarama - famous as this country's gliding capital. My favourite thing about the town is Hot Tubs Omarama. These wooden tubs are filled with clear mountain water that is heated by a wood-fired burner. They're set in lovely tussock-land and the sheds take their lead from a duck-shooter's mai mai. Very cool. Or hot. As you wish.

Just before you get to Twizel is High Country Salmon, which is near the rowing mecca, Lake Ruataniwha. Here, they breed salmon in the water of the canals that feed the local hydro stations. You can feed the salmon (and if you do it at the right time, you can get them to splash unsuspecting visitors ...) and buy fresh fish to take with you all nicely wrapped and iced ready for cooking when you get where you're going.

My next highlight is on the shores of the spectacular Lake Pukaki. There, some enterprising locals have set up H2 Explore, a company that takes people out touring on the lake in their hovercraft. Yep, you read that right - a hovercraft. Very cool!

From Lake Pukaki, you can head up to Mt Cook Village and see if you can find the cloud piercer among the clouds. It's often hiding.

The other option is to carry on to Tekapo, where a night tour of Mt John Observatory through Earth and Sky tours is well worth staying up late for. The surrounding area is a dark sky reserve so there's very little in the way of light pollution to interrupt your view of the stars at night. It's mind-bendingly incredible.

From Tekapo, the road heads over Burkes Pass to Fairlie. There's a motel at Burkes Pass that is also home to a small art gallery - together they're called Burkes Pass Accommodation and Gallery - that features the work of equine and landscape artist Julie Greig.

Fairlie is also home to Lieber's pies, which can be purchased fresh at the source at the excellent Fairlie Bakehouse. Bacon and salmon pie anyone? Oh, yes!

About a further half an hour's drive is Geraldine, which has two stop-offs that are musts for me - and they couldn't be more different from each other.

The first is the Barkers of Geraldine shop. The company is well known for its jams, sauces and chutneys that are made locally. A visit to their factory shop is a great chance to taste a few products and bag some bargains as you go.

My second stop is McAtamney Gallery and Design Store, which is based in the town's old post office. Here they showcase established and emerging artists from all over New Zealand. With ever-changing exhibitions and a focus on modern and contemporary art, it's difficult not to be inspired when you visit this place.

From Geraldine, its a short hop back to State Highway 1 and about two hours north to Christchurch.


Haast to Hawea
Driving time: 1hr 40min
Road: There’s a good reason this road wasn’t opened until 1965. It winds and it climbs then it winds and it drops. The views on this drive are absolutely glorious, though, so factor in plenty of time for stopping, staring and strolling.
Highlights: Falls, falls and more falls — Roaring Billy, Fantail, Thunder Creek — take your pick; wandering and wallowing at the blue pools; blasting along the river with Wilkin River jets; having a chilly dip in Lake Hawea.



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