Scores of travellers queue for Haast road reopening

Traffic lines up, waiting to negotiate past the slip. Photos by Lucy Ibbotson.
Traffic lines up, waiting to negotiate past the slip. Photos by Lucy Ibbotson.
A camper van passes the Diana Falls slip  after a single lane  between Makarora and Haast was...
A camper van passes the Diana Falls slip after a single lane between Makarora and Haast was reopened yesterday.
Waiting for the road between Haast and Makarora to reopen at the Diana Falls slip so they can...
Waiting for the road between Haast and Makarora to reopen at the Diana Falls slip so they can travel through to the West Coast are (from left) Wayne Donovan, of Auckland, Barry Lum, of Sydney, Graham Milligan, of Levin, and Robin Tinker, of Rotorua.

Whitebaiters, busloads of tourists, several dogs and a cat were among the hundreds of travellers banked up on both sides of the Diana Falls slip between Haast and Makarora yesterday afternoon.

Ten days after the huge slip came down in a vicious storm, closing State Highway 6 between the Gates of Haast Bridge and Haast Pass Summit, the New Zealand Transport Agency was able to open one lane of the road to motorists shortly after noon.

Traffic was intermittently let through the reopened road one vehicle at a time, before the motorists' passage was halted for about an hour while sluicing work was carried out and more debris rained down on the road, temporarily blocking a culvert.

As contractors cleared the route again, up to 50 vehicles - mostly camper vans, coaches, or cars and trucks laden with whitebaiting gear - lined the highway on either side of the slip site.

Many of their occupants gathered on the road to take photographs of the helicopters flying overhead with monsoon buckets, or the muddy water and rocks crashing down the hillside in front of them.

Among those watching and waiting on the Makarora side of the slip were Queenstown couple Alan and Jan Eyles, who, together with their two dogs and cat, were making their way back to their bach at Hannahs Clearing, near Haast.

After leaving the bach the day before the storm brought down the slips, they had been waiting for a week to return to the West Coast.

''He's champing at the bit to get back to the whitebaiting,'' Mrs Eyles said of her husband.

Once through to the coast again, they and their pets would stay put ''until the whitebait stop running'', Mr Eyles said.

Further back in the queue, old school friends Graham Milligan, Wayne Donovan, Barry Lum and Robin Tinker were in good spirits, despite the prospect of having to abandon their boys' trip.

The group had driven from Queenstown where they had flown from their respective homes throughout the North Island and Australia for a catch-up at Mr Donovan's coastal bach, just north of Okarito.

''We were having a boys' week at the bach and this is as far as we've got,'' Mr Milligan, of Levin, said.

''We thought: `We've got a few stories we can tell each other', and look what's happened,'' Mr Donovan, of Auckland, added.

All would not be lost if they did not make it through yesterday though, the men said. They would simply turn around and find a nice lakefront bar back in Wanaka to while away the evening.

Also among the small pockets of people milling on the roadside was coach driver Alec Hobbs, who was surprised at the impact of the slip on the major tourist route.

''I've been doing this for 22 years and it's the first time I've had a major hold-up.''

In the worst-case scenario that the road remained closed for the day, he had a contingency plan in place for his busload of German passengers on a tour of New Zealand - taking the long route to Greymouth and dropping the West Coast glaciers from the tour itinerary.

Fortunately, however, Mr Hobbs and his group, the Eyles and their animals, and the men on their reunion road trip eventually made it through to their destinations via their planned SH6 route.

The New Zealand Transport Agency has said the road would only be open during the daylight hours of 8am to 6pm for the foreseeable future, with just one lane of the highway available for some time.

''Our ongoing challenge with managing the site is that the slip face hasn't settled completely,'' NZTA West Coast area manager Mark Pinner said.

-lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz

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