Between the west coast of New Zealand’s south island and the rest of the isle there is a very large chain of mountains known as the southern alps.
Getting through these mountains is only possible in a few places, via passes which have been hewn out of the mountains by the glaciers of the past.
The most southerly of these passes is the Haast Pass, which also happens to be the lowest, with a maximum height of around 550m. The drive through this pass, as you might imagine, is somewhat spectacular, featuring snow capped mountains, massive glacially formed valleys, waterfalls, and weirdly blue waters.
I am definitely starting to conclude that New Zealand has no shortage of seriously awesome scenery. I am also starting to realise that my mastery of the English language may cause me to run out of superlatives in order to describe these marvels. Luckily, the wonders of the photograph can step in for me and save me the trouble. I think I might just have to move to full time photo blogging instead of writing at this rate.
We were lucky to have rather superb weather for our trip through the pass, which meant we could stop at a whole number of attractions on the way, which included the blue pools, the fantail falls, the thunder creek falls and the roaring billy – which also happen to be some falls. Coming up with wonderful names was not a problem for these early pioneers it seems.
When it wasn’t waterfalls and snow capped mountains, it was moss coated forests and gushing creeks, where the water was the most mysterious shade of blue. All in all, an excellent drive.
The drive ended up in the town of Wanaka, sitting at the end of Wanaka lake, formed by the Wanaka glacier. A good theme there at least. Wanaka was fairly sleepy when we stumbled into town, but this is a town which gets busy in Winter, surrounded as it is by some of the South islands finest skiing.
Well, it would be, if there was any snow on the ski fields. Which there wasn’t. Some forlorn looking pistes on the main slopes of Treble Cone were doing their best to look skiable with the help of some snow cannons, unfortunately however the unseasonably warm weather meant that the snow was melting away faster than it could be produced.
This was good news for us, as it meant that parts of the Mount Aspiring National Park which may normally be inaccessible at this time of year were still open. Which meant that we could head in and walk the rather excellent Rob Roy glacier trail.
Set just 60km from Wanaka (and down a pretty hairy road complete with nine river crossings which Bernie managed with aplomb) this walk sets off just near the base of Mount Aspiring (Tolkien fans be aware that this was used as the pass over Moria that the fellowship gave up on) and heads up a glacially formed valley to the precipitously balanced Rob Roy Glacier itself, one of over a hundred in this part of the world.
The views on this work are simply astonishing. The massively steep gorge walls rise up on either side with glimpses of the glacier through the tree line ahead. To the left, the path falls away (quite literally in places) to a rushing, glacially blue river. Moss drapes the forest, turning everything darkly green, and you walk, ever rising, until you burst out of the tree line to a view that just takes your breath away.
The glacier sits at the top of the valley, with a giant wall of ice clinging on to the edge of the gorge walls. Enormous chunks have clearly broken free and tumbled to their doom recently, and the ice line has been shrinking over summer. Icy blues cling to the black of the mountain side, as wind whips the clouds over the top of the valley walls. All in all, a damn impressive sight, and certainly a glacier walk worth taking the time to do.
Speaking of glaciers, snow, and ice, I can confirm that winter is clearly on its way to New Zealand, despite the current state of the snow fields. The advantages of travelling at this time of year – quieter roads, clear air, lower prices – are balanced up against the rapidly dropping temperatures and shorter days.
Hard frosts have already made their presence felt, and chipping ice off the van windows in the morning is becoming a ritual. Happily, the rewards continue to be more than worth it.