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Touring New Zealand 2012 part 6

By now we wanted to get away from the standard tourist Holiday Parks and decided to go to the Mavora Lakes in the hope of camping. The Mavora Lakes are at the other end of a 39 km gravel road and have a DOC campsite and two walk round and the most magnificent scenery. Our only fear was that it would be full of big parties left over from the Waitangi weekend. The road was good and we were often doing 60 kph with little more noise or vibration than on seal. We met a lot of big 4x4s with boats, trailers and caravans on the back and when we got there a lot of the sheltered sites were occupied but we found one next to where we had camped last time. We waited a while in case the weather changed and to make sure there were not too many sand-flies. By 1430 most of the remaining campers had left or were packing up and we had a choice of whee to set up - we stayed where we were as the place we had used last time was, by now, under the trees. The sand flies are very devious - they never come near one until they have seen you are well through setting up your tent. By the time we were finished we were slapping on the deterent and looking for long shirts, trowsers and socks!

We sat, scratched and admire the views and watch a number of South Island Robins which were quite fearless once they got used to us. We had got a couple of photographs and then remembered that last visit whilst watching and waiting one landed on the bird book we had used to look up what they were and we got a picture of it alongside the picture in the book so we have put that in again. They have no sign of red as in and English Robin; they are shades of grey and black with a white breast but behave in a very similar way. They will follow you whilst walking and hop around ones feet looking for any grubs you disturb.

The following morning we cleared the tent out and went for a walk round the Southern lake we did last time. The walk was said to take two to three hours on the original DOC leaflet and took most of the three although only about 12 kms (7.5 mls) as it involved a lot of rough ground through woods with roots underfoot. It had rained overnight and the grass was very long in a couple of paddocks we had to cross so we were soaked from pocket level down and most of it had run into our boots after 30 mins. Then it was back to nice paths through the woods and the sun came out. The highlights were the swing bridges over incoming and outgoing river - the one at the start was a standard swing bridge with quite a short span but the second one which we reached after 1 hour 30 mins was as long as any we have been on. We recalled it had been quite scary in the high crosswind we had last time when even with a day pack one was getting it twisting alarmingly. This time it was calm and one could not see why there had been a problem. After that it was a road walk most of the way back - we were almost dry by the time we reached the tent.

By the time we had taken the tent down - the sandflies take no hostages when you are taking a tent down to leave so it took a while, and we were back on the main road it was apparent that we were not going to get to Lake Wanaka at a sensible time, especially if we took the Cadrona Road, a challenging shortcut over the mountains. We had a look at the map and the logical distance was Queenstown but it is an expensive and exploiting town out to fleece the tourist so we decided to have a look at a campsite at Frankton which was at the road juntion where one would have turned into Queenstown.

The site was certainly cheaper than Queenstown especially for a tent and much more friendly - they gave us one of their pitchs which was down by the waterfront. It was quite small - it was fortunate we only wanted to put the small tent up and it turned out to be a power site although we said we did not need one. The other waterside pitches for camper vans and caravans were even smaller and the occupants were complaining they could not even put their awnings up. It was turning into an incredibly hot day and we were forced to sit in the shade of the van - it has been a year of tremendous contrast, 30 degrees one day and snow the following morning then back to sweltering days. Most of the site seemed to be occupied by fixed sites so the kitchens were small and the single fridge/freezer was absolutely full so it was a good job we had the little cooler although it was strugling to keep down. The site did however have excellent views over the Frankton Arm of Lake Wakitipu and of the Remarkables and other mountain ranges and by careful placement of the van and tent we had plenty of space to sit and admire them whilst we got the Red Devil to work. It was also completely sandfly free - they promised a refund if we got bitten!

The tent dried quickly in the morning and we set off to Wanaka taking the Cardrona Road which looks like a shortcut but is not and has steep hill climbs but the road itself has been considerably improved and is now completely sealed. What struck us this time was the number of subdivisions and new builds starting on what was previously a scenic backroad. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints and by the Cardrona Hotel - it used to be one of the famous inns on the Gold Trails and does excellent food as we have found previously, unfortunately we were a bit early. There are still some signs of the old gold diggings by the roadside but nothing to walk round.

We continued into Wanaka where we stopped at the DOC Office to get some information and a weather forecast so we knew which way to jump. We then went to New World for provisions and we we were seduced into trying one of the new low fat Tiptop Lemon and Yogurt ice-creams to eat with two spoons by the waterfront. Our choices for the night included the Luggate Cricket Ground where we had camped during Warbirds over Wanaka 2008 - ideal to go into the Warbirds Museum, Albert Town - a basic DOC like town site overlooking the Clutha that we have used many times, Kidds Bush - a DOC site out on Lake Hawea, a lovely setting but the Sandflies stack in layers into the sun like bandits waiting for the command to dive or various commercial sites at Wanaka and Hawea.

The views the previous night had been so good we decided we really wanted a lakeside pitch which ruled out most of the choices so we thought we would go out on the road to Mount Aspiring to take a look at the Glendhu Bay Lakeside Holiday Park which we had been past many times and knew had lakeside pitches. What we did not know was that it is run by the Queenstown Local District Council along with the Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park and others including the one at Arrowtown which had been well spoken off by our contacts. Being government owned it is very reasonably priced and clean and tidy although it does not have the bells and whistles of a Top Ten or the like. Tent and van sites are $16 a person including power if you need it. Basic Cabins $20 per person which is extremely reasonable in the Lakes area. Whilst we were looking round we met a lady from a group which have been coming to the same pitch for two months every year for over forty six years - now that's a recommendation.

The sites are all very large - I paced ours at 10 x 22 - say 20 metres by 9 metres and the site when open fully at Christmas through to Waitangi day has sites numbered up to 330 plus about a dozen basic cabins. And it is truely lakeside - no roads public roads or access between you and the shore. We booked a second night first thing in the morning and were glad we had taken the trouble to put up the big tent - it always takes a while the first time and this time was even longer as Pauline decided to cut the extra groundsheet to size rather than fold it - even so it was up in 90 minutes despite being a bit wind which never helps. It is worth it for the luxury of the large enclosed porch and inner large enough to walk around in - it is supposed to sleep 10 in sardine mode. It was a bit windy so we also put the back awning up on the van to give shelter for the Red Devil - there is always a price and marvellous clear views mean less shelter! Their flier says "Traditional kiwi camping at affordable prices .... Stuningly beautiful, relaxingly tranqill" we could not argue with that and I am sure we will return.

There was some rain overnight and the following day was mostly spent by Pauline sorting out paperwork - we were pleasantly surprised that the probate form and all the subsiduary ones can now be filled in online with no more difficulty that an income tax return - if only the Banks and Building Societies were so user oriented, getting information or money from them is like extracting hens teeth. Fortunately there was good high speed Vodafone mobile internet coverage which was as fast as the daytime at home and much of the preliminary information had alrady been gathered over the years.

We stopped at the Airfield at Wanaka to visit the Fighter Pilots Museum which we found has been replaced by "Warbirds and Wheels". This is a great disappointment as the the Alpine Fighter Collection used to be one of the largest collections of flying WW 2 fighter aircraft and trainers in the world. It included a Spitfire XVI, Hurricane, Polikarpov I-16 and I-53 and a two seat Mustang 51D, Corsair, Yak, Zero, Tiger Moths, Fox Moth, Harvard and Vampire - all close enough to walk round and touch - see the pictures form the past. The major Southern Hemisphere Airshow "Warbirds over Wanaka" was hosted at Easter every other year which attracted 80,000 spectators and many visiting fighters. We spent three days at Warbirds over Wanaka 2008 - Pete's 60th Birthday treat and an experience of a lifetime.

Why so much interest in New Zealand in WW II Fighters one might ask? In fact New Zealand contributed, per-capita, more fighter pilots than Any other country in WWII, over 5000. Now Tim Wallace's aircraft (Tim was the driving force behind 'Warbirds' ) have, according to the girl on the desk, been withdrawn and sold and the RNZAF aircraft have gone to Wigram leaving only 5 aircraft which have been augment by a collection of a couple of dozen classic cars. The old hanger has been reallocated and a much smaller new building put up - most of the interest seemed to be centered on the restaurant and gallery. We were so disappointed we did not bother to go in so we do not know how many of the large number of showcases and boards detailing the NZ activities and details of actions by the pilots survive. "Warbirds over Wanaka" is still due to take place but how long it will survive without a firm base is less clear - Omaka now seems to have the high ground especially with all the backing from Peter Jackson.

We went back into Wanaka and filled up with fuel as it gets more expensive on the West Coast and set out over the Haast Pass. I did one of our first major write-ups of the Haast Pass ten years ago in response to a request for a description of New Zealand scenery. It was difficult as no words can do the South Island scenary justice. Pictures help but even they can not do it justice - it is on too grand a scale. I still do not know how to convey the majesty of the mountains and the ever changing colours of the lakes or the barely suppressed power of the rivers. The following description of a journey from the lakes to the sea through the Haast Pass is closely based on that first effort ten years ago as little has changed.

We started from Wanaka close to two of the most beautiful and largest lakes in New Zealand. They have been gouged out of solid rock by the actions of glaciers and lie parallel, almost connected by a narrow isthmus part way down. To give a scale Lake Wanaka is 45 kms long and Lake Hawea 35 kms. Lake Wanaka is a thousand feet deep and Hawea even deeper and glaciers have smoothed the sides down to the water from their maximum height of 3000 feet above lake level. The bottoms of the lakes are below the present sea level.

The lakes are fed by Glacier melt water and have the most incredible colours, usually a light blue, sometimes almost white, from all the fine rock, ground to a powder by the Glaciers. - we have seen them so still that it is almost impossible to tell the reflection from the mountains behind when you turn a picture upside down and we have seen the with wave crashing on to the beaches. They can be so still and clear we have looked down and watched cormorants hunting underwater over a bottom perhaps 50' below. There are a few boats, mostly tinnies or glass fibre boats trailed in for fishing so they are virtually still on the surface, dots in the vastness of the lakes.

The mountains tower above the lakes - the mountains beside the lakes rise to over 7000 feet, some with a powdering of snow or ice at the top but mostly sheer rock faces angled upwards - we are sitting along the joins between the Australian and Pacific plates which are still tearing the fabric of this land and throwing it up at crazy angles to be smoothed by glaciers in successive ice ages.

A huge tract of this land of lakes, mountains, rivers and fjords ranging from alpine dessert to thick rainforest has become a World Heritage Area called Te Wahipounamu from the original Maori for the area, The Place of the Greenstone. This World Heritage Area covers the whole South West region of South Island and alone covers 10% on the surface of New Zealand and integrates and fills in between the National Parks of Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, Westland and Mount Cook, all vast in their own rights. Te Wahipounamu is one of the great temperate wildernesses of the world, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, tussock grasslands, lakes, rivers, fjords, wetlands and 1000 km of wild coastline.

The journey we are about to make will cross this tortured land from the central lakes to the sea - it is only 100 miles over the Haast pass but it took over 30 years to carve out the road and another 30 before it was metalled in 1995. It stretches past the wind-whipped lakes of Wanaka and Hawea through golden tussock-covered hills. It winds amongst steep mountains cloaked in a lush rainforest blanket across tumbling rivers. It skirts undulating forests afloat in tea-stained swamps before it touches the wind and foaming Tasman surf.

It started as a Maori Greenstone trail and there is still dispute who was the first Pakeha to cross. Charles Cameron probably discovered it 2 days before Haast, but Haast made the first crossing. It took him and his party over four weeks, after being shown the start of the trail by Maori. He gained all the publicity whilst Cameron, travelling alone, continued his explorations but left a dated marker in the form of a hip flask in a cairn in the pass to be found 20 years latter - it is on display in an information centre at Makarora .

By 1876 a pack trail existed for gold prospectors, stock movement and latter even some intrepid tourists. The Haast Pass road proper was not started until 1930, much of it created by hand labour with picks shovels and horse drawn carts as it was inaccessible to serious machinery. The pass is, at 563 meters, the lowest of the only three passes which link Westland to the east coast and now it is sealed a virtually all-weather road.

Even now the 100 miles from Wanaka to Haast is a fascinating journey passing through fantastic and changing scenery. The first part passes from Lake Wanaka through arid grasslands after crossing the Clutha at Albert Town, where we were camped, up the side of Lake Hawea and then crosses the narrow col to continue back up lake Wanaka. We turned right down the gravel track for a side trip to the Kidds Bush DOC camp site. Kidds bush is a marvellous camp site with a beach covered in flat pieces of schist perfect for skimming across placid pale blue waters. It is a favourite with Pete who finds the swimming and a beach of flat 'skimming stones' irresistible whilst Pauline finds the Sandflies in the evenings quite resistible - even so we have spent several days there camping in previous years. Pete skimmed stones and swam whilst Pauline huddled in the van away from the Sandflies and marked a late eTMA

Anyway, back to the journey. The first third is alongside the lakes on roads cut and blasted into hillsides winding along the shores. The lakes are different in subtle ways - Lake Hawea has been raised a few tens of metres by a hydroelectric scheme dam. Purists say this has made major changes for the worse - I think the changes in scenery are minimal and may be even for the best with many sharply defined shores - in any case a few metres is nothing compared to 1500 metres of ice which shaped the valleys.

As one reaches the end of Lake Wanaka one enters a wide valley with the flat floor filled with silt and gravel spread by the river since the last ice age through which the Makarora river wends it way, split into channels which divide and rejoin, cross and re-cross creating strange patterns - these are called Braided Rivers and one can see why when one looks down from the road sitting on some corner blasted into a towering bluff.

As we progress further the gravel ceases to fill the valley floor and there are wide grass filled flats edges by native bush as they meet the hillside smoothed by giant glaciers in past ages. These are known as Flats and there used to be a number of good DOC camping grounds on the flats which by some senseless act of vandalism DOC have closed and in their place opened a tiny site on a windswept and totally exposed sloping piece of land which we have never seen used. They have a visitor centre at Makarora which proclaims this to be a major achievement on the grounds that tourists do not like long drop toilets - now walkers and cyclists have huge stretches with no place to stop and those with cars will pass through. Easy for a Suit to present as a success until the real users get there. I have been a great fan of DOC, and held them up as examples in the past, but this sort of madness makes one question ones earlier judgement.

All along the road are various side walks which one can take, some only a few minutes long and some taking several hours. Often they lead to or past waterfalls and we have stopped at many of them this year or in the past. Fantails Falls has a beautiful fan shaped waterfall spreading and twisting like a minute vertical braided river. Thunder Falls has a nice short bush walk through Kamahi and silver beach to look at the spectacular falls crashing into the river from a side valley tens of metres above.

One is now starting the steady climb to the pass and the bush becomes more lush and turns to forest and the river narrows into a steep gorge, twisting and crashing over rocks and into sparkling blue-white pools of foam below us. The pass is quite low at 563 metres and is marked by a stone with plaques commemorating the building of the road. The vegetation is now even more lush forest as we pass to the western slopes - the rainfall has now increased fourfold and is now up to 4.5 metres a year and will further increase to 8.3 metres a year as we descend onto the lower slopes. Trees with strange names like Kamahi dominate here whilst as we descend we pass into swamp forests of Rimu, Kahikatea and silver pine which thrive on the boggy lower slopes. As we descend we pass over a bridge and through The Gates of Haast - Haast is the name for the whole area as well as a town and river. This is a place to stop and look - the river tumbles over huge blocks of stone cast in the river like a giants abandoned toy blocks. Trees swept down by floods look like matchsticks and one can only marvel at the power of water.

Finally the steep descents end and the smell of burnt brake linings is whipped away in the breeze as we reach the flats. We look at Pleasant Flat, one of the few remaining camp sites which nestles a bit close beside the road and the new facilities DOC have built - one can imagine waking to find 50 tourist leaving their bus and gathering round to look at the rare sight of a tent with descriptions of how camping used to take place in the area by a tour guide as they rush in and out of the spotless toilets without taking time to look over the flats to the magnificent views of Mt Hooker. We continue on towards the coast and stop to admire the patterns in the gravel where the Haast is joined by the Landsborough rivers.

It was getting late in the day - we had made too many stops - so we decided to overnight in Haast township and found a basic room in a motel. It was more like a backpackers in some ways with a lot of basic rooms, double bed plus nothing, plus excellent common facilities and all indoors rather than an isolated cabin. They also have two cabins and we obtained one of those more character and a lower cost of $55 - people do not like having to walk outside.

We looked at the South Westland World Heritage Visitor centre, a hideous shaped corrugated iron clad building which must have cost more than a dozen camp sites and their maintenance for the architect fees - only an architect could ever have got approval for such a building in a conservation area. It does however have a series of interesting displays on natural and human history include information on where to find the "floating forests" of Kahikatea where matted roots keep the trees floating above deep swamps. The are known as the Dinosaur tree, living up to 80 years some of the trees in these swamp forests can bare up to 800 kgs of fruit.

We went up the coast 20 kms to Ship Creek where there is coastal dune walk a Kahikatea Swamp Forest walk. The Kahikatea is New Zealand's tallest tree and we saw examples 60 metres tall withclean straight trunks with huge heads - as impressive as Kauri in some ways. We also did the dune walk and got seduced by watching the Hectors Dolphins cruising just outside the surf line - they are New Zealand's smallest and rarest dolphins easily recognised by the rounded dorsal fin. The walk continued past a large lake just behind the dunes, the first of its kind we had seen . It forms an important part of the local ecosystem and was an inportant source of food in the old days.

It was then time to have a look at the glaciers at Franz Joseph and Fox. We had been told that this year the Glacier at Fox was better viewing and one could walk to quite closs to the base. There are two side roads into the Glacier the Southerly one goes to a viewpoint and walk to a lookout, the Northerly one takes one to a car park from which one has an approximately one hour walk to closs to the base and that was what we chose. Even from a short distance this year it looked very grey but with a few clear blue 'caves' where the ice was melting - as they reach the limit they thaw and expose all the stones and gravel they strip on their slow progress down to almost reach the sea. The top surface hardly had any of the sparkling appearance we have sometimes seen and we could not see the higher slopes which we had reached with a helicopter trip a few years ago, maybe it was just the familiarity or the conditions but it was disappointing to us this year - however the hundreds of tourists looked happy as they moved like slow worms across the terminal moraine to the edge of the ice. We went into the information centre and it was interesting to see how the extent had changed over recent years - have look at the picture.

We did not stop at Franz Joseph as it was already getting a bit late in the day and it was time to look for a cabin for the night although we did take time to follow a side road down to Okarito where there is a large lagoon where the White Herons often feed before returning to their nests - none were in view but an information hut had many pictures of when the area had been one of the richest for gold on the beaches, first worked by hand and then by large dredges. Okarito also has a basic camping site, which we had a look at but the combination of weather and sandflies pushed us towards a roof over our head.

We found a cabin for the night at Whataroa with the organisers of the tours into the White Heron Sanctuary, we used the cabins when we did the tour last time. The cabin had full cooking and two double plus two single beds with a separate shower and facilities block for $65 a night. The only slight shortfall was that the only fridge was in the laundry area and turned off - no problem to us with the cooler but could be to others. It had the advantage of preventing us buying a big block of ice-cream at the shop opposite. We ended up with a sunset which left the mountain tops looking on fire.

The White Herons (Kokuku) have always been a sacred bird to the Maori but were almost whipped out by hunting for the feathers. At one point they were down to only four breeding pairs as they only breed at the one site at Waitangirito. There are now over 150 breeding pairs and there were many almost fully-grown juveniles at the site. The trip involves a twenty-minute bus ride to pick up a Jetboat to take one in to the sanctuary. The boat ride in one of the New Zealand Hamilton jetboats is almost worthwhile in its own right. The jet boats are capable of operating in rapids and water only a few inches deep - water is drawn in underneath and expelled as a jet at the back. The jet can be pointed to direct the boat and in a straight line can easily achieve speeds of up to 90 kms/hour - we had our GPS and were travelling at over 60 kph on the straight stretches on the initial stretch before we entered the sanctuary where we slowed down to a walking pace.

One then has a 500-metre walk through Westland Rainforest, which also supports several rare orchids and the bush rings to the song of bellbirds. The hide is just across the river from the only breeding site for the Kokutu (White Herons) where usually there are several dozen nests clearly visible in the trees, with juveniles in view even with the naked eye and filling the view of the binoculars provided. The last time we went it was possible to fill the screen on our video and Pauline got a lot of stills with a 300mm lens on our Canon EOS 500. The noise was almost deafening as the adults returned to feed the juveniles who were almost the same size and fought over the food. We watched a couple of juveniles fighting over a foot long eel with it almost disappearing down one throat only to be dragged out and down another. Oor trip in 2004 was a memorable experience - it is said it is an honour to see a Kotuku once during ones life so we did not return again.

As well as the White Herons the breeding site also has a large number of Royal Spoonbills which were returning with big twigs to augment their nests - they again are large white birds, almost as impressive although slightly more common. Another trip we can thoroughly recommend - it may seem relatively expensive at $120 a head (2012) but each visit can only take 10 people and lasts two and a half hours including a jet boat trip which is almost worth the money in its own right as well as the unique experience of seeing the only breeding site of the sacred White Heron not to speak of the Royal Spoonbills.

We had another all too brief stop at the Ross visiting the goldfields heritage area which has a small museum and area set out with displays as well as miners cottage with a lot more displays and old pictures. The first major Gold discoveries on the West coast were in the area round Ross. The first indications were in 1864 a little South at Totara but the main discoveries, including Jones Creek, which led to the Rush were in 1865 and August saw the number of miners grow tenfold to 2,500 and Ross was quickly laid out with shops and hotels. Gold was found all around and the town grew further. Initially the Gold, alluvial gold, was extracted by panning and cradling in the many stream beds, in fact one of the largest nuggets ever found in New Zealand was found 50 years latter on the banks of Jones Creek - it weighed 99oz and was named the Honourable Roddy after Rod McKenzie, the Minister of Mines.

The mining activities were restarted in the 1990s - the current heritage area is right alongside what was recently one of the largest alluvial open cast mining operation in the Southern Hemisphere. You could look right into it from the Heritage Centre, in 2003 it was about 400 metres across and 90 metres deep (45 below sea level). Even in this age it proved difficult to pump. By the time we returned in 2004 the ground was being reshaped and the new lakewas partially filled. In 2012 it appears to be completely full and the surroundings show little evidence of the mining, it just seems unnaturally barren and symetric.

Unfortunately the mining activities have severed one of the historically significant walks in the area over Jones Flat. Pete repeated the other walk in the area, the water race walk which took one up and along some of the old water races past a miners hut and should have taken one over the face where sluicing activities took place and past the water race fluming. It passes the place where the gold was first discover on Jones Creek and an area which is available for gold panning. A worthwhile hour.

After a pause for an ice-cream we continued towards Hokitika with a short diversion to investigate a camp site beside Lake Mahinapua which we had not previously explored. It turned out to be very intresting as they had the remains of an old steam boat and the boards made it clear that the various lakes and waterways used to be linked to give an inland route between Ross and Hokitika, the two main centres in the area. The camp site was quite large and had some well sheltered areas and also seemed to be sand-fly free which was surprising when it was lakeside - worth considering for the future.

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