The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 7 (October 1, 1936)
Riding Over the Haast Pass — An Outpost Of The Wild
Over thirty years ago, the late Rt. Hon. Richard Seddon promised the loyal settlers of South Westland a road, leading out through their solitudes, through the mountains, and into Otago. It is said that the promise was made actually because Mrs. Seddon had interested herself in the welfare of the mothers and wives of the settlers in the most isolated part of New Zealand. She knew something of what it meant to those women to be over two hundred miles from the nearest hospital and doctor, so Mr. Seddon made his promise. Meantime, he gave them a telephone to go on with. And then he died, and that frail little wire wandering for 200 miles down the West Coast from Hokitika to Okuru has for three decades been the only link between this Land of Forgotten Men and civilisation!
And now, at last, there is to be a road over the Haast Pass from South Westland into Otago, and New Zealand is going to pay half a million for it. A very special road, this, and already, quite naturally, there is springing up the usual crop of objections and suggestions for another route!
One of the main objections to the new road is that it will be a purely tourist route. It will. But what a route! Leading down from the glaciers past lakes, over rivers and mountains, more rivers and ever more, past more lakes, and then over the Alpine barrier that is the rugged backbone of the South Island, via the Haast Pass, 1,760 feet above sea level, the lowest of all the passes of the Southern Alps.
The Haast Pass is named after its discoverer, Sir Julius von Haast, member of that splendid band of explorers and scientists who mapped out New Zealand's back-o'-beyond half a century ago. The Maoris had found a way across the mountains even earlier, for, centuries ago, they took that wild way of peril, crossing rivers, scaling mountain sides, braving death by starvation and exposure to the terrific storms that come thundering down from the snow-clad heights.
Now there is a very good riding track across the mountains. But very few New Zealanders know just how good it is, which is probably the reason why you could count on the fingers of your hands the total number of tourists who go riding over the Pass in the course of any summer.
There is no doubt that this is very largely due to the fact that the trip is supposed to be a difficult—even dangerous one.
It is nothing of the kind. It is a remarkably well-made well-graded track, certainly a bit tricky here and there, but nothing more. It is not a route for novices of the tan track, but any rider who can do his or her twenty to thirty miles a day could tackle it without a moment's hesitation.
The only danger lies in the treacherous, beautiful rivers that hare to be crossed and re-crossed constantly. Good horses and guides are needed, of course, and it is definitely not a trip to be undertaken on foot or by bicycle, although a few heroes have come through to teil the tale! But it is sheer waste of magnificent riding to do the Haast afoot or a-wheel. There are miles upon miles of ferny avenues, lined with stately matai and white pine, running sometimes for over a mile without a bend, and once you come down from the winding track over the Maori saddle, there is a stretch of twenty miles on the straight, with never a hill the whole way!
On a windy summer morning, we set out from Makarora, at the head of Lake Wanaka, en route for the first stopping place, Burke Hut, twenty-six miles distant, over on the Westland side of the Pass. The track ran for seven miles up the fertile. Makarora Valley, then started its long climb up through the beech groves of the mountains, through dark gorges and over the rugged spurs to the top of the Pass. Quite a tame Pass, the Haast; not even a glacier or snowfield to rhapsodise about!
“See that log over there?” said my guide casually, as we ambled along through the scrubby clearing over beyond the forest. “That's the top of the Pass.” And two minutes later we had ambled out of Otago into Westland, and soon we saw that the page 10 page 11 rivers and streams were all flowing the other way.
Soon the track began to drop, and then it fell bodily over a precipice, and we went down after it. Quite safe? Oh, certainly, but'one felt quite glad of the great slabs of stone upended like gravestones on the hairpin bends, and one didn't screw about in the saddle overmuch trying to take photographs of the cliffs above, or the roaring, shouting river that fell down in white-lashed torrent beneath!
The Haast had grown to quite a sizable river now, very different from the insignificant little stream that meandered about through the marshy open spaces at the top of the Pass. Soon we were in the magnificent Wills Canyon, crossing the bridge that until recently, was the only one in two hundred miles of forest and river country. A rickety old affair it was, too, but it held our two selves and our two horses, and we passed on in safety sto the Haast Gate, a most picturesque and imposing rocky gateway leading through to the glorious woodland avenue that leads three miles down to Burke Hut.
Quite a comfortable hut is the Burke, with the river flowing in lovely blue and silver pools a stone's throw away, a place where one would like to linger awhile. But rain blew up that night, and we left at seven next morning in a deluge, anxious to get across the Haast while the going was good. It was quite good, not past the horses' girths, but another hour or so would have made all the difference. Our track now lay across the wide shingle-bed of the river, with the dark magnificence, the Landsborough opening out on our right and the Haast Valley just over there on our left, on the other side of Clarke Bluff. Late that afternoon we rode into the Clarke Hut clearing, and next morning made our way back to the Burke, to see all the beauty we had missed in the rain. The following day we continued our journey down the Haast Valley to Cron's homestead, some twenty-eight miles from the Clarke Hut.
The next stage was the longest of the whole trip, fifty miles from Cron's to the Mahitahi. But there is no need for any one to double-stage this part of the journey. I only did it, well—because I wanted to see if I could! And as that was obviously a very poor reason, I found two much better ones for general use—I wanted to ride down to Okuru, ten miles south of the Haast, and I wanted an extra day at Bruce Bay, up there a bit beyond the Mahitahi.
The Okuru ride was sheer delight, a fine track leading through the forest, out to the edge of the breakers, then inland to the river, which we crossed by boat, our horses swimming behind. At Okuru, as at the Haast, there is a landing ground for the Air Travel planes at the settlers' back doors, and settlers there eat bread at morning tea fresh from the Hokitika ovens … and until those sky-crusaders fought and slew the spectre of loneliness and isolation, that same bread would have taken just a fortnight to deliver!
The ride from Cron's over the Maori Saddle and into the Mahitahi was the most beautiful portion of the hundred and fifty mile ride from Makarora up to Weheka, in South Westland. Here were marvellous panoramas of ocean, forest, mountain, lake and river, a track that literally hung to the rim of dizzy precipices, where waterfalls came crashing down into pools through which we rode, and the river thundered and roared in foaming cataracts two hundred feet below. Past Blue River we rode, past lovely Lake Paringa, through the level forest glades, and so at last to the Mahitahi, which we crossed just twelve hours after starting. Tired? … Yes! One does not ride in electric cars and sit in office chairs for eleven months out of twelve without feeling tired after twelve hours in the saddle! Stiff? … No! Quite surprisingly, no! The Daily Dozen had triumphed after all! …
Bruce Bay, with its busy mill, driven by' electricity provided an interesting day's outing, and next day we set out again, on the last lap of thirty miles or so to Weheka. A day of violent rain storms, rainbows that bent their lovely shining arcs right down from the grey, veiled mountains to our feet—but the pot of gold was always just a little farther on. Afternoon tea page 12 page 13 and a change of horses at Scott's, Karangarua, then eight miles on to the Cook River, which we crossed just before sunset. A motor car was waiting on the other side of the river, and ten minutes later I was at the Fox Hostel.
The great ride was over! For nearly ten years I had thought of it, dreamed of it, feared it, because of the stories I had been told. And now it was behind me, to think of, dream of, but never again to fear! It was even more lovely than I had hoped it might be, the most beautiful riding track, with one single exception, in all New Zealand. That high honour must be given to the Lower Hollyford track, which wanders down a narrow valley from the Hollyford Divide to Lake Alabaster, then on to Lake McKerrow and through to Martin's Bay on the West Coast.
Now they are talking of roading the Hollyford Valley also. That means the fall of another of our lovely outposts of the wild. The Haast roaded—the Hollyford roaded—two magnificent riding trips gone forever! But South Westland says it must get its butter-box timber out to the markets, and a thousand tourists will go chugging and roaring up and down through the mountains where to-day less than a score go riding, with only the song of the river and the call of the birds to break the silence.
But, after all, none may impede the great March of Civilisation—and, after all, Richard Seddon did promise his loyal Westlanders that road!