Big Country: The Haast Pass/Tīoripātea Highway (Part 2)

April 1, 2022
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IN this second instalment, continuing on from Part One, I describe the Haast Pass/Tīoripātea Highway and its attractions from the summit of the pass to Haast township. I also take time out to hike up Mount Brewster where I met wild kea (the native alpine parrots of Aotearoa/New Zealand), and venture up the wild West Coast as far as Ship Creek/Tauparikākā, another magical place. This post has a lot more photos and videos than the first one, so, read on!

The overall area covered by this post, not including Ship Creek/Tauparikākā, which is a bit off this map. Background map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0. Some placenames have been added for this post. For all the maps in this post, north is at the top.

The Brewster Track and Mount Brewster

A few kilometres past the summit of the pass (562 m) and its Lookout Track, past Blue Duck Flat, there is the Brewster Track.

From the pass to the Brewster Track via Blue Duck Flat. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

And here, in the following map, is the Brewster Track in relation to the Brewster Glacier and Mount Brewster above, and Fantail Falls near the start of the track.

The Brewster Track, Brewster Hut, Brewster Glacier and Mount Brewster summit. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

It's four hours up the Brewster Track to the Brewster Hut, four hours straight up! Above the Brewster Hut, you can climb Mt Brewster or Mt Armstrong, or you can go to the glacier. There are only tarns at the glacier and no toilet, and the journey past the hut is perilous; but a lot of people camp at the glacier all the same. I met two women who were from Alexandra, and ended up playing with seven or eight kea, New Zealand's famous alpine parrots. You mustn't feed the kea (though there have been occasions in the past where I forgot to follow this rule.)

Roadside Sign leading to the Brewster Track and Fantail Falls

The lower reaches of the Brewster Track

Wild 'goblin forest' trees on the Brewster Track

Gnarly tree roots on the Brewster Track

Getting a bit more subalpine!

Since my last trip, I had forgotten how beautiful the ridge before the hut was.

The beautiful ridge. There are good views from this section, weather permitting.

The Brewster Hut. From the hut, there is a perilous alpine trek to the glacier and the summit, but the hut was as far as I was going this time.

Here is a video of my ascent to the hut. In the final scene, I come across kea on the track. I call out to them, and they call back to me!

Here are the kea of the final scene:

Then one of them clambered up a marker pole to assault the orange marker. This is really typical kea behaviour, a catnip-like fascination with plastics and rubber, which the scientists find rather difficult to explain I believe, since nothing like that exists in their natural environment. It may actually be the sheer novelty of such substances (kea are very intelligent, as well as playful: they are like flying cats). No car windscreen wipers are safe, not even the rubber around the windscreen!

Kea on the post: note its wicked bill, like that of a hawk only more so!

I've made a video of the kea's comical depredations!

The author as kea-observer in front of Brewster Hut

The Brewster Hut is very popular in the summer months (and yes, it was just at the very start of autumn when these photos were taken). There were thirty-five people at the hut when I was there, though it only sleeps eleven inside. You have to book the Brewster Hut: it is definitely not one of the first come first served sorts of huts that you find further into the back country. I booked online with DOC.

Past Mount Brewster, you get to Pleasant Flat, a fairly large river flat and campsite.

Pleasant Flat. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

At this point, the Haast River widens out into a big valley with a flat bottom created by vast quantities of gravel, before suddenly turning westward at Clarke Bluff. where the Haast intersects with the Landsborough River, itself fled by another gravel-choked river called the Clarke.

This section of the trip is 'big country', the landscape like something out of a Western. It's about two kilometres across the gravel and the rivers from Clarke Bluff to Canoe Cape alone. From Pleasant Flat, the view extends all the way up the Landsborough and the Clarke to Mount Hooker at the southern end of the Hooker Range, near Aoraki/Mt Cook.

The bottom of the Landsborough Valley. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

After the Landsborough River, the traveller heading to Haast township comes to the impressive Gates of Haast, formed Lord of the Rings-style by the Stewart Crags and Hutchinson Spur, though it is often too cloudy to see these features as well. But as you can tell from all this, a trip through the pass in fine weather would really be something. One day I will come back and get some photos of the things I keep missing!

The Gates of Haast. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

A lot of these places have grimly comical names. Blunder Spur, which you can see in the map just above, is next to Mistake Spur just off the map, and between them, the Raving Torrent runs. I guess people only found their way through these parts by trial and error, mostly error.

The Haast River disgorges itself over a steep series of rapids called the Gates of Haast Falls.

The highway crosses the Haast River at this point by way of a one-lane bridge, called the Gates of Haast Bridge.

The Gates of Haast Bridge. Photo by Daniel Schwen (Dschwen), 11 November 2003, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Wills Valley Track also begins from this spot: it leads to Wills Hut, up the Wills River. To judge by its DOC page, the Wllls Hut looks like a perfect place to get away from it all, at least in the warmer times of the year: a gentle flat-bottomed valley in the mountains, like something out of The Sound of Music, where there is surely no cellphone reception whatsoever.

The Wills Valley. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

But there is a steep hike to get up to the Wills Valley from the Gates of Haast: between the two lies the Wills Gorge.

As with many smaller tributaries in this area, and even the Haast River itself at the Gates of Haast, the lower end of the Wills River takes the form of a steep dropoff. This sort of 'hanging valley' terrain is a giveaway that the area must have held glaciers at one time. So, too, is the wide, flat-bottomed nature of the larger valleys.

The main attraction of the next track off the main road, the Roaring Billy Walk, takes the form of the view of a waterfall at the bottom of another hanging valley, the Roaring Billy. The roaring Billy Walk leads to a spot on the left bank of the Haast River where you can see the Roaring Billy Waterfall on the right. I'm not sure how you would get up past the waterfall to the gentler part of The Roaring Billy and then to the hut, which has a very rudimentary DOC page. It's mostly hunters who go into this sort of trackless country, I think.

The Roaring Billy and its Walk. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

And so, then I decided to go up to Haast. There are a lot of hiking tracks in and around Haast that I haven't done. I would like to go back and check out those hikes.

Because of Covid, Haast was not in a very good state. The backpackers' hostel was only just hanging on, to the point where I wonder whether there will be enough accommodation once the tourists come back.

I saw that the community was building a skateboarding track for the children.

Here is a map of the coast around Haast, somewhat zoomed out compared to the last few maps. You can see the top of the Roaring Billy at the bottom right.

The Haast township and Haast to Paringa Cattle Track Area. Map data (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

In these parts, the beach was traditionally used as a highway. But it is impassable along the stretch from Seal Point to Knights Point, where really high cliffs tower over the surf and various rocks populated by seals. So, a pack track was created to go around the obstruction, running from the Waitā River via Coppermine Creek Hut, Māori Saddle and the Māori Saddle Hut, and the Blue River Hut, which also bears the unpleasant alternative name of the Blowfly Hut! The pack track is known as the Haast to Paringa Cattle Track, since its northern end is near Lake Paringa.

Here is the Haast Visitor Centre. It's your gateway to what is in fact a World Heritage Area, let's not forget.

I stayed at the Haast RIver Motels and Holiday Park. This place only charged NZ $25 for an unpowered campsite for my campervan. Another place was daylight robbery, charging NZ $44.

Here's a nice sunset, cloudy of course!

At the Waitā River, I came across a place with the amusing name of Stoned Inn.

If you carry on up the coast near to the place where the cliffs loom high, you get to Ship Creek, or Tauparikākā.

You get to the beach down a pleasant little track.

Here is the first of many information signs.

The beach really was used as a highway in bygone days, though this part was bypassed by the Cattle Track.

There are lots more information signs.

Here is a video I made:

Ship Creek/Tauparikākā is very important ecological area. Some of the dunes are protected by a boardwalk.

Boardwalk at Ship Creek/Tauparikākā: photo by Stewart Nimmo for Development West Coast, 29 January 2018, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Behind the foredunes there is a massive wetland area, which is something you see a lot of on the South Island's West Coast. At one time this area was an important source of kuta, or rushes, that were used by Māori weavers to make things like baskets, cloaks, bedding, and flooring.

Here's a photo of driftwood on the beach.

As to why the area is called Ship Creek in English, well, the wrecked remains of a ship turned up one day in 1867, yet there were no reports of a loss in the area. Everyone was guessing as to where the wreckage came from for years, till the mystery was solved.

The area just off the hore is called Tauparikākā Marine Reserve. As for the name Tauparikākā, this means 'parrots all walking in a row;.

The beach highway didn't extend past Knights Point though, and that is why there is the pack track. East of Lake Paringa, which these days is famous for its salmon farm, there is the wild Otoko region with its terrifyingly named Valley of Darkness, so-called for kilometre high cliffs on either side and—so it is said—a thunderstorm every day of the year. I can't vouch for that, it's just what I've been told.

The Paringa and Otoko areas (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

The Valley of Darkness (2022) from LINZ via NZ Topo Map, CC BY 4.0.

As far as I am aware, the Valley of Darkness was never a Lord of the Rings filming location, which surprises me because it would have been epic as a representation of Mordor or somewhere like that. Indeed, only the most intrepid souls have ever ventured into the Otoko region: one of the few parts of the New Zealand back country that still doesn't have any tramping tracks as yet. People such as a legendary hunter from the fifties and sixties who was known as 'the Bear'.

As the sign says, the Bear was the father of the proprietor of Otoko Espresso, a coffee shop I came across in Haast. Its premises are modest.

I had a whitebait pattie, a local delicacy that you just about can't get anywhere else. Luckily, I got a photo before I was distracted because, tragically, a seagull stole it from me when my back was turned! As the saying goes, you wouldn't read about it.

I talked to the locals for a while, till the time came to close up the shop and wheel it away.

If you liked the post above, check out my new book about the South Island! It's available for purchase from this website.


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