Haast and Beyond, with Whitebait for Sustenance
Heading south to Haast, the last outpost on the West Coast, you realise just how stoic the early European settlers must have been to eek out a farming existence in that verdant land. The bush closes in thickly around you at times and the ever present, misty rain implies a prehistoric past that is still very much present. This trip was my second on that road and no different the first time I travelled it.
Whitebait is a delicacy you may not have heard about but is so important to nearly every New Zealander that a love of them is almost a prerequisite for citizenship. What is it I hear you ask, actually Whitebait are tiny little fish, much smaller that sardines with a gigantic head (in comparison to their body). Every single kiwi I have met has at least one story about going “whitebaiting” when they were young, much increasing its legendary status. As you approach Haast a small hand written sign on the side of the road advertising whitebait fritters can be seen, make sure you stop. The fritters are a simple affair, prepared and cooked on a make shift bench in front of you and consist of beaten eggs, whitebait, salt and pepper, buttered bread and sauce if you want but well worth it.
South of Haast is the truly wild New Zealand, Milford Sound, Doubtful Sound and onto Antarctica. The main road turns east at this point and heads up and over the Alps. If you don’t have a convoy of Motorhomes breathing down upon you make sure at some point you stop on the side of the road to marvel, slack jawed at the beauty you are heading toward. It is scenery that no amount of words I could ever say would do justice to.
This road will take you all the way to Wanaka and on to Queenstown, it is quite narrow in places but that is never a problem because there just isn’t that much traffic. Once you are over the top it follows a route around amazing blue lakes. This is sheep country and very high so the vegetation is sparse. This trip we chose to keep going through to Queenstown but Wanaka is a nice little town with lots of accommodation. Both towns are quite modern and generally busy in all seasons. Winter bringing the skiers and late spring, summer and early autumn the travelling tourists.
It takes about an hour to get to Queenstown from Wanaka along the highest public road in the country. Just before you begin your decent into Queenstown you come upon gravel clearing on the side of the road. Make sure you stop at that spot, the view looking down the valley and into Queenstown is a must see. Late snow was still clinging to the hills around the valley on my first trip but this time it was late summer so it had all melted, still beautiful but the snow made it spectacular.
It is a 300 km bus trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown and I took it the first time I was there. Unfortunately, the only trouble with that is if you’re on a bus tour you have to take 300km trip home that day as well. Actually I am only joking when I say unfortunately because the trip there was nearly as good as seeing the Sound. After Te Arnau the road takes you through vast empty valleys that had once been farmland but are now part of the National Park. The drivers are well trained and have lots of interesting local knowledge to bring the trip to life. It makes it a long day but not one you would regret. To get down to Milford you have to pass through a long tunnel. If you are a nervous driver you would be best to take a bus trip like me. I’m not a nervous driver but I was very glad I went on the bus.
My favourite thing in Queenstown is the botanic garden. After you walk through the garden there is lovely little French café down on the lake that finishes off the visit nicely. The walk up Queenstown Hill is also great. It starts at the end of some extremely steep streets but becomes less so once you are up about a third of the way.
Arrowtown is a quaint little town about 5 km from Queenstown, It is renowned for cute little stone cottages and other old buildings but it is heavily commercialised and really not my cup of tea. Having said that I had a venison pie at the local bakery was the best pie I have ever tasted.
- Top up your petrol take at Haast.
- Try Pine Lodge for budget accommodation. The room I had on my first visit was spotlessly clean. I booked it on a last minute booking website and managed to get a twin room for four nights for $200 NZ.
- There are two supermarkets in Queenstown – a smaller one right at the end of Shotover Street in the CBD. The second, a large New World, is just a few blocks over, just out of the CBD.
- Unless you know you have a bargain I wouldn’t really buy any souvenirs in Queenstown, very overpriced and all made in China.
- The bus trip to Milford costs around $150 NZ