Māori knew about the glacial defile between the coastal flats of South Westland and the high tussock-land surrounding the southern lakes from their expeditions in search of pounamu, or the campaigns mounted by northern iwi to kick southern iwi butt, and vice-versa.
The first European to cross what was to become Haast Pass did so in 1861, but it remained little more than a walking track for over a hundred years when a 19-year-long effort to extend State Highway 6 south from Westland was finally completed in late 1965. Dozens of bridges had to be built – there are more rivers and creeks than you can poke a surveyor’s staff at in this part of the country – but anyone who cruises this road will agree that it was all worth the effort. It gives the motorist a grandstand view of the transition from the snowy mountains and tussock land surrounding Lake Wānaka through typical Westland rainforest to the coastal river flats. It’s some of the loveliest scenery you’ll ever see through a windscreen.
The trouble with roads, though, is that once you’re on them, there’s a temptation to grit your teeth, take a firmer grip on the wheel and press on past all the sign-posted attractions that flicker by. You mad blind fool, you.
Unless you’re in too much of a hurry, you’ll see a sign-post near the Wānaka end of the Haast Pass road, just inside the boundary of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Mount Aspiring National Park that you’d do well to stop for. It points off into the bush where a short walk will bring you to one of those scenic masterpieces in which this little country of ours glories.
The Makarora River arises in the icefields of the Young Range and empties into Lake Wānaka, and at the point in question, it flows lazily through a series of deep, rocky pools, faintly blued by their mineral content and studded with brown trout, fanning the current with their pectorals and sort of hanging there, taunting anglers who haven’t brought their tackle.
The pools are reached by a gentle walk along a benched and graded gravel path, interspersed with boardwalks, which winds through beech forest to a swing bridge high above the river. From the centre of the span, you can marvel at the clarity of the water, eyeball the trout and enjoy a spectacular view of the Main Divide, serenaded all the while by tūī, bellbird and sandfly.