Pass is reached after yet another Castle Hill. At 562 metres, it
is the lowest pass over the main divide. It was long used by the
Maori on their way to the West Coast to find greenstone, but the
first European to arrive here was a Scots goldminer, Charles Cameron,
in January 1863, followed later that month by the geologist Julius
For a century packhorses and cattle were driven
to the West Coast over a formed track, but the building of a road
did not begin until 1929. It was a further 31 years before Wanaka
and Haast were finally connected by road, and not until 1965 that
the road finally reached Paringa on the coast, thus completing State
Highway 6. Because of the notorious West Coast weather, there are
often slips and washouts, but the road is seldom closed for long,
and seldom blocked by snow.
The forest here is mainly silver beech, but there
are also patches of kahikatea, rimu, miro and matai. Birds found
here include kaka, kuku, tui, both cuckoos in season, together with
the smaller bush birds. In 1863 von Haast found it 'alive with woodhen
and many kakapos,' but these have since disappeared. Instead, along
the streams whio are often to be found and kea pay close attention
to unattended cars, especially near the top of the pass. Be warned!
On both sides of the valley above Haast Pass, sub-alpine
scrub extends upwards for the first 100 or so metres above the tree-line,
then gives way to alpine scrub and herbs. Such vegetation is deceptive.
It is more variegated than one would initially presume, so if you
have time examine it closely, as much for its beauty and variety
as for its botanical interest. The mountain buttercup flourishes
here together with speargrasses and mountain flax, the buttercup
doing well where sheltered by snow totara, celery pine and daisy
Rainfall is heavy and regular, but the wettest
point is further down the road at Roaring Billy on the Haast River.
Here the mean annual rainfall is 5840 millimetres and rain falls
on average 182 days a year.
Ten kilometres from the pass the Haast River drops
into a gorge fined with huge schist boulders and two kilometres
past this are the Thunder Creek Falls, a 30-metre cascade which
can be reached by a 100-metre walk through a stand of attractive
At Clarke Bluff the Haast River joins the mighty
Landsborough River and combined they surge towards the sea across
a riverbed as much as a kilometre wide in places. The road accompanies
it for much of the way.
The land of the West Coast is made up of a narrow
coastal strip jammed between the Tasman Sea and mountains which
are incredibly steep, rising to a height of 3450 metres in just
over 30 kilometres. This flatland varies in width from about 20
kilometres wide to a narrow strip of beach just metres wide where
the mountains meet the sea.
Twelve large rivers and dozens of small ones cross
the plain, all swift, often rough, and always cold, fed by the glaciers
or mountain watersheds.
Where there is flat land much of it has been cleared,
often in a rather half-hearted fashion with burnt stumps, charred
logs and much regenerating scrub to be seen. On this open land are
found cattle, sheep and deer and someone has imported water buffalo,
claiming that the conditions on the coast should suit them. Well,
they are water buffalo.
The area between Cook River and Big Bay in Fiordland
contains the country's last kahikatea forests and most extensive
wetlands and together these support large numbers of forest and
wetland birds. There are also vast swamplands here with waterways
meandering through them, as well as numerous lakes of picture-book
perfection offering mirror-like reflections of the surrounding forests
The forests, particularly at the higher reaches,
are largely rata and beech and, in the swampy ground, kahikatea.
These kahikatea forests are particularly valuable. They were once
spread over much of the country but today it is estimated that only
two per cent remain and these are in South Westland.
Haast is the first settlement of any size that
one reaches on the coast. The isolation and dense forest, poor soils
and climate of this part of Westland did much to deter settlement.
Gold-mining, sawmilling and more recently sphagnum moss harvesting
have all come and mostly gone, but it was the opening up of the
road that put Haast on the map. Some 300,000 travellers now come
through here each year and tourism is one of its more important