The Great Coast Drive
Westland to Wanaka
Sunday, February 21
Sunday the 21st was a transit day - a day to continue our big leap south, from the 'top' of the South Island down towards the bottom. Not quite all the way to the bottom, but most of the way - to the small town of Wanaka, situated in dry foothills near Mount Aspiring National Park in New Zealand's Southern Alps.
To get from our tiny, foggy, Westland coast motor camp to Wanaka required a long road journey, down a most spectacular piece of highway called the Great Coast Road. The entire journey would require more than 500 kilometres of coastal and mountain driving through a sparsely populated and incredibly beautiful landscape.
Charleston Motor Camp
Feeling a lot more refreshed after our night at the simple cabins of the Charleston Motor Camp, we emerged to a low overcast and a fine, misty drizzle. We were on the coast that was the collector of weather coming across the Tasman Sea and no doubt frequently host to this sort of damp sea-side weather. The motor camp itself was notable for its 70s throwback vibe. It was functional, economical, and perfectly serviceable, but clearly did not carry the aura of a gleaming 21st century tourist facility.
We began our drive at around 9am, headed south on highway 6. In many spots the highway hugged the coastline, providing wonderful views of misty headlands and sea stacks. A fairly heavy surf crashed against the rocks. It rained on and off, and low clouds prevented any views of higher elevations.
The weather gradually improved as we drove south, with the sun starting to peek out now and then. The highway began to move a bit inland, crossing a series of farmed flatlands separated by low and wooded coastal mountains.
We passed many interesting spots along our drive, including the tourist-heavy spots of Fox and San Josef Glaciers. Unfortunately, we couldn't really afford the time to stop if we were going to get to Wanaka at a reasonable time.
Although it was now sunny along the highway, a thick bank of inland clouds obscured almost all of the views we would have had of the mountains and glaciers of the Southern Alps (the glaciers themselves do not come down to the level of the highway).
After many hours of scenic driving, we reached the tiny hamlet of Haast and began our drive away from the coast for good. Here highway 6 crossed the spine of New Zealand's southern alps, and the road wound up through increasingly-dramatic mountain scenery. Fortunately the thick cloud banks of the previous few hours were not present here, and we had clear views in all directions.
We crossed the spine of the Southern Alps at Haast Pass, and began our gradual descent towards the Wanaka area. Almost immediately after crossing the pass, the terrain began to become drier - owing to the rain shadow effect of the mountains. By the time we reached the northern end of Lake Wanaka, the terrain was practically semi-desert: tan, treeless peaks stretched off into the distance.
As one approaches Wanaka from the north, the highway runs high above two of New Zealand's impressive fjord-like southern lakes - Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Long, narrow, deep blue, kilometres wide and many tens of kilometres long, these lakes are the erosional ice-age remnants of much bigger and larger glaciers that used to flow down from the Southern Alps.
We trundled into the small picturesque town of Wanaka at about 6pm. After doing a grocery resupply run, we had a pleasant dinner on the patio outside a pub in the town center, then retired to the pair of cabins we had rented at the local Top 10 Holiday Park (we were becoming fond of this chain).
Our arrival at Wanaka marked the start of the biggest "split up" of our itinerary. Over the next three days, Andy and Andrea planned to do some general vacationing in nearby Queenstown; Brian, myself, Pu, Jenn and Caroline were heading into the wilderness to do a backpack and mountaineering trip; and Lori - very graciously - agreed to drive us to the start of our backpack, relax and wait in Wanaka while we completed it, and then return roughly two days later to pick us up.
Prepping for Aspiring
For those of us about to start a trip into the mountains, it was time to organize and pack gear. We cracked open our "mountaineering" bag - the separate duffle bag we had hauled from Canada that contained all of our climbing gear. Soon, rope, carabiners, webbing, snow pickets and ice axes were being laid out, fastened, packed and readied for our upcoming adventure.