After the glacier town of Franz Josef, we were all set to travel further down the South Island and witness the fall colours. We had been told that fall was the best time to visit New Zealand, and now was the time to experience this first hand.
Bye-bye, West Coast
The Intercity bus picked us up from the YHA Franz Josef hostel. This time, our driver was a woman named Julie. “Finish all your work that needs mobile network before we reach the Fox Glacier”, she told us. From then on, we wouldn’t have any network.
Our route, she explained, would take us straight south along the West Coast. From there, we would cross over the Haast Pass, and officially be off the West Coast. From here we would be driving along the Mt Aspiring National Park.
Stops we took from Franz Josef to Wanaka
1. Bruce Bay
We were now driving along several bays of the West Coast. At some particularly scenic spots, Julie would let us get off the bus and take a few pictures. Bruce Bay was one such point. The sand was the characteristic black sand of New Zealand. In the summer, dolphins and penguins could be sighted here. Here too we saw a unique way of leaving your mark – writing your name on a stone and forming stone pyramids.
2. Paringa Salmon Farm
For breakfast, we halted at Cafe Paringa, at a family-run place. A narrow wooden passage over the salmon streams led us to this cafe. Under a wooden platform, there were octagonal sections with salmons of different sizes. The cafe served several salmon dishes. You could also buy some fresh salmon here, by weight.
We could see clouds closing in over the mountains behind the cafe. The greens around felt fresh and clean.
Back on the road, we were now on the Haast Highway, driving next to the Tasman sea. The air felt pregnant with heavy rains. It wasn’t raining yet, but we knew that once it started, it would pour heavily.
3. Knight’s Viewing Point
The Tasman sea looked a looming grey, ominously cold. We got off again at the Knight’s viewing point. This was the beginning of the World heritage highway. This southwest coast of New Zealand was significantly special for wildlife. Many species of birds could be seen closely from this heritage highway.
Knight’s viewing point was a high vantage point, and despite the greyness, we had a clear view of all the bays in the region, with the Tasman sea curing in into the road. “Swim straight through here, and after a long long time, you will be in Australia”, Julie told us.
Tasmania was nearly 1700 km away. Other than that, there was no landmass between here and Antarctica. She also let us spend a few extra minutes here with the Tasman sea – the last of it we would see on the way south. The Haast highway would now bend inland from this point onward. It was the last time we would see the Tasman sea on our New Zealand trip. We waved goodbye to the sea, and essentially the wild West Coast of the South Island.
4. Blue Pools and several waterfalls (like Fantail waterfalls)
The winding roads of the Haast pass now began, and at the end of it, we reached the Haast township. Haast town was as big as a big drive-through of a restaurant – a walk of ten minutes, end to end. Towards the end of this highway, we reached a reserve.
We halted again to visit this reserve. The reserve was the usual wooden pathway through the thick forest. Down the wooden steps from this pathway was a lake with a waterfall across it. Forest, lakes, waterfalls, trees – all untouched, pristine and you should be one with it all – just the regular New Zealand fare!
We were now driving down the Haast Pass, away from the West Coast. The river Haast was now flowing through the valley. At one point we crossed the bridge over the Haast River. Imagine a swinging bridge, high over the river. Now imagine a bus going over it! It was the highest motorable bridge over a river in New Zealand!
This bridge was the official crossing over from the West Coast to the East! So we were now officially off the Wild West, driving through Mt Aspiring National Park.
5. Venison Country
This was also the venison country in New Zealand. Like most mammals, deer were brought to New Zealand by the Europeans. Like most species, their populations reached levels that threatened the local flora and fauna. So deer hunting was encouraged.
There were several gaming grounds and resorts around. You could hunt down the deer on your own. Or, these gaming resorts also provided hunting service. They send you a picture of the deer in their reserve. You could choose the one that you like, and hunt if for you before you get there. The meat would then be cooked on a barbecue in front of you!
For lunch, we halted in a town called Makarora, just outside the National Park. We walked around the grounds of this cafe. “Colours” had slowly started to appear. Some leaves were turning yellow, some were already a bright red. Some trees were filled with bright red fruits.
Plump cows, the kinds with a bushy tail and hair covering their eyes were grazing around. Scenes had started to feel like they were popping out of a fairy tale.
7. “The Neck”
We were now nearing Wanaka. We reached a point called “the neck”. This is where the road bends such that, on one side you see the lake Hawea and on the other is the lake called the Wanaka, over which the town is named.
The arrival of fall in Wanaka
We reached Wanaka early evening. The grey morning had disappeared as we had reached the other side of the Haast pass. It was now bright and blue, albeit a little cold. The bus dropped us right at our hostel, the YHA Wanaka.
The guy at the reception showed us our cabin-like dorms, which had their own little kitchenette and bathroom. It was a lovely outdoorsy room.
After freshening up, we set off for a walk around the Wanaka lake. Yellow and red and some greens in between – was how we would describe the scene around. We were walking over yellow leaves. Orange ones were falling off from the trees. All around us was a yellow-red-orange extravaganza. All we could see in front was a yellow tunnel.
It was our first time seeing the fall colours. We had seen them in friends’ photos over the years. We had heard people say fall was their favourite time of the year. Now standing in the middle of the grounds, surrounded by these festivities (that is what these colours felt like), we were laughing with glee, like little kids. There was something attractive, warm, friendly and endearing about these colours. For a long time, we just kept observing the shades the trees were showing us.
That Wanaka Tree
As we neared the lake, we saw some information kiosks. We knew there was a famous tree in the Wanaka lake, but weren’t aware of the extent of its fame. Information boards New Zealand tourism board gave us an idea of this fame. This single tree in the entire lake Wanaka was the most photographed tree in New Zealand. Tourism New Zealand was encouraging everyone to share their photos on social media, using the hashtag #ThatWanakaTree!
We decided to check out what the fuss was all about ourselves. It wasn’t surprising at all to see a throng of Japanese tourists already on the site. Heavy cameras, long lenses all hanging on their shoulders, they had covered the entire lakeshore around the tree.
We sneaked in between the gaps of these “tree paparazzi” and positioned ourselves to shoot “that Wanaka tree”, in the light of the setting sun. It felt like we were being part of a mass movement – for making the tree famous worldwide!
The tree was a small little tree, in reality, standing alone and leafless as it were, in the prime of the fall season. As the sun went down, the tree reflected the changing colours of the sky. A Japanese photographer went to the extent of wearing a raincoat and waterproof shoes to go into the lake and shoot the Wanaka tree from the opposite angle. It was a mad scene – one tree and a million clicks!
We knew we wanted to spend a longer time with the fall colours. We decided to give Wanaka some more time, soak in these yellows and reds a bit more.