Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Dom Post

The Wellington Dominion Post is asking for well-written travel articles, so I wrote this. No idea whether they will print it - it's difficult to know what they are looking for.

We had a quick skim through their travel section for the past two months, just to make sure we didn't duplicate, and much had already been covered: Queenstown, Nelson, Chch, Dunedin.

So I chose to write about Haast because I think it's not an obvious destination, and because I think I'd found an interesting angle. Anyway, here it is:

Haast : Magnificent Desolation

Remoteness, isolation, desolation – three things you’re unlikely to demand from a holiday, I’m guessing.

Yet for some desolation can be inspiring and romantic. And so, yes, whilst New Zealand offers its fair share of extreme sports and snow-capped vistas, it also possesses something oft overlooked: nothing. Glorious, beautiful nothing.

If you’re someone who finds the idea of being miles from anywhere appealing, of being free from tinnitus-inducing ringtones and irate motorists, of finding space, then Haast, on the West Coast, maybe for you.

Myself and my girlfriend, travellers from the UK and Ireland respectively, never intended Haast to be more than an overnight stop en-route between Wanaka and Fox, but were soon won over by its rustic charm and magnificent desolation.

Nestling unassumingly on the West Coast, Haast consists of three main hubs: Haast Township, Haast Junction, Haast Beach. With a population of 297, the majority of “Haastafarians” live in the Township, a small pocket of civilisation, where you’ll find accommodation for most budgets, restaurant bar, mini-supermarket and, just up the road, the Visitors’ Centre.

But it’s not about Haast itself – it’s about its position within that beautiful nothingness. It was only when my girlfriend and I ventured out we really began to get a sense of the surrounding environs; the emptiness, the light, the space.

Heading South, we drove along a straight road that disappearing into the vanishing point, the ocean crashing on our left, clouds of wind-swept heather to our right.
Vast banks of wetlands soon scrolled into view, no doubt hiding a multitude of species. From bird life to seal and penguin colonies, nature is everywhere in the Haast region, as evidenced by the many organised river safaris running in the area.

Within a few minutes we had arrived at Okuru Beach, a deserted fishing hamlet, and took a walk along its craggy beach, the tide not so much coming in as seeping in from obtuse angles, sweeping into strange puddles, melting and eddying around jagged ancient the rock formations. We were the only people on the beach until a local resident joined us, a bright-eyed Labrador who insisted we play fetch with him. Soon he was gone, and we were alone once again.

From there it was on to Jackson Bay, about 45 minutes from Haast, and the southern-most point on the West Coast where the road just literally, well, ceases. Passing relatively few cars on the journey, we entered the village itself with a feeling that this really was New Zealand’s ultimate cul-de-sac. Not in a bad way, though; from Farewell Spit on New Zealand’s South Island to Land’s End back in the UK, there’s something inherently appealing about going as far as you can, venturing to the very edge, and this really was a frontier of sorts.

As if to echo my sentiments, hanging from shack, a splintered wooden sign, hand-painted in greasy green paint stated, “The End Of The Road ?”. I was intrigued by the question mark as, for me, there was no doubt – we really could go no further. Actually, it felt more like the end of the world.

Jackson Bay is another fishing village of some historical significance. Originally settled in 1875, immigrants hoping to start a new life found their hopes drowned as relentless downpours destroyed their farms. Pleas to the government for assistance in building a wharf were ignored, meaning the town was soon isolated and in need of vital supplies. Today, it is a privilege to actually enjoy that sense of isolation, for it was exactly that remoteness, that desolation that was be the downfall for those early settlers. Incidentally, a road to the village was not built until the 1960s and by then, the farming communities were long gone.

The modern day Jackson Bay has fishing very much at its heart. Rusted, salt-encrusted metal contraptions sit alongside all manner of hulking, spike-adorned paraphernalia. Meanwhile, below the wooden jetty, and amongst the frolicking seals, fishing boats bob on the grey water, their pilots clad in grimy waders and gum boots , their weather-beaten faces telling more than a thousand shanties ever could.

The Cray Pot provides the centrepiece to the village: a cafĂ© in a portacabin serving fish and chips, whitebait and other locally-caught seafood. Totally authentic, it’s the perfect place to sit and tell tall tales of giant squids and mermaid sightings, and its reputation is such that blackboards advertising its wares can be found along the main road nearly all the way back to Haast.

After a day of big skies, near-silence and solitude we made our way back to Haast, calling in at Haast Beach on our return. A huge swathe of shale along the line of the coast, Haast Beach was, as expected, deserted, and strewn with oceanic bric-a-brac, the only sound the blustering wind and the crashing waves.

As the Sun cast long shadows in the golden twilight, and myself and my girlfriend meandered aimlessly along, I realised that Haast provided the perfect antidote to our previous two locations, Queenstown and Wanaka. Haast was quiet time. Haast was thinking time. Haast was alone time. Haast was great.


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