A ride on the wild side

We spent a full day driving from Wanaka to Haast stopping many times along the way for photography, lunch and a late coffee at the Makarora Country Cafe. It stands alone on the main highway, offering campsites for $22.00 a night, including hot showers, bathrooms and power – regardless of whether you want to use these services or not.  Such was the case of a young guy booking in as we were walking out.  Despite him looking dishevelled, we overheard him telling the publican he did not need the showers or power but what he did need on his caravan was a new door.  The current door was held in place by an extra-large (luggage) strap wrapped across the roof and underneath.  The beat-up old thing looked like it needed a new axle too.

Pick a number… pick a plate. The counter inside the Makarora Country Cafe.

For any traveller staying at the campsite, a quiet night would not have been on the cards given the farm opposite was home to hundreds of stags and does.  Although in separate fields, the stags were nearest the road and the constant roar and grunts were deafening. During the mating season the bucks get angry and respond to other bucks in their territory.  For no reason at all, which is what we saw while stopped at the pub.

We pulled into Haast at dusk and with most properties closed due to Covid we freedom camped near the beach. With an early start the following morning (earliest for a while anyway), we travelled along the small road which meanders along the coast from Haast, thirty-two kilometres to the northeast and finishes at the sleepy fishing village of Jackson Bay.

Jackson Bay wharf.

Jackson Bay is a working fishing port and marks the farthest extent of the West Coast’s Road network.  There are only five commercial fishermen operating from Jackson Bay today. It is a popular fishing spot in summer and a wonderful place to catch crayfish. Unfortunately, the local “Craypot Café” was closed for the season, so Chris missed his cray meal.

If you are in Haast territory there is one ‘tourist’ excursion that is a “must do”, and that’s taking the jet boat ride with local owner/operator/guide/environmentalist Wayne on the Waiatoto River Safari. Passing by his container base en route to Jackson Bay, we made sure we were back at the depot before the 10.30 check in time, as we had not been able to make a booking.  Luck was on our side as he only had two passengers booked, Graham and Judy Hall from Matarangi. Having missed the previous day’s excursion, they parked their pretty nice caravan at the depot overnight.  So, three became four before Wayne even arrived. A good day at the office for him, with two additional passengers.

Low hanging clouds and mist over the hills in the Gorge added to the environment.

Do not associate this jet boat experience with those in Shot over country though.  While Wayne is a superb driver and weaves his way skilfully through the partially submerged rocks, trees and branches, there is no great splashing incurred.

The water level was low. Wayne says he’s seen the river level half way up the rocks on the right hill.

This river safari is the only opportunity you will get to go from deep within the Alps to the entrance of the Tasman Ocean.

Despite the noise of the jet boat’s engine, we were immediately enveloped by the beauty of the untouched part of the world and being deep inside such remote landscapes. Along the way, Wayne stops at key locations and shares his local knowledge about the environment, the flora, the birds and the entire world heritage site that we were experiencing.

A piece of tree trunk protrudes from the river bank.
Lush moss and flax growth along the river bank.

Skimming along the river we were mesmerised by the changing colours of the water – from the deepest turquoise to the forest green deep within the gorge, to the lighter blues as we reached where the river met the Tasman Ocean. Not only that, the sheer scale of the landscape above us was quite daunting. It did not look much from our position in the boat, but one waterfall Wayne highlighted had a drop of one kilometre.

A stop for home made morning tea and a forest walk hosted by Wayne.

As a World Heritage site where Pounamu (green stone) is still mined, if you find a piece you can take it as it is considered an important cultural activity for all New Zealanders and is considered a gift if found.

In various sectors of the river lay oversized rocks that for a few seconds one felt as if you were on a Shotover Jet boat and these were deftly avoided by Wayne. Barrelling on up the river we reached a point where we all gasped and wondered “how the hell were we going to get up there?”, as the waters were as turbulent as an Olympic white water kayaking course.

looking back – briefly.

As in other times of the journey Wayne’s quirky sense of humour came to the fore. We had reached “Diamond Rock” and the end of the line for the jet boat. Gliding to the shoreline, it was time for a forest walk, morning tea with freshly made scones by Wayne!

One of many white bait stands along the estuary.

Three hundred white bait stands line the estuary towards the Tasman Ocean. The season opens on the 1st of September for eight weeks.  Wayne says this is the best breeding ground for whitebait in South Westland. There is also an abundance of trout, flounder and long fin eel – if any of these appeal to your palette!

Our furthest point in the river on a straight line was 16 kilometres, but we had travelled about 30 when you include the river’s contour.

The rugged rocks line the side of the river.
Where Waiatoto River meets the Tasman Ocean.

It was an exhilarating and informative experience and terrific value for money. As a former commercial pilot and man of many talents, we always felt in safe hands with Wayne. Back at base, all four passengers were buzzing with adrenalin running high. It was an experience that we will continue to talk about and encourage others to experience as well.

For more information check out Wayne’s website at http://www.riversafaris.co.nz

2 thoughts on “A ride on the wild side”

  1. Jorgensen Marg

    I must remember to do that jet boat trip. Am enjoying your blog and appreciate the time and effort you have put in to it.

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