Long before a highway was constructed, the Haast Pass was traversed by early Europeans on journeys to the West Coast. Even before that Maori used Tioripatea as one of their known passes to the pounamu of the West Coast. This bridle track literally follows in the footsteps of those who didn’t have fossil fuels to hasten their journey.
This track is best attempted as a one-way with transport organised at the far end. If you can’t do do this, then return via the same track and avoid the highway.
The top carpark is just before Haast Pass/Tioripatea, from where the start of the track is signposted just inside the forest on the opposite side of the road.
The bottom carpark is at Davis Flat, 3.4 km below the pass on the Otago side, where there’s a parking area.
From Haast Pass the undulating benched track descends through mountain and silver beech forest to a lookout after 40 min. There are glimpses of the new road cutting on the opposite side of the valley.
After around 1 hour the track crosses the Makarora River via a swingbridge. There’s a bit of a dodgy section over a rock slip before arriving at Davis Flat.
Return via the same track or try your luck hitching.
Greenstone or pounamu’s rarity also made it a very tradable commodity, especially for tribes who knew where to source it. In raw form, it was moved throughout Aotearoa, over Cook Strait and throughout the North Island. After its long travels through the arterial river systems, it may finally have found exchange for coastal products such as dried fish, seaweed or sea birds. Some pounamu was even carried to the Polynesian homelands. Haast Pass / Tioripatea was one such know greenstone trail
In a lecture on Maori and Early European Explorations in Western Otago, delivered in 1922 by Professor James Park before the Otago Institute, Park insightfully commented on the Maori’s understanding of the land. “..The ancient Maori had come to possess a good eye for country and a subtle knowledge of bushcraft. A keen geographer, he set about the exploration of this new land with the zeal of an enthusiast. To each river and sound, headland and mountain peak he gave a name….The ancient Maori was not only a fearless and enterprising navigator, but an intrepid explorer. Long before the advent of the Pakeha he had established lines of communication from coast to coast, which he used mainly for the purposes of trade. The West Coast Maori travelled across the divide loaded with kiwi and kakapo feathers and greenstone, which her bartered with East Coast natives for mutton birds, kiwi, mats, meres, stone adzes and fish hooks.”
In today’s world of roads, cars, manicured tramping tracks, huts, Gore-Tex and freeze-dried fodder, we can blissfully overlook the physical hardships Maori would have faced on their journeys to source the sacred pounamu. The entire trip was only undertaken when the correct spiritual signs were aligned and those tohunga in possession of the appropriate knowledge had received guidance that the timing was appropriate.
The Maori pounamu gatherer would then have to undertake a journey of significant danger. The travels to remote sources were often a considerable distance from settlements and, in a culture without the written word or maps, the journeys were attempted with mental maps and song, their GPS and topographical maps of today.
At the source, those entrusted with the task, had to know of the pounamu’s peculiarities. In raw state the stone looks completely different to the polished form of a finished article. They had to see beneath the oxidised rind or rutted surface to imagine the final object. Stone transported down the rivers and onto the beaches had received a natural cut and polish, and was best found after storms or on the outgoing tide. River beds were best scoured after rain, when the pounamu would shine, beacon-like from the jumble of surrounding river stones. Submerged quarry, glinting beneath the ripples of a shallow beach, often caught the eye.
Now came the hard bit - returning with the goods. The migration routes plied by the pounamu hunters are known as the ‘greenstone trails’. We should take a step back however and consider briefly the nuts and bolts of the journeys these early explorers undertook. Imagine being abandoned on a west coast fiord during a downpour. To physically survive, you would need shelter, food and warmth. How would you make fire, catch fish, trap eels or snare birds? Let alone find a navigable route through uncharted wilderness. When we understand how useless we are as Westerners, ignorant of even the most basic survival skills, we can then begin to realise how closely linked Maori must have been with the land. In our society, this passing of generational knowledge and nurturing of spiritual ties with the land is now lost.
In his book The Greenstone Trails, Barry Brailsford says “The Maori trails that traversed Aotearoa were the arteries of economic and social relationships. The language is studded with references to huarahi, or ara – the trails – and the folklore of travel.”
Journeys were undertaken in teams, led by an experienced traveller, who marked the route for future parties. Protruding twigs and branchlets were snapped, a process known as kowata or whati, in a form of route marking known as ara pawhati. Subsequent parties, by curtailing the new growth, could define a route for single file lines. Swamp travel was eased by raising the track using manuka fascines. Chasms were bridged with pole girders and bridge construction sourced vines as the suspension cables. Vertical faces were structured with vine and rope ladders and wooden pegs (ara tiatia) were the olden day hex or cam anchors. Other signposts were more subtle. Early observers such as William Colenso, noted where trials led over moss, those wearing bare feet could sense it’s reluctance to return to the former shape, despite negligible difference in the appearance. What bushcraft!
To cross the numerous rivers, mokihi or flax stalk rafts were used as floats. A tuwhana, or breast pole held horizontally also steadied parties in the turbid currents. Forest clearings (traumata) or wide river flats (okiokinga) were preferred resting places, sited as today’s backcountry huts are. Most routes followed river valleys, as ridges were often too high for safe travel.
The Maori Gore-Tex jacket was a poncho-like cloak, layered with other garments for alpine travel. Tramping boots were worn in the harsher conditions, sandals known as paraerae woven from flax, ti or toi. These were stuffed with tussock (patiti) as the sole liner. A type of woven leg shield (taupa) formed a gaiter. The topographical map, compass and GPS unit were all hardwired to the travellers brain. Mental maps of complicated watersheds, river systems, coasts, resting places, place names and the minutiae of the trails were all committed to memory or passed on through song.
The Haast Highway was a piecemeal construction. A road to Paringa was completed in 1951, but completing ‘The Loop’ was still a goal. In 1957 a young bulldozer driver Sonny Yates crossed the Haast Pass in a Landrover. In 1960 the road over the pass was completed but the Paringa-Haast section was only joined in 1965.
South Island ▷ Wanaka Region ▷ Makarora
Can you contribute? If you've experienced Davis Flat Historic Bridle Track then please and write a review.
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍