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August 2022 Issue
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See more… in the footsteps of Julius von Haast

Photographing edelweiss on the summit of Mt Haast. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Born 200 years ago, Julius von Haast was responsible for the (re)naming of many backcountry landmarks.

German scientist Sir Julius von Haast (1822–1887) was a big man in both stature and deed. Born in Prussia, Haast came to Aotearoa in 1858. After being appointed provincial geologist, he settled in Canterbury. A recent symposium in Christchurch celebrated his life on the bicentenary of his birth.  

An explorer, geologist and scientific polymath, Haast certainly made his mark in New Zealand. As well as travelling extensively around the mountains of Te Wai Pounamu / the South Island, Haast unearthed moa bones and made many important natural history discoveries. Samples of his collections were sent around the globe to prestigious museums, and the world’s largest eagle was named after him. 

While Haast wasn’t above blowing his own trumpet and occasionally claimed credit for the work of others, his numerous achievements speak for themselves, notably the establishment of the Canterbury Museum, the first of its type in New Zealand. 

However, he is probably best remembered in the names of Haast township and Haast Pass – the latter one of just three road routes over the Southern Alps. The pass, a pre-colonial track used for the trade in pounamu, was known to Māori as Tioripātea, and, in colonial fashion, was renamed after Haast, although in dubious circumstances. Haast claimed he was the first Pākehā to ‘discover’ the pass after his 1863 crossing from the Makarora into the valley that now bears his name. However, a gold prospector named Charles Cameron, after whom Cameron Flat is named, had possibly preceded him. Both men were working with information about routes gleaned from Māori.

The extent and difficulty of Haast’s exploratory travels was impressive, and the backcountry features many names that he bestowed or which commemorate him, including one of the 3000m peaks. Here are four places with Haast-associated names that are worth visiting.

1 Mt Robert, Nelson Lakes National Park

In 1860 Haast and other Pākehā scrambled along the northern end of what he named the Travers Range, turning back at Julius Summit. Haast named Mt Robert (1421m) after a son whom he had left back in Germany. Other names he gave to the area include the D’Urville and Sabine valleys, and Mt Franklin (after the Arctic explorer). Today, trampers can enjoy a round-trip from the Mt Robert car park up the steep Pinchgut Track, along to Bushline Hut, and down  Paddys Track. Allow 5–6hr.

2 Meins Knob, Hakatere Conservation Park

Haast explored the upper Rakaia in 1866, and this fine mountainous area bears many names that he bestowed, including the Lyell and Ramsay glaciers, Mt Whitcombe and Meins Knob. The latter offers camping among tarns with stupendous views of the Southern Alps, notably the Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe. Of Meins Knob, Haast wrote: ‘For diversity of scenery and its wild alpine character, it is second to none.’ 

The Lyell and Ramsay were named after prominent scientists, but the origin of ‘Mein’ remains unknown.

3 Mt Haast, Victoria Forest Park

From many angles this mountain, with its symmetrical slopes and flat-topped summit, looks like a volcano. But Mt Haast is not volcanic, and the cone-like shape, unusual for a granite peak, is a mere accident of topography. West of Springs Junction on SH7, a steep track leads through beech forest to the bushline and beyond over boulder fields to the 1587m summit with its panoramic views. Allow 5–6hr return. It was named after Haast by another Pākehā explorer, James Mackay.

4 Haast Pass Lookout Track, Mt Aspiring National Park

This easy 60-minute return walk begins from the car park at Tioripātea/Haast Pass. It angles up through beech forest beside mossy rocks to a good viewpoint overlooking the upper Makarora and the surrounding mountains. Prominent among these is Mt Brewster, at 2516m the third-highest mountain in the national park and also named by Haast.