Faced with the pure beauty of Otago's mountain-fed Blue Pools, there's only one way to go, writes Kirsty Gordge
Imagine this: standing on a wooden swing bridge in a remote landscape, breathing fresh mountain air, overlooking a still pool of water so blue you think you can see the bottom — if only you gape a little longer.
Are you in Samoa, at the Upolu ocean trench? Antarctica, perhaps? Or maybe at a cenote in Mexico? No. You're one hour from Wānaka, at a calm pooling of crisp water before the Blue River meets the Makarora River in a chaotic rush of energy further downstream.
It's true that this once-hidden gem, known fondly as "the Blue Pools" has gained popularity with tourists in the past few years, but the landscape remains largely unspoilt (bar a Department of Conservation track upgrade — thanks, DoC).
This summer is one of the best times to visit and have the magical glory all to our Kiwi selves.
The secluded Blue Pools are situated on the Haast Pass-Makarora Road (aka New Zealand State Highway 6) on the stretch heading north from Lake Hāwea to the West Coast. Makarora itself is a small town on the edge of Mt Aspiring National Park, with a presiding Country Cafe, a petrol station, and a handful of places to stay.
If you're looking for refreshment, don't hesitate. Before you know it, you will have driven through the town and Makarora will be in the rearview mirror.
About 9km up the road from here you'll see a small car park on the right-hand side, and possibly a handful of cars stranded precariously on the left if it's busy. Don't be fooled by the understated start of the track; you're in the right place. In true New Zealand fashion, there's a DoC sign, some toilets, and a well-maintained track leading down through the bush (3km return).
The walk down to the pools takes about 10 minutes, mostly on a non-slip walkway; Jandals are good enough if you can't face it bare-footed. You'll cross a swing bridge that has a maximum weight limit, so like a good ol' one-way bridge, you might have to wait your turn.
All the river water around here is icy blue, building up anticipation for the swimming hole itself. The surrounding forest is full of podocarp and mature beech, reaching above and hugging the track, keeping you cool in the shade. You might even hear the song of a threatened mōhua (yellowhead) up in the canopy.
As you approach the second bridge, you'll catch glimpses of the stunning water through the trees, and maybe even quicken your pace.
Standing on this very swing bridge might make you wonder where on earth you actually are, and how lucky it is that you came to be here. A swim is unquestionable; in water like this, it's almost rude not to. As you drape your towel across the pebbles on the shore below, be sure not to dither or dip your toe first because you might end up with a gruelling 40 minutes trying to convince yourself it's not that cold and it'll be fine once you're in (let's be honest, we've all been there).
My one piece of advice is to run in straight away, with no hesitation, and let the adrenaline warm you where the South Island mountain water cannot, even in summer. It's a challenge to dash quickly to the other side, thrashing arms and legs in an attempt to move faster and shake off the cold, but your efforts will be rewarded when you sit back on the pebbled bank gasping for air, the sun warming your goose-bumps … and suddenly feel the urge to do all it again!
The full-body rush from this pool of purity is worth your initial animalistic wail in the split second that your nipples recoil.
Afterwards, you might draw comparisons between the icy water in front of you, and icebergs in Antarctica; is this where the blue colour comes from? Did you just swim in a liquid glacier? (Yes.)
Some brave folk may disturb your reverie with the splash from their jump, as they leap from the swing bridge in good faith and plummet deep into the water. If you have laid yourself out on the rocks below, beware of baking in the sun without noticing; those summer rays are still strong in the south regardless of your feeling cold.
Returning to the car will warm up your muscles but chucking a hoodie on might help your torso return to its usual toasty temperature. If you can stay a while, sit by the water and watch the two rivers merge into one. Like gazing into a good bonfire, it's mesmerising how this constant body of water constantly erupts with energy.
Above all, treat this precious nature with respect. Enjoy this natural beauty, and walk away from the Blue Pools feeling renewed and refreshed.