Jackson Bay, New Zealand.
Jackson Bay, New Zealand. Jill Worrall

Splendid isolation of Jackson Bay

THE end of the road... it tantalises travellers - maybe because there's the possibility that beyond the end of the road is the unknown; the white space in the map where ancient cartographers used to write "Here be dragons".

Today, when the road runs out there's more likely to be a carpark where thieves - not mythical beasts - lurk in the surrounding trees. But it's not like that where the road in South Westland runs out of land.

Head south down the West Coast, past the rivers of ice at Franz and Fox glaciers, wind past lakes with hidden depths and headlands thumped by the Tasman Sea and you will come to Haast.

Cross the bridge (and wonder, as you do, who did kill Jennifer Baird, whose body lay underneath it back in early 1970) and then for most motorists it's a sharp turn left. Ahead lies the pass, and the fleshpots of Wanaka and Queenstown (relatively speaking when compared with Ross or Kumara).

But if you turn right and stay on the coast there's still 50 kilometres of road until it runs out at Jackson Bay. The end of the road.

Beyond Jackson Bay sheer bluffs plunge into the sea and mountain ranges form an impenetrable barrier to motorised traffic. South of here lie Fiordland and Milford Sound - not many kilometres as the crow flies but a long loop past Lake Wakatipu and up again past Lake Te Anau by road.

Long may it remain as far as I'm concerned - part of the magic of special places like Milford is their inaccessibility.

I can't imagine some of the residents, permanent and transient, who live south of Haast being keen on finding themselves in the midst of a major tourist highway either.

This is a world of deadly serious whitebaiters, hunters who wear Swazi and not anything foreign, farmers who leave their gummies outside the Haast pub door and fishermen who commute daily to work in the tumultuous Tasman.

There's a hint along the roadsides that this might be a community that likes to keep to itself.

Just before one reaches Jackson Bay there are gravel driveways disappearing into the forest, their entrances barred with 'no entry' signs.

On one gate a sign warns: "Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be violated".

Another entranceway is a bright green wooden gateway with an ornate iron door handle, rather like the entrance to a Jacksonian hobbit hole, which has been set into a handmade stone wall.

Resisting the almost overwhelming temptation to see what lies behind this, we emerge unscathed beside the sea, where the road is regularly swept onto the beach by landslides from the vertical, boulder-studded cliff face on our left.

Not far from here the Alpine Fault dives into the Tasman - we're on shaky ground.

Jackson Bay is a working fishing port - boats are tied up at the long wharf that stretches out into deep waters, pointing in the direction of Aoraki-Mt Cook and Tasman which shimmer in the far distance.

A forklift is clattering along it to help unload a vessel with a hold full of what looks like tuna.

Sadly, Jackson's wonderful fish and chip caravan (which also dishes up whole crayfish in season) is closed - but in lieu of what is always perfectly-cooked blue cod eaten just above the high-tide mark, we walk over the back of the tiny peninsula that shelters Jackson Bay from the wrath of the southerlies.

There's a tiny beach here among the granite and conglomerate boulders - a lone juvenile seal is sunbathing on one of them, but on seeing us it slips into the sea, hiding itself amidst the writhing kelp.

Back over the hill again, we find the path to the Jackson Bay graveyard.

About 140 years ago there were high hopes for the establishment of a thriving fishing and forestry town at Jackson Bay.

The first permanent settlers arrived in 1875 and over the next few years the community grew to more than 300 men, women and children. But the promised wharf that was integral to the town's future (land access being almost non-existent) wasn't built until 1937.

Long before that most of the settlers had abandoned it.

The unlucky ones, struck down by cold, hardship and disease were buried nearby on the hillside above the sweep of the bay.

Today the cemetery is being reclaimed by the forest - tree ferns sprout through the plots, roots entwine through the rusted iron railings. Little sun can penetrate through the canopy so the settlers' graves are bathed in eerie green light. I don't look too closely at what is wrapped in the knotted roots.

It would have been a picturesque place to have been laid to rest, but these graves among the trees are also testament to years of fruitless toil and lost dreams here at the end of the road.

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