14 April 2014
Sheer excitement and anticipation pulled me out of my sleep five minutes before the alarm went off at 5:55am. My clothes and gear were neatly laid out next to our bed – careful preparation the night before meant that I was able to get prepped in almost complete darkness without any hitches. I leaned over to give J a quick kiss on the cheek, and with that, I was out the door all set for my first adventure of the trip.
On the menu for the day was an east to west crossing of the Routeburn Track – one of 8 aptly titled “Great Walks” in New Zealand (9 if you count the kayak trip down the Whanganui River), multi-day hikes known for their magnificent views, well maintained tracks and good facilities en-route. Most people take 2-3 days to walk the Routeburn, a 32km trail beginning in the Routeburn Valley and ending at the Divide in the Hollyford valley. However, I was just in for the express tour.
The plan was simple – Catch the first bus at 8am from Queenstown, arrive at the Routeburn Shelter at 10am, power-hike the first 9km or so up to Harris Saddle, and then cruise downhill for the remaining 23, hopefully in time for the last bus leaving the Divide to Te Anau at 5:45pm. A generous 7hrs 45min for a measly 32km, never mind the 1400m or so of total elevation gain thrown into the mix. Plenty of time for sightseeing along the way, if things went smoothly!
Keen to save my legs for the trip, I decided to skip the 20 minute walk and catch a bus ride into town. That would also give me some time to grab a quick breakfast from one of the local cafes – in my excitement I had left my original planned breakfast of walnut and pear cake in the fridge. At the bus stop, I met a pleasant older lady who also hailed from down-under, and just happened to be a former president of AGDA. On learning that J was in the same field, she was keen to share more than a few career tips, the most valuable one being to focus on what she was passionate about – a tip I could certainly take on board myself, though easier said than done.
The bus ride into town was uneventful, and I soon joined a queue of about 10 other hikers for the shuttle bus, most of whom were also doing the Routeburn crossing. I took a look at their enormous packs that must have weighed between 15-20kg each, and winced slightly in sympathy. Whilst many of them thought I was a little off my rocker for wanting to complete the crossing in a day, my perspective has always been that it is a whole different battle to lug 20kg of food and gear over the same distance for three days, and between that and fast packing it in a few hours, I would gladly pick the latter. Covering it in a day means that, nothing going too wrong, I will have a hot shower and a warm bed at the end of the day, and won’t be away from family for too long.
Fast packing also means I get to smash through the boring bits. I love being outdoors and great scenery always blows me away, but at the same time, I find that staring at the same mountainsides for 45 minutes as you trudge slowly along tends to make them lose a bit of their lustre. Travelling light gives me the option of slowing down where I want to take it in, and then speeding up when I’m done. It’s all about striking a balance between a leisurely stroll and too much time on my feet – 32km over 7-8 hours isn’t record breaking speed, but it’s quick enough to keep me engaged and loving it, with plenty of time to stop for photos, lunch and even morning tea!
The 2 hour shuttle bus ride was relatively uneventful. The driver gave us some interesting commentary along the way, explaining about the local wildlife and ranting a little on how stoats introduced in the early years of settlement had decimated the local birdlife. An hour or so in, we made a 30 minute stop at Glenorchy, a quiet town of about 200 whose main industries revolved around jet boating and horse riding. It was also an opportunity to get the latest weather update from met service. Rain, 4-14 degrees, windy. No turning back now anyway. I had made up my mind to enjoy the run, even if it was minus the views. On the plus side, rain usually means lots of waterfalls – hopefully the stream crossings wouldn’t be too deep though!
Coming out of Glenorchy, we crossed the Dart River, a local jet boating hotspot, and drove another 30 or so minutes to our final destination – Routeburn shelter – the head of the trail for those going West. The well paved trail eased inoccuously off into the forest, nary a hint that it was the beginning of a mountain pass crossing with epic Lord of the Rings scenery. I took the customary selfie at the trailhead, and skipped off into the trees.
Barely 50 metres into the trail was a suspension bridge crossing the Routeburn river, a crystal clear flow quietly gliding over rocks so smooth they resembled brand new bowling balls. Only the swirling eddies were indicative of the power of the water’s current. A brief stop for a photo, and it was back into the trees.
The trail climbed gently for the first hour or so along the ever steepening banks of the Routeburn, crossing numerous streams and tributaries. Several of the crossings were unbridged, but thankfully due to the dry week previously, there was barely enough water in them to wet the soles of my shoes.
The trail itself was beautiful too, with a brilliant green moss coating rocks and trees alike, the sharply contrasting brown trail winding snaking slowly up the valley side. I met several hikers along the way, including a student doctor from London who was completing his hospital internship in NZ. He was hiking at quite a steady pace and had a decent long stride, and so as I was stopping for all these photos and selfies, he caught me up on several occasions in the first 35 minutes or so, until he took a toilet break, which was the last I would see of him. The other trail users I met / passed along the way were all really friendly, and of all sorts – from the teens to the grey-haired, skinny to well endowed, asian, caucasian and more.
The weather was another pleasant surprise, resembling more of a warm, partly cloudy day than the rainy nightmare as described by the met service. The sun graced me with its presence from time to time, sparkling through the treetops, and then fading away behind the clouds, keeping things nice and cool. It was perfect running temperature – warm enough to run in my single layer top, but cool enough to stop me from breaking into a profuse sweat.
The trail meandered through the forest for just over an hour, before I got my first good glimpse of the Routeburn Valley. A straw yellow plain saddled by steep mountainside, the Routeburn river meandering lazily through. I took a short break to soak in the view (and a choc mint GU – yum!), and then continued my climb up towards Routeburn Falls.
Approaching Routeburn Falls Hut, I came across the resident DOC ranger who was busy re-paving the gravel trail. His shovel swinging in time to the “Doush Doush!” of some club music blaring out of a little portable hi-fi he had placed on the trailside made for a bit of a break to the silent forest ambiance. We both commented how good the weather was in contrast to the forecast, and he asked if I was training for the Routeburn Classic, an annual running race. The course record for that is around 2hrs, 47 minutes, so I replied, “No, I’m just a tourist on a tight schedule, however, I’m sure there’ll be spots along the way where I’ll pretend I am!”. And with that, he bade me farewell, and I continued up the track to arrive at Routeburn Falls Hut.
The hut itself was relatively empty. The previous night’s occupants had moved on at the crack of dawn, and I had left most of that night’s occupants at the beginning of the trail. I stopped for a quick look in – the facilities were impressive. Clean bunks, gas cookstoves, drinkable running water and flushing toilets. Couldn’t really ask for more on a multi-day hike. It would save carrying a tent and stove, not to mention water treatment equipment – considerable weight savings especially over a 3-4 day ordeal. The gravel trail was replaced by trail markers up a small boulder field, flanked by the beautiful Routeburn Falls – an ideal spot for another break and a photo op. It also provided the ideal spot to look back down over the Routeburn valley, offering a different, equally beautiful perspective of the valley floor.
A short climb up from the falls, and the gradient flattened out somewhat into another plateau, giving great views of the surrounding mountains and my approach to Harris Saddle. I could see the trail curve round the edge of the plateau and up the side of the Ailsa mountains before disappearing over the Saddle. The run round the edge was spectacular, and had a few unexpected but pleasantly interesting surprises, including passing under pair of leaning boulders, and the aptly named tombstone steps.
A bit more climbing and I found a nice spot for lunch with a view. All those fancy cafes with their pretentious umbrellas, while great for a break from the city life, are overrated. This was my definition of a good lunch with a view. I munched on a couple of cheese and nutella sandwiches, breathed in the fresh mountain-top air and listened to the breeze rustling the grass and scrub, and I realised every ounce of stress I might have felt in the past working week, or even over the last couple of years, had completely melted away. My mind was clear, free, and loving every minute. It also helped that that nasty weather I had worried about all of last week had yet to rear its ugly head!
With lunch out of the way, I packed up my bags and continued the trek upwards – realising at this point that the only time I had touched my walking poles was to use one of them as a tripod for a selfie. This was my first trip carrying them, and I certainly wasn’t used to using them but I would learn, during my ascent of Mt Luxmore later in the week, that they did have their place in my kit, and could have been a great help during the long climb I had endured so far. For this trip, however, they had served as nothing other than expensive ballast.
The trail curved round Lake Harris, a shimmering emerald green, and up over Harris Saddle, where I came across a group of hikers taking a mid-walk break. Some had ditched their packs and were beginning a side trip up Conical Hill, something I unfortunately didn’t have time for having squandered precious minutes earlier on with all the photos. A quick check of the watch showed I was 3 hours in to my run – approximately half-an hour behind schedule. I still had some buffer left, but I was now thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have lingered on for that lunch after all. I took a minute to survey the sights from the highest point of my run. Harris Saddle is about 1300m above sea level, offering fanastic views east to the Routeburn Valley and west all the way down into the Hollyford valley. A quick check for directions and I was making my way along the western slopes of the Ailsa mountains towards Lake Mackenzie.
The trail along the mountainside was level on average, but in reality was rather undulating, and nothing at all like the smooth gentle downhill grade as suggested by the elevation profile on the DOC website. So much for cruising downhill all the way. At least the views did not disappoint, although the sun had now taken its leave for the rest of the day, and the sky was overcast with threatening grey clouds. They held up though, and I had not yet felt a single drop of rain!
The 5km of undulating trail along the Ailsa mountains took almost an hour as fatigue began to seep into my legs. The weather wasn’t the only cause for concern – my training for the year had been upset by a sprained foot just three weeks prior to the trip during the Great Bellarine rail run, and thus I was tackling this crossing after three weeks of almost no running. On top of that, my longest run for 2014 to date had been just 30km on pretty much pancake flat terrain. I started getting a little worried that maybe I had made a rather severe overestimation of my capabilities.
After rounding a corner, the trail descended sharply, zig-zagging its way down towards lake Mackenzie below. I was able to gain some time on the descent, but not much as the trail was narrow and rather technical, scattered with rocks and awkward foot plants. I passed a group of about 9 walkers, who wished me well, expressing a bit of admiration at what I was attempting to do, but at the same time glad that they weren’t having to rush for the 17:45 bus at the Divide, their final stop for the day waiting for them by the lake in the valley below. The 5km descent to Lake Mackenzie hut took 30 minutes, putting me a little closer to getting back on schedule, and also placing me back under the treeline.
I passed through Lake Mackenzie Hut with barely a glance around, and began a short but sharp ascent back up the mountainside, followed by a longer, more gradual descent through the alpine forest towards Lake Howden. With the mesmerising views of the vast mountains now obscured by foliage, I was able to churn out a steadier pace. My efforts were somewhat hampered by the fact that the trail no longer had a gravel coating in this area, and was rather muddy and soggy in many parts. My Salomon Sense Ultras are brilliant shoes for long distance runs, but they really lack in one area – grip on wet or muddy surfaces.
To add to my troubles, I discovered where the gravel that was meant to pave the trail with was – It was still stored in one tonne bags that were inconveniently dropped off at 200m intervals along the next 5km or so. The only way through most of these bags was over the top, as the trail was rather narrow with a precipitous drop to the right, and a steep bank of soil and moss on the left. This turned that section of the run into an uphill hurdles race on muddy ground – the perfect storm for my tired legs!
The trail continued to trace the mountainside profile, but this time stayed beneath the tree line, crossing several mini waterfalls and streams, indicative of the wet weather that must have been going on higher up. Approxmiately half-way to Lake Howden, I passed Earland Falls, a fine but majestic spray running down the mountainside.
To this point, I had had great weather, and though by this time I was starting to feel the odd drop of water spitting down from the heavens, it wasn’t even enough to get my skin wet. There was also no sign of the forecasted wind. The air remained still beneath the trees, with only the rustling of leaves above the sign of a light breeze blowing overhead.
The 4km descent to Howden Hut was most welcome, and I managed to make up some good time, despite holding back a little, wary of my still-healing right foot. In spite of a few scares on the rocky trail descent, the foot held up well, and didn’t even squeak once throughout the run. I arrived at Lake Howden hut to find its occupants having a bit of a social gathering on the deck. I slowed down long enough to receive some puzzled glances. “Why isn’t he stopping here?” I read on their faces. No time for questions now – I still had one short but very steep climb to face, and a bus to catch on the other end!
I began the climb out of Howden Hut. It was brutal. No zig zagging to reduce the gradient, just a straight steep climb that rose just over 100m in just under 500m. That’s a 20% grade for those of you who care! I took the opportunity of the slower pace to down some nutrition, and unwrapped the Snickers bar I had been carrying all day. As much as I love snickers, the energy gels I had been eating all day had done their damage. The sickly sweet snickers bar, filled with caramel and coated generously with chocolates and nuts, tasted like a sugary slime and coated the back of my tongue, sending me into a deep thirst. I cringed, swallowed the chocolatey slime as fast as I could, and had to drink half of my remaining water (about 750ml) to wash away the nauseating sweetness lingering in my mouth.
The ten minute climb felt like an eternity, and I was flooded by a huge sense of relief when I finally crested the hill. At that point, I had the option to do a side trip up to Key Summit – a 1 hour return walking, so maybe 30-45min return for me. I pondered the option briefly. I had less than 1.5 hours to go before my bus was due, and about 2.5km to go, not counting the side trip. I decided to give it a miss, and on retrospect, it was a decision I still regret. The main reason for my decision was that, thus far, the elevation profile I had seen on the DOC website had had significant smoothing done, and I wasn’t sure how technical the remaining 2.5km descent was going to be. The last thing I wanted was to have to spend a night at the Divide shelter, cold, hungry and alone with only sandflies for company.
The descent was easy – the trail smooth and the gradient easy. I passed one last group of walkers who were also nearing the end of their journey, and popped out of the trail at the Divide at 4:45 pm, 6h 50min from when I had started that morning. I was an hour early, and could have easily killed the extra time with that trip to Key Summit. I did a bit of a cool down stretch, and the group I had passed on the way down came over and approached me for help with a photograph using an interesting vintage point/shoot camera. We congratulated each other on our completion of the Routeburn, and they left in a car which had been left waiting for them.
I retreated to a nearby bench to celebrate with my last cream cheese sandwich, and spent the next 45 minutes feeding and swatting a voracious horde of the local sandflies. Happy as I was to have completed the trail, I was even more delighted when my arranged shuttle bus arrived at 1745 sharp to save me from my tiny winged tormentors. After a short chat with Bruce, the friendly bus driver, and several of the passengers, I settled into my seat and dozed off for the rest of the 1hr drive to Te Anau, where my beloved family was waiting for me. Dinner that night was a large serve of bangers and mash, half of J’s pork ribs which she had trouble finishing, and a pint of the local Speight’s Summit. A welcome meal, but no rest for the weary – we headed back to the hotel to pack for the following day’s activity – our trek up to Mount Luxmore at 1085m for a night in the mountains.
The Routeburn track is stunning, and if you are ever out and about that end of the world, I absolutely recommend you give it a crack, be it taking your time over three days, or just one if you are a trail running junkie as well. It was my first glimpse into the spectacular, rugged and beautifully mountainous region of the New Zealand Fiordlands. The photographs do no justice to the sheer awe one feels gazing over the jagged mountainscape, and the experience is one I will remember for a while to come.
Total elevation gain: 1453m