The Routeburn Track: A walk on the wild side

by Virginia Larson / 10 November, 2018

The Routeburn Track winds through Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.

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Virginia Larson hikes the Routeburn Track in wind, rain, sunshine and some enviable comfort.

Someone ran the Routeburn Track in just over two-and-a-half hours. I wish I hadn’t heard this. Still, I had to Google the freak of nature. It was 19-year-old Jack Beaumont from Southland. At the end of his record-beating race in 2017, he said, “I’d planned to do a training run on the track but didn’t get around to it.” The little show-off.

The organisers of the Routeburn Classic Adventure Run at least have the grace to describe the 32km track as having “some aggressive uphill climbs and a challenging technical downhill”. Still, knowing someone ran the Routeburn in fewer hours than you walked it in days does take the edge off your stories of heroic, middle-aged endurance.

Were you wet? Drenched to our undies.

Was it windy? Nearly blown off the Hollyford Face.

Wild? Hyperventilating wildness.

But it took you three days?

Maybe a better question than how anyone could tackle 32km of aggressive uphills and technical downhills in less than three hours is – why? Why would you not want to stop often, just to drink in the inhospitable magnificence of the place? Why would you hurtle past Earland Falls, when you can stand there being blasted by spray and wallops of cold air as Olympic pool-sized measurements of water surge over the cliff. Who’d want to miss staggering into the Harris Saddle shelter sodden as a sea otter, to curl your numb fingers around a mug of gumboot tea in one of those ubiquitous brown glass mugs. It couldn’t taste any better if it was rare oolong in bone china. 

Once, alone on a stretch of track that had decided it would rather be a fast-flowing stream, I find myself laughing at the sheer joy of sploshing through ankle-deep water in my boots. It’s the grown-up version of jumping in puddles in your school shoes. A subversive pleasure, without the telling-off from your mother.

Sometimes, when the mountain landscape has sapped you of superlatives, it turns surreal. One area of the Routeburn called The Orchard is named for its scattering of fast-growing mountain ribbonwood trees. They look like fruit trees. Freaky fruit trees – in a Jurassic Park-like orchard. You half-expect a posse of velociraptors to pop up behind the thrusting, scaly fronds of the prickly shield ferns that proliferate between the trees.

Left: My hiking-lite pack next to two real trampers, and they have a baby on board. Right: Sun sneaks through the clouds on a bit of “technical downhill” from Harris Saddle.

In the beech forest, with the light slanting through the trees, the mosses and lichens glow a kind of radioactive lime-green. Near Lake Mackenzie, a lone kea circles overhead. We hear its long, high-pitched cry – “kee-ee-aa-aa”. Canadian Matt leaves his boots outside his room, in the hopes some tasty rubber sole might attract the birds. A nibbled boot would be worth it for a close-up encounter, he figures, but the alpine parrots remain aloft and elusive. Another time, we find a giant worm wriggling – well, swimming – across the track. American Lou gently moves the mega-worm to the verge with his hiking pole. “I’ve eaten smaller hotdogs,” he says.

Always, there’s the weather. Weather that will not be ignored. We have two days of histrionic skies, wild wind and great slabs of rain, then wake to a morning of startling sunshine, so bright and still even the tomtits and robins seem ditzy with excitement. 

By day three, every tale of derring-do and disaster in this wild country makes sense. Safe in our guided and well-equipped hiking party, we digest the Routeburn’s roll call of tragedies: among them, the two 13-year-olds who died of hypothermia in 1963 when their Roxburgh High School group was caught out in a December blizzard. Another plaque along the track is dedicated to Czech tramper Ondrej Petr, who died in July 2016 after he and partner Pavlina Pizova became disorientated in low cloud and heavy snow. They’d been warned not to go. He fell down a seven-metre slope; Pizova couldn’t save him, but stumbled to an isolated Department of Conservation warden’s hut, where there was food and firewood. She survived a harrowing month before being rescued.

Another time, one of our whippety young guides tells us about the deluge of January 1994. Bridges were washed away. Massive slips destroyed stretches of the track. The Routeburn Flats – nearly 50ha of tussock – turned into a vast lake. Hikers were rescued by helicopter, but not before one scribbled in a hut log: “The track is waist-deep in water, river is rising… 20 hours later… constant heavy rain… HELP!”

Despite our hopes for a kea encounter, the mountain parrots remain aloft and elusive.

Māori once crossed this mountainous divide in their search for pounamu; the grey-green variety found at the head of Lake Wakatipu was especially prized for weapons and ornaments. The first Europeans to visit the Greenstone and Hollyford Valleys were optimistic pastoralist explorers, followed by the prospectors, always on the search for gold, although the pickings proved slim in this high country. No helicopter rescues for them if their treks turned ugly.

We are the ultimate softies, however, with our lodges’ comfortable beds and giant drying rooms, where racks of socks, pants and merino layers dry to crispy perfection. We have hot showers and three-course dinners – a menu, for goodness’ sake, with a vegetarian option. The food is delicious. It tastes better because it feels well earned, even if we’ve covered only 11-12km and might or might not have taken the “optional climbs” up Conical Hill and Key Summit. There are still those technical up-and-downhills. “My shock absorbers have gone,” says Ian from Tauranga, of a steep, rocky descent that ends, thankfully, at the entrance to one of our lodges.

When the weather forecast for the following day’s trek is delivered, along with the Fiordland rider (“anything could happen”), Eugene asks how much rain we’ve sloshed through today. He’s unconvinced by the 50mm answer and leans across the table: “My Facebook page is saying 100mm and no one’s telling me otherwise.”

We softies do have to carry our own packs. Quite small packs, though. No pots, plates, muesli bars and dehydrated stew for us; no sleeping bags or towels. The drying rooms mean we can recycle most of our hiking clothes, and we don’t even need our own shampoo or soap. I’m still mightily pleased with my pre-packing, having ticked off Ultimate Hikes’ “advised equipment list” and used it as an excuse to buy more merino layers, silicon-print Gore-Tex gloves and – not on the list – one of those gift-with-purchase cosmetic deals where you get tiny extras, like sunblock, moisturiser and mascara, perfect for packing light. Although I don’t actually recommend mascara for a Fiordland walk. Chances are you’ll encounter Fiordland rain and risk an accidental Alice Cooper stage-makeup effect.

Left: Earland Falls. Right: A hardy hiker on the final uphill stretch to the Harris Saddle.

Most of the hardy DoC-hut hikers we encounter look kitted out for all contingencies. My favourite is a young couple I pass on one of many bridges. He’s bare to his waist, looking quite Chris Hemsworth Thor-like, and carrying a top-heavy, boxy backpack. That’s when I realise there’s a baby on board, snugly encased above his manly shoulders.

There are always a few “didn’t get the advised equipment list” surprises, however, like the two young women making their way up to the Harris Saddle, dressed for a yoga session in their lululemons, despite the bracing wind-chill factor. What were they thinking? There are walkers with umbrellas, and a woman wearing a cap adorned with plastic flowers. And on the section between Forge Flat and the Routeburn Rd end of the track, there’s a swagger of young men in bare feet and jandals. Day-trippers, we scoff, feeling the most like serious trampers since we took off two days earlier in misty rain from the Divide on the Milford road.

But we linger with the barefoot walkers in the meadow outside the Routeburn Flats hut. Sunlight spins the grasses gold and burnt-butter. Matt and Sarah take off their boots and wade in the river; it’s vibratingly cold. A DoC sign declares the area, with its sweeping views up the river valley to the mountains, a “No drone zone”. Long may it remain so, we agree. We have only six or so kilometres to go and there’s a beer and hot chips waiting for us at the Glenorchy pub. But it’s hard to leave.

A handsome duck wanders out of the tussock. What species? We check the information board near the hut.

It’s a paradise duck. Of course it is. We look at each other and laugh.

Ultimate Hikes is the only company permitted to operate multi-day guided walks on the Routeburn, Milford and Greenstone Tracks. Their three-day, two-night Routeburn walk (the track spans Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks) is priced from $1375pp. Ultimate Hikes’ comfortable lodges are run to the highest possible sustainable tourism standards in challenging terrain. The company also contributes to track maintenance and pest-eradication programmes.

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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