(Webmasters note: if the pictures are sideways for you, turn your head to see them. Technological mysteries have them correct on our iPad, but sideways on the laptop with no option to edit.)
We are learning not to pack in quiet so much in one day and after a full day of preparations for our hike in Queenstown on Tuesday and still some uncertainty of whether the track would be open, we spend the night in Queenstown rather than push on further. So Wednesday morning we woke in Queenstown and after a quick breakfast we headed to the Department of Conservation office for the latest trail status – it had been closed for two days due to the heavy rainstorm. Good news and bad news – the trail is open except for a portion at the end of the track which might prevent us from going all the way through. We headed to Glenorchy to Track Hopper to talk through all the what-ifs of moving our campervan (or not) to the end of the track. Worst case, we will only get to walk part way and will be turned back the way we came. Of course, we now have booked a kayak trip on Saturday morning in Milford Sound, so someway or other we hope to get through to the end of the Routeburn Track.
So it was mid afternoon when we started our hike which put us after all the rain. The trail started with a swing bridge over a river and then plunges into a magical forest.
I’m sure there are elves in these woods – and there definitely are Ents.
The path is gravel and well maintained. The trees and rocks are covered in moss and lichen. Everything is green with a silver hue. But strangely there are very few animals. We would hear and see birds occasionally and a few sandflys would take a munch on our legs, but that’s all. Between our picture taking and marveling at the sights around us and slow hiking, we were passed by a number of other hikers and were probably the last ones at the hut for the evening – arriving about 6pm at Routeburn Falls hut which we shared with about 40 other hikers.
The common room was a buzz with eating and talking about options for the end of the hike (the main trail near the end remains closed due to a rockslide that has taken out a bridge) and a great game introduced by the hut warden, John, to determine the languages on a huge banner hanging on the wall – all with a welcome and “Merry Christmas” message – which we quickly turned into a team sport. The chocolate bar reward was worth the effort of comparing notes, asking those from other countries for help, etc. Falling into our bunks at the end of the night we slept soundly until morning.
Thursday began with a steep climb and we were quickly above the tree line. This made for a very different scene than the day before. Shrubs and flowers and grass. A dryer area than before.
Mountain peaks come into view and the climb continues. Lake Harris was the first mountain lake we saw and still the climb continues. Just in case we haven’t had enough climbing today, Paul decides we must climb Conical Hill for the view to the Tasman Sea since it is one of the rare clear days that this is possible. We left our packs at the lunch hut (as the climb is too challenging to do with packs on) and scrambled our way up and up and up (don’t think about how you will get down) and up and steeper up and more scrambling and finally to the top. Yes, the view was magnificent especially with the clear sky we had.
Then the long, challenging climb back down, sometimes on my butt to get my foot down to the next step, but not as scary as I imagined it would be based on the steepness of the climb up.
After about 3 hours we were back at the lunch hut, packs back on us and off for the second half of the day’s hike to the MacKensie Hut. This included some steep climbs, but mostly a gradual up around the mountains. Peak after peak coming into view and splendid views a down into the valley (though I didn’t really want to look down at times). There were also a number of lovely waterfalls this day. At times, the trail seemed endless as I could see it snake along the hillside ahead and keep going until it finally disappeared around a bend and over a ridge. Paul’s ankle started to hurt, so we stopped to wrap it in an Ace bandage and slowed our pace a bit more to avoid further injury.
Then began the long descent. We had been warned by other hikers that when you see the hut below you, it’s another 1.5 hours of hiking before you reach it. At our slowed pace, it was even more. The downward climb was steep in places but we made steady progress. When we reached the tree line, the sky was still light, but the sun was nearly set and the trees now made it dim enough we pulled out our headlamps. It grew steadily darker as we continued at our slow pace. We wondered if anyone would miss us at the hut or if they ever go out looking for hikers that haven’t gotten in before dark. It was now fully dark and the trail continued on.
Again, the absence of animals in the woods struck us as strange. I kept expecting to see the eyes of a fox or raccoon or at least a mouse, but none of these live in New Zealand. An occasional bird was all we heard other than the sound of our own footsteps and hiking poles on the rock. Finally we could see the lights of the hut through the trees. And soon a headlamp appeared coming toward us. It was Evan, the Hut Warden, who had been watching our headlamps in the trees and had come out to see if we needed any help (other hikers had told him we had not arrived yet, though they didn’t know if we might have changed our plans). Paul gratefully gave up his pack and we made quick headway on the remaining part of the trail to the hut. We walked in the door at nearly 9pm to be greeted by our new friends from the night before. And Owen, an osteopath, who worked on Paul’s ankle and relieved him of the pain that was slowing him down.
A quick and fulfilling meal of curried noodles and we fell into our bunks for a good night’s sleep.
Friday we rose early to get an earlier start on the trail. We decided to follow the same plan as many other hikers and take the Pass Creek trail to get around the closed section. We had been warned that it wasn’t nearly as maintained and would have additional challenges. The first part of the day was relatively simple. More enchanting forest, many incredible waterfalls.
When we arrived at Howden Lake Hut we were very ready for lunch and delighted to find some of our friends still there that we joined as we ate by the lake and had a nice break. Then off for the final challenge of Pass Creek Trail – we were not disappointed. There was plenty of mud (though none deeper than the lower laces of our boots) and many downed trees – including a couple that required the removal of my pack to navigate. Steep ups and steep downs. And a portion that was following the deep trench of an old creek bed – we were grateful for no rain or flash floods.
My knees were stiff and sore and my pack felt as if it were getting heavier even though we had eaten most of our food and it was surely lighter than when we started. Finally we see the gravel road at the end of the trail.
The van can’t be much further. I had to drag myself along those last couple kilometers and couldn’t wait to drop my pack when the van was finally in sight.
We were satisfied with a job well done – a challenge met – and the reward of amazing vistas and views. We definitely got out money’s worth not just in spectacular scenery, but also in a challenging hike. And we still had the amazing drive to Milford Sound ahead of us before days end.