“You better run if you want to get your plane – but you can’t take your pack”.
The start of this long-awaited tramp with my Dad was a real cock-up.
Sarah pops over to give me a ride to the airport. We have hours before we have to leave, and we spend it leisurely. Too leisurely; hours later I find myself two minutes late for the bag drop. Shit.
“You must hurry, you’ll miss your flight!” the Air New Zealand assistant flaps.
“What can I do with my pack?” I ask.
“I don’t know, but you can’t leave it here. You must hurry!”
I haven’t the time to weigh decisions; I call Sarah who hurries back to the airport and collects my pack. I sprint through the airport, anxiously queue in security and get to the gate with minutes to spare.
The flight to Queenstown passes as a blur, the adrenaline breaking down and leaving me washed out. Things will be OK; I have my wallet and my camera – everything else will come together. I’d read online that the Routeburn track is closed due to avalanche risk anyway, so Dad and I’s tramping plan was already scuttled; we’ll come up with a Plan B.
Touching down in Queenstown, Dad and Pam greet me warmly at Arrivals. “I’ve booked the helicopter for the closed bit, so we can still do the track” he tells me with a grin.
“That’s great – I left my pack in Wellington” I reply. There is a moment.
I am straight on my phone, sorting out shipping my pack. After Air New Zealand’s helpful “maybe your girlfriend can fly it down to you?” option, Air New Zealand Cargo is suggested. But it’s Sunday, they’re closed. I book it with NZ Post’s Pace and organise Sarah to drive it back to the airport for the second time in as many hours. Tomorrow my 13kg of jacket, socks and porridge are jetting down to me for $460.00. Great start.
We head in to Queenstown for dinner. As chance would have it, my brother is in Queenstown learning paragliding; we meet up for a meal. As we chat over drinks, Dad mentions a $40 parking ticket he got earlier in the day. ‘Those bastards’ Dave says. I tell him about my pack, and how much it cost to ship. “Oh” he says quietly. “That’s… rough”. His lip stretches tightly down, and I see he’s playing cool on a visceral pain over this waste. It means a lot to me; I am feeling it and I need acknowledgment of just how shit it is. It helps me begin to make peace.
Out the window we watch the comings and goings of Queenstown. It is a town for tourists, run by tourists, and charging tourist prices. Some folks are having a great time, and others aren’t. Where ever you go, there you are.
In the morning the Air NZ Cargo folks smile as I embrace my pack in a crushing bear hug. We bundle into the car and then we are off, north around Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy and to the Routeburn track. A quick bite and a change of clothes, a farewell to Pam and my Dad and I are off on our first tramp together as men.
The Routeburn track is one of New Zealand’s ‘great walks’. ‘Great walk’ is synonymous with ‘all but inaccessible’ to us Kiwi’s; the huts are booked years in advance at exorbitant prices. Locals are not that organised or driven (‘we’ll go later’) – as a consequence they are the realm of the overseas tourist. But retirees have a bit of spare time, and Dad got us booked in a while back.
The reason the tourists come from around the world to do the great walks is because the scenery is stunning. We are blessed with clear weather; even now I still struggle to believe this is part of where I live.
The track starts on the gentle gradient of an old bridle track. Early settlers meant it to link a small settlement north at Martins Bay, but as the settlement failed, so too did the track builders’ motivation.
The track is busy at this end, packed with daywalkers heading back out. Dad and I find our tramping rhythm, and it is a nice wander through varied bush toward the Routeburn Flats.
At a clearing we stop for the view. A Canadian couple catch up with us and start taking selfies. “Would you like me to take one?” asks Dad.
“Oh that would be wonderful!” they exclaim.
Dad lines up the shot and squints through the screen’s reflection. “I hope it’s good, I can’t see anything”. They enjoy a nice close up of Dad with the phone’s front-facing camera.
We pop in to the hut and have a quick chat with two old blokes (kiwis!) and marvel at the view.
We plod uphill from here, from now on climbing to the summit pass. At one point there’s been a huge landslide, taking the trees with it and leaving us with an amazing view of the Routeburn Flats. Even the wide-angle doesn’t capture the depth; it truly is a stunning view.
We reach a small bridge crossing a creek. We wait while a very elderly Chinese couple make their way across. ‘What are you guys doing up here?’ enquires Dad. They are all smiles and having a great time. We soon discover why, when we arrive at the Routeburn Falls, and the Routeburn Falls hut. Painted green, great walls of corrugated iron confront us; this place is enormous! But the size is misleading; most of it is the Routeburn Falls Lodge; a privately owned and operated ‘trail for the rich’. People sit on little decks drinking beers and restaurant meals, porters accompany the walkers who only carry a jacket, while across the path others take a gentle experience of ‘proper tramping’.
Ultimate Hikes do a nice job of not being obnoxious, but I find their presence taints the scene. One nature for the rich, and one for the plebs? I wasn’t aware of the practice in New Zealand and I don’t much like it. (On the way out I share a thought – ‘I hope the state is getting something for it’. I am labelled a Communist). The saving grace is that the DOC huts do have the better views, and I think DOC should milk the tourists as hard as they can in the few places they’re able.
Routeburn Falls hut is a long balcony, with two bunkrooms housing 24 single bunks each. At the end is a large dining area with raised cooking section; it’s well designed and feels much more spacious than it could when all 45 of us are in there together.
We are all there at once to listen to the resident warden explain the situation with the helicopter tomorrow. He takes the opportunity to do a sales pitch on what DOC does. That’s great for foreigners, but I hope they add a ‘if you’re a kiwi feel free to bail’ option in future – it’s a real imposition to have us politely hear about Moa while the ‘magic hour’ of golden light slips away out the window.
Dad and I clamber up to the Routeburn Falls. They are beautiful waterfalls – the alpine blue adds a special tint. I do find them a little overshadowed by the overpowering beauty of the mountains around us though – it is a wonderful spot.
We eat dinner as the sun fades away – backcountry meals (dehydrated), like every other person out there. Dad also got a Backcountry dessert – carrotcake and custard – a frivolous addition to the packs I thought, but I was wrong. It was amazing. Kaka and Kea, New Zealand’s native parrots, fly past as we eat.
In the morning we enjoy this view over our porridge and coffee:
We make a leisurely start. The plan is to cross the Harris saddle then skirt along the mountains to Lake Mackenzie, but last week had a fresh dumping of snow which closed the track due to avalanche danger. DOC organised a helicopter to ferry trampers around the lake, which everyone has opted for – but it arrives at 1.30pm. So we have all the time in the world.
We plod the 1.5hrs to Lake Harris. The valley is stunning, with beautiful views. Soon we catch up with ‘the group’ – 30 people sitting on the track, waiting for hours. We tip-toe around games of Uno and stoves making tea and sneak down to the lake front.
Returning to the track, we back-pedal away from the crowd to a wee spot for lunch. Collecting snow, we boil it for tea and sit about an hour.
Eventually we must join the huddle of humanity gathered at the lake side. Grouped into sets of five, the DOC rangers run around doing their health and safety stuff – they are jacks of all trades.
We wait and get bored. Dad’s gaze wanders to the cliffs above us. ‘Avalanche risk my arse’ he grizzles.
Soon we hear the thump of the helicopter; finally! But there’s something not quite right.. it rumbles. It’s an avalanche. As the snow cascades down the mountain, just as the DOC ranger said it might, I suggest we eat some humble pie. Dad is not so easily defeated – as the snow settles, he quietly replies “it didn’t even make it to the track”.
Excitement passed, we get back to waiting. An old guy paddles across the lake in an inflatable kayak, packs it down and continues down the track. When the helicopter arrives it is in cinematic fashion; banked and swooping over the lake. The lake-crossing takes all of 90 seconds, but they were quite exciting. Cliffhanger exciting.
We disembark at Harris Shelter; two lean-twos for emergency use. We begin to back-track up the mountain to get top-down views of the lake like the northern ranger said we could. We are stopped by shrill cries from the southern ranger, adamant we mustn’t. “The track is closed!” Dad doesn’t like being told no, he isn’t happy. But eventually this is put behind us and we begin the trek south, on a gentle gradient down to Lake Harris. The views over here are stunning too – we can see all the way up the Hollyford valley to Lake McKerrow and maybe the ocean beyond.
The helicopter has compressed a days worth of walkers into a 30 minute window. We pass multiple groups as we walk, and are passed by multiple groups when we stop. I find it a bit annoying, it’s like Piccadilly Circus up here!
Skirting the base of Ocean Peak, we take a zig-zag down to Lake Mackenzie, nestled in a glacial valley. Mackenzie hut is our destination.
I thought the Falls’ ranger talked; this one talks for 45 minutes. “If you want to leave, you are welcome; but you need to give me your pass”. I.e. interrupt the monologue. We are too polite, so once again the light runs away on me. I seethe over the lack of respect for our time, for consuming the dusk in this unique landscape, potentially the only time I am here.
The hut is more regular, with big groups of mattresses rather than single bunks. The flush toilets are pretty swish. We enjoy tuna, salami and rice for dinner, and stroll over to the nearby campsite situated before the glacial u bend, before retiring.
In the morning I get my light, lake photos and moments; it is like glass. Mist floats in from out of view. Little birds hop about the rocks. I sit, hands warmed by my coffee mug, marveling.
“Oh my gawd look at this!” shrieks an American woman, splashing into the lake. Her ripples shatter the scene beyond herself. “Ooh ooh it’s cold! Hurry and take the photo!” she shouts, arms raised to the sky like it’s all hers. Her entourage meekly obey as I withdraw. “Did ya get it?!”
Porridge again and we are off. We are back in the bushline today, and enjoy the valley views through the trees.
The Earland Falls cause us pause – a great cascade.
At Lake Howden we stop for lunch.
Further along we come across a pile of packs; dumped for the detour up to the Key Summit. ‘You mustn’t miss it’ we have been told, so we don’t. But with days of this stunning scenery, the views up there are more of the same. On hindsight we realise it is more of a ‘daywalk payoff’ type spot.
We are on the final leg now among the trees and daywalkers, and we just put the distance away. I seed the dream of Pam having some cold beers waiting for us in the car. Though it was never discussed and has never happened before, Dad gets hopeful. Arriving at the packed car park, Pam has made the three hour drive to pick us up but is beerless; she is greeted with derision. But we have ‘done the Routeburn’!
I haven’t done any other great walks but I give it a 10. Our helicopter day was a bit of a circus but otherwise the human volumes aren’t high enough to ruin the remote splendour of the scenery (save for day-walker-distance either end). Top stuff, would recommend.
With all this trip-ending beer talk, we really had to get one. Milford Sound was not far away and on my bucket list, so we drove on north. Down these winding valleys, towered over by great peaks glistening with snow runoff; what an alien landscape, but it’s right here!
At Milford, we crossed paths for the last time with some of our fellow Routeburners. They had a good beer too.
Beer on board we made it back to Queenstown (despite following a tourist in a rental van driving down the middle of the road most of the way). Before my flight home, we managed to catch my brother doing some of his paragliding.
Anxious to get my pack on the plane this time, I am dropped at the airport with plenty of time. $5 to pick my seat was well-spent as I am treated to stunning views of the South Island, all the way home. Must come back.