New Zealand’s nine Great Walks book out four/five months ahead so the fact that I was able to get last minute tickets for the Routeburn track shortly after Easter probably should have made me realise someone knew something I didn’t. Because the popular walks are always sold out so far ahead, you generally have no choice but to gamble on the weather. If you don’t deem the conditions conducive to fun then you give up your slot until you can get another booking, which tends to be next season.
The Great Walks are managed by the Department of Conservation, and during the six month season you pay a bit more for the huts and get a more upscale tramping experience as a result. DOC limit the numbers of walkers on the tracks, which are perfectly maintained and described my more hardened trampers as akin to a highway. The huts are clean and big, there is gas on which to cook your dinner, electric lights in the evening, a warden to keep everyone playing nicely together, a guaranteed bunk and the luxury of flushing toilets. We were hiking the Routeburn at the very end of the season.
There are five huts along the 30km route so you have a bit of flexibility over where to stay. If you book early, that is. If you book last minute, like me, you don’t get a choice. So we ended up with having to walk the route on one very short day, a long day and a morning. But I was happy that we would be able to do the long walk from Howden Hut to Routeburn Falls hut in a decent time (20km and about 500m net ascent).
That was before I checked the weather forecast. Three days before the trip, things started to go a bit Pete Tong on that front: warnings of heavy rain, thunder storms, snow down to 500m and gales. But the woman in the DOC office was most upbeat and reassured us that this was still doable so long as we had enough warm clothes and use rest stops properly.
Another thing that one fails to notice when one books a Great Walk in an overexcitable hurry is that they don’t all start and end in the same place. So on the Routeburn what you can walk or run in 30km takes 300km by road. So we were facing a bus journey all the way back round until I found out about Trackhoppers. In return for a wad of cash, they drive your car round to your end point and then they run back home. It was a strange feeling leaving the car at one end and hoping it made it to the other – particularly since once you’re on the track you don’t want to have to turn round again as you would be pretty stuffed in that remote car park with no wheels or phone reception.
The first day was just two hours’ walking, in gorgeous sunny conditions, including a lovely side trip up to Key Summit. At Howden Hut that evening the warden’s talk was a joy, with lots of history about the first routes to be cut over the alps, and an uncanny impression of a Morepork.
In the morning we set off in heavy rain and high spirits. The track resembled more of a river in places and we had a couple of slightly sketchy stepping stone moments including one through a waterfall path. It rained solidly all morning. After three hours we reached Lake Mackenzie Hut where we stopped to dry out and heat up. Snacks and a cuppa later, we were fairly refreshed (except for Bella’s finger, which became very fresh indeed having burnt a big hole in her glove on the stove).
The views after Lake Mackenzie were stunning – particularly having been denied views all morning thanks to trees and cloud. After 100m ascent or so, the rain returned as hail and then snow. As we neared the high point of the route – the Harris Saddle at 1255m – things started to cool down and got a bit more snowy underfoot. We were flagging a bit and in need of food and rest.
We took a break at the emergency shelter at Harris Saddle for snacks and entirely failed to heed the DOC woman’s advice to put on extra clothing and not stop too long. So when we left the shelter, with wind chill of -5 to -10 degrees, the final 90 minutes ahead felt a lot more daunting than I had expected. My feet had been in wet socks and boots for 6.5 hours by this point and on leaving the hut I couldn’t use my hands enough to put pressure on my walking pole. I started to feel sick and didn’t admit this to Bella until ten minutes later, when she confessed that she also felt nauseous. After ten more minutes though we warmed up, and normal spirits were resumed: me triumphantly declaring the walk ‘fun again’.
The landscape as we descended from the saddle was my favourite of the whole trip – silvery icy snowy rock admit fading light – and Bella soon tired of me repeating ‘we’re on the moon’! When we spotted Routeburn Falls hut from above I felt a warm glow of relief, and was not disappointed that we hadn’t been able to do the optional side trip up to Conical Hill (next time though!).
A disappointing dehydrated meal and some chat with fellow trampers followed before an early and cold night’s sleep in the bunk rooms (which didn’t have a fire).
In the morning the snow in the forests was an incredible sight, and we were the first people of the day to cross all the snow-covered swingbridges (though a stoat or something similar had beat us to it). After a breakfast stop at Routeburn Flats hut we reached the end of the track by lunchtime and were delighted to find that the car had also made it there.
That evening we recuperated at Kinloch Lodge at the top of Lake Wakatipu. It took a bath and a lot of hot water bottles to lose the chills. Ok and a small amount of pinot noir. By that stage it had stopped snowing but the hills over the lake looked incredible with their fresh coating.
The Routeburn Track was closed to trampers the next day on account of the snowfall. Which only heightened our sense of a great adventure and a good achievement.
That and a firm resolution to buy some waterproof boots.