Wild NZ: Moods of the Routeburn

Wild NZ: Moods of the Routeburn

"I was left standing spellbound before a panorama of indescribable grandeur, myriads of nameless mountains and glistening glaciers of wondrous shape and size firing the imagination ..." (Early-1900s explorer)

Moods of the Routeburn

I was left standing spellbound before a panorama of indescribable grandeur, myriads of nameless mountains and glistening glaciers of wondrous shape and size firing the imagination …” (Early-1900s explorer)

The Routeburn track, traversing 32 kilometres of the Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, has been described as “all the good tracks of New Zealand put together!” That’s a big call. And I’d decided to see if it really was that good – which meant five days exploring the area (plus the nearby Greenstone Valley) with a rifle, a fly-rod, and my good mate Will …

DAY 1:
The weather was awesome! Another mate, Nick, dropped us off at the Routeburn Shelter in Aspiring National Park, and our five-day adventure got underway. Will’s pack looked heavy. I told him he had too much, but he’s a stubborn punk. Reckons he’s built like a packhorse. (More like a pack-ass!)

We headed first through the bush and across the river flats to the Routeburn Flats Hut – a couple of hours away. Will was beginning to regret his heavy pack – sucker! But after a quick bite to eat at the hut, we grabbed our rifles and day packs and set out up the North Branch for a late-afternoon hunt.

We spent time in the valley glassing for game. Heaps of sign, but the wind was all over the place. It’s a magic spot – we could easily have stayed a couple more days. Interestingly, it was here in a cave that Nick’s son stumbled across some Moa bones and a Moa egg when he was hunting a while back. It’s that sort of place … reeks of adventure!

We got back to the hut on dark and pretty much had the place to ourselves. Ate freeze-dried-something for dinner – then hit the sack.

DAY 2:
We got word this morning from the warden that we needed to be at the Falls Hut by 10am. A helicopter was going to take us over an avalanche zone up by the Harris Saddle. Sure beats walking! Although we still had to walk to the falls – uphill the whole way – and we were both pretty knackered when we finally reached the hut.

In fact, for a packhorse, Will was looking shattered!

The Routeburn Falls Hut is massive (sleeps 48) and its outlook, high up looking back down the valley, is awesome! About 20 of us were catching a helicopter-ride over the ‘danger zone’. Spring is peak avalanche season, and part of the track was closed. It was either take the chopper, or turn back …

We had a one-hour trek to our pick-up point. It was nice to get out of the beech forest and into the tussock alpine zone. The sky was a brilliant blue and the views were unreal. Hard to take in, to be honest. And we two North Island boys just stood there gob-smacked!

Half of Lake Harris was still frozen solid. And snow-drifts all around us hinted at what was sitting higher up the mountains.

The chopper arrived and started ferrying us over. Poor Will got stuck in the middle seat and couldn’t see squat! I tried describing the view during our short flight over the saddle and into the Hollyford Valley – but he was not impressed!

The track from our drop-off point meandered across the tussock-covered Hollyford Face, with the rugged and intimidating Darran Mountains opposite, and the Hollyford River 1000 meters below. En route we caught glimpses of Lake McKerrow and Martins Bay in the north, while to the south we could just make out the bush-cloaked Greenstone Saddle.

What an awesome place!

After an hour and a half on our feet, we finally spotted Lake MacKenzie – it’s a beautiful turquoise colour in stark contrast to its surroundings. We had intended pitching our fly tonight – but the thought of a warm hut and a soft mattress got the better of old Will.

Oh yeah, a crazy Euro couple went for a swim in the lake. It was freezing!

DAY 3:
We woke this morning to an overcast day which threatened rain, and found ourselves tramping with a group of hardcase Kiwi women. We’d enjoyed meeting people from the other side of the world, but it was nice to hang out with some locals. Apparently, less than a quarter of those who do the Routeburn each year are Kiwis …

The overcast, drizzly conditions gave the Hollyford Valley a different look – still beautiful, just different. And the 80m Earland Falls were in fine splendour as we went past.

We made Lake Howden and the Howden Hut in two hours, where we parted ways with those continuing on the Routeburn. They were going down to The Divide on the Milford Rd (and the end of the track), while we headed over the Greenstone Saddle to McKellar Hut.

I felt a bit crook today – still battling the after-effects of the ‘flu. So I grabbed a lie-down at the hut while Will had a flick on the river. He returned with a trout that he’d caught, and said he’d spooked a couple of deer. So I went back into the bush with my rifle – and, just on dark, managed to shoot a nice fat yearling.

I radioed Will, who was keen for some butchery lessons, and we did our knife work under the light of our headlamps. Then, back at the hut, while I hung the meat, Will cooked his fish. It was outstanding – fresh trout, lemon slices, rosemary, garlic and butter, all wrapped up in tinfoil. (No wonder Will’s pack was heavy!)

It doesn’t get much better than this!

DAY 4:
It rained a fair bit during the night, but had blown over by morning – blue skies again! Nick had told us about some good trout spots, and the idea was to spend the day fishing our way to the Greenstone Hut – only 20kms away!

It was now obvious that we were no longer on a ‘Great Walk’. No people, and no ‘real’ tracks. A few kilometres down the valley I was thinking how light my pack felt when I realised: I’d left my rifle behind! So it was a quick sprint back up-river till I found it leaning on a sign – lucky!

Will kept telling me how much weight he was losing because of his heavy pack – but I told him it’s because there are no pies!

We saw a few fallow deer on the other side of the valley, right out in the open. And a white buck that was with them stood out heaps – he’s lucky to have survived this long.

We stopped on a nice stretch of river, and had venison backsteaks for lunch and a little snooze. Life is good! Then we had a flick on the river and caught a few fish … well, Will mainly. I caught plenty of trees, branches and rocks. (Remind me please: why do I like fly-fishing?)

This is a beautiful valley. Apart from the sandflies! And the scenery was too much. Every now and then I had to stop, pull out the binoculars, have a good look around and soak it all in.

We made it to the Greenstone hut in the dark, totally whacked, and were almost too tired to cook dinner. Almost …

DAY 5:
Last day today. The original plan was to dump our packs and head back up the valley for a fish, before making for the road. But in the end we couldn’t be bothered – plus Will had picked up some nasty-looking blisters on his nancy feet! So we packed our things and started the long walk out.

There were some nice browns at Slip Stream, plus a few rainbows, so we stopped for a fish. Unlike yesterday when we were in the open valley, the track was now mostly in beech forest.

About four hours after leaving the hut we hit the Caples River – another massive valley I’d love to explore one day. We had lunch and a fish before making the final dash to our pick-up point.

Nick was waiting for us when we arrived. And a local fisho offered us a nice cold beer – what a legend! Then we loaded the truck and headed for Queenstown …

All in all, we’d walked more than 90 kilometres. And the Routeburn, we agreed, really was that good!

What’s more, Will had lost 7kgs! (Now, if he can just stay away from those pies …)

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Issue 1 2010 Wild NZ Issue 1 2010 Wild NZ (1367 KB)