There and Back Again – A Tramper’s Tale

Image[Rainbow in the eastern valley, from Routeburn Falls Hut – 19/10/13]


In October, I went on my first tramping experience. The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Tracks’ in the Fiordlands on the south/west corner of South Island. It is an estimated 2 – 4 day trek, (32km), which takes you across the Southern Alps with epic views of Mt Aspiring National Park. There are a number of tramping tracks situated in New Zealand’s back country, miles from any roads or civilization, which wind through vast landscapes, of which so much has yet to be discovered.

If you want to go tramping you are required to purchase a back country pass from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC), which you can do online or in most major towns. This pass entitles you to use any of the huts situated in the back country (which only have power and water supply between November and April), and also ensures you’re supported by the back country wardens should anything go wrong. You should always:

  • Plan your trip
  • Tell someone
  • Be weather conscious
  • Know your personal limits
  • Take sufficient supplies

The DOC recommends the following equipment:

  • Appropriate footwear, clothing and spares
  • Sleeping bag
  • Matches/lighter
  • Torch/flashlight
  • Cooking utensils
  • Toiletries
  • First aid kit
  • 1 – 2L drink container

…And for the winter months, May to October:

  • A mountain radio
  • Whistle
  • Personal locator beacon
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Snow shovel
  • Avalanche flare

A good friend of mine, Parker, who I can only describe as a loveable ‘quirk’ from Florida, organised the trip with Guillermo, a Chilean snowboard instructor who we befriended while working at Cardrona, and two lovely lady friends of theirs, Hanka from Czech Republic and Anne from Germany.

We left Wanaka early, driving across the Crown Range to Queenstown, (where we deposited a Hitchhiker and picked up a Fergburger) and continued east towards Glenorchy. The road was long and winding as we drove around Lake Wakitipu, stopping once to admire the view of Pigeon Island and Pig Island on the lake, with the Remarkables stretching alongside. 

Log Entry #1

I cannot describe the colour of the water here, but I can try to explain the fierce intensity of it. Like all the shades of turquoise and purple in a paua shell thrown together and turned up. Like the sky has fallen into a pot of poster paint.
            “A blueclear bomb,” – Parker.
The mountains are dramatic here too, a monochrome divide between the powder sky and aquamarine lake. There is still a lot of snow on the top, speckled with black rock and dappled yellow sunlight. 

Image[Pigeon & Pig Island, Lake Wakitipu – 19/10/13]

Eventually we reached the tiny farming town of Glenorchy, at the other end of Lake Wakitipu. Here we joined a dirt track that wound through glorious green farmland, where hundreds of lambs were learning to skip.

The road ended at a car park, overlooked by a looming snowy peak, and we spent a little while preparing, double-checking, stretching and using the facilities, before leaving civilization and setting foot into the forest at the bottom of the mountains.Image

Log Entry #2

The track winds deep into dense, green woodland, where enormous felled trees look like the feet of fallen Ents. Moss and fungi grow on everything and you half expect a fairy castle to emerge around the next bend. The moist floor glistens with hints of blue slate and greenstone, but like any shell you find at the beach, they lose their sparkle as soon as you pick them up and dry them off. Eventually, the track joins up with one of the many gorges, and follows it up to a great gushing river. 

We crossed several rope-suspension bridges, following signs that read “Maximum capacity, 2 people”, jumping and swaying them dangerously as we walked over the raging rapids and rocks below. We reached a dry, rocky flat, where we climbed a huge tree that had fallen neatly across it, and a passer-by told us that it had been a raging river just the day before, which reminded us how unpredictable the backcountry can be.   Image

Hours passed as we trekked through advancing landscapes and terrain. An enormous clearing opened itself up, with panoramic views of the river snaking down in the valley between the mountains, so close and so clear that the perspective was lost in their vast reality. Gazing at the view made me feel dizzy, as though everything was moving like the focussing of a camera lens – maybe it was from walking and gaining altitude, or maybe it was the sheer scale of untouched World that was literally at my toe-tips.Image

We climbed over fallen trees and through complex networks of bush, feeling the incline growing steeper as we went. Waterfalls tumbled out of the cliffs onto the path, and sheer drops and landslides threatened us round each corner. We puffed and paced ourselves as the climb grew steep and uneven, each footstep placed with care on the crumbling rocks. Rainfall had caused a light waterfall running down the steep climb towards us, and we hauled ourselves up against the rushing water, until suddenly we looked up and saw buildings among the trees – The Routeburn Falls hut.  

It looked more like a fort than a hut; set around 1000 metres high in the Mt Aspiring range, with enormous corrugated iron rooftops stretching over huge wooden lodges, scattered up the mountain side on gigantean stilted decks. At first I felt relief, then disappointment that it wasn’t going to be the cosy little wooden hut in the wilderness that I’d imagined. But once we explored and greeted the crowds of others who’d be spending the night there, I was glad it was so big!

There are three large huts at Routeburn Falls. The main one has two dorms, each with 24 bunks, and a common room fitted with a log burner, lots of tables and a handful of cooking areas with sinks. There was no water or power supply at the time we went, as the wardens only maintain during the summer months. The second hut is where the wardens stay in the summer, and the third is situated further up the hill and is reserved for private groups.  

After claiming our bunks and setting down our backpacks; unrolling the sleeping bag I borrowed from my partner, and attempting to make our lodgings cosy, we walked out into the rain and discovered the Routeburn Falls. We heard it before we saw it – roaring somewhere just behind the hut, and after a short climb up the rock, we saw it, pouring down into a beautiful spring and overlooking the never ending view of the valley.

Parker and I ate a meal of 2 minute noodles, cooked on a stove he’d handcrafted out of beer cans, and we spent the evening sitting in a mossy green tree at the bottom of the waterfall, talking of home and history and meeting new people. Back at the hut, I sat down to sketch the view, while a French man sat beside me and watched, proclaiming that he wished he could put pen to paper and produce more than a stick man.

Log Entry #3

It is so still here. Nothing but the gentle rain and the mountains and his sleeping bag. The sky changed at least four times this evening; dusted with cloud wisps that obscured the mountain tops… patched up with blue that lightened the snow… striped with raincloud while a fat little rainbow peeped into the valley… mountains topped with peach powder puffs just after sunset… Now the grey mist of rain and looming darkness has settled in.

It was lonely and daunting that night, and I discovered that I kind of like home comforts; of having people nearby, and streetlights at the end of the road, and internet and phone signal. I didn’t realise how uncomfortable or scared I felt without those things I believed I could live without. But it was also exciting and challenging, and I was able to embrace the fear and appreciate every second, knowing that all these other strangers were here for the same reason as me.

Log Entry #4

The moon just rose, full and glowing over the valley. Yellow-orange and blurred by mist rain. A circular beacon for only a minute or two before fading behind the blue-black rainclouds of night time. 


Log Entry #5

The morning has awoken us with more pattering rain, hitting the corrugated iron roof and tumbling onto the mountain woodland below. The waterfall rushes in the distance, intense in the foresty wet weather, while a lone Tui calls out over the valley; its sad “ding-dong” a simple melody overlaid on the percussion of the rain. Everything is fresh green with a powder-purple haze between the gaps.

After a breakfast of ‘gawp’ (a name Parker invented for trail mix) we waterproofed our bags and clothes and regrouped outside on the deck. The plan was to trek up to the saddle – the highest point of the track – with Parker and the girls, and then Guillermo and I would bid them farewell and return to the car park. This would add a further 6 hours to our return journey, and the torrential weather was holding out, so unfortunately we were forced to abort this mission. Guillermo and I saw off the others at the waterfall, saying our goodbyes “until next time”, and we set off back the way we came. The weather improved as we descended; the sun shining through the damp rainforest, humid and clammy. We stopped to watch people canyoning in one of the rivers, followed a little nature trail close to the start of the track, and finally arrived back at the car with tired satisfaction and a massive sense of achievement in the afternoon sun.