On the Road North
Unless your going to Bluff or Stewart Island or Antarctica you leave Invercargill in a northerly direction to get anywhere. The first road sign on Highway 5 leaving town informs Queenstown: 187 Kms ( 116M). The road to Queenstown passes over the Southland Plain then folds itself into the southern extremities of the Alps. Once you hit the bottom of Lake Wakatipu at Kingston the drive is then classic Subaru TV ad material, literally, I regularly spot deep south locations in TV car ads. The road hugs the shore while mountains rise above you and dominate all horizons. After a while the township comes into view in the distance along with other Queenstown landmarks - the gondola to the lookout, Ben Lomond rising behind, Coronet Peak ski field, and the jaggedly edge of the vertical Remarkables. My destination was Glenorchy, 45 kms (30 miles) past Queenstown at the top of the z shaped Lake Wakatipu. The road turns feral not long after Glenorchy, and I was about 20 minutes down the metal road and not far from the road end when a couple of guys with backpacks flagged me down. Two Germans it turned out, one had tooth ache and could I possibly take them back to Glenorchy. End of a dirt road, tourists in need of help, possible karma credits for the months of lone tramping ahead - I played the friendly local and didn't accept the $5 gratuity.
Half of the Routeburn Track
- Hut nights: 3
- Solo hut nights: 0
- People in huts: ~15
- Overall people: ~20
It was getting on to mid afternoon by the time I'd dropped the Germans and reached the Routeburn car park. I sorted my pack, food, threw a tarpaulin over the car and crossed the swing bridge over the Routeburn river. I hadn't been into Fiordland for a few months and so my mind received a fresh buzz of 'oh what a glorious environment this is'. With its moss draped beech trees, bird calls, moist atmosphere, palette of greens and glimpses of the peaks all around it is righteously Tolkeinian in nature. My destination due to the late hour would be the modest Routeburn Flats Hut rather than carrying on to the grander Routeburn Falls Hut. It was here I would spend my first night along with a couple of americans who arrived after nightfall guided by head torches. A chinese-american gal from San Francisco and nondescript anglo guy. Their relationship was a little uncertain - the guy was apparent team leader but the gal seemed to resent the dash for the hut in the dark, and the following day she would quiz me about the wisdom of going all the way to Lake Mackenzie hut in one day. They didn't appear to have a team mojo, maybe they'd met in a hostel the day befored.
Two omens during that first night for the winter of hiking ahead were that I couldn't light the fire and it was friggin cold in my sleeping bag. Being a lay scientist this perplexed me as this hut felt colder than other huts at higher altitudes. But that hut was at the end of a valley near a river so I'm going with a damp cold hollow micro-climate theory. I pondered many freezing nights ahead in my winter of hiking.
The next morning in a steady drizzle I made the short hop up to the next hut. On the way I passed a large slip that had been there a number of years, the lack of forest allowed a clear view across the Routeburn Flats. I talked Aussie Rules Football with a couple from Ozzy who were on their way out, they were in awe of Fiordland. The Routeburn Falls hut at 800 metres (2600ft) is a comparatively huge complex of separate dining room and multiple bunk rooms, this size is to cope with the massive summer traffic through one of our most popular tracks. It's set up on poles amongst the trees looking across the Routeburn Flats below. The Routeburn drains from the valley above through a chute of rocks and the resulting white water provides a gushing aural backdrop.
I lightened my pack and left for an afternoon exploration further up the track. Once you're past the falls you enter an amphitheatre like basin. Think of a football stadium, say San Siro, the MCG, Yankee Stadium, or the Coliseum. The playing field is several times larger than a real playing field and populated by yellow/brown/gold tussock and alpine plants. At the far end the Routeburn is washing down rocks before meandering through the tussock. You can't see Lake Harris from this point but that is where the river is draining from. All around the valley the grandstand is formed by rocks, cliffs, mountains and other alpine phenomena. I stood there and thought this view is why people rate Routeburn highly. Though the valley was snow free on this day it's the sort of place that would look speccy in all sorts of snowy states. I got to the end of the valley and up to the rim of Lake Harris before turning back. On the way back in the drizzle I made the disturbing discovery that my three year old boots leaked. That night was pleasant in the Falls Hut with coal fire warming the dining/kitchen/lounge hall and about a half dozen assorted foreigners.
The next morning was a bright sunny start after the previous day's intermittent drizzle. My plan was a hike to Harris Saddle and up Conical Hill (1515M - 5000ft). The stadiumesque valley was bathed in the morning sunshine but by the time I reached Lake Harris the clouds had come in. I still managed a photo of the lake with Mt Xenicus (1912M 6300ft) spiring behind it. There is a shelter at Harris Saddle and I stopped in there for a bite before detouring up Conical Hill, a relatively easy vantage point to admire the surrounding Fiordland mountains. One looks down the Hollyford Valley towards the west coast but today it was mostly foggy with a nasty biting wind. Oh well. A further couple of hours down the track is Lake Mackenzie hut and on out to the Milford Road end. I'd explored that end of the track previously so today I turned back to spend a second night at the Falls hut. I planned to come back here later on in the winter and was keen on doing the Rees Dart track in the next few days.
An Attempt on the Rees Dart
In the morning I set off on the relative easy two and bit hours stroll back to the car. Back at the car I discovered some mice had got into the boot and nibbled at some food, I had no idea where they got in. It was twenty minutes drive to the turn off for Dart Valley. The Rees Dart Track follows the Rees river valley up to a mountainous saddle and down the other side along the Dart River valley. The Rees and Dart valleys are roughly parallel separated by a mountainous ridge, they drain into Lake Wakatipu. The logistical problem for me was that the Dart end of the track was a good twenty kms of road from the Rees end. Since I could only leave my car at one end it would either be a very long first or final day's walk. I'd schemed to go up the Dart and down the Rees over four nights, hoping for some luck getting back to my car on the last day.
That afternoon however I was to be frustrated. First I drove down the Dart road which got increasingly dodgy with ever larger ruts, ridges and fords threatening the structural soundness of my Audi. I was concerned this road may come impassable if it rained whilst I was on the track so I turned tail and headed for the Rees road. Time was becoming my enemy. The windy Rees dirt road was not much better, it went on and on and threatened to turn into a 4WD track at any moment. I was getting agitated at the lack of signage, also paranoid that the streams I was crossing may become flooded on the way out. I was channeling my angst into too-fast-for-the-road driving and all of a sudden came too quickly upon a ford. Heavy breaking and solid meeting of chassis and rocky stream bed followed but thankfully my Audi's integrity survived it. However it only increased my sense of doom and I decided to leave the Rees Dart for later and turned around and headed back to Glenorchy.
My schedule turned over in my head, I had ten days before I would cross the Cook Strait to Wellington and fly over to Melbourne for a week. I decided to head back to Invercargill, it happened to be my brother's birthday, I'd be back in time to take him to dinner. Over the weekend I can pack my car and on Monday begin a week long stroll up the South Island to make the ferry crossing on Sunday week.