After a wonderful and relaxing time in Queenstown, we borrowed Alexa and Sean's car one last time to pick up Rachael's parent's Molly and Joe from the airport. They were perfectly on time and we whisked them off to their downtown holiday park, where Molly would be staying while Joe joined us on another Great Walk, the Routeburn Track. The kids were clearly delighted to see their grandparents, and Molly and Joe seemed to have survived their epic plane journey relatively unscathed. Molly made arrangements for her entertainment, then we all took Joe's pack to an outdoor gear store to replace the waist buckle that had mysteriously disappeared. (Joe was also hoping to replace the coat-hanger holding the pack onto the frame, but ran out of time.) With five minutes to spare, we jumped on the bus taking us to the trail head.
We began walking at 2:30, with 9 km ahead of us before the Routeburn Falls hut, where we were spending the first night. Almost immediately, we encountered the first of many suspensions bridges, which all swayed disconcertingly, often recommending a maximum of only 2 or 3 people at a time. After some experimentation, we determined that the best approach was to either walk in the middle or stay to one side. Rachael's initial approach of walking with her feet wide apart clutching the side wire was spectacularly unsuccessful!
The forecast had predicted rain for all three days of the hike, so we were pleasantly surprised to have beautiful sunny weather for the entire afternoon. The first part of the track followed the Route Burn river, initially crossing back and forth past rapids and waterfalls. At one bridge we found a large number of trout swimming in the crystal clear water. Later the river wound lazily through a lush green valley, and we found a perfect spot on the river bank for a late afternoon snack. Then the track turned and began a steady uphill climb. At one point an enormous rock slide had devoured a huge section of the hillside. Almost fifteen years later the vegetation was only just beginning to recover, but on the bright side, this provided us with a fantastic view of the valley below and the snow-capped mountain peaks beyond. We continued to have spectacular views until we reached the hut around 6:30 pm.
As always, Rachael had planned a delicious dinner, this time sausages, dried peas and carrots, and mashed potatoes. Jeremy was somewhat apprehensive about the reconstituted dried potatoes, but fortunately they bore no resemblance to the vomit-inducing school potatoes he had been forced to endure some thirty years earlier.
This was one of the bigger huts, able to accommodate about fifty people, and was well maintained by a full-time ranger. He gave us a little welcome talk and weather report after dinner, throwing in a few jokes, including a laugh at the expense of supposedly clueless fishermen on the Route Burn who didn't realize there were no fish above the falls and rapids. Of course we knew better, having seen plenty of fish with our own eyes. After washing dishes, we retired to the bunk house. By the time we arrived, only top bunks were available, but this wasn't too much of a problem (except when one of Joe's walking poles fell through a crack and almost skewered the guy sleeping below). Beckie was very impressed with the bunk design: each bed had a recessed shelf at the end of the mattress which was exactly the right size for our packs and other personal belongings.
An early morning breakfast of oatmeal and Milo (and a trial run of a squeeze tube of instant coffee, condensed milk and sugar – deemed disgusting) sent us on our way for day two. This hike was 11.3 kilometers, with some elevation gain early in the day. Views were again spectacular for the first half of the day as we hiked up to the highest part of the Routeburn, Harris Saddle. We were having a snack at the tiny shelter there when another woman there noticed that Lucas's pack ID had fallen off. She picked it up and said “Are you from Burlington?” Turns out she and the man sitting next to her had graduated from UVM three years before and were working their way around the world. We have seen almost no other Americans traveling so to find two in the wilderness talking about Kampus Kitchen and Magic Hat was quite surreal. We then set off on a 1.5 hour side climb to Conical Peak in hopes of some views but the clouds had begun to move in and would stay with us for the rest of the day.
After returning to Harris Saddle and some lunch (the usual Nutella, peanut butter, dried fruit, crackers and cheese), we continued on the track. Not much in the way of views due to the cloud, but we did see some spectacular alpine flowers and plants. The suspension bridges had been replaced by a series of what looked like Army surplus bridges. Joe guess that perhaps the Department of Conservation had bought them in bulk on eBay. The sky cleared enough for us to see Lake Mackensie with our next hut nestled on the side of it. Right before we arrived at the hut we passed from Mt. Aspiring National Park into Fiordland National Park. It began to drizzle almost immediately, and we were reminded that this area gets seven to eight meters (21-24 feet) a year! The trees, rocks, and forest floor are covered with a deep layer of moss and lichen. It is so thick that trees root in the moss covering other trees! We got the impression that if we just lay down on the forest floor for ten minutes, we would be covered ourselves and disappear forever.
The hut was again beautifully built and maintained. It was Joe's birthday so we had a special dinner of lentils, rice and seasoning followed by a small and slightly squashed cake! The ranger here turned out to be quite a character. Rather than the usual dry list of notices, he gave us a half hour of stand-up comedy! We're not sure how much of what he said was true, but it was certainly very entertaining. Games of Pass the Pig and Yahtzee played by the light of our headlamps rounded out another perfect day.
The next day we had to walk from Mackensie hut to the Divide, a pass through the mountains where we would meet our bus at 3:15. It would be 12 kilometers, mostly downhill, but we were slightly worried because Rachael's knee was starting to act up despite having lightened our packs by eating most of the food we carried in. All was fine though, and we leisurely wound our way through drizzly temperate rain forest, at one point emerging from the tree cover for a river crossing right below Earland Falls, which was truly breathtaking.
We arrived at the bus shelter an hour and a half early, so there was plenty of time for Joe and Luke to explore the vicinity, searching for interesting rocks, plants and animals. The rest of us just enjoyed finally getting our packs off our backs and tucking into another delicious lunch of crackers and nutella.
The bus took us to Te Anau, which sits on the shore of the lake of the same name. The journey was uneventful, apart from a brief encounter with an enormous herd of sheep blocking the road for several hundred yards. For a while the bus followed the car ahead at whatever pace the sheep felt like walking. But the driver quickly lost patience with this, pulling out and ploughing through the herd, scattering it left and right. This appeared to be a very effective approach, and entertaining for everyone on the bus.
In Te Anau we found our way to our holiday park, where we met Molly, who had come directly from Queenstown. Molly and Joe were staying in a one-bedroom cabin (or “tourist flat”), and we were assigned a tent plot directly behind it. The weather rapidly worsened as the evening progressed, bringing in heavy rain and strong winds. Putting up the tent proved to be quite a challenge, but we managed it, and it held up great. And after a quick dinner of Joe's grilled cheese sandwiches, we were all more than ready for bed!