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Roughing it on the Routeburn

Justine Tyerman writes of her ‘conversion’ on the Routeburn Track . . . a few years ago.

I grizzled for months about the prospect of tramping the Routeburn Track the hard way — lugging a hefty pack laden with food, water, clothes and a sleeping bag up steep mountains to huts with no hot water, no showers and shared bunkrooms.

After all, the tramp was my idea, and it was being hijacked by a bunch of purists who were determined to convert me to their cause. It was somehow nobler to forgo comfy lodges with chefs, fine wines, electricity, showers and soft beds and pillows, not to mention guides and Sherpas, in favour of ‘‘roughing it'' — waiting in line to boil your dehydrated dinner in a pot over a gas ring and eating (from the same pot you cook in) with 30 to 40 other unwashed souls in wooden huts with only pot-belly stoves for heating and miners' headlights for lighting when the solar power goes off at 9pm.

My long-cherished notion of hiking the track with no more of an encumbrance than a lightweight daypack — and relaxing in the evening in clean, dry clothes after a hot shower, sharing a glass of Central Otago pinot noir with fascinating foreigners as fabulous aromas emanated from the lodge kitchen — looked doomed as one-by-one, our group was seduced by the ‘‘let's rough-it'' mantra.

What is it about Kiwis that smelly, wet, cold, uncomfortable, hungry and sleep-deprived are superior qualities to clean, dry, warm, comfy, well-fed and rested?

As we drove to the Glenorchy end of the track, I gloomily studied the profile on the Department of Conservation (DoC) brochure which looked to me like a series of vertical cliffs.

Seeking to cheer me up, one of our team said contestants in the annual Routeburn Classic run the track in a matter of hours so surely I could manage to walk it in three days. Yeah, right!

I stuck on my bravest face and tried to ignore the sense of foreboding as I laced up my boots and struggled into my pack (if you get those two in the wrong order, you are in big strife already), grasped my trusty tramping stick and began the first few steps of our three-day, 32 kilometre trek.

We had studied the weather stats and prayed notoriously-wet Fiordland would bless us with three fine days, especially while crossing the Main Divide at the 1255-metre Harris Saddle.

The first few hours of the track were unbelievably beautiful and a good confidence booster for me — a gentle but steady climb in warm, dappled sunlight on a wide track through a forest of palest green-leafed beech trees with the crystalline Routeburn stream babbling conversationally alongside us. Crossing two very swingy, swing bridges added to the adventure and brought out the ‘silly boy' in the men . . . of course.

By the time we downed packs on a sunny, mossy bank by a deep turquoise pool for our first high-energy snack stop two hours later, there were glimmerings that maybe I could do this. We had already met a variety of other trampers from all corners of the globe and there was an unspoken kinship among us as we discovered we were heading for the same hut.

The next phase was significantly steeper and more challenging but by now, I had begun to bond with my pack and boots. Furthermore, with every step up the narrow, rocky track, the landscape unfolded to reveal stunning views of waterfalls, lakes, rivers, alpine peaks and valleys. The one-foot-after-the-other advice of my tramping mate was proving its worth and by mid-afternoon, we were high above the valley floor where the bus had deposited us that morning . . . and I had not uttered a single grumble.

So proud to call this place my home

We reached the Routeburn Falls Hut just as the weather — true to forecast — suddenly turned unbelievably wild, torrential rain transforming the silver-grey rockface towering above the hut into a 10-metre wide waterfall within minutes. The wind gusts were so strong every so often, the waterfall was blown back uphill creating a bizarre spectacle.

As the 48-bed hut was fully-booked, there was a scramble for the good bunks — ground level and in close proximity to the ablution block. Being newbies, we didn't score too well on the first night, but made a note to send a fleet-footed, bunk-booker ahead of the main party the next day.

After ferreting out our one set of dry ‘‘evening clothes'' from the bottom of our packs and having a freshen-up with ice-cold mountain water, we set about preparing dinner.

The hut was abuzz with rosy-cheeked trampers boiling billies, swapping animated yarns about the day's tramp and using ingenious means to suspend wet gear around the blazing pot belly fire.

Being our first night, we had fresh meat — thinly-sliced steak with Surprise peas and instant mashed potato accompanied by a thimble of shiraz from a wine bladder carried in by the strongest of our men. The meal was absolutely delicious, all the more so for the huge effort required to lug it uphill for five hours.

The sense of camaraderie was infectious and soon the Israeli, German, Dutch, French, Canadian, Australian, British and Kiwi (very much the minority) trampers were playing cards, giving each other history, geography and language lessons, sharing photos and addresses and having a jolly fine time.

A highlight of every evening was the address by the resident DoC ranger, the official purpose of which was to talk about hut rules, track protocols, safety and the all-important weather for the next day. But once that was out of the way, it became clear these chaps were accomplished entertainers — the hut was their stage and we, their captive but eager audience. Dressed in full DoC regalia and looking like a caricature of a scoutmaster, one fellow was a cross between John Cleese and Dudley Moore and had us in hysterics with his anecdotes of such escapades as possums invading sleeping bags in the dead of night.

As we headed to our cold, dark bunkroom for the night, I glanced up the hill where the lights of the posh lodge were still twinkling and well-dressed, mainly Japanese folk were enjoying a night cap. I felt oddly smug and contented rather than envious — it took me by surprise!

I snuggled into my cosy featherdown sleeping bag, slept soundly along with my 47 bunk-mates and awoke with the dawn to find the storm had passed but gale-force winds were forecast on the Harris Saddle. The ranger said no one was allowed to leave the hut until mid-morning when the winds abated.

The long, steep trek to the saddle was an experience I would happily repeat. The overnight downpour left the landscape glistening and turned the Routeburn Falls into a fury of white cascading foam. As we climbed above the bushline across wetlands and tussocks dotted with delicate alpine flowers, skirting the bluffs above ink-blue Lake Harris, we left the Mt Aspiring National Park and crossed into the Fiordland National Park.

By the time we reached the saddle summit for a late lunch, the wind had died completely, the sun beamed down on us from a cloudless sky and we were blessed with a breathtaking panorama of the snow-capped Darran Mountains towering above the deep, dark Hollyford Valley with the shimmer of the Tasman Sea far beyond. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride as a Kiwi to call this magnificent place my home, humility to be in the presence of such wondrous natural beauty . . . and a secret sense of satisfaction deep down, at having summited-with-pack.

The long traverse along the exposed Hollyford Face gave us spectacular views of massive Mt Tutoko with its hanging glaciers, the highest of Fiordland's many peaks at 2723 metres. Then began the steep downward trek to Lake Mackenzie Hut through an enchanted forest, heavy with iridescent green moss and trees twisted into tortured humanesque forms.

The sun was setting by the time we reached the hut but our young Israeli friends, honouring their pledge to swim in every lake they came across on their many tramps around New Zealand, plunged into the snow-melt waters of Lake Mackenzie and swam to a small island — no doubt to show us just how tough soldiers in the Israeli army really are.

Having consumed all our fresh food, it was dehydrated fare for the next two nights which I found perfectly adequate but the men were not so happy. However, a tot of whisky cheered them up no end.

Next day, the track took us through the ribbon wood ‘‘Orchard'' and past thundering waterfalls including the Earland Falls that cascaded from a cliff face far above us to the valley floor below.

Late afternoon, it began to rain as only Fiordland knows how and trampers arriving at Lake Howden Hut off the Greenstone and Caples tracks were seriously drenched.

Even their sleeping bags were sodden which made us realise just how blessed we were to have made it to the hut yet again before the heavens opened.

Trampers caught on the Hollyford Face that day had to be rescued when they became disorientated in the thick mist and driving rain.

On our last day, we tramped in steady rain in full wet weather gear under the thick cover of silver beech forest so we escaped saturation. We missed the allegedly fabulous views of Lake Marian from Key Summit . . . but that gave me just the excuse I was looking for to tramp it again, from the other direction.

At track's end, the sense of achievement was too much for me to contain. Fully converted to doing it the hard way, I went on bended knee and apologised contritely to the rest of the team for having ever entertained wussy thoughts of hot showers, feather pillows, fine food and Sherpas.

Justine and Chris Tyerman on the Harris saddle with the Darran Mountains behind.
The turquoise Routeburn stream on day one of the tramp.
Stunning Lake Harris.
The traverse along the Hollyford face gave us spectacular views of the Darran Mountains and the Hollyford Valley.
Lake Mackenzie with Emily Peak in the background.