Sunday, January 25, 2009

January 23rd – 25th, 2009 - Routeburn Track in Fiordland and Mt. Aspring National Parks, New Zealand

After a stomach churning cruise out into the Tasman Sea, the Milford Mariner returned to port and we disembarked. Jon drove us up to the Main Divide where we would meet our Routeburn Track guides. We all said our goodbyes with him, knowing that we’d probably see him back in Queenstown at some point. He told us right off the bat that he tells every group they’re his best group ever but just to solidify our status, I snuck around to the passenger side when he wasn’t looking and wrote “Best Group Ever” on the side of the bus in dust. It was a little hard to read but I thought better of going back over it with my key.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

For the Routeburn, our little group of 10 (one person opted not to do the track) was joined by 13 others and 4 guides. The guides started off with solemn announcement that one of the guides who was supposed to be on the trip, a good friend, had died just off the track a couple days before. We later found out that he slipped and fell while investigating some possibilities for new overlooks. With that, we threw on our packs and headed cautiously up the track.

Query: What exactly is track etiquette when encountering a hiker coming from the opposite direction? Does it follow the rules of the road? In New Zealand, should you stay left? Or do you follow international maritime rules and stay to starboard. If so, could someone tell me which side is starboard? There seems to be quite a lot of confusion about the convention and peering deeply into the oncoming eyes of hikers to determine their nationality, remember which side of the road they drive on there, and make a move takes just a little too much time and yields mixed results. I opt for going left and delivering the odd Kiwi greeting of “How you going?” to make them think I’m a local.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

After a long climb exposing views of high peaks and glaciers, we began a decent to the McKenzie Hut and an end to our almost 10 mile first day. The hut was quite a reward. Recently finished after $3 million and thousands of helicopter flights, it featured a full kitchen, full power from a generator and great views from the lounge. Definitely the nicest “hut” I’ve ever been in and a sign that the company we were with – the only company licensed to take groups on the track – was doing pretty well. There were frequent comparisons to the “smelly” Department of Conservation hut a few minutes up the track. After a taking a great hot shower, washing some clothes and leaving them in the balmy drying room, and relieving the snack table of most of its salami, we grabbed a beer at the bar and met some of the other hikers (who we only knew from having stared at their calves on switchbacks all day).

The next day we left Lake McKenzie for a 2.5 mile climb to Ocean Peak Corner, so named because on a clear day, you could see the Tasman Sea from there. One of the guides who had been up there 8 times or so had never seen it because of the weather.

Apparently, the day we arrived there was one of the nicest any of them had ever seen and offered a 360 degree view of jagged peaks above hanging glaciers and yes, a view all the way out to the ocean.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From Ocean Peak Corner, we dropped into another valley carved by the Hollyford Glacier and traversed the Hollyford Face to Harris Saddle and a lunch stop at the hut there. After lunch, we left packs and climbed a mile and a half up to the summit of Conical Hill, including some tough scrambling sections that Mom just kept pushing through. The view from the top was definitely worth the climb. The bad news we figured out later is that from the top of Conical Hill down to the Routeburn Falls Hut would now be a 2000 ft decent over the last 6.2 miles of a 12.3 mile day. We got down to the lodge pretty spent. While this one was yet to be remodeled, it had equally hot showers and an equally nice view. The beer and salami was even better after a brutal day.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

Despite the rain (which actually justified us all having brought full rainsuits), the final day on the trail was as promised, “a cruise.” Mostly flat after an initial decent, in a couple hours, we found ourselves 6.1 miles down the trail and at the carpark. We boarded the bus that eventually brought us back to Queenstown. The guide company put on a nice dinner for everyone but to be honest, after two plus weeks of being diplomatic and patient with our own group and then having to live in tight quarters with 13 more, we were about ready to be on our own. We walked down to catch the end of the sunset on Lake Wakatipu and headed back to the hotel to do some laundry, check email and pack for our flight to Sydney in the morning.

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

From 2009-01-18 Australia and New Zealand

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