Vir­ginia Lar­son walks the wild and won­der­ful Route­burn Track.

Vir­ginia Lar­son hikes the Route­burn Track in wind, rain, sun­shine and some en­vi­able com­fort.

North & South - - Contents - Vir­ginia Lar­son is North & South’s editor.

Some­one ran the Route­burn Track in just over two-and-a-half hours. I wish I hadn’t heard this. Still, I had to Google the freak of na­ture. It was 19-year- old Jack Beau­mont from South­land. At the end of his record-beat­ing race in 2017, he said, “I’d planned to do a train­ing run on the track but didn’t get around to it.” The lit­tle show- off.

The or­gan­is­ers of the Route­burn Clas­sic Ad­ven­ture Run at least have the grace to de­scribe the 32km track as hav­ing “some ag­gres­sive up­hill climbs and a chal­leng­ing tech­ni­cal down­hill”. Still, know­ing some­one ran the Route­burn in fewer hours than you walked it in days does take the edge off your sto­ries of heroic, mid­dle-aged en­durance.

Were you wet? Drenched to our undies.

Was it windy? Nearly blown off the Hol­ly­ford Face.

Wild? Hyper­ven­ti­lat­ing wild­ness. But it took you three days? Maybe a better ques­tion than how any­one could tackle 32km of ag­gres­sive up­hills and tech­ni­cal down­hills in less than three hours is – why? Why would you not want to stop of­ten, just to drink in the in­hos­pitable mag­nif­i­cence of the place? Why would you hur­tle past Ear­land Falls, when you can stand there be­ing blasted by spray and wal­lops of cold air as Olympic pool-sized mea­sure­ments of wa­ter surge over the cliff. Who’d want to miss stag­ger­ing into the Har­ris Sad­dle shel­ter sod­den as a sea ot­ter, to curl your numb fin­gers around a mug of gum­boot tea in one of those ubiq­ui­tous brown glass mugs. It couldn’t taste any better if it was rare oo­long in bone china.

Once, alone on a stretch of track that had de­cided it would rather be a fast-flow­ing stream, I find my­self laugh­ing at the sheer joy of splosh­ing through an­kle- deep wa­ter in my boots. It’s the grown-up ver­sion of jump­ing in pud­dles in your school shoes. A sub­ver­sive plea­sure, with­out the telling- off from your mother.

Some­times, when the moun­tain land­scape has sapped you of su­perla­tives, it turns sur­real. One area of the Route­burn called The Or­chard is named for its scat­ter­ing of fast-grow­ing moun­tain rib­bon­wood trees. They look like fruit trees. Freaky fruit trees – in a Juras­sic Park- like or­chard. You half- ex­pect a posse of ve­loci­rap­tors to pop up be­hind the thrust­ing, scaly fronds of the prickly shield ferns that pro­lif­er­ate be­tween the trees.

In the beech for­est, with the light slant­ing through the trees, the mosses and lichens glow a kind of ra­dioac­tive lime-green. Near Lake Macken­zie, a lone kea cir­cles over­head. We hear its long, high-pitched cry – “kee- ee-aa-aa”. Cana­dian Matt leaves his boots out­side his room, in the hopes some tasty rub­ber sole might at­tract the birds. A nib­bled boot

would be worth it for a close-up en­counter, he fig­ures, but the alpine par­rots re­main aloft and elu­sive. An­other time, we find a gi­ant worm wrig­gling – well, swim­ming – across the track. Amer­i­can Lou gen­tly moves the mega-worm to the verge with his hik­ing pole. “I’ve eaten smaller hot­dogs,” he says.

Al­ways, there’s the weather. Weather that will not be ig­nored. We have two days of histri­onic skies, wild wind and great slabs of rain, then wake to a morn­ing of startling sun­shine, so bright and still even the tomtits and robins seem ditzy with ex­cite­ment.

By day three, ev­ery tale of der­ring- do and dis­as­ter in this wild coun­try makes sense. Safe in our guided and well- equipped hik­ing party, we digest the Route­burn’s roll call of tragedies: among them, the two 13-year- olds who died of hy­pother­mia in 1963 when their Roxburgh High School group was caught out in a De­cem­ber bliz­zard. An­other plaque along the track is ded­i­cated to Czech tram­per On­drej Petr, who died in July 2016 af­ter he and part­ner Pavlina Pi­zova be­came dis­ori­en­tated in low cloud and heavy snow. They’d been warned not to go. He fell down a seven-me­tre slope; Pi­zova couldn’t save him, but stum­bled to an iso­lated De­part­ment of Con­ser­va­tion war­den’s hut, where there was food and fire­wood. She sur­vived a har­row­ing month be­fore be­ing res­cued.

An­other time, one of our whip­pety young guides tells us about the del­uge of Jan­uary 1994. Bridges were washed away. Mas­sive slips de­stroyed stretches of the track. The Route­burn Flats – nearly 50ha of tus­sock – turned into a vast lake. Hik­ers were res­cued by he­li­copter, but not be­fore one scrib­bled in a hut log: “The track is waist- deep in wa­ter, river is ris­ing… 20 hours later… con­stant heavy rain… HELP!” MĀORI ONCE crossed this moun­tain­ous di­vide in their search for pounamu; the grey-green va­ri­ety found at the head of Lake Wakatipu was es­pe­cially prized for weapons and or­na­ments. The first Eu­ro­peans to visit the Green­stone and Hol­ly­ford Val­leys were op­ti­mistic pas­toral­ist ex­plor­ers, fol­lowed by the prospec­tors, al­ways on the search for gold, al­though the pick­ings proved slim in this high coun­try. No he­li­copter res­cues for them if their treks turned ugly.

We are the ul­ti­mate soft­ies, how­ever, with our lodges’ com­fort­able beds and gi­ant dry­ing rooms, where racks of socks, pants and merino lay­ers dry to crispy per­fec­tion. We have hot show­ers and three- course din­ners – a menu, for good­ness’ sake, with a veg­e­tar­ian op­tion. The food is de­li­cious. It tastes better be­cause it feels well earned, even if we’ve cov­ered only 11-12km and might or might not have taken the “op­tional climbs” up Con­i­cal Hill and

Key Sum­mit. There are still those tech­ni­cal up-and- down­hills. “My shock ab­sorbers have gone,” says Ian from Tau­ranga, of a steep, rocky de­scent that ends, thank­fully, at the en­trance to one of our lodges.

When the weather fore­cast for the fol­low­ing day’s trek is de­liv­ered, along with the Fiord­land rider (“any­thing could hap­pen”), Eugene asks how much rain we’ve sloshed through today. He’s un­con­vinced by the 50mm an­swer and leans across the ta­ble: “My Face­book page is say­ing 100mm and no one’s telling me oth­er­wise.”

We soft­ies do have to carry our own packs. Quite small packs, though. No pots, plates, muesli bars and de­hy­drated stew for us; no sleep­ing bags or tow­els. The dry­ing rooms mean we can re­cy­cle most of our hik­ing clothes, and we don’t even need our own sham­poo or soap. I’m still might­ily pleased with my pre-packing, hav­ing ticked off Ul­ti­mate Hikes’ “ad­vised equip­ment list” and used it as an ex­cuse to buy more merino lay­ers, sil­i­con-print Gore-tex gloves and – not on the list – one of those gift-with-pur­chase cos­metic deals where you get tiny ex­tras, like sun­block, mois­turiser and mas­cara, per­fect for packing light. Al­though I don’t ac­tu­ally rec­om­mend mas­cara for a Fiord­land walk. Chances are you’ll en­counter Fiord­land rain and risk an accidental Alice Cooper stage-makeup ef­fect.

Most of the hardy Doc-hut hik­ers we en­counter look kit­ted out for all contin­gen­cies. My favourite is a young cou­ple I pass on one of many bridges. He’s bare to his waist, look­ing quite Chris Hemsworth Thor-like, and car­ry­ing a top-heavy, boxy back­pack. That’s when I re­alise there’s a baby on board, snugly en­cased above his manly shoul­ders.

There are al­ways a few “didn’t get the ad­vised equip­ment list” sur­prises, how­ever, like the two young women mak­ing their way up to the Har­ris Sad­dle, dressed for a yoga ses­sion in their lu­l­ule­mons, de­spite the brac­ing wind- chill factor. What were they think­ing? There are walk­ers with umbrellas, and a woman wear­ing a cap adorned with plas­tic flow­ers. And on the sec­tion be­tween Forge Flat and the Route­burn Rd end of the track, there’s a swag­ger of young men in bare feet and jan­dals. Daytrip­pers, we scoff, feel­ing the most like se­ri­ous tram­pers since we took off two days ear­lier in misty rain from the Di­vide on the Mil­ford road.

But we linger with the barefoot walk­ers in the meadow out­side the Route­burn Flats hut. Sun­light spins the grasses gold and burnt-but­ter. Matt and Sarah take off their boots and wade in the river; it’s vi­brat­ingly cold. A DOC sign de­clares the area, with its sweep­ing views up the river val­ley to the moun­tains, a “No drone zone”. Long may it re­main so, we agree. We have only six or so kilo­me­tres to go and there’s a beer and hot chips wait­ing for us at the Glenorchy pub. But it’s hard to leave.

A hand­some duck wan­ders out of the tus­sock. What species?

We check the in­for­ma­tion board near the hut.

It’s a par­adise duck. Of course it is. We look at each other and laugh. +

• Ul­ti­mate Hikes is the only com­pany per­mit­ted to op­er­ate multi-day guided walks on the Route­burn, Mil­ford and Green­stone Tracks. Their three-day, two-night Route­burn walk (the track spans Fiord­land and Mt As­pir­ing Na­tional Parks) is priced from $1375pp (ul­ti­mate­ Ul­ti­mate Hikes’ com­fort­able lodges are run to the high­est pos­si­ble sus­tain­able tourism stan­dards in chal­leng­ing ter­rain. The com­pany also con­trib­utes to track main­te­nance and pest-erad­i­ca­tion pro­grammes.

Above left: De­spite our hopes for a kea en­counter, the moun­tain par­rots re­main aloft and elu­sive. Above right: A hardy hiker on the fi­nal up­hill stretch to the Har­ris Sad­dle.

The day of our de­scent to the Route­burn Flats is still, sun­lit and spec­tac­u­lar. But by now, ev­ery tale of der­ring-do and dis­as­ter in this wild coun­try makes sense.

Be­low: Sun sneaks through the clouds on a bit of “tech­ni­cal down­hill” from Har­ris Sad­dle. Op­po­site: Ear­land Falls.

Above: My hik­ing-lite pack next to two real tram­pers, and they have a baby on board.

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