… So Nov 5, I flew into Queenstown 27 years after I’d last visited with my ex-husband and the in-laws. That trip was to hike the Milford Track but sadly it was just before we were to tell both of our parents that our marriage was over. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful but the interaction was emotionally painful trying to pretend to the in-laws that all was well while looking across the emotional divide at each other when we were alone. We were together for nine years before we split up.
So I flew into this place again, this time to hike the Grand Traverse which ironically is nine years into my happy and loving relationship with my partner, Tender T. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Feels like an opportunity to be here in this special place to enjoy its beauty and my connection with him and friends in a way which I couldn’t experience back in 1992. A second chance.
We had a whopper of a first day. We are hanging out with our buddies, Bopping B & Equipped E. We are doing the hike together and playing in Queenstown and Dunedin once the hike is over. On our first morning in Queenstown, we did 6.4kms straight up along the Tiki trail, totally 470 m of elevation to the top of the Skyline Gondola. Then onto the Luge for a crazy, fun ride which curled around the gondola pylons. Then to lunch, shopping and a pre-briefing on our Grand Traverse Hike scheduled for the following day. The day ended with a walk through the botanical gardens and a Thai meal. We wrung everything we could out of Queenstown in one day. Tomorrow we are off on our hiking adventure.
Six days five nights, 66 kms in total ranging from 400 m above sea level to 1255 m at the highest point.
Day 1 Queenstown to Steele Creek Lodge 18kms
We had a great start. Four wheel drive bus along the side of a monster lake , Lake Wakatipu, across mountain streams along a windy, single lane road clinging to mountain edges and then following a very stressed mama sheep and her two lambs racing in front for their lives. No where to go. Just bleating and racing for a safe spot somewhere in front of us.
Our walk was beautiful. Windy beech forest paths with drop aways to the racing glacial gorge below, aqua and emerald greens. Lots of bird calls and a carpeted floor of delicate beech leaves, cushioning each steps. At about 10kms my pelvis spoke loudly to me, ‘Elizabeth, you have given a task to me which is challenging. I’m now packing weight I’m unfamiliar with… good god!’
I acknowledged this then thanked my pelvis and kept walking.
And speaking of thanking, as I walked, I was ‘home’ with myself, wandering in mind, thinking of all that I was thankful for. My thoughts went to my children, all adults now but all still babies in my heart. My eldest is at the top of her game, making a contribution in her profession and now planning a business of her own. It doesn’t just happen, it takes gumption and planning. She is dealing with this and most likely a bit of self doubt. But that is part of the journey and I have gratitude knowing she is up for the challenge and has the skills to succeed. And then there is son number 1. He has discovered his path. An academic life of learning and pushing the boundaries of his discipline. But to get there he has to prove himself through writing and creative performance. He has to run the gauntlet of his teachers and examiners. But I’m full of gratitude for him as I know he has fallen for the love of Learning and is now taking the ups and downs in his stride. And I’m full of gratitude for our number three. He is committed to his work and doing what is expected of him, smashing his KPIs and knowing his strengths. He has overcome a childhood of challenges, of confusion and misunderstandings. I look at him and feel pride. And then there is the baby, the towering young man, urgently wanting it all, wanting it now and feeling the pain when his edifice crashes. But he picks himself up and learns. As they mature, I feel gratitude. So as the wind howled around me, so as the sun beat down with the moments of rest between, I was grateful.
And I was grateful for the gluten, diary free donut topped with hundreds and thousands at morning tea.
Day 2 Steele Creek to Mckellar Lodge 14.5kms
So today wasn’t sunny like yesterday. But it was perfect for hiking. We were warned that we would get wet so the existential decision was ‘to be wet-weather geared up or not to be’. I geared up.
We then watched the morning helicopter run deliver the next day’s supplies as we headed off. The logistics of this hike are impressive.
My head wasn’t so full of thoughts of family and home this day. I was more centred on my surroundings and the track. We walked along valley floors, along steep river gorges, across dramatic rock falls and more beech forests. As I walked I saw the evolution of forests before me. The rocks fall down the valley walls. They sit and wait for the wind to bring particles and seeds. Lichens, moss and ferns begin to establish themselves as the beech seeds germinate and saplings grow spindly and tall towards the sun. The saplings grow stronger but with season upon season of snow, they splinter under the weight of snow and break like matches. But many survive and grow taller and wider with age. They are statuesque with a wise presence. They stand. They are. I felt their strength and their stoicism. Testament to long life.
And there was a lot of little things to notice, too. Mottled lichens forming patterns on rocks were there to see. Mosses that, on closer inspection, were delicate, miniature ferns. Pancakes of lichens with frilly edges. Delicate red, yellow, and brown beech leaves coating the paths, the rocks , roots and stones.
I loved the beech leaf carpet on the path. It was soft on my feet, spongey and gentle. Such a contrast to the gnarly roots tangled between rocks, offering a trip hazard for the tired mind. Deft stepping, deliberate choices of foot placement for safe walking. My mind was totally occupied by where to place my next step. ‘No rolled ankles for me’, was my mantra.
I was starting to get to know our fellow hikers. Aussies, kiwis and Americans (no Trumpers!). We are all talking about climate change, politics, retirement, farming and hiking trips around the world. Our guides are awesome. Fit, helpful, knowledgeable and good humoured.
Day 3 Mckellar Lodge Rest day
The night was an endless rain storm. It rained vertically, diagonally, horizontally, loudly with thunder and lightning. The thunder thundered so loudly that it shook the lodge multiple times. Equipped E lay awake catastrophising an exit scenario in case of flash flood, avalanche, rock fall, alien invasion, zombie apocalypse. …You name it, she had it covered, all ending in death and destruction. But we survived!
Our rest day was spent inside watching the rain bucket down, listening to the thunder and flinching when lightning struck. This was our official rest day but it was also enforced. We rested. I participated in my first Tai Chi class and blogged…. this. Also played Bananagram. A lot of fun. Equipped E very kindly repaired my rain trousers and I found time for a nap. She also supplied second skin for my little toe and reassured me I could call on her at any point. It rained and rained. But we were snug inside with a wonderful wood stove. Yay. The guides reckoned the weather report will state up to 200 mm in 24 hrs. Woo.
Day 4 Lake McKellar to Lake Mackenzie 15kms
Ok. So the best way to describe today is to start off with … this was the best day of my life! At the end of the day as I stood under the shower with a torrent of delicious hot water drowning me, I decided that this was the best. It started out in rain with torrents of water and the track shallowed by run off, with our precious dry boots drowned by water on the track. No option but to walk through gushing run off. We walked beside Lake McKellar which lost its banks, now swelling beyond its boundaries with beech trees and ferns submerged. At this point it was in the tea leaves, in the hands of the gods that I would slip and come a cropper! Slipped on a log. Lucky for me I had a pack. My snail shell. It saved me. No damage just another reminder to be careful. On through the rain but behold, the clouds lifted and the sun emerged and there was light.
So we sloshed along. Rocky path, creek, tree roots, creek, rocky path, creek, roots, logs, big creek, rocky path, bigger creek now requiring assistance. Guides lending a happy helpful hand up to their shins in ice melt. Still smiling, ‘watch your step. We don’t want you to slip’, they wisely said. Little did they know, it was too late. I was now a member of the Grand Traverse-Slipped-Over-Brigade.
We walked beside McKellar Lake, crossed over a saddle and found ourselves beside Howden Lake and then, BAM it was lunch time at Howden Hut. A warm wood stove, tea and coffee and… omg… miso soup. Luxury.
After an hour and a half of rest and recovery we headed out for an short up hill, three hour tramp. We were now officially on the Routeburn Track – one of the most famous and picturesque tracks in NZ. Our first stage was a walk to Earland Falls. Same drill with the tramping (very NZ speak) but the track was wider and we met more individuals going both directions.
Earland Falls was heard well before we saw it. We turned a corner and there it was. Roaring over the cliff above. Roaring and smashing our track. Raining water, spray, sheets of water. Holy moley. There was no track to follow. But we could look in awe while getting saturated. So exciting. I was like a kid playing in puddles, loving the moment and loving getting wet. But the fun wasn’t over. The guides had to guide us below the falls to get around it. Down we went into a side gully. Deep. Wet. Slippery. Crazy. And so much fun. We clambered and inched our way down and across. Awesome. We popped out and there was a bridge to cross the biggest section of the gorge. I was pumped. And we were off again, tramping towards Mackenzie Lodge. We hugged the sloping hills through forests rich with mosses and lichen. And we saw the Kea or Kaka (not sure…), a big parrot with a beak that makes the sulfur crested cockatoo’s look meek and blunt. We saw a group of five fly past and one branch-hopping, seeking out insects.
The end section for the day was a long downhill into the valley where we were to lodge beside an alpine lake, Lake Mackenzie. I started to hobble. Without much warning my right groin muscle said, ‘Enough’. It was a slow, tedious downhill grind to get to the Lodge….. but hey, my spirits lifted when we arrived. The valley was beautiful, the Lake full and overflowing into the scrub below the Lodge. The Lodge was shiny new with cathedral ceilings, floor to ceiling windows looking out on an entire snow capped mountain range, the Hollyford Range. I was dumbstruck. We were met by our hosts who showed us to our room. ‘Is this for real?’, I squealed. ‘Are you kidding me? This is our room? This is our front row view?’ I have never, and probably will never ever sleep in a room with a view like this again! We snuggled and watched the sun set on our mountain range. We watched the clouds close in and then clear, the sky turn pink and the contrasts increase. The sun light waned as night fell in front of us. Nature at its most special. It was the best day of my life.
Day 5 Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Falls Lodge 11kms
As described the Lake beside which we lodged was overflowing. As a consequence but only after the group photos, we set off through the overflow, ‘ET of the Overflow’ along with the rest of the crew had to walk straight through. Our beautifully dried boots were saturated 5mins into the tramp… over my knees! Crispy cool water.👍
Our path was only tree-lined briefly. We were already so high into the mountains that it wasn’t long before we burst out of the trees into the light. We were above the tree line. We were looking down upon the world. Wow. We kept climbing, switchbacking along the steep cliff line. Up and up, looking out rather than looking down, keeping the vertigo at bay. Up to the top and around the corner and BOOM (Boping B’s verbal exclamation mark), we were looking down into another valley, out into the distance to a lake and the sand of the sea shore of the Tasman Sea! Blues, dark blues, purples and violets of hazy colour dissolving into the distance.
The walls of the valley opposite us were snow caked. We could see the tree line on the other side and understood just how high we were. We were almost at line of sight of the helicopters cruising up and down the Hollyford valley. We walked and laughed, elated and feeling privileged. I also marvelled at the engineering that went into building this trail. We walked along the side of our mountain to the highest peak of the trip, Conical Hill -named aptly- well, just below it at 1255metres where we had lunch in wind and sleet. After a good rest and some more miso soup (BOOM) we geared back up and set out ready for some wind chill and maybe snow. After a few more winds of the track we found ourselves looking down on an exquisite alpine lake, Lake Harris and a distant U-shaped valley, ribboned vertically by waterfalls. I took a deep breath of wonder.
It was steep. Any missteps would result in a long falls down into a cold lake. I stepped carefully. We started the walk down at the point in the lake where its waters escape its boundary and fell out to freedom as a cascading, tumbling roar of water. We walked slowly down for the final hour through a meandering river created by the escaping water of the lake. Huge vistas and views. As my groin muscle started to remind me of its existence again, we arrived at our destination. Our Lodge was beside the massive Routeburn Falls. Another classy Lodge in the clouds.
Day 6 Falls Lodge to Routeburn Road 9kms
Today was the last day. As is my habit, final days always arrive with of bout of sadness at the thought of it all ending. We completed our morning breakfast routine and then set off for the final dose of wilderness. We walked down to the Routeburn Flats, a river of ice melt with reflections of the valley walls. Then we stopped for another break beside the river further down the valley only to witness a family of endangered Whio ducks (Blue Ducks) swimming, ferry gliding across rapids and diving for food – an absolutely precious experience. And then we walked quietly out of the forest and back to civilisation. First stop? The Glenorchy Pub.
We have made friends with some wonderful people, seen some breathtaking places and had some unforgettable moments. A big thank you to the guides and to our buddies, B and E. I will do another round with you guys any day! Hey, let’s do Dunedin (BOOM). Great. We have the itinerary sorted. We are off tomorrow (BOOM BOOM).