3/5 The Routeburn

Routeburn Start Meadow to Howden Campsite

31 k

We wake up to perhaps the most condensation yet on this damp trail. The fullish moon is setting over the two tier waterfall, and the stars are out in a clear sky as I light the coffee water. Today we hike the Routeburn!  I have been looking forward to this particular 30k for quite awhile. We pack up all the dripping wet things and return to the carpark shelter to eat breakfast. Jasper and Miriam arrive while we are spooning granola into our mouths- so we didn’t get an earlier start than the shuttle, but it did turn out quite a bit cheaper. We head onto the Routeburn Track with its wide, easy tread, much like I expected from the other Great Walks. Everything is coated with a deep thick carpet of moss, and the trees intertwine their branches far above.  Springs run from underneath the moss; water trickles and cascades in every crease and fold of the landscape. I catch glimpses of the deep cerulean water of the Route Burn far below through the trees. (Burns are what they call rivers in this part of the world, so essentially we are hiking along the drainage of the Route River.) Sheer mountain walls rise up around the valley and drainage. We reach the Flats and the water spreads out into calm still pools; this is where we could turn up the left branch and do some bushwhacking adventures. Sometime in the future. Out of the forest, I can finally see the huge walls we have been hiking between, crowned with glaciers. It’s like glimpsing the reigning monarchs of another race, one much more ancient and wiser and patient than ours. They probably can’t even see us, crawling around down here like ants. We climb up out of the flats, the perspective of the valley slowly revolving, until we reach the biggest hut we have encountered so far- 50 bunks. It’s more like a compound than a hut. The bunks themselves are neatly lined up in little slots of four, the way I imagine a ship’s bunks could be maximized.  The two most incredible things about it are the magnificent balcony with views across the valley we have climbed from, and the resplendent Routeburn Falls gushing behind the hut’s perch.We take a break and have a snack, glorying in the lavish beauty. I snap photo after photo with my camera, trying to figure out how to convey what is really such a multi-dimensional and sensory-rich experience. Too soon, it’s time to go on- the price of doing this trail at all is squeezing it into a day- but the upper valley backing the hut is even more spectacular than what we have passed through this morning.

I will much later learn that the range bordering the far side is the Serpentines, and they will go on my list for places to explore when we come back in a future season. But for now I am fully immersed in how beautiful every macro and micro detail are, and I couldn’t care less about names or labels.

As we near the head of the valley, the trail climbs high enough for the first glimpses down into the Lake Harris basin. The far side of the lake is backed by steep cliffs and waterfalls entrenched in deep chimneys.I’m grateful for the views we have for the bit of time we have them- as the trail becomes a narrow ribbon of a ledge high above the lake, fog suddenly pours in over the cliffs, and in seconds the visibility drops to less than ten meters.  The top of the pass is left to the imagination, now nondescript except for the A-frame shelters where a crowd is tucked in eating their lunches. I had wanted go up Conical Peak, the trail for which leaves from this spot, but no views seems to imply no point. We continue on down the other side of the pass.

It stays cloudy for awhile, but I hope dropping low enough will at least reopen the views beneath the cloud ceiling. A Kea cries out, and its silhouette wings its way across the void. Then, a few hints of peaks and glaciers and the range poke through tatters in the fog. The variety of plants that fills these mountains is incredible. It is a garden of shapes and textures and colors that overlap and overlay into a fantastic botanic kaleidoscope. Jeweled spider webs drape between shrubs from a doctor Seuss story and I fall further and further behind the others, distracted by taking pictures. There are many chatty, chatty folks, and I am captured by trawling conversationalists.  Slowest hiker is always the casualty in an attack- better gabby co-hikers than bears, I suppose. I walk for awhile with a girl named Sarah from California, until I find Prana and Mouse waiting by the trail for lunchtime.

Mouse tells us there is a word in German that means cloud-window, and these are what we watch form and fade as we eat. The mist lends such a surreal feeling to the world that the whimsical part of me expects the revealed reiscene to change with each new vision.

Carrying on, even though the sweeping vistas are covered, there are many creeks and little bridges to decorate the way. Little waterfalls and springs trickle through the moss everywhere.

The clouds finally begin to thin, and views open over the Darren Mountains, a sheer, foreboding, spectacular wall topped with edges and angles and ice. The Hollyford valley, a ribbon of flat ease from this distance, serpentines below. One perfectly aligned tunnel of mist frames the distant ocean; the Hollyford track had been on our research radar, and is now bumped up to the must-do list.

We top the pass overlooking Mackenzie lake, which I am completely unprepared for. The clouds are dissipating up valley, leaving the spectacular basin unobscured, like a Brigadoon we have stumbled upon.

The trail skims along the slope of the mountain flank, displaying view after view on the way down to the lake, an aquamarine wonder filled by twisting waterfalls and bordered by strips of white sand.

I fall far behind Prana, taking pictures, and when I round a corner I find him, packless, climbing back up out of the bushes back to the path. “What happened?” I ask. “Well, a little bird showed me this!” he explained, triumphantly holding out a battery pack with a solar panel integrated into the top- exactly the model he had been considering trying out on a future hike. “What? No way!” “Yeah, I was watching a little yellow bird flit around, and it dove into the bushes and landed right next to this!” We both have a good laugh at the odds as Prana taps and brushes out the dirt. A green light feebly blinks on. “I can’t believe it still works.”

The trail eventually plunges back down into a lush forest tunnel, winding around to release us next to the old moraine of the glacier that carved this valley.

We decide it’s a great spot for a mocha and coconut wafer tea break. We spread out the tents and sleeping bags to dry in the laser beam of clear sunshine, and relish the indulgent break.

Part of me wishes we were indeed staying at Lake Mackenzie, but since we are not, the need to move on builds until it can’t be ignored. We begin to meet the people heading to the Lake Mackenzie Hut for the end of their day, many of them ready for that end, and start a game of wishing them: “Have a great walk!” Only one guy out of 30 seems to recognize the joke, but we are delighted with our pun, and therefore satisfied.

The trail again contours through the steep flank of the impressive cliffs; sometimes a trail is great because of where it ends up, sometimes because of where it goes through, and most rarely, because the tread itself is improbable and a work of art. The Routeburn is fantastic because of both of the last two reasons.

In the clearing evening sky, the Darren Mountains stoically stand in formation at the skyline, and waterfalls pour down the near cliffs that the track is blasted into.

Bridges span cataracts erupting out of the forest and cracks in the rock walls.

Earland Falls grows larger as we near it, until we are practically ducking beneath its thunder.  There is a flood route that leads down to a bridge, far below the falls, in case the water is pumping at a rate that inundates the trail.  I imagine that volume would be quite a sight to see.  As it is now, the spray and amount of wind roaring off the bottom of the falls is enough to soak my clothes and blow my hat off. And maintain a steady rainbow.

Earland Falls is the icing on top of the amazing tread cake. From the bottom of the cascade, we head into the forest and spend the rest of the evening in the tunnel of the trees, working our way through slowly murkening light.

An hour goes by, then two, and I begin to wish for the end of the day myself, or at least a stop for dinner.  The scenery-induced euphoria of the day had kept my mind occupied, the input to my senses overriding the annoying brain-chatter and ache-nagging, but with the end of the expansive views, the weariness is starting to creep in.  The moss in our tree tunnel is so luxurious, I pick out different perfectly shaped hollows and imagine taking a break to sprawl in sheer, cushiony comfort as I pass them by.

Just as the crankiness for a hot meal is building, I find Prana has stopped and is setting up the stove next to a stream about 1 k shy of the hut and lake that mark the end of the Routeburn Track.  It is a perfect place to sink into the spongy tufts of moss and let the mind loose unattended.

We slurp down a quick meal of rice noodles and curry sauce as the daylight dims.  We gather everything up and scoot along, hoping to get to camp before the twilight is gone.    Ten minutes of quick stepping brings up past the last hut and our turn off of the official Great Walk track, then another 20 minutes brings us off track to the closest legal campsite.

The Howden campsite is a lush, open grassy meadow, with wonderful views down the valley.  And it has a toilet!  Such small things ease the trail life.  A bit of deep rose color is lingering in the sky, slowly darkening and fading. We hustle to find a couple of flattish spots for the tents and pitch- the long grass will be comfortable, but guarantees some cold, wet condensation.  Bundled warm in our home, I watch through the screen door last the stars appear.

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