By Stephanie Ho
A stunning sunrise over the Humboldt mountains
It was with an insatiable appetite for adventure that I shrugged on my 18kg pack and bid farewell to my parents, not seeing them for the next 10 days. It would be my first self-guided overseas trip, and as a sixteen year old I was excited and nervous. Having been raised by a family of non-hikers, the trip was pretty much self-planned.
I was met by my equally anxious mate on the train to the airport. She was almost a year younger than me, albeit her maturity gave the impression of someone twice her age.
And so it was, after spending a bit of time in a metal tube, that we finally landed in Queenstown. We were to stay a night in town before taking a shuttle to the Routeburn track the next morning, which seemed to arrive quicker than you could say 'Quidditch'. On the shuttle we met some fellow hikers with whom we would be sharing the track over the next 4 days.
Day 1 of the hike involved meandering through mossy beech forest, following the Routeburn River. Everything was perfect, it was a world away from home. Listening to the rush of the rapids, breathing in the crisp air that was lacking in the city, feeling the sunlight hit our faces through the parting canopy’s fronds. The scope of what we were doing took a while to sink in, but when it did, an inexplicable freedom took its place. It was a relatively easy 9km day, climbing steadily to the hut just below the bush line. We were two of the first to arrive there around midday, and we settled into hut life.
This shows the gradient surprisingly well; my mate climbing up to the hut
We awoke the next morning to a stunning sunrise over the Humboldt mountains. The hut ranger had mentioned that many of the peaks were yet to be named, and with no first ascents recorded. Maybe I could do some peakbagging after high school? Anyhow, I digress. Today would take us over the alpine, and most exposed, section of the track. From the hut, we continued climbing up and entered into a harsh environment where as-yet unnamed mountains towered over either side of the track.
Feeling tiny amongst the mountains
Underfoot was mostly slush due to the heavy snowfall over the last couple of days and we stumbled over the Harris Saddle, the highest point on the track, in adverse weather. The winds were constantly shifting and we were walking through rain and cloud. I revelled in the atmosphere though, being completely immersed in the mountains, experiencing the quietest loud place nature could offer. Soon we were traversing across the exposed and cloud-shrouded Hollyford face. The views would have been amazing, stretching across the valley to the Darran mountains, had it been a clear day. Nevertheless, it was quite an experience, seeing nothing but endless mist to our right.
Traversing the Hollyford face
We descended steadily to Lake Mackenzie where we spent the night. Hut life was interesting as we were the youngest people there, with a mix of other people of all ages from around the World. I guess people kind of took us under their wing a bit and we would sit with other hikers at meal times and talk about how our parents let us go on this trip.
The next day was fairly mild, tramping through more beech forest and bringing us to the 174m tall waterfall, Earland falls. It was here that we had our first ‘shower’ in 3 days. We had declined the emergency route which wouldn't have allowed for a close up (and full on!) experience of the fall, though I think we ended up getting a little more than we bargained for! We couldn’t get anywhere near the base of the waterfall as the force of the water hitting rocks below produced a strong wind, but the spray still doused us from afar.
Near the base of Earland Falls, 174m
As we clung onto the mossy handrail and shuffled across the boardwalk with squinted eyes, we could hardly see a metre ahead and breathing was hard - I felt like I had been hit in the stomach by a soccer ball. As we had almost cleared the brunt of the spray, my mate yelled from behind and I looked back just in time to see my fluoro orange pack liner rip away from my rucksack and get carried away by the wind into the rocky cliff below. My first thought was that if my pack got any more wet, my down sleeping bag (not in a waterproof sack) would have collapsed by the time I got to the hut. After putting a fair bit of distance between me and the waterfall I donned my poncho in a mediocre attempt to cover the pack as best I could. It ended up something like this:
We finally stumbled into Lake Howden hut at around 2pm where other hikers were wrapping up lunch and continuing the next 3km to the end of the track. By 5:30pm, everyone was well and truly gone and we had settled in with three other hikers and met the hut warden, Helen. We were playing cards when we spotted a very wet and rather rugged-looking guy speed hiking towards the hut. He popped in and said hello, questioning whether he should camp out in the pouring rain or bail and sleep indoors. After much consideration he proceeded to come inside and sit in front of the dwindling fire to dry his soaking clothes. We chatted with this guy as we watched his shorts, t-shirt and jacket start steaming, and discovered that he had managed to speed hike from somewhere near the start of the track that morning. He'd clocked roughly 30km, managing to hike over an alpine pass (off-track) and following a waterfall back to meet the track. His minimalist style meant that in his 35L backpack were no more than an ‘emergency’ pair of pants and shirt, food, water and a hiker’s coffee press. He later told us that he had stowed his bike in a bush near the Dusky Track which he planned to do “probably soon”.
The next morning, we reluctantly bid farewell to our fellow hut mates and Helen fussed over us to make sure we had everything, including a replacement pack cover that someone had left behind. As we continued on to the end of the track, we thought back over everything that had happened over the past few days. It had already been a life-changing experience and we were only halfway through our trip. After catching the shuttle into Te Anau, we restocked our supplies and had a very welcome shower. From our motel, we could see the mountains in the distance. It was weird to think that we would be up there tomorrow! That night, we fell asleep before our heads even hit the pillow. The next few days would be a whole new experience with vastly different scenery and more challenging terrain. Stay tuned for Part II - The Kepler track!