Routeburn Track - warnings about fatal dangers

Trip Start Jan 30, 2007
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Routeburn Track. Mention of those three words might make you anxious, they might make you go 'wow', or they might even make you exclaim 'what?'. Easily the best alpine track in New Zealand, and possibly one of the best in the world, it is highly regarded for its stunning vistas, steep surrounding mountains and deep lakes and tarns.

But what they don't mention are two of the worst possible things in the world: sandflies and snorers. The first is a tiny bloodsucking insect what not only attacks and takes an involuntary blood donation, but it leaves some poison inside just to make you ichy. The second, is a nocturnal creature, usually male and over 30 years old, which sucks the life out of you while you try to sleep, leaving you tired and irritable the next morning.

The twin terrors work in tandem on the Routeburn. The sandflies are usually found at lower levels - particularly the start of the track and also around water and strangely enough, at any place you care to use for a rest or lunch. They are most active during the day, particularly at the start of the snorer-jaded day, or when you've made it to your night's abode. The snorers are usually found at the higher levels, and while especially active from 11pm to 8am, can also be found snoring from late afternoon at most huts and campsites.

There are things you can do about both, those some of these are not legal. More on that later.

So what about this Routeburn, eh? As a seasoned Routeburn hiker, I do this track more than most Kiwis, both in the off-season, and recently, in the peak season, where a booking is necessary to secure space in a snorer lair each night. The track, despite many people having forebodings about its difficulty, is not that hard to complete. Most people do it over two nights, three days, from either Queenstown to the Divide on the Te Anau-Milford road. Sure, its an alpine track going over a high pass. Sure, there are parts exposed to avalanche, strong winds and rockfalls. But overall, about half is more like a garden path, never too steep, always winding this way or that to offer another viewpoint, another chance to look up or down or ahead.

random thoughts on bus journeys

bus stop - toilet stops - refeshment stops - stretch your legs - there will be a delay - it will take longer than expected

the musty smell of bus - industrial carpet on the walls, letting out its captured scents and smells, of sweat and smoke and cleaning fluid

the view from the window - oncoming traffic - the vibrations and rumble - your feet buzzing from the iddling engine - the way the view passes by, how the clock ticks over slowly, how the second hand takes longer going up - how those signs saying the distance to go are landmarks for nothing - your calculations based on speed, traffic, route etc - when will we arrive?

dozzing off, falling asleep, yet remaining tired, jaded - the ways the sun angles in through the windows, like a policeman's bright searchlight - thirstiness only quenched by $3 bottles of water - how bus drivers stop at places out of town and they go and help themselves to a big feed, while you queue for the worst cheese scone you've had in your life (Twizel, $3, had to throw it out, wasn't sure which recycling bin to put it in)


For my trip this time, it was more of an ordeal getting there than getting hiking. A holiday with friends in the top of the South Island combined with a desire to see more of New Zealand countryside (a desire which did diminish somewhat during those long hours on a bus) saw me go from Golden Bay and Nelson to Christchurch and then onto Queenstown in two days. Then, as if that wasn't enough, I took the longest possible daytrip in NZ from Queenstown to Milford for a boat cruise, then hopped back on the bus to Queenstown. Our journey commenced in pouring rain at 6.50am and at the first big town Te Anau we had to transfer from the luxury, recliner-seat, glass-roof, DVD, toilet, commentary coach to a crappy old bus that might be used to ferry mentally-retarded schoolchildren or in this case, trampers (that's hikers for those non-Australasians).

Mercifully I got off in Te Anau, where a cool southerly wind cut through my clothes like Jack the Ripper, and I realised I'd had mislaid my only piece of warm clothing in Queenstown. The next morning, as we loaded aboard another crappy bus, I realised I might also be a bit light on food. Yes, just the basics: lack of warm clothes and lack of enough food. Limited time near a shop meant I forgot to take some breakfast things like oats. And as it dawned on me later, I'd ventured into the wilds, into the kingdom of Nature, without one of the most vital things for my survival: chocolate.

I know what you are thinking. That I am so hardcore, that I pack only the least amount of clothing, a little more than someone heading to a nudist camp. And that I am some kind of breatharian, surviving merely on the low oxygen high-negative ion air of the mountains. And that I am happy to forgo the evil pleasures of cash-cropped, exploited labour, sugar addictive chocolate.
Well, I am not. I am just a bit forgetful.

As our 1970s bus chugged along the Milford Road, there was anticipation in the air. Most the passengers were from other countries, and more than two thirds were heading to do the Milford Track nearby. They all looked like death. When they had to disembark, out into the cold, showery flank of lake Te Anau, I tried to lift their spirits by imparting a 'don't die out there' to the newbies clad in brand new rain jackets.

There is a paradox about being in Nature. We all want to be out there, amongst it all, to experience the raw and untouched. New Zealand is quite a benign place with no poisonous snakes or other critters. We all want to be in wilderness, where we harbour the deep wish that away from the filing cabinets and internet auction sites and ipods we'll somehow find ourselves.

There's another weird thing. To experience more fully the Natural World, it seems we have to wear unnatural things. I am not just talking about bright red North Face jackets or leg gaiters. I'm talking about all those unnatural fibres: Goretex, polypro, synethetic. Now I'm a natural-fibre kinda guy, when when I head to the bush I do wonder sometimes about the value of all these high-tech fabrics.

But then Fiordland is a special place on earth. Highly uninhabitable, its rainfall in one day can be more than some places recieve gratefully in a year. And I guess those rainforests wouldn't be rainforests without rain.

Interestingly, for those who want more evidence of climate change, this part of the world seems to be very dry compared to other years. Normally when I go hiking in Fiordland, you don't get wet just from the rain falling in drops the size of fists. When you brush against any vegetation, you get a shower from leaves, mosses, ferns and grasses. This time though, those wet-loving types of vegetation seems a little starved of moisture and some seemed even quite stressed that they weren't being rained upon.

Not us hardy hikers though. The forecast for a good day of heavy rain and gales must have bypassed us, as we learnt on our exit from the track that the east coast of the South Island copped the bad weather, with storms along the east coast sinking boats, flooding rivers and leading to several deaths in the eastern part of the region - the usual rain shadow.

So while the fearful ones clambered down the bus stairs to the Milford, the remaining Routeburn hikers stayed aboard for more views of trees whizzing by, of low cloud and mist, of waterfalls gushing. There was a mix of excitement and intrepedation as we sighted the sign for The Divide and the start of the track.

Over the rustling of plastic and before you could say 'pass the insect repellent' I spotted my hiking mate for this track, Gail from New York city, and before long we started our 32-km journey up a gentle incline, before halting at the first turn-off for the day - a side loop track up to an alpine area. There were possibly a hundred folk who started out from the Divide carpark that morning - our ranks swelled by the guides walkers who carried just small bags, and would fall asleep in made beds after a hearty cooked meal in a private lodge - and we all faced the choice of continuing to the nearby hut for lunch, or heading up the hill to the alpine walk. Those on the guided walk had a guide offering advice on the virtues of the hike up. It was a short zigzag up thorugh low vegetation, and then we were at a plateau with tarns (lakes made from old glaciers), bogs and wetlands with sundrops, orchids and other named plants. As the clouds cleared below and beyond we could set down into the valley, out to the coast at Martins Bay, and across to the hanging valley where Lake Marian was bluer than any statue of Mary I've seen.

One of the nice things about hiking is the comradeship that develops among people, from all over the globe. By and large you meet really cool old people doing hikes like the Routeburn, the kind that you would like to be if you are 65 years old, have a good pension, and don't miss Coronation Street on the TV. So you get talking, find out where they are from, what they are doing here, etc. This sense of comradary is further developed during rest stops, breaks for photo-taking, and meals. Emphemeral and fleeting, this sense of one nation, no borders, quickly evaporated at night when those dreaded snorers come out to torment.

We continued on after lunch at Howden Hut, walking through a splayed waterfall some 174m high, stopping with some guided walkers at The Orchard where ribbonwood trees seemed like apple trees, neatly spaced and bearing white leaves, and onto our first night's resting place Lake McKenzie. With plenty of daylight left, we went alongside the lake and sat admiring its surface and depth. Above us, a steep zigzag made its was up and over: the next morning's challenge.

The entertainment that evening came from the hut warden Ewan who gathered everyone together and gave a talk about the history of the place, the recent decline in the lake level, the procedure in case of a fire, and the need to take all our clothing in the morning (unless it was on his wish list).

With a space secured in the large bunkhouse - a long platform where people slept without any privacy or sound protection - I was pessimistic about my chances of a good night's sleep, so once the solar-powered lights went off just before 10pm, I snuck into the kitchen with my sleeping bag, put a foam pad onto another, and slept by the fire, hemmed in by a metal post which gave me about 30m of width - a mini-single. Even away from the bunkhouse and the sleepers above, I could still hear the deep tones of a snorer above.

There's another thing that irks me about hut-based hiking (for snorers they should be seperated, banned or tattooed with 'snorer'). The other think is the rustling of plastic bags. Some places now state that guests in backpackers have to pack outside, or are not allowed to rummage around between 10pm and 7am. For some reason, maybe because some snorers wanted to rush onto the next huts to claim beds with the most acoustic amplicification, some folk got up before dawn and started packing and search and unpacking and repacking plastic bags. When my plan to dominate the world succeeds, they will be next to the snorers on the 'to go' list.

Day two is always the big day on this walk, from 900m up over a pass and down the other side. It's a long day, and the small hiker is vulnerable to the wims of the weather. While I was without my warm clothing, and a decent breakfast, I did have a small weapon in the pyschological war of tramping: coffee. Real, dark roasted, ground stuff, which I brewed into something so strong and potent that I had to go for a pee twice within half an hour of drinking it.

We set off, and up on the other side of the lake, clearing the bushline, rounded the ridge to look down on the valley below. It was windy in parts, and the trail stretched on forever, before somehow climbing up a rough section. As we climbed a staircase we looked back on a stream of hikers, and quickly recieved word that the lunchstop was just around the corner. The shelter, which Czech, Israeli and sometimes Germans use instead of paying the $40 NZ (US$32) a night for huts, was a welcome site. Peanut butter and marmite on brown bread was our lunch, and while some decided to head up Conical Hill for a panoramic view (albiet in the clouds), we continued on, around the jewel of Lake Harris to our hut at Routeburn Falls.

The section past the lake, sometimes closed due to rockslide and avalanche, is the finest section of this hike. On your right and dropping away is the lake, surrounded by cliffs and high mountains. At your feet wild flowers like the Mt Cook Lily grow, lapping up the UV rays to brightly flower in the harshes of places.

At lunchtime I had been reading from Thoreau, in a mini-book I sometimes take hiking. Amid the grandeur of the mountains, with the story of two Israelis who 15 years ago had been trapped above some cliffs, I couldn't help of think what Mr T had said about high mountains, about their inhospitality towards humankind, along the lines of 'get outa here, this is not your place, you don't belong here, the ground is so hard I can't bury you here, get going down to the valleys and plains where you belong'.

We didn't helter-skelter down, we took it easy, one step at a time. Stopping to rest our tired shoulders. Picking our way among the sharp rocks jutting out on the track. Turning to see what the clouds were doing - were they coming closer, getting darker? or were they moving away, evaporating into thin air?

Walking by our selves, I thought about how this place was made and fashioned over time - laid down, lifted up, worn away by glaciers, filled with water. I thought about the movement of water from clouds, to ice, to liquid, from on high, finding its way among rocks, eventually to the sea. I thought about my feet, the footprints they left behind, the pressure on the soles of my feet, how my walking shoes had held up, the reflexology of tree roots.

The lake leaves the basin, snaking its way across tundra of tussock and grasses. We followed it, stopping to gaze at the flow of a glacial melt stream, and then filling our water bottles with its clear cool liquid. Before long, we were standing overlooking the Routeburn Falls and the impressive large hut for independent walkers, which seemed to block the view of the guided walkers. We'd made it. We discussed how much a cool beer would be appreciated at this moment, though Gail added that the fact that beer might be for sale could lessen the experience somewhat. We both agreed that chocolate was a should-have that had been missed on both our lists, though the chocolate drops found on some museli bars did remedy this somewhat.

The Routeburn Falls hut is the Ritz of NZ's Department of Conservation huts. Only 10 years old, it features a nice open kitchen, a communal dining area that is part industrial urban hip, part 'look at this amazing view', and a seperate sleeping area with bunks, plus flushing toilets.

After a long day's walk, we lazed around the falls and pools, clambering around the flowing water and sitting contemplating. After dark, and seeing how shattered my travelling companion looked from a snorer-interrupted sleep (she had laid away getting angry - and who knows what a gal from New York might do when she is angry?), I headed off with mattress and sleeping bag to sleep alone in the living/dining area, watching the moon illuminate the distant snow-covered peaks. In the morning I woke early to a dawn chorus of sorts - kaka [a native parrot] perhaps - and then when it warmed up I went out to see the sun slowly seep across the mountains and down into the Routeburn Flats.

The last day was an easy walk out, and after dropping down to the Flats, we crossed the river by swingbridge, and moved along at a good pace, pausing here and there to eat museli bars, take photos from vantage points, and peer into chasms of swirling water. On the track a curious tomtit came down and flew among us within grasp, possibly trying to get any sandflies for food. Gail recounted her days of dating a hut warden in the US whose off-season job was collecting tax. The skies had cleared to blue and the end came too soon.

There was a bus due to pick up hikers to go back to Queenstown in a few hours, but Gail managed to see some fellow Americans she'd previously met - and despite loathing them from their first encounter - we soon found ourselves crammed in a car racing along gravel roads with a painter/driver looking out at the view with an eye for a painting and his wife assisting his driving in between raving on about how beautiful it all was. The money we saved from the bus we quickly spent on a knock up breakfast/bruch at the Glenorchy Cafe, and then some foreign locals gave us a roller coaster ride into Queenstown, where the beer is cheap and the showers are hot.

Thanks to Gail for the good-humoured company during the journey, to David for his sleeping bag, and to the hut wardens who seemed like neat people (though rumours of one's pregnancy photos were never sighted, it did sound a little strange).

By now you probably know that extermination is the only viable option for snorers, but what about sanflies? Cover up. Resistence is useless. These insects seem immune to most repellents.

ps if you want a good day out for the Milford Day trip from Queenstown, email me
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