jen yu: new zealand 2004 - day 6

new zealand 2004 - day 6

back to nz 2004
[ day 5 | day 7 ]
routeburn track, lake mackenzie
november 30, 2004
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The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand's Great Walks. The most famous of the Great Walks is the Milford Track which usually books up to a year in advance. But the Routeburn was closed due to avalanche danger just two days before we started, so you know it had to be good! Turns out the track closed the day after we hiked out (yet another freak snow storm). We met 4 Brits (3 groups) on our shuttle to the track - all of whom had been traveling the world for the past 2 months, all with various experience, all starting on the Routeburn with us under overcast skies.

The shuttle drops you off at 10:00 which is an outrageously late start for us. However, it was almost summer and we had another 12 hours of light to hike by. The permitting on the Routeburn is strictly enforced so we HAD to get to Lake Mackenzie that day - 15 miles in. It was either Lake Mackenzie or Routeburn Falls (6 miles in). The trail was very crowded at the start because of guided day hikes and guided walks. We encountered many "pink jacket brigades" - groups of 12 or more elderly japanese women (sometimes men too) dressed in pink and purple jackets, led by a tall white Kiwi speaking japanese. We pressed fast and hard on this part to get away from the crowds.

The trail is beautifully maintained, but it can be quite steep for a "popular" trail. We grunted our way up from Routeburn Flats to Routeburn Falls Hut where the rain turned to sleet. Routeburn Falls is at bushline, so we stepped under the shelter to put on warmer clothes for the alpine crossing and to eat some quick energy. I couldn't help nosing around the facility - it is enormous and very cushy with bunks that have mattresses, and giant kitchens and tables for hutters to use. Many people hike to this point and stay in the hut on the first day. We weren't even halfway to our destination.

We enjoyed the light that the heavy beech forest had denied us to this point. Snow dusted the shrubs and grasses as we picked our way over puddles - delighting in the solid earth beneath our feet in contrast to previous hikes on this trip. The route meandered across to a bench and then to the blast zone where DOC crews had blown out avalanches the day before. They were clearing the trail out from all of the snow and one of them told us we'd be at the saddle soon, but not to stop on the avalanche section. I felt like yelling, "It's Saruman!!!" on that section, but I didn't. Instead, I stopped just long enough to get a picture of Harris Lake and skidaddled on out. It continued to snow.

Finally at Harris Saddle, we jumped into the shelter for some lunch and a break from the wind. The British pair from our shuttle was there finishing their lunch and preparing to leave, obviously headed for Lake Mackenzie too. They were strong hikers (more on this in day 7). Unpacking our food sacks, I remember we needed a picture of Flat Stanley. After our lunch, we resumed the cold, wet track which seemed to contour in and out, but rarely down. The maps were nearly useless at 1:75,000 meters and so we had little idea of how far we had to go. Oh, and visibility was nil as we walked the clouds. The grasses that hung over the track were heavily laden with rain which emptied onto my pant leg, down inside my gaiters, into my boots. We were soaked from thighs down to our feet.

The trail eventualy descended into a bowl where the clouds let up just long enough for us to determine that the white building on the far shore of the lake was the hut. We switchbacked down to treeline and the world of moss until we came upon the hut. Gaiters and socks were hung under the porch roof and inside the kitchen you heard loud, happy, warm voices. A sign pointed into the wet trees and said, "tent sites". We proceeded to the cook shelter where to our joy, there was a roof, two tables, and a sink. After setting up the tarp and tent at one of the tent sites (there was one other tent), we cooked a lot of hot food and huddled under the shelter. Being cold, wet, but not rained on is better than being cold, wet, and rained on. A cold front was moving through then and the rain turned to snow. The warden came by to check our ticket and chat. He said there were supposed to be 10 campers, but only 4 including us showed up. He figured since it was 6 miles to the end of the Routeburn, the ones coming in decided to bag and hike back out. Our British friend (Pete) emerged from their tent to wash pots and say a shy "hello". I wrung the water out of my socks. We retired to the tent around 9:30 and changed to dry clothes. It was quite cold in our summer tent, but we slept soundly.

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