I had one day of recovery following the Kepler track, and before my final walk in the South Island, along the Routeburn track. Whereas Kepler rose above the Lakes and along long alpine ridges, the Routeburn follows raging rivers and over the rough rocks connecting the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks.
I had a fortunate 48 hour window of good weather for the Kepler, it was the opposite for Routeburn. The rain isn’t generally too strong in New Zealand (not at least in comparison to the monsoon downpours of Asia). However, it is fairly continuous and has the capacity to fall all day. Still, I had my £2 waterproof poncho from Malaysia and plenty of clean socks to keep me refreshed. I don’t personally see the point in big coats and waterproof trousers – you’re going to get wet regardless, and putting on soaked clothes in the morning is always far from ideal.
The first day involved following the Routeburn river and climbing the side of the Hollyford valley, to the high point of the Harris Saddle. The camera stayed snug in my rucksack for the whole walk. Head down I put one foot forward and lunged ahead through the terrain. Rain drops fell from the branches and trickled off the brim of my hat. The falling rain creates numerous small waterfalls across the valley that cascade down from every angle, and form refreshing water fountains frequently along the journey. Generally the walking trail is the path of least resistance for the water, and therefore the path becomes a shallow stream too.
The meandering path through the forest was perfectly peaceful until I left the protected treeline for the exposed rocks. Wind boomed down the valley and fiercely swept over the Harris Saddle. A path had been carved into the mountainside to follow the curve of the saddle, with a steep fall lurking below. A french woman had fatally fallen in that area the week before. It was a grave warning to look out for the weather forecasts before taking on the trail.
Once over the saddle, the path bumped up and down before dropping to Lake Mackenzie, with my overnight hut sat beside. Rather than choose the dehydrated “meals in a bag” option that most trampers choose, I decided on the picnic option. I had paté, brie and honey to go with my bagels, and some chocolate to enjoy along with an evening mug of whiskey. Luxury.
With the following morning being equally wet, it was a fast and furious race with myself to the finish, and I reached the end of the track by 9.40am. My reward at the end was a visit of The Milford Sound, one of the most famous sights in New Zealand. Even in the the thick cloud, it was a great exhibit of the Fiordland’s magnificence and scale. Mountains sharply rise from the Sound and rain tumbled down the rock-faces into the smooth waters below.
On my return to Queenstown, I was relieved to see blue skies for my day of doing nothing ahead of travelling north. Over the next 24 hours I indulged on rich food, including the New Zealand-famous and drool-worthy “Fergburger”, and bathed in the warm sun on the blustery shores of Lake Wakatipu beneath the mountains.
A quick flight, a bus, and a short hitch landed me in the Tongariro National Park on the North island. The Tongariro northern circuit is a famous trek around Mount Ngauruhoe, and it was to be my final New Zealand attraction before leaving the country.
The three live volcanoes that occupy the park form amazing views in an otherwise flat area of land. Far from the volcanoes, the surroundings are lush and green, with forest and rivers dominating the landscape. The closer you approach the volcanoes, the more fractured and rugged the ground becomes. Rocks that had burst from eruptions lay stranded in every direction; so jagged in their form their silhouettes appeared like crystals.
My first night was spent at the Mantepopo hut just 9km from the start of the walk. In a moment of coffee madness, I had purchased a cafetière whilst in New Zealand for some luxury coffee camping. So my cuban coffee beans in combination with some artesian ginger chocolate and a good book made the hours in the hut fly by. The local Maori park ranger gave a Maori chant and song to welcome us and thank the mountains for being our safe journey.
The next day would be much less forgiving. According to the forecast, winds at the highest point of the trek would climax in the afternoon averaging 100km/h, with gusts surpassing that figure. I chose to rise early and leave at 7am in an attempt to beat the bad weather. I wasn’t so lucky.
I reached the southern crater quickly, which was a flat surface of black and yellow sand that stretched for around one kilometre. The whole landscape was now eerily shrouded in thick cloud. The climb between the two mountains is called the Devil’s stairway, and lives up to its name with a rocky climb up the terrain and along various crater rims. The wind showed it’s strength on the stairway, and rain battered down. I clutched onto my hat fiercely, and I had to occasionally stop when my backpack rain-cover attempted to escape in a strong gust, and was only kept due to the elastic string attached to my bag.
I trudged up the ridge cautiously, in the knowledge that I was alone and not sure if anyone was nearby (in fact, I only saw two people the whole day). Green and blue glacial lakes were pooled nearby in craters, although I had little time to stop and stare. Upon passing the Devil’s stairway, the mist reduced slightly to reveal a dramatic valley of black, yellow and red-stained rocks. Waterfalls fell from the steep dark slopes, encouraged by the continuous fall of rain from above. On the way down the rocks evolved from the igneous black sculptures to regular boulders, and bush appeared again. After a long day, my hut finally appeared in the distance. Fresh socks and chocolate make all the aches disappear.
I was greeted by warming sunshine on the final morning, with a couple of hours walking remaining in the circuit. Mount Ngauruhoe (famous for portraying Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), revealed itself after days of cloud cover, and I chirpily strolled along to the finish.
I gathered my belongings and enjoyed a hot shower before setting off from Whakapapa. A bouncy Kiwi who I had met in one of the huts (and was walking in the opposite direction to myself around the circuit) was conveniently driving out of Whakapapa at the same time I was hitchhiking onwards, so he offered me a lift and I was on my way. It was the beginning of my journey to Auckland, and onto a new continent – South America.