New Zealand: The Routeburn-Caples

What can I do? Keep going. Squeezing out as much adventure as possible. After a day of rest at Lowburn Harbour I have a day in hand to prepare for the next Great Walk. First up, Pak’N’Save. The supermarket equivalent of the final level of Ikea. Thinking I’ll do a big shop, I take a trolley. No idea why. I never do a big shop. I don’t today either. I could have easily got by with just a basket. This would have ended better for me if I did. I wheel the trolley back to the stationary trolley park. I turn around and instead of walking over the concrete step, I try to walk through it. The shockwave of pain climbs to my stomach, squeezing the contents and I swallow down bile. The outer curve of my big toe nail is concave, with a jagged edge. There is blood everywhere. I really really hope I haven’t broken anything more than the nail. I pull myself into the back of the van, mop up the blood and finally use one of the plasters in the first aid kit I’ve been carrying for months. My right foot has been a mess for some time, so all I’ve done is make it worse. A lucky escape. I carry on with my list of chores. I pick up spare boot laces. I make a booking for a kayak tour on Doubtful Sound once I’ve completed the South Island Great Walks. I visit the Department of Conservation office to check in and collect my ticket for the Routeburn Track.

The weather, I am informed, is looking pretty tasty. High winds, heavy rain and the freezing level dropping to 1000 meters. I start to wonder if perhaps my luck everywhere else is paid for by my lack of good fortune with the weather. The woman behind the counter doesn’t say “don’t go”, but she says be prepared. Be prepared to turn back. Be prepared to wait another day once you get to the first hut. This makes it sounds as though I’ll be alright. Get to first hut, see what the warden says. Go from there. I hadn’t considered the possibility I might not be able to complete all the Great Walks after I’d secured bookings and set off on this completely arbitrary but quite fun quest. I don’t really have the time to reschedule if I get a cancellation. I need to get the Routeburn done now. Next week I’m walking the Milford Track and then I’m sort of finished. I will at least try. I go back to Glenorchy. Past the sign that says ’the road to Paradise’ which it is. The tiny settlement of Paradise is at the road’s end. And the mountains all around Glenorchy make it look like paradise too, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am. I pack the tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, sleeping bag liner, dry clothes, gas, stove, and two days extra food. I dig out the pair of gloves I’ve had with me for almost a year but have never used. I can’t find my Buff, which is fine because I haven’t really used it either but it would be nice to have. I’ve lost that somewhere. Maybe it’s blown out of the van on a windy day. Maybe I left it on a drying rack in one of the huts along the Paparoa Track. The last time I remember seeing it. The van isn’t big enough to believe it’s hiding somewhere. I hope again for the least bad conditions. If nothing else this will be an authentic experience. A southern storm in summer. You can’t pick your weather. Last week Iain and I got lucky on the Gillespie Pass. This week will be different. Fingers crossed it passes quickly. I hope I have enough, quality gear. I hope I know when to say no, bad idea.

The rain arrives before I wake. Thick mist washes over the van. Droplets patter on the roof. I don’t have to go straight away but I know the weather is only going to get worse. The rain isn’t as bad as it sounds. Never is. I dress in full waterproofs for breakfast. No point in getting wet if I don’t need to. I sit in the kitchen shelter at Mrs Woolly’s Camp Ground. Hood up, hat on, coffee in hand and watch the water fall. Rain won’t be the issue. Snow and wind on the tops will be what stops me. Stop waiting. The sooner I start walking, the sooner I can claim drying space, the more time things will have to dry. I cross the Rees, then the Dart, passing familiar territory. Then I turn off. The road ends at the Routeburn Shelter. I put my boots on in the drivers seat. I decide I don’t need gaiters and waterproof trousers. One will be enough, I leave the gaiters behind. I haul everything in to the glass walled shelter. The cover goes on the pack and I hope everything inside stays dry. The  crystal clear Route Burn is already a frothing brown torrent. A relentless downhill surge of brown water. Debris is carried along on the surface current. The air is thick with the roar of water. The forest is made of wax, green leaves glistening. Rain drops off everything. Tiny branches ping back after releasing the next droplet to the ground below. I’m amazed the track itself isn’t yet a stream. Dry feet might be asking for too much. Most of the streams are bridged. This is a Great Walk after all. But not all streams. 

A crashing waterfall pounds the track. Beautiful in full flow, soaking me as I pass. Thin white threads are thick, and everywhere. Coming out in the rain is another, very different, privilege. To see the forces that carved these ridges, mountains, valley, in action. Mountains loom like ghosts shrouded in cloud, veiled in rain. I reach the junction for Routeburn Flats Hut. People are coming down hill, abandoning their journey. A man feeds me chocolate, emptying weight. “It’s a steep climb,” he says, “you’ll need the energy.” The ascent is more gentle than what I’ve become accustomed to over the last few weeks. The well graded track is a super highway and I am almost building speed as I climb. My level of experience reaching above the standard of track beneath my feet, even with the weight of 6 days on my back. I burst in to the Routeburn Falls Hut. There are already a handful of people here. There’s plenty of room for me to get my damp clothes out to dry. No water in the sleeping bag, or anywhere inside my pack. Result. The weather outside rages on. Thunder, hail, lightening, gales. Sleet floats off the hut roof. Thunder rumbles through the floor boards. The hut is huge. Too big to warm with the one fire. A few more people come in. I wonder if we’ll be full or if others have cancelled. I could use the warmth of more bodies squeezing in. Tomorrow threatens further winter conditions. I take a seat with Johno, forming the group of solitary walkers. Later, Amy joins us. We share stories of tracks covered, huts we want to stay in, what we’re carrying. Johno pours a shot of whiskey in to my mug. I don’t remember why I decided to leave my hip flask at home. I don’t see the point in buying a new one now. We quieten down to listen to Hut Warden John give his talk. Don’t set fire to the hut, clean up after yourselves. He tells us about the age range of people he sees. Couples in their 80s, a woman so heavily pregnant he waited until she’d crossed the saddle before breathing out. If she gave birth now, she was in someone else’s jurisdiction. Hut Warden John moves on to the track, he tells us what to expect up in the Harris Basin. “ There are plenty of streams up there, don’t carry more than a cup of water with you. Bringing water into Fiordland is madness.”

Snow all night. The fire is burning low. There’s no coal in the scuttle. The other man up and about see’s what I’m up to. “There’s some outside.” he says. We both look at each other. I’m thinking, well you were up first how about you go outside and get it? How much do we care about other people? Not enough to get cold and wet before we have to. After his coffee he pulls on his rain coat and fills the coal scuttle. The fire brightens up. The kitchen area fills with a sense of optimism. Last night’s hut talk filled us with confidence. The good mood is short lived. Hut Warden John comes in and tells us the pass is closed. There’s close to 30cm of snow on the Harris Saddle. We’re given our options. We can turn back, get a refund on the unused portion of our booking. Or we can wait, see if enough cancellations come through for the night in order for us to stay and see what change tomorrow brings. I ask to stay, I don’t want to give up, not if there’s still a chance of getting across. I want to complete another Great Walk. I load up for a walk above the Routeburn Falls. Hut Warden John comes back to tell me I’m good for one more night. “Plenty of worse places to be stuck,” he says. “We’ve got a full coal shed, and those views aren’t so bad. What else could you ask for?” “Got any beer in the fridge?” I ask.  “No,” he laughs, “but I might have some scones later.” Outside, Kea sit on the chimney, warming their lizard feet. They push snow off the roof. I don’t know if they do this deliberately to catch unsuspecting passers by or if they’re just clearing room for themselves. People are pleased to see them. When all your gear is inside and you don’t have to worry about losing anything.

The Harris Basin is a winter wonderland in mid-summer. Everything is covered in a meringue crust of crunchy snow. I’ve seen more snow in New Zealand’s summer than I would in a UK winter. Flakes still fall. Lat week was 30 degrees. Last night, in the wind, the claim is of minus 12. Creeks bubble beside the snow. Tiny rumbles of avalanche in miniature fall under the pressure of their own weight. The snow deepens as I climb. White clumps stick to my boots, melting through into my socks. Those gaiters might have made a difference after all. I meet Amy near the ‘do not pass’ posts. I thought she was still somewhere around the hut. There are a pair of footprints in the snow beyond the posts. We’ve not seen Johno since he left. Of course he’s gone up to the saddle. Naughty boy. Coming down he catches up and goes past. We catch him again when it looks like he’s getting a dressing down from another Department of Conservation worker. Turns out he’s just letting her know his footprints come back so they don’t need to panic. We get back to the hut for the afternoon. Johno heads down, his plan only ever to come up for the day. Amy steals a deck of cards from a family out on a walk and teaches me Spit, which I’m sure I’ve played before. It’s too fast and I don’t like it and I love it.

New arrivals fill in, families with small children. They’re brave. The next solitary walker, Renée, joins us. She also lets us know just how well you can eat on a two night, three day trip. Amy and I justify our choices with weight. Tents, stoves, gas. There are camping nights ahead. Renée’s pack still weighs more than both of ours. The 2kg of wine probably don’t help but at least she’s willing to share. She’s got a cool bag with meat and veg, probably fresh eggs too. I’m not jealous, you’re jealous. Our packs weigh almost the same and I’m going to be out for almost twice as long. The key difference, I’m out to survive. Renée’s planning to thrive. Hut Warden John comes in and shouts ‘CHRIS’. A demand, not a question. I don’t remember doing anything wrong. “Hello?”. He brings me a plate of scones. Unbelievable. Whatever it is I’m doing it appears to be working. Whiskey last night, wine, and now a plate of scones. I share them out with those of us who took the punt on an extra night. Still warm from the oven. The hut fills again, even with those of us who took cancellations. Routeburn Falls Hut is the biggest I’ve stayed in for a while. The bunks are split into divisions of four like a sleeper train, which makes for greater privacy and better protection from the noise of one another. Boots line the fire. Condensation runs down the windows. Outside the rain has begun to melt the snow. Rain might be good for our chances. Children and adults alike leave the door open. The hut feels more crowded. Young and old voices shout ‘last card’, ’hey that’s cheating’. Another family squeeze on the table. They bring cards and entertainment so I’m happy to give up Renee and Amy’s seats for a game of Cheat. The valley clears briefly, then fills again. The weather, unstoppable and unpredictable.

Amy, Reneé and I talk more. Mostly about trails walked. Renée is working her way through the Great Walks. Her ambitions are different to mine, she’s eating well on all of them. “On the Kepler my pack weighed almost 30kgs,” she says. Amy and I are shook. “When I got to the top of the hill I cried.” Nobody is surprised. Amy asks us what the Kepler is like. “The Kea are the worst,” Renée claims. I reckon they’re not so bad, you just keep your pack on your back and you’re alright. Renée elaborates. “I went up to the summit of Mount Luxmore, I left my pack at the sign.” I jump in, ‘You don’t leave your pack, we got told by the warden there not to leave our packs.” Renée might be the reason why. “We’re up at the summit, this other girl I went up with goes back, she thinks she left her gloves out. I turn down after and as I’m coming down I see the Kea fly in. Then I hear the girl scream. I see the Kea flying off with something. Must be her gloves. I get down there and she’s saying ‘I’m so sorry there was nothing I can do.’ The Kea had pulled my iPod out of the side pocket and flown off with it.” Hard not to laugh. A Kea stole my iPod trumps a Weka poked holes in my tent. Hut Warden John joins us for a bit, updating our intentions. I ask him what causes the track closure. The snow didn’t seem so bad. John explains to me the track isn’t closed because of the snow, or the wind but because of the avalanche risk. There’s enough white stuff up there for it to all come down in one go. Tomorrow, the avalanche experts are going to make a full assessment. In his hut talk for that evening John addresses his prediction. “This morning I said there’s a 50/50 chance. Now I think it’s more like 25/75.” Perhaps we’ve been too hopeful.

Thunder rumbles through the bunks. No lightening accompanying the snores. Children don’t snore, but they do leave doors open and shine torches in your face. In the morning somebody, for some reason has set an alarm. Someone else cries out. A sleep talker that isn’t me. In the kitchen bacon sizzles, the hut smells delightful. There is an anxious wait for Hut Warden John’s update. He said 8:30-9:00. Both pass and so far all we know is the weather is probably going to be weather. Go, don’t go. Mackenzie Hut is full so if I can get over I’ll have to camp, or hope for a cancellation. Worst case scenario is I push through to Greenstone Saddle. Catch up with my lost day. The even worse case scenario is going down, driving to the Greenstone Carpark and walking the whole of the Greenstone-Caples circuit instead. I stop waiting and start packing. It doesn’t matter either way. I either go over or I go down. As I pack, I check with anyone who passes close enough. “Has he said anything yet?”  The visibility is poor. The avalanche experts are having to wait until they can see before they make a decision. Packed, I leave my bag outside and sit in the warmth, willing my socks to dry. John marches through the hut to the weather board and begins addressing the small group outside. His voice carries for the rest of us to know this is important. We flood the deck to hear him say “if you are going over please take care, there is still a lot of snow on the track.” They’ve opened up. We can go. All of us share high-fives, fist bumps, there are air punches. We. Are. Going. Over. I waterproof up. Boot up and I’m ready. John catches me after someone suggests I might be the first to go. “When you get up there, just move the track closed sign a couple of meters of the track will you?” I would be delighted to. I’m off. A couple of groups are ahead of me but I pass them quickly. I’ve had an extra day’s rest. My pack is a day lighter than it should be. I’m running on excitement. I am going to finish the Routeburn! The Harris Basin has a lot less snow in it. I retrace yesterday’s steps. Gleefully move the sign and continue up to the Harris Saddle. The snow is still thick up here. I ride past the black waters of Lake Harris. I disappear into the clouds. I stop in at the shelter. clearing the snow from the door to find it opens inwards. Ah well, that should make it easier for everyone else. I don’t stop for long. 

I burn through the clouds, on to the wall of the Hollyford Valley. I drop below the snow line. I’m excited to see everyone coming the other way, pleased for them as I am for me. They’re happy to see me too. “How is it up there?” “Beautiful, enjoy!” “You too.” I pass only people going the other way. I’m ahead of the pack but they’re not far behind. The views come and go through scratch card skies. I break up over the ridge above Lake Mackenzie and almost lose my jaw. A wall of waterfalls plunge straight down into the bush. Below the trees a green lake spreads in the valley. At one end sits Mackenzie Hut. I’ve had my two nights, I’d have to pay to stay another night. I could camp here but I could just as easily push on. Make up for lost time. In a way I’m nearly there but I’m also a little over half way. The track drops through Goblin Forest. I eat the descent whole. Popping out on the shore of the lake. Mackenzie Hut sits at  a slightly higher altitude than Routeburn Falls Hut, which doesn’t make sense seeing how far I’ve dropped. The climb to the Harris Saddle is less obvious. There’s a reason these tracks are recommended in a certain direction. I lunch inside, I hear Amy’s voice and then Renée outside. They can’t have been far behind me. I say hello, wave goodbye. This time, on this trip, I’m the gnarliest. Going further, going harder. Up for still more. More people are coming in from the Divide. I stop briefly to inform the new Hut Warden of my intentions. He tells me I have enough light left to make Greenstone Saddle. The weather is fair. If things stay like this I’ll camp there. I fly through the bush. I wash, unintentionally in the spray of Earland Falls exploding over the track. I emerge at the remains of the Howden Hut site. I heard stories on the Rakiura about the heavy weather here last February. A land slip brought the track through the hut. Now the building is gone completely. I reach the sign post. One direction points to the end of the Routeburn, the other points to the Greenstone/Caples. Another tick on my pointless list. On to the next one. The sign says I have 20 minutes to the campsite. I pass one other person who appears to be carrying nothing at all. Maybe they’re camping too. I pass the toilet, find the flat ground, find no other tents. I put up my own. I eat in the dry. The sandflies don’t take long to realise there’s a substantial meal in the vicinity. I rapidly wrap up and crawl inside my tent. Someone comes to investigate. I heard a kea in the distance earlier and I’m nervous. I hope the valley floor is too far down. I spot the black twig legs of a robin and sigh with relief. At least I hope for no trouble from a robin.

I wake to the sound of drizzle on the tent. I was anticipating taking it down wet, so I might as well get on with it. Greenstone Saddle is a basic campsite. No shelter. No tap. Water from the stream. I stick to my wild camping routine of skipping coffee. Avoid the hassle of cleaning up. I start walking towards the Mckellar Saddle at 7:30am. Iain would be proud. The track remains high quality, steady climbing back up to almost 1000 meters. At the top of the McKellar Saddle I meet Chris, who appears to be drifting without purpose through the Southern Alps. His intention for the day is to complete the Routeburn. A massive 35km day. What a beast. The weather is favourable, he’s confident. I wish him luck. I begin my descent into the Caples Valley. The mountains at the far end are 2km tall monsters. Snow remains in the deep crevices. I drop back in to the beech forest. Tumbling down along he greens. Rushing towards the Caples Stream. Waterfalls rumble down the valley like trains. The river runs like liquid green glass. I meet a lot of people coming out of the private Upper Caples Hut. They’re going the wrong way. I need people to be at Mid Caples Hut, walking out tomorrow so I can hitch a lift back to the Routeburn Shelter. The forecast for tomorrow is a lot of rain and my backup exit strategy is almost 40km on foot. I can break it up with a night at Kinloch in the tent if I have to. I come across Hut Warden Alex clearing out the drainage channels. He thinks most people will come up the Caples and down the Greenstone because the Mackellar Saddle is easier from this side. Typical of me to do things the hard way. Alex says “if you want a good swimming hole, go over the bridge then you’re over the gorge, through the regen and you’ll see an unmaintained track. Down there there’s a bench. You’ll find it, follow your nose.” This is becoming the kind of high value information I’m interested in. After four days without a wash I’m generating a serious stink. I leave the forest, entering the meadow flats. The sun is warm now. I’ve neglected to put on sunscreen because I started out in full waterproofs. Expecting the worst. From the numbers on the trapline markers I work out I have about the height of a mountain left to walk. I hope I don’t see each marker. Worse is seeing the hut in the distance. It won’t be as far as I think. I climb the next ridge, expecting to find the hut, to see it still in the distance. I’ve got to go up another ridge. Then I’m in. The only on in Mid Caples Hut. I dry out the tent. Hang out my clothes. Then I cross the bridge over the thundering gorge, spot the narrow track leading to a bench. I climb down on to the rocks, watch the river spit out of the narrow gorge and think, can I do this? Yes. I can. The current is fast, the water is deep but not for long. I dive beneath the surface, flowing downstream. I make a few strokes before I stand up. I am so tired I could fall asleep but the afternoon is already late. If I nap now I might not wake up or I might not sleep later. There’s always a risk I might not sleep later anyway but I’m clean-ish and still have the place to myself. I watch what looks like rain cover the head of the Caples valley. High white clouds dance across the blue sky over Mid-Caples Hut.

I hear the tell tale signs of another person. Footsteps on the deck. A woman comes in and says hello through the door before disappearing into the other bunk room. I hope she’s walking out to the carpark and not on her way up the valley. I get up to make dinner. Ania comes out, she’s been up in alpine zone checking predator numbers. Her radio pings, someone says they’re coming down. “I’ll put the pot on,” Ania responds. Kirsty comes through shortly after. “Have you got the tea?” she asks Ania. “No, I thought you had the tea?” “Maybe we’ve run out of tea.” As an English cliché I’m always carrying more than enough tea. “You can have some of my tea,” I offer. In return they offer me a ride out in the morning because of course something else has worked out for me. We talk about conservations practises, about invasive and introduced species. There’s a theory grass is an introduced species to New Zealand. Earthworms too, like the normal garden variety not the mega big time what is this doing up here in the mountain worms which are apparently native, are introduced. Nobody knows how tussock seeds. They know it seeds and when it does it goes big. I start to think I don’t even know what tussock is. I find out there’s one more condition to my lift out. They’re leaving the hut at 7am. I tell them, you say where and when, You point the direction we’re going and I’ll be there. I leave most of my belongings in the main room.

In the morning I drag my sleeping bag out of the bedroom, leaving the other two guests to sleep. I put water on for oats and coffee while I quietly pack away. Ania fires up the liquid fuel stove which sounds like a rocket taking off. Perhaps I didn’t need to so much about waking up the others. “There’s nothing subtle about that stove,” I tell Ania. I pull on my waterproofs and fall in line. Ania and Kirsty stop shortly after we leave to take theirs off. “I’m getting just as wet from the inside” said Kirsty. They’re both hill fit. Being out here half the time is their job. I’m worried I’m not going to keep up, but the pressure gets my legs moving faster. The race environment is good for me. I push harder. It isn’t harder. I find I’m feeling surprisingly fresh. We talk about the situation at home with Brexit and Covid, like I have any idea what things are like. I ask them about the controversial poison 1080. An acceptable evil, because for the most part, it works. Kirsty tells me about one of her friends, who always has at least two tea bags in his first aid kit. His motto, “If you can’t fix it with tea, you’re fucked.” A fast pace and good conversation has us in the car park at 9am. I am not allowed to say I was escorted off conservation land by government officials. Technically they’re on duty and this isn’t allowed. So I definitely don’t write it down and put it on the internet. The road disappears and I’m back at the van. I load up, start the engine and head down the road. I don’t go far before I see a familiar shape. A man, hearing the van, turns and puts his thumb out. Chris made it. He’s heading up the Dart Valley next. Can I take him closer? Sure I can. He’s done Te Araroa. His advice, a good waterproof and a good tent. I’m not sure I have either. I go as far as the first ford on Paradise Road. I’m not confident I’ll get across and I’m in no mood to get stuck. I shake his hand and wish him luck, again. We’ve both had our share this week. I go back to Glenorchy. I decide I’ll stop for the night. I don’t need to rush out. Returning for the fourth time, seeing another new face at the reception of Camp Glenorchy I’m surprised to get a returning guest discount. That would have helped the other two times I came back. I’m warned there’s a big group. I find they’re having a silent disco. That’s fine, the good thing about a silent disco is everyone’s wearing headphones. I don’t hear a thing. The forecast rain never reaches me. I regret not learning from Chris and going again. Earnslaw Burn arrived late on my to-do list and today would have been my best chance of getting up there. My bag was already packed, I had a spare day of food. My regrets are always going to be the things I don’t do. 

2 responses to “New Zealand: The Routeburn-Caples

  1. Even in the middle of summer you just don’t know what you’re gonna get on the routeburn! My summer hike a few years back was a deluge! Still beautiful though! Enjoyed seeing your pics with the snow!

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