Having successfully completed our winter walk of the Kepler Track we turn our mind to the Routeburn - Greenstone - Caples circuit. In the morning we check our excess gear into storage and walk back to town. Eric decides he wants a warmer sleeping bag so hires one for the five nights we will be on the track. Perhaps I should have realised that the cheap, twenty year old sleeping bag he had would not be adequate, having listened to Bill’s complaints a few years before.
The bus we are catching won’t be arriving until 11am, having left from Queenstown and being destined for Milford Sound. When it arrives the tourists pile into the souvenir shop and we have a little time to wait before we are on our way. The fog is thick around Lake Te Anau so the driver tells the tourists to imagine what it might look like. On the way in the driver talks about the plans for tunnels and monorails that would connect Queenstown and Milford Sound. It would represent a significant loss of revenue for the bus companies but I’d like to think that the company is genuine in its desire to see the World Heritage Area protected.
While there would be a small benefit in taking the traffic between Queenstown and Te Anau off the road, transferring it onto a link road connecting Queenstown and Milford Sound would be a disaster, moving from the mass transit of busses to unregulated private vehicle free for all. The major impact always seems to fall on the Greenstone-Caples area, the track that we will be walking after a two day diversion to take in as much of the Routeburn as we can manage.
There is always a sense of anticipation approaching the drop off point for a tramp, particularly when it is on a public bus. The driver invariably makes reference to the fact that he is dropping off adventurers who will be out in the woods for five days, ie, they're better than you. Getting off at the Divide avoids the nasty descent into Milford Sound that goes through precipitous hairpins and a discombobulating tunnel.
Having been dropped off, we ready ourselves for the walk to Key Summit, fifty minutes of stomach clenching ascent on switchbacks. There are numerous large trees that have fallen across the track which require some concerted threading through large branches before it’s possible to climb down onto the other side of the track. This is our major concern of the walk, that the treefall will delay our progress and make us late.
Despite the late start I’m determined that we do all the interesting side trips that are available, including the walk to Key Summit. This usually offers some of the best views available on the Routeburn track, and it is particularly impressive in winter. To be honest it is slightly disappointing this time, again because of the absence of snow. Being in the middle of the day the views are a little washed out. Nonetheless, a few views of the Humboldt Mountains never disappoint.
From Key Summit we wind down to the track and begin the descent to Howden Hut. It’s time for a late lunch. I use the time to hide the supplies that we will use on Greenstone-Caples. There is no need to bring them on the Routeburn section of the track as we will be returning here in two days. I opt for a spot 100 metres down the track that follows Pass Creek to the Hollyford Road. A large tree has a root system that provides decent overhead coverage for the supplies that I am prepared to risk. Having been cleaned out by possums in the past there is always an element of danger to leaving supplies exposed to the elements.
The first half of the trip to MacKenzie Hut is familiar. I did it six years ago with Alex when we walked through deep snow to Earland Falls. It was one of the highlights of the trip, I’ll never forget the sight of boulders coated in layers of ice and the look of wonder on Alex’s face. The views weren’t as impressive this time around, there was far less snow about. It made it easier to contemplate the following section of the track climbing up to the Orchard, a flat section that contained a number of trees that may have previously carried fruit.
We were pressed for time. We arrived at Earland Falls at 4pm and there was still at least two hours to go before we would reach MacKenzie Hut. There were several gnarly treefall on the track which made progress difficult. Having had the light fail on me the last time I had undertaken this walk fifteen years before, I was starting to feel some tension. On that occasion I had dilly-dallied taking photographs and video footage and I had started using my torch as soon as dusk arrived. The old fashioned torch failed after an hour and I was reduced to shuffling along the track. I’d stumbled on the private lodge and been rebuffed when requesting a torch. It had been humiliating. On this occasion the light was just starting to fail as we arrived at the private lodge. I used the extra time to collect dry wood while waiting for Eric to arrive.
I’m not sure that we bothered with a fire in the evening, it wasn’t particularly cold and there wasn’t any prepared firewood. We had the massive McKenzie Hut complex to ourselves and we opted to play scrabble. The following day was cloudy. In the early morning I chopped wood in preparation for a fire in the evening. The key was to split the wood as finely as possible in order to maximise the surface area exposed to the air, with the aim for it to dry. It would have helped had it been a sunny day.
It was immensely pleasurable setting off from McKenzie Hut. This is a section I’d only done once before in 1999 on my rookie trip. Even on this leg I’d made numerous errors, leaving the hut late, getting lost at Harris Saddle, being offered assistance by preppy foreigners as I made my way to Routeburn Falls Hut. I was reliving some of my most embarrassing moments, attempting to undo them.
It’s a fair old climb up to get above McKenzie Hut. The track zig zags ruggedly and for the first time the presence of snow was having an impact. The track is cut into the underside of a series of bluffs and steep tussock slopes. Under snow there would be no stopping any slip. With the complete absence of sunlight the snow was hard. Conditions were marginal. I’d carried snow shoes for a week without getting near to using them. This was as good, or rather as bad as it was going to get.
The section we used them for was no more than twenty metres across, but for that period we at least felt safer. Once we’d cleared this section we were on the highway, a well graded, wide, hard packed track. We were below the snow-line which was surprising and disappointing. The walk to Harris Saddle took no more than two hours. The dark and foreboding conditions made the place even more magical.
I did have intentions of climbing Conical Hill but one look at the zig zag under snow was enough to convince me that it might be too challenging. True, we did have the snow shoes but it offered to high a degree of risk on what was a low risk trip. Eric was already cavilling about the distance and the time and he offered to stay put at the shelter while I did the five minute stroll to have a look at the icy majesty of Lake Harris. I thought of the trip six years before when Alex and I had floundered in the snow wishing we had snow shoes and going nowhere. If anything this trip was a response to that. If it was impossible to reach Harris Saddle from the Routeburn side then we would approach from the Hollyford. Now it would have been a very straightforward proposition to walk up from Routeburn Falls Hut. It fact the descent into the valley seemed completely devoid of snow, barren and brown. These were not the memories I had of a vast, white blanket suffusing everything in the area.
The lake had an eggshell thin layer of ice across its girth which would obviously not hold the weight of a skier. It was sad to see, the great unravelling that is global warming, denuding some of the most remote areas of their frozen beauty. I didn’t have long to stay, enough time for a few photos before returning to the shelter. As we made our way down we encountered our friend Svenja.
Svenja had taken the trip to Milford Sound the evening before and was dropped off at the Divide to make her way to Howden Hut. She’d essentially caught us up in half a day. Her plan from here was to continue down the valley. I recommended the Routeburn Falls as the more attractive hut, but she was making such good time that is more likely that she stayed at Routeburn Flats. After this she was going to walk out to Kinloch and pick up the Greenstone Caples track. Again, it was an ambitious and driven program. Svenja again offered to take some photos for us.
Again the return trip took less than two hours and the crossing of the twenty metre section of snow looked far less threatening in the afternoon on a descent and after the softening effect of a moderately warm day. Even so, the angle of descent on some of the slopes required care and I’d have hated to have considered the outcome had Eric taken a fall.
Much had changed since we’d set out in the morning. Three more parties had joined the fray including a bevy of French teenage girls who added much to the ambience. They chose to sleep in our area, a decision I took pity on them for because even I resorted to earplugs in the evening. I set out to keep the fire started and going but it never really managed to get up its own tempo and by 7.30 I’d given up on burning fuel for the sake of it.
Our sojourn to Lake MacKenzie was at an end. We would be returning to Lake Howden Hut and then picking up the Greenstone Track and walking to MacKellar Hut. The soft early morning light made for some memorable images before we left. I was particularly impressed by the fresh forest green paint job of the Warden’s hut with its red mailbox reading “MacKenzie Hut 889m”. It’s certainly an attractive place to visit and a final walk to the edge of the lake was in order. The day was again overcast but no more threatening than that. We would be walking for another three days, some of it through areas exposed to snowfall. It was time to leave the French teenagers behind.
As it turned out we were accompanied on the walk out by two French dudes who’d also made the walk in. I let them go at around Earland Falls. Eric was dragging the chain. I had to wait a long time for him to arrive at Howden Hut and I was on the verge of returning down the track to see where he was. As it turned out he was suffering from Giardia, a bug I’d read much about but never suffered from. At the time I was at a loss as to where he would have picked this up, but upon review it was most likely to have been when he drank water from the dripping roof gutter at the first shelter on the Kepler Track. I should have stopped him. Still, this is just a guess and realistically it could have been picked up at any point along the track.
After lunch we set off for MacKellar Hut. It’s a relatively short track, no more than two or three hours. Treefall made it slightly more difficult as there were some long diversions required to avoid the fallen beech trees. In fact some of the climbs required real dexterity and care.
We arrived at the hut to discover a group of lawyers, Neville, John and Leanne. My first impression was that the new veranda and extra sleeping areas had greatly improved the hut. The other advantage of an in residence group was that they had the fire going and pretty much took care of it for the duration of our stay. In the evening we discussed Australian politics and local crime. Eric and I enjoyed at game of scrabble which seemed quite a convivial way to savour the mellow ambience of hut time.
I love the walk down the Greenstone Valley, its open spaces, the tussock, the forest, the river and the snow capped mountains come together with the most picturesque symmetry. The walk itself is so straightforward that it’s tempting to stray off the standard track and come out of the forest to walk on the river flats. The main problem with this is the river as it swings languidly from bank to bank, requiring either fording or steep climbs into the forest. Eventually I’m forced to do the latter until I stumble across firstly an old track and then the current track. The problem with all this exploration is that I lose Eric and am not sure whether he’s behind me or ahead of me. This involves waiting at a long section of scree but eventually I push on and discover him somewhere ahead.
It’s a long walk, one of the longer of the trip, taking seven hours and passing tempting private lodges and track turnoffs. The final section of the day is the most frustrating of all, climbing high above the tussock flats and following the long curve of the mountain as it turns towards the Caples. The last effort of the day involves dropping down to the bridge across the iridescent pools of a gorge. From the bridge a steep clamber onto the plateau on which Greenstone Hut is perched is the last thing required after the draining effort of completing the walk.
It’s five thirty by the time I arrive and I immediately get to chopping wood and stoking the fire. There is coal available and we also use this get to a good blaze going. The scrabble board is opened for a minimalist exercise in word power.
An early start is required for what will be a long day. A light frost adds a slight chill to the morning. It takes two hours to reach the turn off, attractive walking country involving frequent interludes by the turquoise pools of the river. I estimate that the walk will take eight hours, which I divide into four two hour blocks. The next leg is to the Mid Caples Hut. It’s one of my favourite walks in New Zealand, involving long sections threading through the scrub on the undulating flats, all the while looking up at the Ailsa Mountains at the head of the valley.
It takes us two and half hours to reach Mid Caples Hut which makes for a fine lunch spot. I have fond memories of Mid Caples, having stayed here many years ago with a hunting family who were combing the surrounding mountains. It would be tempting to stay at this lovely location but it would make for a long walk the following day and it is still early afternoon.
Two hours after leaving Mid Caples we encounter Svenja who had done the loop from the Routeburn, stayed at a homestead at Kinloch and made her way onto the Caples track. She’d stayed that night at Upper Caples and was now making her way back to Kinloch to exit via Queenstown. It was a convoluted program. We have a chat and then go our separate ways. It will be the last time that we see her. She’s been a welcome companion throughout. I guess she went home after visiting the Yoga retreat in India.
The final leg was an effort, the track always gaining altitude and the hut at the end of the valley. It was edging towards darkness when the dark mass of the hut came into view and I peeled off the track and dropped into the broad clearing. Again, this hut is occupied by a long term stayer, Paul, who has been hunting in the mountains, though not necessarily successfully or with any sustained intensity. He seemed to be on holidays. He was also a very funny guy, in an dry, understated way. The hut itself hadn’t been updated at all and was still the gloomy, poorly lit construction it had always been. This was surprising as the track section between Upper Caples and the alpine tarns had just been newly cut, taking it out of the boulder creek bed and putting into the forest.
In order to reach the Divide in time for the afternoon bus we would need to leave early in the morning. We are up before daylight, cooking by candle, absorbing the quiet stillness of this secluded valley. I leave behind some backcountry hut food, which is hopefully of use to Paul. The new track is a raw scar, freshly ripped through the forest. It’s a very quick walk. In time moss will grow over the exposed rock and the track will bed down but for the early user it’s an eyesore. But as far as utility goes it calves an hour off the walking time and eliminates most of the effort. Still, I’m deeply suspicious of improvements made in this area, such is the misplaced drive to create a direct link between Queenstown and Milford Sound.
I’m prepared for the absence of snow at the top. Six years before this had been a magical part of the trip as the snow was several feet deep and when exiting the tarns we had to plunge waist deep into the built up ice. The trip off the plateau is also a lot quicker than it had been, a broad zig-zag easing into the Greenstone Valley. Within forty minutes we are back at the track sign. It claims that it’s a 4-7 hours walk to the Upper Caples Hut. We’ve probably taken three without any particular emphasis on speed.
By lunch-time we’re at Howden Hut. I retrieve the snow shoes I have left here and add them to my pack. We don’t have so much time or energy that we go via Key Summit. We encounter DOC workers who are attending to windfall and other issues. I climb over one of these trees and am waiting for Eric to step down when he takes his eye off what he’s doing and falls backwards off the tree and over the cliff. As I watch he lands on some lower branches and comes out of it with some bad scratches but no more. It happened before my eyes and I was powerless to stop it.
It’s a bracing lesson. You can do all the planning you want, choose the safest possible tracks around and ensure that the party members aren’t beyond their skill set, but you can’t cover for every contingency. I’ve got away with it this time and been very lucky, but it shakes me up and gives me pause to reconsider the track guiding business.
From the Divide we catch the tourist bus back to Te Anau, feeling that pleasant sense of leonine superiority to the house cat tourists back from their harbour cruise. In Te Anau we drop off the sleeping bag at the Camping shop and walk to the Lakefront. We return to the pub for dinner and finally call it quits at The Lakefront. In the morning we catch the bus to Dunedin, visiting the Museum and Art Gallery. We see a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, The Duke, for which I’d bought the tickets months ago. I frame it as a surprise, with us arriving at the venue just as the performance is about to start. Eric seems to enjoy a bit of topsy-turvy to end the trip.