“Do we want smooth peanut butter or chunky?”
“Ooh… What about chocolate peanut butter!”
We were at Queenstown’s supermarket shopping for groceries in preparation for our 3-day tramp on the Routeburn Track. I traipsed the aisles faced with the task of choosing from brands I didn’t recognize trying to pick out food that would be tasty, nutritious, not too heavy, within our budget and not require cooking – this was actually fun for me. My husband just rolled his eyes at my enthusiasm. (Future supermarket duties would be democratically divided into me keeping us well fed and him ensuring we never ran out of locally brewed craft beer.) Exhausted by the day’s track preparations – collecting tickets, confirming our shuttle to the start of the track, shopping for groceries and other miscellaneous things we hadn’t thought about before, and packing and repacking our backpacks – we slept through most of the bus journey to the Divide the next morning. The Routeburn Track is not a loop – most people start the track at Glenorchy, but “insider” tips from various forums had us starting at the other end. As we got closer to the start of the track, we couldn’t help getting excited – the world around us had changed to an emerald green – we were now in Fiordland National Park, where rainfall is measured in metres, and waterfalls drop from mountains in every direction you look.
The track started off uphill – we were soon surrounded by beech forest, and gaps in the foliage offered glimpses of lofty mountain peaks. We walked awkwardly at first – adjusting our backpack straps and the weight, tightening our shoelaces, finding a temporary protective solution for my camera against the light drizzle. (This is where the Indian habit of always having plastic bags at hand came into good use). The rain had picked up and since my backpack didn’t have a protective liner, I swaddled myself, pack and all, with my rainproof poncho. Amrut was laughing too hard to concentrate on the path, so I invited him to walk in front. Soon our footsteps fell into a steady rhythm. After all the planning and preparing, it was nice to just be here, surrounded by the gentle sounds of the forest with raindrops dripping down from the leaves, birds chirping around us and babbling brooks crossing our path. Suddenly, I felt very, very glad we had come.
We were soon at Lake Howden Hut, one of the many DoC huts along the track and our lunch spot for the day. I gingerly lowered my backpack to the ground and sank down gratefully into the grass. This was the point where we’d decided that if my injured shoulder became too painful, we’d turn back. But we both knew that neither of us was going to turn back now. As if to celebrate with us, the sun came out of hiding and lit up the landscape.
Lunch was a picnic (the best part about these hikes is that all lunches here are picnics) – steak and lamb pies from the bakery in Queenstown, and chocolate-and-peanut bars to keep up our energy levels (or so we told ourselves). After lunch, we plunged deeper into the forest, crossing bridges over streams and looking up as the wind pushed waterfalls upwards. We clambered over boulders to find ourselves at the base of Earland Falls, and I found myself craning my neck to look up, up, up to the top of the falls.
After a short break to admire this phenomenon of nature, we walked on and came across a sign that said “No Camping Allowed Here”. We were aware that camping is only permitted at designated spots, but hadn’t come across any admonishments until then. And then as we walked ahead, the reason for the sign became clear. For the forest had opened up before us and we were facing a sunlit meadow called the “Orchard” looking out to mountains in all directions. I could see why someone might want to stop here and pitch a tent. A few steps ahead lay gorgeous views of the Hollyford River snaking its way through the Hollyford Valley.
But the clouds were closing in and it had started to rain again. I put my camera inside my backpack, and we trudged with our heads down making our way quickly towards Lake Mackenzie Hut – our rest stop for the night. We were soon descending and suddenly I stopped and caught my breath. Before me, standing in a field of wildflowers was a beautiful lodge. I could see comfortable couches through the front facade, which was almost entirely made of glass. But, surely, this couldn’t be our “hut”? I knew it wasn’t – this was the lodge used for the guided trampers, who don’t carry their own bags, and are greeted with warm clothes and hot chocolate when they arrive followed by a three-course meal, and can sleep in a queen bed if they wish to. But it also costs $1400-2000 and you generally any lose bragging rights. But right then, cold and wet and hungry as I was, it was difficult to feel very superior.
We didn’t have to walk very far to reach Lake Mackenzie Hut, and this time it was the location that took my breath away. Just a few steps away, Lake Mackenzie beckoned and mists swirled around the mountains. All the hut windows looked over this spectacular view and we walked in after taking off our boots (track hut-etiquette is surprisingly similar to Indian home-etiquette). These DoC huts are kept in amazing shape by the hut wardens, who live here during tramping season – they check tickets, keep order and impart track information and wisdom. The facilities are the best I have ever seen for a remote hut – bunk beds that are generously spaced, hooks and lines for hanging up our wet clothes, spacious kitchen and dining room, and toilets that flush! We changed into dry clothes (the one place where the tribe pays no heed to fashion – the rule is: warm and dry – good; beyond that, nobody cares) and busied ourselves in the kitchen. Pots were bubbling merrily on the gas stoves – enticing aromas of soup and pasta wafted towards us. Even though we couldn’t have anything hot not having carried pots to reduce weight, we enjoyed every bite of our dinner that night – chicken and tuna sandwiches on thick slices of sourdough, soft cheese and crackers, and Nutella for dessert. Exhaustion had overtaken us by then, and by 8 pm we found ourselves wrapped in the cocoon of our warm sleeping bags. I had completed the first part of our journey without falling (though I stumbled a lot), quitting or generally disgracing myself. And although the tell-tale soreness in my back and shoulders indicated that I was going to be in for a lot of pain the next day, I smiled as I held my husband’s hand and fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.