Friday, January 31, 2014

Thursday Adventure: Routeburn Track (Southern Alps, New Zealand)

The last weeks have been a bit difficult around here, thanks to illness and other trials.  The saddest thing was the death of my last remaining grandparent, my father's mother.  She was 91 and hadn't been in the best of health (she'd been suffering dementia for years) so it wasn't unexpected; but still.  I treasure my memories of summer weeks with her and my grandfather in their home in the Appalachian Mountains.  I adored my grandmother: she made terrific pancakes, let me watch whatever I wanted (I first saw Star Wars, The Black Stallion, and many other great movies at her house), and let me explore the woods behind their home with no companion but their Australian Shepherd (a dog that I fiercely loved, especially since my parents wouldn't let me have pets).  Scrambling around the steep, heavily forested valley behind their house was my first experience of exploring wilderness, and it was the foundation for my lifelong love of the mountains.

So in honor of my grandmother and the love she instilled in me, today I share one of my favorite mountain adventures of the last decade: walking the Routeburn Track over New Zealand's Southern Alps.  The Routeburn Track is a 32km trail that starts near the end of Lake Wakatipu, crosses a high saddle, and drops down the range's other side to end not far from Milford Sound.  My husband and I decided to do the Routeburn instead of its more famous cousin the Milford Track on our trip to New Zealand in 2006 because we'd heard the views were better and the track spends far more time in high alpine terrain (always a plus in our book).  Also, no sandflies: even bigger plus!

Robert and I and our good friend Catherine took a bus from Queenstown to the start of the track, enjoying gorgeous views of Lake Wakatipu along the way.

Lake Wakatipu
At the start of the track: Catherine, Robert, and me
The track starts in mossy forest, crossing a stream by means of a swing bridge.

Robert on the bridge
Emerald forest
The track climbs up the valley's side to the Routeburn Falls hut.  (New Zealand has a hut system something like that found in the Austrian Alps, albeit with less pastries and restaurants.  You make reservations in advance to stay in the no-frills bunks found in the huts, and there are simple cooking facilities.  Personally, I prefer true backpacking, but I can certainly see the attraction of huts in rainy weather!)

View of the Routeburn valley
Routeburn Flats area, near the hut
Robert on the trail
We stayed the first night at the Routeburn Falls hut, a bit higher on the trail.  The views from the hut's broad deck were excellent.

View from Routeburn Falls Hut
Backpackers in the hut's communal area
Robert at Routeburn Falls
The next morning, we headed upward to Lake Harris and the Harris Saddle.  The weather was gorgeous and the air crystal-clear, making for some truly spectacular views.

High alpine terrain
Rugged peaks
Robert and I near Lake Harris
At the Harris Saddle
I could look at these mountains all day! (Amazingly, they're only about 8000 ft high; but they are far more glaciated and rugged than Colorado's far-higher peaks.)
Once past Harris Saddle, the trail traverses alpine tundra, continuing to offer amazing views.  This was my favorite part of the whole New Zealand trip!

Catherine on the trail
All three of us at an overlook
Robert enjoying the views
Eventually the trail begins switchbacking down toward beautiful Lake MacKenzie.

Looking down at Lake MacKenzie
Catherine's ready to tackle the switchbacks
Lake MacKenzie
There's a hut at Lake MacKenzie, but we kept on going, traversing more forest to pass Earland Falls and reach Howden Hut.

Mmmm, mountains...
More lovely views

Earland Falls
Approaching Howden Hut
I must say we didn't get much sleep at Howden Hut.  It's' truly amazing how loud possums and rodents are at night, especially when they start gnawing on something.  Even my earplugs couldn't deafen the noise.  At least it meant we were all too ready to jump up and leave the next morning, hurrying to meet a shuttle that would take us to kayak Milford Sound.  But I already talked about that adventure.

The Routeburn Track was amazing, and it only whetted my appetite to one day return and explore the Southern Alps more thoroughly.  In the meantime, at least I have all ten zillion hours of Peter Jackson's LotR and Hobbit movies to help keep my memories of NZ's spectacular scenery fresh.

1 comment:

  1. What a gorgeous place. Love that tundra, the emerald forest, and how the mountains are only 8,000 ft. Definitely hobbits and elves around there. And your grandmother's spirit, too, I'm sure, 'cause New Zealand's surely part of heaven.