A little detour with a great result. Routeburn, one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, is officially not a part of Te Araroa but connects so perfectly to its route that we couldn’t resist the temptation of covering it. Patrick joined in too. Because, really, what are an additional 54km when you’ve almost walked 3000?
Now, as Great Walks are an expensive affair and as their tracks are so wide that they run like highways through the mountains we planned to cover the great majority of it in one day. We got a ride out of Queenstown from a wonderful couple from Palmerston North who were originally only going to Glenorchy, but ended up giving us a ride right to the trailhead. They had to pull over on their way too… I really, really can’t stand cars anymore.
Getting out of Queenstown after 2 days of adrenaline-filled vibes and a city shouting ACTION ACTION ACTION was a relief for the nerves. I can’t describe the city better than Andrew did, so I quote him: “If Banff and Whistler had a baby, who they then abandoned in a food court and who grew up eating only candy and corn syrup. That baby would be Queenstown.”
Already on the road the majestic scenery started unfolding itself. Sharp peaks and big glaciers stood out on the western side of Lake Wakatipu. On the first part of the Routeburn we walked through a mighty forest, with tall beech trees towering over a canopy of large ferns on the forest floor. We only had 6,5km to cover that day and took all the time in the world. As we reached our campsite at Routeburn Flats the landscape opened up and we pitched our tent on the most dramati spot yet, in direct view of Mount Xenibus and its icy slopes.
A beautiful morning followed that provided good motivation to get out of our sleeping bags. We got ready for a big day, 34km all across Routeburn and into the Greenstone track to McKellar hut. Before leaving the hut warden pointed out a group of yellowheads, a rare and endangered native bird, hanging out in a tree nearby. We stood for a long time looking at them hopping on the trees, foraging for insects.
I never thought I’d be such a birdwatcher, but the story of New Zealand’s birds, and the story of their disappearance, is so strong that I want to learn more, see more and listen more. I often try to imagine how colourful and lively the country must have been in times past. Later in the day a few kea, the alpine parrots, flew over and their cries echoed on the rocks. Tippits and robins hopped around waiting for their food to be stirred up. A few fantails were excited as always. After endless kilometres of tussock and bare dry farmland it’s so good to see birds and leaves and trees again.
The day was harder than we expected but every effort worth it. The grandeur of these walks is just that little more from what we usually get on Te Araroa. Once out of the mighty forest we entered an exact copy of the Norwegian mountains, before reaching Harris Saddle and an afternoon of wide panoramas over the green Hollyford valley and the Fiordland and Aspiring peaks. It was gorgeous. We made a small side trip up to Conical Peak to see it all a little better.
Even while descending towards the end of the track great views and big waterfalls kept us from pushing fast. Another thing about Great Walks though is that they are very crowded, so after a day of trying to pass all leisurely walkers and guided groups (also known as the ‘Chardonnay hikers’ after their 3 course dinners every evening with wine) we happily stepped aside to the quiet forests of the Greenstone trail. With rain and clouds coming in during the night, blocking out those excellent views, the long day was even more worth it.
For the first time in a long time we needed to gear up before heading out into a steady rain to reconnect to the TA. At Greenstone Hut we met Yannick and Andreas, whom we had contact with before coming to New Zealand, and Maik, who also works with Cumulus. It was funny, a reunion of people who sort of already knew each other but never really met. We had a cosy evening and a great day together, before they pushed on one more hut than we did.
Back on the TA the trails were good as ever, a mix of stumbling over tree roots and tussock while sticking your feet in a swamp every once in a while. Some of the tussocks grew almost overhead, creating an impressive wall of grass to walk through. We repeatedly ran into Maik, Andreas, Yannick and their friend Vince. Besides of its swampy character the Mavora Walkway was beautiful. We read up on its history as an old Maori trading way, adding that little extra interest to this trail section again. It’s really cool that we walk over so many old Maori routes.
To make our lives a little easier we followed the road out from the lakes instead of the tracks, which were reputedly very wet and washed out. Along the way we found a sign stating that it was closed anyway, so that was a good call. Two days of gravel road walking later we were in Te Anau where we reunited with Marylene at the YHA.
The other guys came in later that day as well, and at the fish&chips shop we ran into Nadaf and Goni, two walkers from Israel that we shared a few huts with back in the Richmond Ranges. We all went for beers together. As the group extended and the number of drinks increased our ambitions for the next day became smaller and smaller. In a merry mood the gang of bearded TA hikers with Marylène and myself closed the bar down. Amazing to have such an enthusiastic gang of hikers together.
Before setting out on the final stretch to Bluff PJ and I went out for a good breakfast. It promised to be a tough one, and to take us back where it all started: in steep, muddy forests and on long beach walks. Goni and Nadaf joined for a hot chocolate.
They finished the trail about 10 days ago. We had a good, long talk about the emotions involved in finishing, about how the trail has grown to be a part of us. We all have been going through similar internal processes of thought. We all have found a peace of mind, a clear mind – whether it is due to the fresh air, the sound of our own footsteps or something else I do not know. We all embraced the slow pace of the journey, the freedom of life and idea. The world seems so fast sometimes, and so narrow minded. Many hikers do not seem to have a clear idea about where to go or what to do next, but enjoy the waver of options laying open and in front of them. And it is exactly this broad and open approach to life that creates so many of the strong characters we have met.
As the trail comes to its end, so does this community of free standing people. We have been surrounded by outstanding hiking companions – Serina, Patrick, Marylène, Andrew, Chris&Jo, Rebecca, the Lavignes, Nicholas, Maik, Yannick, Andreas & Vince, to name the most prominent of the people we shared good moments and good talks with.
So here we go, the last 11 days down to that mythical place called Bluff. In glorious rain and glorious winds to a glorious finish.