I never planned to return to New Zealand. It just happened. This August I left the UK to return to the farm in the South of New Zealand for another calving season, this time looking after over 800 fur babies. Fresh air, beautiful scenery and daily cow cuddles. It was irresistible. For farmers, calving is the busiest time of year and I certainly under-estimated or simply forgot about the painstaking work I had ahead of me. A few weeks in when I was battling my way through every back-breaking hour and counting down the days I had left, I decided to book a post-calving vacay. A treat was needed. One of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” would be the destination. After all, it’s the abundance of walking and cycling tracks that has made me fall in love with this country. The Routeburn Track seemed like a good choice so I snapped up a bed in one of the sought after huts fast.
I needed to make my way to the start of the track just off the road into Milford Sounds, roughly 85km from Te Anau. My friend Laura dropped me on the side of the highway on the way out of town and I stood there with my thumb out. As expected hoped, just a few cars passed before one picked me up. A charming Czech couple drove me to the start of the track but I was so tired I fell asleep in their car. I woke to find that the heavens had opened. Typical. I sat in a wee shelter comforting myself with a handful of peanuts while waiting for the rain to stop but who was I kidding? I was in Foirdland, possibly the wettest place in the world.
Looking on the bright side, at least I was putting my new rain jacket to the test. I reached the first hut, Howden, in no time. I went inside for lunch and to listen to the chitter chatter of others. As guessed, everyone was talking about the recent dumping of spring snow which had closed most of the track. I got chatting to some Aussie guys who were part of a large tour group who had paid between $1500 and $2500 to do the walk. I felt a little awkward, partly because I was the only one “free wheeling” as they called it and therefore made to feel a little like I was completely mad. To me, spending $2500 to have luxury meals, accommodation and luggage transfers on a walk that is essentially free is completely barmy. Roughing it is all part of the experience right?
After speaking with a couple of the guides I had little hope the track would reopen the next day. This meant I could walk for just three hours to Lake McKenzie hut, stay the night and then have to walk back the way I came. It sounded dismal. I wanted a bit of a workout and I have a thing about going back the way I came. I remember in India when me and Pete (regularly) off shot our turning we would cycle all the way around just so we didn’t have to turn back, even if it added 10km or more to our day! Spirits low I studied the map whilst enjoying a gourmet cake one of the guys on the tour gave me. The map indicated that there were two more tracks nearby that would get me relatively close to Glenorchy, my intended destination. The Greenstone Track meandered through a valley which would have been awfully wet due to snow melt so that one was out. The Caples Track however, weaved its way over the McKeller pass and along the Caples River. Sold.
I got talking to a lovely Kiwi couple, Toni and Andy, who were staying in Howden Hut that evening. I told them my plans and they informed me that there were currently only three people staying at Howdens that night. Bonus. I hate sleeping near people! It was only 2pm once I finished changing my plans and far too early to retreat to the land of nod. With this in mind I took a four hour walk to McKeller Hut along the Greenstone Track and back to stretch the legs. The snow melt had saturated the path and my reliable “hiking boots” (Nike Free canvas trainers) didn’t perform well even with plastic bags wrapped round my feet.
Even with three people in the hut I failed to get much sleep (snorers) and I ended up dragging my sleeping bag downstairs into the kitchen at 3:30am. I woke in good spirits and after a peanut butter ladened roll I was good to go. It was no surprise that I set off later than expected thanks to my inability to shut the hell up (thanks to the others who notified me of this). I had a 30km walk ahead of me and I wanted to reach the end (Greenstone Recreation car park) in good time because I was a little uneasy about hitchhiking back to Glenorchy (35km) due to its remote proximity and lack of passing traffic.
Thankfully the track was far dryer than the previous day but there was still some snow on the ground and I got wet walking through marshlands. Reaching McKellar Saddle (945m) was the highlight of my walk with beautiful views of snow-capped mountains from every direction. I stopped for an apple and a moment to admire it all. My walk continued along the Caples River and through undulating woodland. I didn’t encounter a single soul apart from a DOC ranger doing some work on the track. It was bliss, far more scenic than the first part of the Routeburn I had walked, which at this time of year was full of tour groups.
I only had a couple of hours left to walk when I reached Mid-Caple Hut and stopped for another peanut butter sandwich. My pack was really starting to hurt and the valley that I had been walking in had become a little “samey”. The last part of the track was well marked so I got a little concerned when the markings suddenly disappeared. I turned back to take the other path at the fork as my instincts told me I was heading in the wrong direction. Luckily I came across some other walkers and they assured me I was only an hour from the car park.
I walked 30km in eight hours with approximately an hours worth of food and photo stops. My hips were sore from my pack and my back hurt so I was glad to have finished. Whilst I was in the car park loo I heard the engine of a car. I rushed out at the speed of light and jumped in front of the car belonging to two young lads from Korea. They didn’t know what had hit them (quite literally). I tried to explain in my friendliest of manners that I needed a ride to Glenorchy. They didn’t quite grasp the idea of hitchhiking so I threw my pack in the boot and jumped in anyway. They explained they were cruising around taking photos and that they wouldn’t be heading past Glenorchy for another few hours. I didn’t care. I was just happy to see another person and I spent the rest of the afternoon stopping every couple of kilometres to take photos with them. What a fantastic couple of days. Sometimes heading into the unknown and changing plans last minute can seem scary and I am forever hesitant. Each and every time, however, it works out just perfect!