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Trip Report – Kirsten’s Fabulous Fifty Trip (New Zealand)

By: Kirsten Jowton (wife of NZAC member Russ Holland)

Source: Australia Section Newsletter (June / July 2018)

For many, turning 50 is super scary…it’s a new box to tick, is a realisation (for most) that half your life is over.  Some fear the number, but some embrace it.  Like me.  I always knew I wanted my 50th to be an adventure with friends and family, a fantastic celebration of what would be entering a decade of unknown territory!

I had decided early about doing one of the ‘Great Walks’ in NZ (locally known to the Kiwis as a ‘tramp’, or a hike to the Aussies).  With NZ’s offerings in the tramp department so diverse, I was undecided whether it would it be a coastal, alpine, ridgeline or more of a valley walk.  It did take a while to have the huge list narrowed down to only 2…the Kepler and the Routeburn.
Decision made on the double Routeburn/Caples.  The Kepler will have to wait!

With my birthday in the March, I was keen to delay hiking until the week of ANZAC day. Many reasons for this, not the least being that I could celebrate my birthday for at least 50 days (totally allowable for the big ones!).  The fact ANZAC day holds a very special place in my heart….. I’m a Kiwi living in Oz and knew we would have a mix of Kiwi’s and Aussies walking with us so the timing was perfect. PLUS it was the last week of the ‘great walks’ season, so the huts were still manned by Rangers, there were gas cooking facilities, a fire and ‘real’ flushing toilets!

Before too long we had a list of our friends and family who were committed to this tramp.  There would be 21 of us!! For many of our group, tramping was a first time event, a totally new and big scary goal for others, and for some it was a bucket list tick.  It was also an opportunity to do something out of their comfort zone with experienced hikers amongst the group.  Many had NO gear at all, so our dear friend Chelle put together a list of all lists and pretty soon people were buying up, spending lots of money, and wearing in their new boots and breaking in their packs.

We trained and trained for the few months before, both my husband Russ and I bought new backpacks so were keen to see how they would go with weight in them.   As has most of this year, the last week of April was quickly upon us and we couldn’t be more excited!  We were just hoping the weather gods would be with us and we would have a relatively dry adventure.

We were due to start the tramp on the Monday 23rd April….the Thursday previously the Routeburn was closed due to snow cover so we had our fingers and toes crossed.  The forecast was looking promising and we were really hoping that 1 week in 4 of good weather in the National Parks was on our side!

We took our shuttle buses to the start of the track on the Glenorchy side, a very hilly and windy ride from Queenstown but we made it and were all full of excitement.  We had a quick lunch and seemed to be waiting around doing not much.  I picked up my pack and said ‘let’s go’ to everyone as it was nearly 1pm by this time.  I turned my back for a second and the team had set up for a pre choreographed rendition of the ‘Haka’ for me!  WOW, well played guys, well played.  

Day one was a hike of approximately 4 hours, nothing too strenuous, just a warm up to what was ahead.  We had decided not to ‘all stick together’ when walking.  With our crew all having different reasons for hiking, different abilities, pace etc, everyone could just go at their own pace and not feel like they were ‘too slow’ or ‘too fast’.  The scenery as expected was nothing short of spectacular, with swing bridges, plenty of water and really well formed tracks. It didn’t take too long to realise we’d all bought way too much food…our packs were heavy!   Our first night was at the Routeburn Falls Hut. The view out over the Routeburn Valley was stunning, but we could see there was some weather coming in. The huts are really lovely, modern communal facilities, with the bedding arrangements on a first come first served basis.  Single bunks with a mattress and an area for your pack.  There are no secrets in the huts and plenty of noises enough to keep many awake for hours while being reminded that ‘tomorrow is a big day’!

We started the second day with our Goretex jacket and pants on as it was very lightly drizzling.  It was fresh, but didn’t take too long to warm up once you started moving.  This was a fairly big day where we would climb up to the Harris Saddle, the highest point on the track, then descend a fairly steep track to Lake Mackenzie Hut.  The Harris Saddle is where the valley splits and we exit Aspiring National Park (average annual rainfall 4 metres!), and enter Fiordland National Park (average annual rainfall 6 metres!).  Enroute to the Harris Saddle, we pass the Harris Lake which was spectacular and the walk meandered around it so you had a great view of the lake, and at times the cloud over the lake made for some stunning photos.  It’s about a 2 hour walk to the Harris Saddle, again nothing too strenuous, and we were regularly inhaling the beauty surrounding us.  There’s a small cabin at the top of Harris Saddle housing a toilet (flushing, yay!) and a space to dump your pack and have a Miso soup or coffee which we did.  We caught up with a few of our guys who had set a good pace. Our friend Poss had nearly climbed to the top of the ‘Conical Hill’ lookout, but was too cloudy and with limited visibility came back down while he could still see. By now it was actually raining, so we delayed our descent down to Lake Mackenzie by about an hour, which, as luck would have it, was the right decision.  The rain had not only stopped but the sun had come out and before too long we were applying sunscreen!  We continued to see the ever changing clouds coming into the valley.  One word….spectacular!! It was a further 3 hours walk, according to the sign, but it took us closer to 4.  After about 2.5 hours we saw the hut where we were heading.  It looked sooo far away!  And it was.  That view lulled us into a false sense of security.   Often that downhill hike is tough, but with very uneven narrow ground with lots of big steps we could all feel the weakness in our knees.  For the last hour Russ was the trouper he is and carried my friend’s pack as well as his own….her knees were not at all good.  Legend Russ.  That last hour was some of the prettiest scenery over the entire experience!  It was just like a little fairy forest, lots of moss, so many tiny looking mushrooms, and caves, just wow!!  Too many superlatives!  I must say it was so great getting to the hut and being welcomed by the rest of our crew.  Many had a swim in the lake, yes it was a tad chilly!

Day 3 was super special for us all as it was ANZAC Day.  With a mix of Kiwis and Aussies, we were waiting for this moment. We were all up at dawn for a pre organised ‘dawn Anzac service’ hosted by our good friend Chelle who had the service all set for us, including poppies for us all, speeches for many of us and both the Australian and NZ flags were present with both Anthems sung, including the NZ one in Maori.  That service was so moving, with nearly everyone crying at some point.  It was super special and personal with many saying it was the best service they’d experienced.

The 4 hour walk to the Howden Hut, was the final walk for a few of our crew, but the rest of us were taking on the Caples track as a finisher. Again, it was a clear day, no rain at all, and we had to pinch ourselves that the goretex jacket and pants were staying in the backpacks again!  Rumour had it a kaka was nearby and had been spotted by a couple who walked past us.  We looked and looked but we couldn’t spot it, nor hear it at all.  Surprisingly the birdlife is not as prolific as I had hoped, lots of little Finches and Robins happy to bounce around close to us, clearly wanting food!  A few trees over the track we had to manoeuvre around added an obstacle or 2, but nothing we couldn’t handle!  The walk into the Howden Hut was gorgeous over a long bridge and again Russ and I were last to arrive.  The heater was on and the beds were saved for us, now let’s eat! (we had food to get rid of!)  But first a swim for Russ…the tradition continued.  Apparently it wasn’t getting warmer!

Day 4 was a long day’s walk to the Caples Hut up over the McKeller Saddle and an extra long timber boardwalk.  This area could have been brutal had it been windy and super cold.  Again it was time to stop for a warming Miso meeting up with some of our crew for a chat.  What followed was a walk through a gorgeous beech forest with so many oohs and aaahs and again inhaling the beauty and peace of the forest but also the realisation that this was our last night on the track.  Super special…and Russ and I made the walk super long!  We stopped regularly, including a swim in the very chilly Caples River.  The scenery here was so different to anything else we’d seen on the tramp thus far.  So open, so dry and the sky so blue!  It was 14 deg C and we were walking in singlets/t’shirts.  Quite unbelievable for the last week in April!  The sandflies were plentiful and nearly ate us alive.  It took a few weeks to get over the itching actually, they were brutal!! We ran into the Ranger who took us off the track to see an incredibly beautiful swimming hole, so private and gorgeous..and the colour of the water was crystal clear!  We still had half an hour to walk, we could see the hut and knew the others were there waiting.  This was a hut we couldn’t book, so hoping there were enough beds for us all.  Didn’t have to worry about that as our crew were the only ones staying there that night.  A few of the crew had already been for a swim in another swimming hole that was equally gorgeous to the one we’d just seen, so we indulged in a jump off the edge of the cliff into the freezing water below….again accompanied by thousands of sandflies.  The water temperature literally took our breath away!    After a long walk, it was time for some food, and we ate as much as we could…we still had so much food left!  We all slept so well that last night and knew we could sleep in a little before our shortish walk out the following day.

Clear skies greeted us on day 5.  This was our final day so no one was in a hurry, as long as we were all at the bus for 12 noon. Again a different view, this time long river flats on private land for our walk out.  The last chance to take photos of the beauty around us. We arrived at the exit gate carpark just before 12.  The crew were all waiting for us and what a moment!  We did it!  What an experience for all of us to share together. A final rendition of the Haka, a quick dip for a couple of boys and we were off.

5 days, 4 nights, 3 hours of drizzle, clear skies the rest of the way.  Driving out of the carpark it started to rain.  Our timing was perfect, just like our experience.  Thank you NZ for turning it on for us all in the best ways possible.


Posted: 14/08/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland