The next bout of activity I'd planned was the Routeburn Track, which starts just north of Glenorchy (itself to the northwest of Queenstown) and takes you to over the mountains to a point called the Divide on the Milford Road. There I planned to pick up the Greenstone Track, taking me back towards Glenorchy, but ending some 25km of dusty road and a good day's walk from the start of the Routeburn (and my car). 'Never mind, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it,' I thought, and jumped in the car for Glenorchy.
The Routeburn is interesting; before I did it I had doubts about whether it was going to be worth the effort. After the Hollyford-Pyke it looked like plain sailing, with only one extra challenge; with the huts being NZ$28 a night – it's one of the most popular Great Walks and is priced accordingly – I opted to camp for only NZ$9 a night, but that meant adding over 2kg of tent to my already back-straining pack. The problem with the Routeburn is that it's a bit of a surrogate for the Milford, which means it's very touristy; some 10,000 people a year tramp the Routeburn, and most of them (like me) aren't locals. I figured I'd just have to bite the bullet and put up with the crowds, though in the end the fact that I was camping meant I never had any real problems, even though there were plenty of people on the track. Sure, there were some busy spots, such as the Harris Saddle Shelter, but no self-respecting tourist is going to worry about saving NZ$19 a night for the privilege of lugging a tent around, so the campsites were pretty empty, and actually I rather enjoyed the tourist-watching.
So in the end the Routeburn turned out to be a real highlight, with less crowding than on the Kepler. The track itself is incredible; from east to west you climb steadily up until you reach the Harris Saddle, before winding your way down to the Divide, and almost all of the walk is above the bush-line, so you get some incredible views. It's a more immediate walk than the Kepler; with the Kepler you're above the mountains, which gives great vistas, but on the Routeburn you're really inside the mountain range, with huge peaks rising right beside the track, making you feel very small indeed. I loved it, and it turned out to be the most spectacular walk I've yet done (apart from the Mueller Hut, but that's a special case).
Trekking the Routeburn
Day 1 was an easy two-hour wander to Routeburn Flats, a lovely river flat where the sandflies weren't too bad (at least compared to the Hollyford) and the views were wonderful. The weather, in an atypical display of sympathy, had cleared to sunny and hot, and the skies got clearer and clearer as the walk went on, which I appreciated as I would have been high enough to be right inside the clouds if the weather had turned.
Day 2 saw the most spectacular landscapes on the way up to the Harris Saddle, home to the beautiful Lake Harris and some of the most inspiring peaks you'll ever see. It's a bit pointless me going on about how impressive the views are, because it's only possible to understand when you've actually been there, but suffice to say that the trek over the saddle would on its own make the Routeburn worth doing, and the short climb up to Conical Hill made me feel as if I was on top of the world.
All this is a very different type of walking to the Hollyford-Pyke; there it was all about river valleys, bush and bog, none of which tend to crop up on alpine tracks like the Routeburn. The differences between the two tracks were instantly apparent from Conical Hill, from where I could see right down the Hollyford Valley to Martins Bay; that was quite a sight, knowing that I'd spent a week or so hacking my way up the valley laid out before me. Skirting back down the western side of the range, I could see Gunn's Camp, the Hollyford Road and all sorts of familiar sights, all brought to life by my previous tramp. It felt a bit like coming home...
That night at Mackenzie Camp was a delight, with especially beautiful views towards Emily Peak as it reflected in Lake Mackenzie. The campsite was a bit pitiful and, as with Routeburn Flats, rather cold and dewy, but at least it kept my milk mixture cold for my morning muesli, and meant that when I woke up, I had absolutely no desire to lie in and freeze in the perishing morning mist. Stalking down towards the Divide on day 3, I made good time to Lake Howden; from here I took a track up to Key Summit, which was home to more great views, especially of Lake Marian, and I also took the time to take in a nature trail. And that marked the end of the Routeburn; now for the Greenstone.
Back on the Greenstone
The Greenstone, while undoubtedly a lovely walk, did rather bore me. The reason? It's another leafy, forested valley walk, and I'd had quite a lot of that already on the Kepler and Hollyford Tracks already. The solution? I hoofed it and walked all the way to the last hut, Sly Burn, in the one day, on top of the 11km or so from the last part of the Routeburn and the side trip up Key Summit. The views were wonderful most of the way, even though I was a bit tired of river valleys, and although my body ached and my feet throbbed, I made it to the hut to find there was one spare bed in the hut – mine! – and a refreshingly freezing swimming hole down the river bank. I almost felt human after my evening rice dish, and fell asleep on the soft, warm mattress the second I hit it.
The last day went beyond pain. The last couple of hours to the road end were sheer agony as I had some kind of muscle strain in my left ankle, and by the time I reached the road end, I really needed a rest. Quite how I was going to manage the next 25km along the road to my car, I didn't know, but then the gods smiled on me. On my first attempt at a hitch, I snagged a ride from a Japanese tramper who was heading to the Routeburn to drop off his car, which was perfect, as that's where I'd left Zed. As we bombed down the dirt road towards the car park, I realised just how far it would have been to walk, and I thanked my stars that I wasn't going to be left stranded... and sure enough, after a short drive there was good old Zed, in one piece and looking like home to me.
Before long I was showering, beard-trimming and clothes-washing in the Glenorchy Motor Camp, feeling that happy and healthy glow you get when another tramp is consigned to memory. When you return from days in the wilderness, it's surprising how acute your senses become. Without everyday chemicals, smells, culinary delights and washing routines to clog the senses, you really notice things that you normally don't spot, like people's perfume, from ladies' cologne to men's after-shave and deodorant; it hits you in the face when you walk in the door. The same happens on the track when you walk past day walkers, and it makes you really appreciate how much we pamper our bodies in everyday life. Then there are the good old taste buds; that Snickers bar and bag of crisps is never going to taste as good as just after a long tramp. Modern day noises, like car horns and telephones, all sound out of place, and real bedding feels like God's gift to the Insomniacs. If you want to appreciate life's little luxuries, opt out of them for a week and go bush.
And so ended my last big tramp for a while, after walking a total of 278km on the map over 16 days (that's over 17km, or nearly 11 miles, per day). I'd never been this fit, this full of stamina, or this glad to sink back into the driver's seat and enjoy the world through a car window. I'm even tempted to pamper myself a little more, after all that dried rice and pasta I've been eating...