31 January, Routeburn Falls Hut. Day 1 of the Routeburn/Caples track.
Woke up early, showered, had breakfast and walked into town to Info and Track for the Backpacker Express shuttle up to the trailhead. I will say the the amount of tourism seems to have prompted Kiwis to assemble a fairly-extensive network of shuttle busses for those of us in the country who don't have cars. The times may be inconvenient and/or slow, but at least it's there. In the US you'd have a hard time getting to all but a few parks on public transportation.
We had some beautiful rainbows over Lake Wakatipu -- which imply rain, of course. Again. Seven of twelve tramping days, now. This was the first time that I've started walking on a backpack in full rain. I got off the shuttle and immediately put on Gore-Tex gaiters, pants, and jacket. Disappointing, too, because the first hour went through some amazing rainforest. Like the area between Haast and Haast Pass, it too would be worth returning to. And the Routeburn Gorge isn't bad either. It would be a fantastic subject for the old Velvia 50 -- all blacks and greens and rich color. Green water, rich with froth. I tried photographing a couple of times, but likely to no avail. There wasn't enough light and it was too wet to work well. Are there and digital cameras rain-proof enough for the Fiordlands?
I made it up to the Falls Hut in about four hours. The trail got rougher above Routeburn Flats Hut, with constant water streaming down the trail, often inches deep. Disappointed in both the jacket and pants from GoLite; both had a thin film of water inside them by the time I finished. The pants had wetted out; the jacket was still beading. In GoLite's defense, that's probably a factor of the PacLite fabric used in them, not a manufacturing flaw. The OR gaiters, made out of GoreTex XCR, worked wonderfully. I might have to get an XCR jacket, having seen how well the gaiters held up. Then again, I don't usually hike in this much rain/humidity...
There were the afternoon rituals of hanging clothes above the stove... Met Arin, a fellow American hiking the track. She'd come across from Mackenzie, the opposite direction, and hadn't seen much of anything the entire day. Heavy winds and thick clouds and fog made it sound like a daunting crossing and more alpine than the calendar would suggest. Remember, this is supposed to be mid-summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
By about 7pm the sun came up and out above the clouds; I went out photgraphing from about 7:30 to 8:30 before coming back in for dinner after the light was fading. As is often the case, the clearing clouds and soft, warm light made me immediately forget the unpleasantness of the hike in. After about three pictures, I was burning a quiet ecstasy, deep in the moment and joyous to be back in real mountains again. Not that I like to think of myself as inconsistent...
The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy along Lake Wakatipu.
Rainbow over Lake Wakatipu.
Rainforest near the start of the track.
Clearing storm, looking over Routeburn Flats.
Middle Routeburn Falls.
Mount Cook Lily. The white coating is secreted by the plant to help protect itself from UV rays.
Upper Routeburn Falls.
1 February, Mackenzie Hut. Day 2 of Routeburn/Caples.
We went across Harris Saddle today and then did a long traverse of the hills high above the Lower Hollyford Valley before descending to Lake Mackenzie. Woke up late-ish, made breakfast. From inside the bunk area, it had sounded like rain and heavy wind; that turned out just to be the sound of the falls. The forecast kept changing from day to day, but the previous evening had marked today as showers/clearing. Some light rain over breakfast kept most of us dawdling. Finally by 9:30, I was almost all packed and it was either head out of unpack and settle in. Arin had left a little earlier; I was hoping that I'd get more scenery and at least a touch better conditions over the saddle.
I climbed back above the waterfalls, this time with the full pack. Retracing yesterday evening's explorations. The higher peaks were shrouded in clouds, with a dusting of fresh snow. Stopped often to photograph. With all of the stops, it took about two hours to get up to the cliffs above Lake Harris. Beautiful. Muted colors, with the steel-blue of the lake hard against the somber subalpine greens and the dark grey of the rock mottled by patches of snow. This was what I was looking for from New Zealand. Clouds swirled above, and waterfalls dropped off distant cliffs.
I went on to the shelter, dropped the pack, and climbed up to Conical Hill (1515m, above the shelter). The route was flirting with the clouds; there may have been some flurries mixed in with the wind-driven mist. Thankfully, it was colder than yesterday. Five to eight degrees C most of the day. If that sounds odd, it means you sweat less inside the GoreTex. Most of the temperature regulation came from wearing or taking off my fleece hat. Much simpler than trying to decide if you're better off with or without the jacket. You're supposed to be able to see all the way out to the Tasman Sea from the top of Conical Hill; for the short time that I was up there, I was lucky to have seen more than twenty meters in front of me. You could make out the ghosts of Lake Harris and the nearby peaks, but nothing more. Immersive, evocative, haunting.
After dropping down from the hill and the saddle, I did a long and monotonous traverse. Rough in sections. On a clear day there'd be views of the valley below and opposing mountains, but not for me. I just wanted to keep moving to stay warm, keep moving to keep my mind off of the constant drizzle.
The last 500m of walking came down through some of the richest rain forest I've ever seen, even counting the Hoh and the Olympics. There were thousands of shades of green; every surface was covered in moss. If you ventured even slightly off trail, the duff sank in four to eight inches. You'd have been hard-pressed to find a surface larger than 10cm by 10cm that wasn't covered in moss.
Finally into the hut, had some food, went back out to photograph the stunning Lake Mackenzie and surrounding rain forest.
Forest behind Routeburn Falls Hut.
Yup. Midsummer. Fresh snow on the peaks.
Above the falls, looking back down towards the hut.
First views of Lake Harris.
Lake Harris, from Harris Saddle.
Thick rainforest at Lake Mackenzie; fittingly, it's called Goblin Moss. Really.
2 February, Mackellar Hut. Day 3 of Routeburn/Caples.
Woke up late-ish again. Drizzle again. Procrastinated over breakfast and more photographs down by the lakeshore; some of the peaks were visible opposite the hut, across the lake. Stayed very late, almost eleven. After finally leaving, there was more climbing out of the lake basin than I'd anticipated. The Hollyford Valley was again nearly completely obscured by mist. There was water everywhere, with rivulets or streams seemingly no more than 100m apart. I tried a photograph of Erland Falls, 80m high, but doubt that it'll turn out. Cold to be standing around in the wind-driven rain.
I dropped into Howland Hut for a late lunch, then branched off down the Greenstone Track. There were five precious minutes of direct sun right as I was leaving and, in a fit of optimism, I took out sunglasses and put on sunscreen. Of course, clouds rolled back in and I started walking through the shade of the forest again. Eh. What can you do?
The track continued through the trees, becoming thicker and thicker rain forest again before dropping out onto an open grassy saddle. I don't consider myself claustrophobic, but it was nice to be able to see for some distance for a change. After the saddle, the track cut above Lake Mackellar through more rain forest. About an hour after the split, I left Fiordlands and come out onto the Mackellar Hut. Had a second lunch, and about a half-hour of sun and warmth -- blessed. Changed my entire perspective. Being relatively tall and scrawny has its advantages most of the time, but if I'm not moving, I can feel cold without some external heat source. Particularly when you add water into the mix. Somehow rain or swimming makes me susceptible to feeling a deep, raw cold that's hard to get out of without food and real warmth.
Fortified, I headed back out for another hour or two to photograph, both the rain forest and the shoreline on Lake Mackellar. It's a longer day tomorrow; I'll backtrack up and over Mackellar saddle, then down the Caples River to the mid-Caples Hut. Eight hours by DOC's estimate.
Lake Mackenzie, with peaks clearing in the distance.
One of many side-streams.
Welcoming the sunlight.
3 February. Stealth Camp on the Caples River, day 4.
Glorious day. All feels right with the world. I'm camped beside the Caples River on the northwest tip of a large grassy flat. I don't know if it's legal for me to be here, and I always prefer to know when I'm doing something illegal, but it's too nice to continue on. Until deciding to stay, outside the sanctity of the DOC hut areas, I hadn't realized how much it was getting on my nerves to be around other people every night. Even good people. Between the hostels and the huts, I haven't had a night out in months. Since Zion, last November. It feels so good to be surrounded by nothing more than trees, river, grasses, and the peaks above. Deer, rabbits, birds, and sandflies are my only neighbors. I don't mean to be misanthropic, but I need this, if only occasionally. I haven't been caring for my inner introvert like I should... The tarptent is set up taut, the sleeping bag unfurled and lofting, and the river rushes in the background. The grasses, purple and tawny and green, ride the dusk's winds.
Late start again. Too easy to sleep in and then talk in the huts. Backtracked towards Howden Hut and then grunted up to Mackellar Saddle. It's a steep and extremely rugged trail, if you can call it a trail. It's not really a trail; more a marked navigation route. I made it up to the saddle to a view of a massive snow-covered peak to the north-northwest. Had lunch. Lizarded! Two days ago, I would never have expected to be able to do so. Felt so good. Crossed the open Mackellar Saddle with views of the Ailso and Humboldt Mountains, then descended into the forest again. Unexpectedly nice. Stopped often to photograph. Temperate rain forest again, but not quite so fantastical as Lake Mackenzie. Many shots to hope for.
Mount Tutoko, 2746m or 9000 feet, the crest of the Darran Mountains, from Mackellar Saddle.
Hillary prepped there for his Everest ascent.
Following the Caples River down from the saddle.
The Caples River.
Home, sweet home. For this night, anyway.
4 February 2007. Lakefront YHA, Queenstown.
Finally an early start. Set the alarm for six-thirty, got up around six forty-five. Left out two granola bars from the food, packed up, and started walking. Back across last night's wanderings and then beyond; mostly along grassy flats but occasionally pushed up into the trees by the meanderings of the river. Surprisingly mountainous terrain on either side of the river -- foothills seem optional here.
Running very low on batteries and memory both, so mostly I was just enjoying walking in the quiet of an extended, subdued dawn. It was almost an hour before the sun finally rose over the northeastern ridgeline, and even then the day began with a sky thickly mottled with clouds.
I made it down to mid-Caples hut for breakfast, with an expansive panorama to match the sandflies. Talked with the warden a while and lingered for almost an hour. Not two minutes later I was metaphorically kicking myself as I crossed a bridge over a deep chasm nestling the Caples River; by the looks of it I was five minutes too late for full shade. Luck was with me, though. I waited another ten or twenty minutes for enough cloud cover to damp down the contrast and made a few shots. It was similar to Avalanche Gorge in Glacier, but deeper, with darker rock, and more trees and moss. Could be quite good. Only one-third of the way through the trip (can't believe I've been here a month already! doesn't seem possible.), I'm already wondering how I'm going to choose which pictures to print. Perhaps a small book of the digital work...
With the food almost gone and me finally feeling good (moving well, leg better, more used to the pack), it was the kind of day that gets you in trouble, dreaming grandiose plans for further trips. The second day of beautiful weather helped, too.
Ambitious hubris aside, I would like to  hike the Sierra High Route and  help guide Mom and Dad and Amy to summit Whitney. If they want to.
I hit the car park, washed up, caught the shuttle, took a boat across Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy and another shuttle to Queenstown. The memory card is totally full and the batteries are just barely eking it out. Off to check email, the internet, and Ferdburger's to begin refueling.
Gorge below the mid-Caples hut.