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A walk in the parks

We’re in the middle of the Routeburn Track through the South Island’s vast Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Parks, and our two 20-something guides from Ultimate Hikes New Zealand have fallen to their knees, excitedly pointing at the smallest, greenest spider I’ve ever seen, which is making a slow exit off the trail. “Awesome,” says one. “Gnarly,” says the other, clearly delighted with “the cool wee thing.” As Australians we have to ask, “Is it dangerous?” The response is a laugh: “Nothing is dangerous in New Zealand.” And it’s true. There are no crocodiles, venomous snakes or hairy spiders. Not even the occasional don’t-mess-with-me marsupial.

At a pre-walk briefing on the afternoon before we set off on our three-day, 38-kilometre walk, the instructor tells us that bad weather is the only possible spoiler for our trek. We’re advised to include a change of dry clothes in the pack she distributes. Walking poles and raincoats are also supplied. “Keep your packing to a minimum,” she warns, “you have to carry it.”

 

Views along the way

 

At 6:30am the next morning, 30 suitably-packed hikers and four cheery guides assemble at the Ultimate Hikes Queenstown office to board the coach for the four-hour drive to one end (you can hike it in either direction) of the Routeburn Track near The Divide. The scenic Milford Road hugs the shoreline of spectacular Lake Wakatipu. We stop for morning tea at Te Anau, then it’s time to hit the track that has challenged walkers since the 1880s.

Our group comprises hikers from Denmark, Japan, the US, Germany, NZ and Australia. The youngest is a 15-year-old Kiwi girl who looks like she just might jog the whole way; the oldest a German couple in their mid-60s who have ‘done’ the Routeburn before. Unfortunately, on their last trip the weather closed in, reducing visibility. This time, they are hoping for kinder conditions.

The group sprawls out, everyone walking at their own pace. Guides place themselves at front and rear, and two others drift through the pack to answer any questions. Occasionally they offer information about the territory we traipse through. We take an extra (optional and pack-less) walk to Key Summit. Here, we get our first taste of the grandeur of the New Zealand Southern Alps, looking across three valleys, from where water flows to east, west and south coasts.

We lunch at the Lake Howden hut, preparing for the steady climb to Earland Falls, which turns out not to be as difficult as the steep descent to Lake Mackenzie Lodge. The lodge is a welcome sight, the rooms spacious, clean and comfortable with an ensuite. It is tempting to sprawl on the king-size bed after 13km of solid walking, but a hot shower beckons. We can wash and dry our gear if necessary, as there are facilities on hand, but there are NZ wines to sample and a comfortable sitting room with books and maps to peruse.

Dinner is a simple but fine affair of salmon or rack of lamb with vegetables. Walkers are usually good talkers, and around the dining-room tables you hear names of places like Kilimanjaro, Larapinta, Freycinet, El Camino de Santiago and Machu Picchu – conquests and the to-be-conquered.

A hearty breakfast and cheery farewell song from the Swedish lodge staff send us on our way for our second day on the Routeburn. Today it is flower-spotting day. Eidelweiss, sundews, mountain daisies and buttercups keep us enthralled while the spectacular scenery of the Hollyford face and Lake Mackenzie form the grand perspective. It is not surprising that the South Island is a magnet for walkers and nature-lovers.

There is an optional walk to the top of Conical Hill, but during the lunch stop at Harris Saddle we decide we’re happy to just watch one of our exuberant guides run up the hill. The after-lunch walk along the upper Routeburn Valley has got to be one of the prettiest in the world. Routeburn Falls Lodge nestles inconspicuously in the valley beside the river. The icy water tempts keen swimmers on this warm day, but I’m content to dangle my tired walker’s feet in the fast running water and receive nature’s spa treatment. The lodge is very comfortable, its elevated setting giving each room bush and valley views.

Tonight’s dessert is eaten to the accompaniment of a long, expertly told story by one of the guides, concluding with a pancake-catching competition. A lady from Okinawa shrieks in delight as she successfully keeps a pancake on her plate, receiving an ovation from her fellow diners.

The track on our last morning follows the river to the flats through beech forest. Bright aqua-coloured water tumbles over the white stone, a visual feast. There are smiles all around when we receive our Routeburn Walk Certificate at the Glenorchy Pub later that day. No-one is happier than the German couple, who now can say that they have really ‘done’ the Routeburn Track.

 

Moss-covered trees | Tourism New Zealand 

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