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Sir Edmund Hillary on New Zealand

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1 June 2008 by Pete Mathers

The mountains are big, the valleys broad and waterfalls tumble at almost every corner. Pete Mathers treks an enduring Kiwi classic, South Island’s Routeburn Track.

Just half a day into the trek and I faced a dilemma. From the eastfacing verandas of the Routeburn Falls Hut, perched on the bushline at the edge of a precipice, I had perfect views of the Routeburn Valley.

The sky was a bright and cloudless blue, the Route Burn River twisted its way along the valley’s alluvial flats, and beech forests clinged to snow-capped mountains. It was perfect trekking conditions.

My dilemma? Whether to press on to the trek’s greatest viewpoint, or to rest at the lodge and hope for similar conditions tomorrow.

The 32km Routeburn Track connects Mount Aspiring National Park and Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, via an alpine pass called the Harris Saddle. The saddle, at 1,277m, is the highest point of the official trek, but nearby Conical Hill has even better views. The 1,515m summit can be icy and snowy, even in summer. It’s an incredible spot, and on a clear day may be reason enough to make a trip to New Zealand.

The view from the top towards Routeburn Falls includes the deep blue waters of Lake Harris, the rock-filled Valley of the Trolls, and a wide plateau of snow tussock where sundews, bladderworts and orchids thrive. To the north, the dramatic Hollyford Valley carries the eye to Martin’s Bay and the Tasman Sea. To the west the Darran Mountains soar skywards – the peaks upon which Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth before Everest. Southward the Hollyford Face runs away from the saddle to Ocean Peak Corner, where the route dips down beneath the treeline.

The Department of Conservation says it’s two hours to the saddle from Routeburn Falls Hut, and at least another hour for the side trip up Conical Hill. Were that the case I’d be returning in the dark, relying on a faltering head torch. I grabbed my rain jacket, hat and some food and water, and set off, racing up a rocky, tree-fringed bluff to Routeburn Falls. The view above the treeline was distinctly Tolkienesque, and several of the surrounding peaks were backdrops in Lord of the Rings. Huge glacial boulders lay strewn across the ground, quaint wooden bridges crossed burbling streams that disappeared as quickly as they surfaced, and occasional grassy knolls broke up otherwise rocky basins.

I reached the Harris Saddle in just 50 minutes and began my climb up Conical Hill. Pockets of snow lay in shadow at the top. In the distance, low cloud hovered above the Tasman Sea. But the sky remained clear and the views were as good as promised. The track back was deserted. I stopped briefly at Routeburn Falls to watch the sun’s last rays pierce the chinks between the mountains, then slipped quietly into camp. My gamble had paid off.

People have been exploring these valleys for centuries. Maoris arrived as early as 1500 looking for pounamu, the highly prized New Zealand jade. In doing so they carved tracks along the Dart and Arahura rivers. In the 19th century European settlers used the Maori tracks to connect settlements on the Greenstone River with commercial centres on Lake Wakatipu.

But it wasn’t until the 1930s that the track became fully established as a ‘tramping route’, the New Zealand term for a hiking trail. The Routeburn Track, like its superstar neighbour the Milford Track, is one of New Zealand’s nine ‘Great Walks’, and both regularly make lists of the world’s best treks. Yet the scenic payoffs along the Routeburn’s alpine stretches far surpass those of the lower, often cloudier Milford. Not to mention the fact that the Milford sees nearly twice as much rainfall, and nearly twice as many people.

The Routeburn can be walked in either direction, but I walked it westwards, from Glenorchy to The Divide. I began (as I would end) in a forest dripping with goblin moss. Shingle crunched underfoot, birds twittered among red and silver beech trees, and forest streams collected in startling jade-green pools.

After a while I reached the first swing bridge, crossed the Route Burn River and spied my first waterfall.

An hour or two later the path spilled out onto the Routeburn Flats. Until now the trees had done a good job of hiding the mountainous surrounds. Here everything was revealed at once. Sunlight streamed down the valley and the opposing lines of mountains reared up like duelling Komodo dragons. A couple more hours of uphill slog and I was at the first hut, facing my dilemma.

As it happened, conditions the next day were equally idyllic. I took a more leisurely stroll to the Harris Saddle, paused for my lunch, and began the traverse towards Ocean Peak Corner, crossing from Aspiring to Fiordland National Park with the Darran Mountains and Hollyford Valley to my right. It was here I got my first glimpse of the second night’s hut, far below me on the edge of Lake Mackenzie. I zigzagged down through silver beech, fuchsia and ribbonwood, grateful for the helping hand of gravity.

Perfect mountain peaks exploded into ripples as I broke the lake’s surface. Muscles tightened and lungs screamed for breath. Slowly I adjusted to the glacial waters. Floating on my back, like a spider caught in a toilet bowl, I stared sleepily at the surrounding mountains.

The final day began with a steep climb to a grassy patch of ribbonwood known as The Orchard. Beyond that lay the frothing plumes of Earland Falls, an 80m, high-decibel cascade that crashes over the surrounding boulders. My final highlight of this classic hike was yet another optional side trip: a steep series of switchbacks that takes you above the treeline to an alpine meadow at Key Summit. Wooden boardwalks mark a nature trail that winds round to a view of Lake Marion.

Most astonishing of all though were the views of three epic valleys – the Hollyford, the Eglinton and the Greenstone – coming together in a rare triple divide. Perhaps for Hillary this was little more than a training ground, but for me, this was alpine trekking at its consummate Kiwi best.

Tailormade travel: Tramping season runs from November through April, when spaces on popular routes like the Routeburn fill up fast. Call 020 7838 5967 and ask for Katrina Whiteford, our New Zealand tramping specialist, or email your enquiry to [email protected].

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