Towering over the Harris Saddle on the Routeburn Track is Conical Hill. It’s no Everest - just 1515 metres above sea level - but in its magnificent setting in a stunning region where names have been chosen for historical and sometimes mysterious reasons, the ubiquity of its title seems just wrong.
Twice before, over the past 25 years, we have crossed the saddle 250m below, and twice we have been forced to bypass the signpost pointing the way to the top.
The first occasion we were walking into a near-blizzard; on the second, it was closed by heavy snow.
The third time, we vowed long ago, nothing would stop us reaching the top, and it’s come to pass. We’re at the saddle, the weather is cool with some cloud threatening, the track is open. Yes!
Four days ago, the sun was shining as we stepped out of a warm bus where the Greenstone river meets Lake Wakatipu. A chill in the air indicated autumn was well advanced.
Decisions already. Was there time to pull on long johns or acknowledge that email that couldn’t wait the next six days? The email won.
The air of expectation among the 12 Kiwis, Australians and Americans making last-minute preparations was obvious. Our group was setting off to walk what Ultimate Hikes calls the Grand Traverse, about 75 kilometres both on and off the Greenstone and Routeburn tracks through the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks, through some of New Zealand’s most magnificent scenery, from sprawling valleys to mountain heights.
But we would also be incommunicado – no texts, emails, radio or TV, nothing for the next five nights and six days, or 144 hours, or 8640 minutes, just a newspaper in the pack bearing yesterday’s headlines. Three fit young people would care for and guide us, and explain the history, flora and fauna, birdlife and any other question. We carried our own clothing and everything but food and bedding.
After an ice-breaker introduction to declare our names, where we came from and our favourite singers, we were off and a calm descended as we found our individual pace climbing into the bush with the Greenstone River below.
Thirty minutes on, we had our first injury, a bloody hole in my knee after a clumsy fall. A child’s blue plaster over the wound seemed appropriate for somebody who had to be told to lift his feet.
Not that anybody else cared. We had stopped by a deep pool and an Australian water baby quickly had her jacket, jersey and boots off and dived in wearing her thermals. Several others followed. The plunges were to become part of a daily ritual along the tracks.
The Greenstone Valley bears no pounamu but it’s so named because it was once a trail for Maori to get greenstone supplies from Lake Wakatipu and the West Coast.
Over the next two days, we made new friends as we meandered its length, lay on tussocks under blue skies, marvelled at rock falls, stopped to watch bush robins and other birds at our feet, shared the space with grazing cattle and forgot about our worlds and clutter.
Near the McKellar Lodge, where we stayed the second and third nights, a tramper was asked what was happening beyond the mountains. ‘‘Not much,’’ he said. ‘‘Oh yes, North Korea has declared war on South Korea.’’ We all laughed.
Day three was a day off with recommended options. Option one was the entire group marching up a rough track to a point in the Livingstone Mountains called The Lookout – 500m straight up, to open country with views in every direction. It was also freezing. We were up and back in less than three hours.
Option two was a 25m waterfall at the end of a little gully, where the wind picked up the waterfall and blew it back and forth like a pendulum across the face of the cliff it tumbled down. The water babies just had to stand under it.
The next day, at the far end of the Livingstone Mountains at Key Summit, walkways allowed easy access to an alpine garden with views across the Hollyford Valley to hanging valleys in the Darren Mountains and Lake Marian.
Lunch was wrapped in silence by the water’s edge of Lake Howden, followed by a gentle climb up to the Earland Falls, on through the Orchard and finally a steep drop down to the magnificent Lake MacKenzie Lodge, which is set among trees in a chocolate box setting of a lake surrounded by bush and rimmed with mountains.
The lodge itself is a huge complex consisting of a dining room and lounge with bedrooms in wings running off verandas, along with a hugely-efficient drying room. But it was the kitchen that most impressed.
Dinner was a salmon entree with relish and cucumber and diced onions, followed by a mains choice of fried haloumi cheese or roast chicken and potatoes, beans and carrots, with gravy, and salad. Desserts were individual pavlovas with cream and apple and passionfruit sauces, and plunger coffee and chocolate brownie cubes with cream to finish.
The next morning, official photographs by the lake preceded a steep climb to the Hollyford face, a wonderful walk with mountains above, valleys below, past a signpost pointing down Dead Man’s Track.
Harris Saddle lay ahead. We came around a corner and there, high above us, beyond two shelters, was this trek’s No 1 objective, Conical Hill.
It's a pity that lunch is sitting in my stomach like a medicine ball and my legs have turned to lead. It’s not helped that everyone else has galloped off. Down a little valley and up across a face, I’m struggling as I turn a corner and look at a steep incline, the others far ahead.
I’m not last. James, one of our guides, is behind me, telling me not to rush, pace myself, there’s no hurry, I don’t have to commit to climbing all the way. There’s a great view of Lake Harris halfway up and many people go no further.
An old mountaineer taught us a trick – when going uphill, take 100 steps, rest, and carry on. I’m managing a breathless 10. It’s not so much climbing as clambering, over and around rocks, trying to find the best foothold on what must be a waterfall when it’s raining. Ten steps equals a few metres and more deep gasping. I thought I was reasonably fit. Obviously not. The will to get to the top falters and it’s only 250m.
But there’s still an encouraging voice behind and eventually we’ve gained enough height for the mind to register good progress. A few more starts, a few more stops and we’re at the halfway point.
The second half seems easier, apart from having to slide under a massive boulder lying over most of the track. We reach the top just in time to see lakes, mountains and grand views disappear as cloud and mist roll in and it’s like Hamilton.
Thousands of people have been here before but so what? On a good day, you can see all the way to the West Coast – only not right now. But it’s still the top of a world I wanted to see.
We float down the mountain, around Lake Harris and along the broad upper Routeburn valley towards the comfortable Falls Lodge complex.
Not far from the lodge, a river drops over a rock and into a deep pool. The water babies strip once more and leap in.
On the sixth day, after a night of entertainment that included a Falls Lodge ritual of catch-the-flying-pancake and an ear-shattering crack of thunder in the early hours, the spell is broken. It’s time to walk out and go back to where we came from. Six days incommunicado – it wasn’t long enough.
Clive Lind walked the Grand Traverse courtesy of Mrs Lind.
The Grand Traverse, 75km, six days. Degree of difficulty: Moderate. Two treks weekly: Monday-Saturday; Wednesday-Monday.
Prices (including transport, meals and accommodation)
Low season: November and April, $1660pp multi-share, $1960pp private room with en suite.
High season: December to March, $1865pp multi-share, $2165pp private, twin bed or queen, with en suite.
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