In the Thick of it...
Trip Start Sep 09, 2004
394Trip End Ongoing
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Just before we started the trek, the final weather check revealed a slight change; hard rain, high winds, along with a good snowfall and a sharp decline in temperature. The law of the sod working at its very best - as was to be expected of course. Surprisingly though and having come through the other side, all I can say is that we were very, VERY lucky with the weather. When the worst of it hit we were quite conveniently tucked away under shelter - miraculously. We couldn't believe it.
In short, we completed the route and made it out safe and injury-free, with another fantastic experience under our belt. The rewards were phenomenal though not entirely in line with the effort needed to achieve them. Physically, it wasn't as challenging as I had hoped, just long. And thinking about it, in many ways, that's exactly what it's about; the experience. Most of the scenery and landscape we covered was nothing short of spectacular and over the course of the five days we got to see a lot more than we should have, certainly more than the law of averages would normally allow. We hiked, on average, around six hours each day and covered an incredibly diverse terrain. This is the first serious trek Shiny has ever done and, what can I say? The shiny one shone. She battled through fantastically and I think she surprised herself, especially as she'd built up a lot of worry in her mind to such an extent that the end result turned out to be a lot more realistic and not so life-threatening as she may have first thought (though the constant whistling of the '999' theme tune probably didn't really help all that much.)
What I found really refreshing was seeing kids on the track and in the huts. When I say 'kids' I'm talking from around six upwards. On the Greenstone track we shared the first hut (amongst others) with a group of around two or three Kiwi families that had brought the kids along to experience it. It was fantastic to see. To think that they're getting to experience all this now at such an impressionable age, seeing such spectacular scenery and experiencing the wildlife that comes with it, not to mention learning the self-sufficient lifestyle that comes with camping out in remote back-country huts. What a fantastic experience for them. It will be such a significant part of them as they grow and I've just realised how I'm starting to sound like my age so...
There's little point going in to any real detail of the daily itinerary as the pics pretty much outline the route, but to put you in the general picture; we started out on the Greenstone track which took us through the Greenstone valley before heading up in to the mountains and over the Harris saddle via the Routeburn track. We also took advantage of two of the additional routes that took us up on to higher plains. One was a reasonable ascent up to 'Key Summit' which gave great views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, the other was a strenuous steep climb (a little similar to the nightmare ascent of Mt Somers) taking around forty minutes or so which delivered us breathlessly to the summit of 'Conical Hill' where we received a fantastic, mind-blowing reward; 360 degree panoramic views over some seriously breathtaking scenery. I really couldn't believe how randomly and swiftly the clouds moved through the valley and over the mountains. It was like being in another world. It made you feel like you were in a very remote and special place, a place where you simply don't belong and a place in which you're very privileged to be. We looked down on to and right through the Hollyford Valley over to Lake McKerrow at the far north of the Fiordland, leading on to Martins Bay and right out to the Tasman Sea - incredible! It was absolutely miles away and we were just plain lucky to be blessed with the rare visibility of actually seeing it with our own eyes. An abundance of thick cloud and mist more often than not veils these magnificent views from the intrepid explorer so the chance of seeing what we saw that afternoon was very, very slim. Lucky again?!
After crossing the Harris saddle and following the magnificent experience at Conical Hill, we headed down deep in to the valley to our fourth and final hut. In the early evening we discovered that the weather was due its third change. Heavy snow was on its way and we were quite conveniently sat like a sitting duck, perched on the side of a mountain as exposed as you could possibly be. Our hut was overlooked by a private hut that is owned and used by a private company that takes trekkers on 'guided' walks. They trek along the same route, but they just do it 'in style'. When they finally arrive at their 'accommodation' they get to have a nice hot shower before sitting snugly in the warm cosy lounge area sipping wine while their dinner is cooked for them. Afterwards they can relax and get a good night's sleep nestled comfortably in clean, crisp linen. Should they need the toilet at any time, they can enjoy the use of their very own en-suite facilities. They even have wallpaper on the walls(!) with the odd, scenic picture conveniently placed displaying two-dimensionally what they have seen or missed that day - just so that 'they know'. There is a helicopter pad just beside the hut (also private) that is used to drop off their crates of goodies TWICE a week. I'll say no more other than I have a very appropriate expression my face as I write this. By the way, to do the same trek as we did with a guide and all the comfort and goodies costs between $1,600 and $2,500, depending on what optional extras one prefers. Ours cost $100.
Back in the cosy huddle of our powerless, showerless hovel, the DOC hut warden stressed that everyone was to hold on till beyond 8:30am the next morning until the conditions had been re-assessed thoroughly. It was likely that the track may have to be closed due to the weather, returning everyone back down to the Routeburn shelter. The temperature had dropped considerably and I quietly felt a sense of concern and seriousness drift around the hut. It felt like we were so isolated from anywhere, yet to me it still had a strange, warm presence and feel about it that came simply by being there.
That night I got up to pee around 1:30am. Afterwards and for as long as I could stand the chill I stood on the balcony of the hut and looked out. The valley beneath us was enchantingly illuminated under the white beam of the full moon and the mountain shadowing the valley was slowly being draped and cloaked in snow - a metamorphosis that made me instantly excited to see the result of in the morning. It was bitter cold but there was still that warm feel to it. It was like watching a 'White Christmas' unfold before my very eyes, a real soul-warming experience. As magical as this was, it came with a powerful, elemental 'eeriness' that quietly put me in my place. It was vast, grand, monumental and serious. I knew that it could potentially get a lot worse. We were quite exposed on the edge of that valley and anything could happen. Once again though we were lucky and following a couple of random snowball fights and a little extra caution on the track we made it out quite safely. As we descended through the valley it was as if we were walking through something straight out of a fairytale. It was magical and enchanting - and simply wonderful.
We made it out and off the track around 1pm where Mannion turned up shortly after with 'Mee-shell' and Jo to get us back to Queenstown and back to civilisation. On the way back Traoine asked us if we'd seen Wesley Snipes!?! (Apparently he's filming at the moment in the Glenorchy area). I've got to say that although there are a lot of people who would have been desperate to make it back to regular civilisation and 'normality', part of me was sad that it was all over. I felt like I could have carried on for days. I can't really explain why. Maybe it's the spiritual rewards that overshadow everything else. To be isolated away from civilisation or any kind of 'norm' like that is exciting and endearing. There is just something about it. In a silly, corny sense it makes you feel different - kind of special I suppose. To stay in a small hut with no heating or lighting and to immerse yourself in the middle of the most incredible and potentially harsh wilderness whilst the multitude bathe in luxurious comfort without a second thought, generates an excitement that cannot be described. It's a really special feeling. To be where we were, hear what we heard and to see what we saw means either getting out there on foot over a number of days, or hovering over in a helicopter (which still doesn't really capture the very 'feel' of the environment). The majority of people just wouldn't get to see it and that in itself adds such a special satisfaction to the whole experience.
But it's this spiritual thing that's bothering me, like I mentioned at the very beginning. In some ways the rewards and feelings that I've earned from doing this are similar to some of the feelings I came away from Africa with, but nowhere near as deep-seated. Actually that's wrong; it's just very, very different. I was awe struck at times and I got to see again what a beautiful, stunning and magnificent country this is. But maybe it's not enough? Or not enough for now? That would be more precise.
Over the last five days there were moments when I felt those familiar feelings of spiritual connection and I welcomed them. And when I say this I'm not just talking about getting out there in the wild amongst the elements, the very 'act' of doing it, the physical 'facts'. This is different. In fact it's ten times more than that and far, far deeper. It's that spiritual thing again. There is certainly something in that and I know it's where the real awe and the real feelings come from. But as frustrated as it makes me, I don't understand it. I don't even know why. Maybe it's because I'm too young or too inexperienced? Maybe I'm just not ready to understand yet? I don't know. I just know that I don't understand it. But I crave it. It's a feeling that has made me feel more alive than I have ever felt before. So yes, I want more of it. Much more.
Anyway, we're back safe with rosy cheeks and all I can do now is sit tight, cross my fingers and hope whole-heartedly that my foot doesn't start bitching and moaning in the next two or three days. I've never really been one to 'hope' but.....Pleeeeease!!!