By LEE YU CHUANG
“Friday: Rain with gale force winds?!”
We stared incredulously at the weather forecast pinned on the wall of the Department of Conservation (DOC) office in Queenstown, in the South Island of New Zealand. Visions of my family members huddled and frozen into human popsicles crossed my mind.
Fortunately, for people like us, New Zealand has a handpicked list of hiking (or, as the locals call it, tramping) trails called the Great Walks.
Apart from showcasing glorious “100% pure New Zealand” scenery, the Great Walks are equipped with huts which have bunk beds, gas kitchens, flush toilets, solar-powered lighting and clean water supply – and even a DOC Ranger in attendance.
Yes, you still need to lug your own clothes, food and utensils in (and cart all your personal rubbish out, mind you), but the other essentials are mainly provided for.
Our chosen slice of heaven, the Routeburn, is a 32km track typically walked over three days/two nights. You basically start on one side of a mountain range, and make your way over to the other. But oh, what a walk it is.
It had been raining that entire morning. But as we drove into the trail head car park at Mount Aspiring National Park, a little miracle happened. The clouds parted and the first sunbeams, I swear, fell directly onto our car.
As we took our first buoyant strides, we found ourselves in a lush green forest, adorned with carpets of moss, and surrounded by towering ancient beech trees.
Fresh from the rain, gurgling brooks and mini waterfalls sprouted crystal clear streams from every corner – water so abundant that it is said that when you walk the Routeburn, you don’t need to bring a water bottle, you just need a cup.
And so we happily drank natural “mineral water” – for the entire journey. Never before or since have we tasted water so pure, sweet and fresh. (All the same, do prepare a water bottle in case it’s the dry season.)
As we broke a sweat, the chilly mountain winds would periodically rustle through the woods. In the background, there seemed to be a perpetual roar of a distant river or waterfall. And every so often, the birdsong of a native fantail or rifleman would beckon us to look above, teasing us to spot them.
Once or twice, our path would be bisected by a sporadic stream, such that we had to take off our shoes, and gingerly cross it barefooted. The streams were so icy cold that our legs were felt numb below our knees.
After several hours of such delightful tramping, we reached the first hut at Routeburn Flats, set on a picturesque green valley fronting a languid shallow stream with a startlingly pretty backdrop of mountains. We enjoyed a brief picnic on the lawn before reluctantly continuing our journey.
We now embarked on a sheer brutal ascent, on jagged paths carved out of solid rock. Huffing and puffing, we inched upwards to the tree line – where larger trees struggle to thrive and smaller shrubs dominate the landscape.
Shortly before 8pm, we reached Routeburn Falls Hut (altitude 1000m) where we would rest for the night. Despite the hour, it was still bright and cheery, for during the New Zealand summer, the sun only sets at 10pm.
We joined around 50 hikers in the large communal kitchen, most of whom were already enjoying a post-meal cup of hot tea and exchanging stories.
It was evident that we were not the only family there. Some had even younger children, but they were only walking part of the track.
Also of note were a significant number of hikers in their senior years, still hale and hearty in body and spirit. It was a inspiring reminder to take care of oneself and to seek out enjoyable challenges for as long as we are able to.
Soon after dinner, everybody retired into their sleeping bags as the sub-zero winds howled away through the moon-lit mountains.
Perhaps it was just my bladder calling but I was the first to awake at dawn. Bundled in my down jacket in the still morning calm, I parked myself on a bench outside and watched the purplish crimson sun rising stately over the east.
After breakfast, we were excited to get going, for today we were walking over the mountains. Everywhere as far as the eye could see, there were only hardy sub-alpine bushes, no taller than our thighs.
We were surrounded by sheer panorama. Swathes of rugged rock formations were interspersed with freshwater tarns glistening with reflections of upside-down clouds. In the distance, the mountains soberly stood guard, their shoulders flecked with old snow from last winter.
Suddenly, we realised that we were smack in the realm of the Lord of the Rings, the absolute real deal. Grabbing twigs and walking poles, we broke into imaginary sword fights, half expecting hobbits, bearded wizards and snarling orcs to spring into battle from this nook or that cranny.
After sidling along the bluffs above Lake Harris, a turquoise mountain lake, we put on our wind jackets. Today was Friday, the day that gale-force winds had been foretold by the meteorological department.
As we rounded the top of the mountain saddle, ready to be blown off our feet, the air merely hung unexpectedly still. As luck would have it,we had arrived in the quiet after the storm. What brilliant timing.
A quick sandwich lunch at the shelter and we were off again, downhill at last. Except that now, we were officially on the western side of South Island NZ, in Fiordland National Park.
On our right, there was now a sheer drop down the vast verdant Hollyford Valley, flanked by the imposing granite Darran mountain range on the far side. Far below, the Hollyford River carved a thin snake-like slash over a bed of sand. We could see for miles and miles in every direction.
Lest anyone takes these conditions for granted, it pays to be aware that the Fiordland bears the brunt of the Tasman oceanic winds, and hence receives the highest amount of rainfall in the entire country, up to 8000mm per year.
Hikers coming through this very same route the previous day found themselves locked in dense fog and bone-chilling rain. They could not see beyond a few meters in front of them.
The following morning we witnessed a virtual white-out as fog rolled in within minutes to blanket the entire scenery. Had we set off a day earlier or later, we would have been caught out in a nasty way.
After several hours of traversing the open landscape, ever mindful of our good fortune, we finally sighted enchanting Lake MacKenzie beckoning in the far distance below us.
We descended below the tree line and into another world. On account of the prodigious rainfall that it receives, the Fiordland is a veritable mossy fairyland. Old gnarly oaks wore velvety coats of green, walls of moss merged into mysterious rocky passages, dripping with fresh dew. It was ripe for elves and imps to play hide-and-seek. Utterly magical.
Now we know why the Routeburn track is so unique: It held surprise after surprise at every turn of the way. From beech forests to sub-alpine meadows, from waterfalls to lakes, soaring mountains to jaw-dropping vistas, this place has it all, and more.
Upon reaching Lake MacKenzie Hut, we had one more task to achieve. With snow-capped mountains behind us, all the boys stripped down to their shorts. Before our courage abandoned us, we all ran yelling and splashing like madmen into the freezing cold lake for a mind-numbing dip. Our endurance record was all of two seconds, before we had to leap out screaming in pain!
The DOC advises that on the Routeburn track, “Be prepared for at least one rainy day”. And true to their word, we awoke the next morning to the patter of fine rain.
This part of the world looked like it had been wet for an eternity. The forest was lush with ferns and lichen, it was vivid with every imaginable shade of green. Sounds of cold moisture dripping from leaves and gushing from countless streams and waterfalls enveloped our aural senses, as thin veils of mist glided through the trees. Nature was profoundly alive.
We passed the base of the mighty and ear-splittingly loud Earland Falls, which thundered spectacularly from 174m above. Thence, it was all the way all to the Divide, the point where our Routeburn journey ended for us.
Many years ago, while on a different sojourn through New Zealand, I had passed this exact same spot (by car) and asked hikers: “How is the Routeburn Track?” And all of them would nod with unfeigned delight: “It’s great! You should do it!”
And so it came to pass that as we came to the shelter at the Divide, a German hitchhiker approached me – with the same expression of wonder that I bore all those years ago – and asked: “So how is it?”
And all I could do was to turn, catch her in the eye, and say: “Just do it!”