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August 2, 2003
We awoke to a steady downpour. Socks and boots outside the hut were wet, and people grumbled as they collected soggy clothes hanging outside to dry.
It had been a quiet night and quite comfortable in Mackenzie hut, despite sleeping nose to nose with perfect strangers. Rather than individual bunks, up to 8 people shared flat padded surfaces on upper or lower bunks. Luckily, the French couple next to us didn't snore, wear headlamps or rustle noisy wrappers in the night, and a wall was on our other side.
We dug out protective rain covers for our backpacks, and ate breakfast on the trail as we began the last leg of our journey. The trail was flat for the first three hours. We crossed two swing bridges over Roaring Creek and passed numerous waterfalls in a fairyland forest of moss-covered rocks, beech trees and giant ferns. At one point, we walked through a cleared area, known as the Orchard, which had ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, although we didn't pause to look too closely in the pouring rain.
Back in the rainforest, we teetered across swing bridges swaying over surging, swollen rivers, catching the spray of cascading waterfalls that thankfully hadn't washed out the trail. Signs marked detour routes for occasions when the falls render the trail impassable. Earland Falls is the big one that you hear before you see. Through the misty rain we saw the 1000 foot stream thundering down from a high mountain.
Ah, surely the finest walk on earth belongs to this trek, not the Milford!
At the three hour mark we came to Howden hut situated on a lake. Just one hour from the end of the Routeburn Track, the only trampers that stay here are those who didn't make reservations for Mackenzie hut early enough. But it does make a nice place to stop for toilets or tea. Elevensies anyone?
After Howden hut, we ascended the only difficult climb of the day, a 15 minute steep incline. At the top, the optional trail to Key Summit was visible. Although it was rainy and cloudy erasing views from the mountain, I wanted to learn about the strange and beautiful plants I'd seen along the Routeburn.
So we hid our packs and walked up the gradual switchbacks to Key Summit. An easy waltz along a boardwalk led us past tarns, bogs and alpine meadows. Unfortunately, written guides describing the eight stations in the Nature Loop were missing so it wasn't informative, but the fascinating plants were worthwhile to see regardless. Within 45 minutes we were back on the main trail.
Just under an hour, we reached the grand finale of the Routeburn, the Divide. Soaked and feeling giddy, we broke into impromptu song and dance mimicking our daughter's favorite cartoon character, Dora, "We did it! We did it . . . yeah!"
From journal Tramping the Routeburn...one of NZ's Great Walks
Those who preferred to stay up late did so in the communal dining area nicely separated from the 48 bed bunkhouse. It was the perfect place for an entertaining group of 12 Kiwi women to catch up on each other's lives on their annual pilgrimage hooting it up with loud laughter, wine and warm camaraderie. I admired their spirit and ambition to hike a different Great Walk together each year. What a great idea!
Everyone was up by 7am, although some left at 5am to get an early start on the six hour hike. Chilly and cloudy, the mountains looked faint through misty fog. We ate protein bars for breakfast as we scurried up rocks behind the hut. The trail climbed past thundering waterfalls, then leveled out across an open alpine basin strewn with white daisies and golden tussock grasses. Majestic snow-capped mountains appeared near, but the Routeburn river curved through the valley far below.
An hour later we came to glacier-fed Lake Harris. Striking. Thick white clouds rolled in as we rounded the lake and approached Harris Shelter, where Kiwis were having morning tea. The impressive Darran Mountains seen just moments before were replaced by a thick white fog for the rest of the day. No wonder so few took the optional climb to Conical Hill (1-2 hour hike).
The next section was an exposed hike along a bluff normally overlooking Hollyford Valley and Darran mountains but clouds completely obliterated our view. Lush strange vegetation at our feet was fascinating. Clumps of hardy mountain daisies, tufts of flax, tussock grasses and unusual shrubs, plants and flowers were thick along the trail. As we neared a waterfall, kea parrots mischievously "attacked" my unsuspecting husband, swooping and screaming in sudden mayhem, nearly sending him over the cliff.
Loud rumbling noises in the cloaked Darran mountain range sounded like thunder but were chunks of ice breaking free and crashing from an avalanche we later learned from our hut warden.
The trail sharply descended down a visible zigzag for over an hour. The path scattered with cumbersome boulders and ankle-twisting rocks was surprisingly difficult. But the reward was a magical, ancient moss-encrusted rainforest at the end.
We crept through this eerie primeval forest half-expecting to see little elves peering from aged beech trees with gnarly red trunks and twisted branches heavily draped in mosses and lichens up to 700 years old. Everything but the rocks in our path was dramatically smothered in velvety-green.
But the jewel was Lake Mackenzie—clear, emerald green water punctuated with designer outcroppings nestled in towering mountains. By 3pm, most hikers had arrived and converged on this scenic shore to read, relax and mingle until darkness and sandflies chased us into Mackenzie hut.
Most of today's hike followed the Routeburn River. The beautifully colored aquamarine water vibrantly contrasted against vivid white limestone rocks in the river bed and lush, green giant ferns in the beech forest. Gorgeous!
Along the way we crossed five swing bridges, which were a bit unnerving at first. The two narrow planks that make up the bridge do swing, and it's hard to stay balanced with bulky backpacks swaying side to side with each tentative step. It was fun to see how far we could get across before frantically lunging for the railings.
A boardwalk protected fragile vegetation in places. Ferns were everywhere. Waist-high. Shoulder-high. THIS was the New Zealand I had come to see! I kept stopping to take photographs until my husband complained about my dawdling. (Ironically, rolls of film AND my telephoto lens got lost by the end of the trip, so I have few photos of day one.)
The colorful river winding through the forest provided a beautiful backdrop for trampers perched on rocks basking in the sun enjoying morning tea.
For lunch we stopped at the two hour mark where the trail forks off to Routeburn Flats hut. This perfect spot overlooked the river with snow-capped mountains in the background, and a waterfall cascading high in a green mountain opposite the shore. Although it was 70 F and sunny, it was chilly when we stopped hiking, and I was glad I'd packed a fleece pullover to throw over my coolmax tee.
Up until now it had been a gradual ascent. But the next hour was grueling. Out came our hiking poles and up, up, up we went. A sheer drop off on the right made each step a calculated decision, our backpacks swaying in counter balance as we precariously advanced over rocky terrain, attempting to find the stablest rocks to keep us upright. At the top, the trail leveled off and went through a landslide area damaged in 1994 which created a stunning view of the valley and river now far below. After another killer 15 minute climb (1000 ft ascent in last hour), we arrived at the hut.
Falls Hut was awesome! Cantilevered over a forest floor, the 48 bed bunkhouse (new in 1996) had amazing views of the mountains from it's long verandah. Clean bathrooms had flush toilets, sinks. The kitchen had gas burners, and two levels of wooden dining tables under huge picture windows. In the backyard was nature's icy shower, a thundering waterfall just two minutes away.
Spent the afternoon writing, exploring the waterfalls and talking politics with Canadians and Kiwis in the evening—interesting to say the least. Everyone wanted to know our perspective (only Americans present) on the possible approaching war . . .