That sea captain in Kaikoura was right. The massive storm from Antarctica reached New Zealand just when he predicted: the very day we began hiking the Routeburn Track. The meteorological chaos it spawned nearly killed us. Now that we’ve survived it, Steve and I agree: we’ve never experienced anything remotely similar; it was unforgettable.
First a bit of background. New Zealand is a country of keen hikers, and they’ve created thousands of trails lacing through both of the big islands. Among them, ten treks are considered the most sublime. They’re known as the Great Tracks.
Of these, the Milford Track is most famous, an item on many a bucket list world-wide. When I started planning this trip, I originally thought we would hike the Milford Track. But then I read that some folks consider the nearby Routeburn Track to be even better. It’s a bit tougher, but shorter (a little more than 20 miles covered over three days and two nights, versus the four days and three nights it takes to walk the Milford Track’s 33.5 miles. Hiking the Routeburn thus takes less time and costs less money, and all these things made me think we should do it instead.
You can hike any of the Great Hikes on your own, paying modest trail fees and sleeping in cheerless, uncomfortable government huts. Or you can do as we did: splurge by paying an expedition company to provide expert guides who lead one to private lodges where you sleep in warm beds and eat meals prepared by excellent chefs. We started our adventure with a Thursday afternoon briefing at the Ultimate Hikes office in Queenstown. Then our group of 16 (9 kiwis, 5 Australians, Steve, and me) reassembled shortly after dawn Friday morning. A bus transported us for three hours to a point known as The Divide. Shortly before 11, we were striding down the trailhead under leaden skies, with only a slight mist dampening the path.
The weather worsened but never got truly bad that first day. My feet, protected by my fancy new “waterproof” hiking shoes stayed dry well into the afternoon, and I actively enjoyed several of the first hours. The path led through dense and eerie forests, first uphill, then down along paths that varied from good gravel to treacherous rocks to elevated walkways, in places.A stop at the Howden rest hut revived us with hot drinks, though the warning board outside bore grim news.Around mid-afternoon I reached Earland Falls, a magnificent cascade of icy water plunging down the mountain face in the most ostentatious way imaginable. At first I thought we were meant to admire it from a distance. Then I realized we had to negotiate a ledge cutting in front of the cascade in order to continue on. The minute or two it took me to battle my way through the saturating spray froze me with its combination of bone-chilling cold and terror (as close as an encounter with a Dementor as I ever hope to have.) Somehow in the violent passage I ripped up one of my beautiful new merino possum gloves, and once past, it took me several minutes to begin to recover any feeling in my fingers. That gave me time to see Steve survive the passage.
We heard from the guides that we should reach our first night’s lodge in another hour and a half. Most of that required climbing uphill for a long time, over trail that increasingly was flooded with storm water.
The last hour or so, a steep downhill stretch, was hardest. I felt groggy with exhaustion, yet mindful that a misstep down the wet rocks could send me sprawling off the narrow path, to break bones or rip ligaments or smash my head on a rock on my way down the abyss. It was close to 5:30 by the time I stumbled into the private lodge owned by Ultimate Hikes. Steve, bringing up the rear, arrived about 20 minutes after me.
We warmed up, dried our clothes…
…ate well, enjoyed a lively dinner conversation, then went to bed. But about 2 in the morning, deep explosions of sound awakened everyone —thunder overwhelming the incessant roar of rain smashing down upon the lodge’s roof. (We later heard that more than 200 lightning strikes were recorded in the area, an all-time historic record, someone said.) “We would die if we were caught out in that,” I thought.
As it turned out, I was wrong. We eventually were caught in something similar, and it’s hard to communicate how difficult that turned out to be. Sitting at dinner, after we’d survived it, I commented that at least it would make for good storytelling. “But no one will believe you,” said one of the Australian women, part of a group of four chums celebrating their 30th high school reunion. They were tough accomplished women, all of them, among the fittest of our our whole group, but another of them observed, “When the kiwis say a hike is Intermediate [as the Routeburn is labeled], I’ve come to realize that means Difficult.”
The second day we started out in driving rain, climbing up to magnificent (if fog-enshrouded) views of the valley where we’d spent the night. After an hour or two, we stopped for a hot drink, and the guides told us to put on any extra heavy-weather gear we were carrying. We would be rounding a rock wall and hiking for the rest of the day on a ledge exposed to all of the elements. I donned my down jacket (over the three layers I was already wearing) then zipped up my heavy rubber rain jacket over that. With no warming, the sky flashed white, and a few seconds later, a peal of thunder boomed.
Over the next several hours, fierce winds blasted us with hail. Over long stretches, we slogged through icy run-off that at times was several inches deep. The thunder and lightning continued, always unexpected and frightening. Not that more warning would have helped; no shelter existed. At times the wind blew so strongly, I had to dig in my hiking poles to stay erect. One 60-mile-an-hour gust pushed me over, happily against the wall of the mountain rather than away from it.
Again, all of us made it eventually to that day’s lodge, though we learned that the group which had started up the Routeburn the day after us had NOT been able to get around Earland Falls, by then swollen by the downpour to monstrous proportions. Those poor trekkers had to retrace their steps all the way back to The Divide, we learned, where there was talk of helicoptering them out.
For a while, I thought we might snag a chopper ride too. That second night our guides hinted the rivers downhill from us might be too flooded to cross. But the third day dawned calmer, and they said we would walk as far as possible.The rain slackened and disappeared. We ran into one unexpected obstacle…
We crossed a few scary bridges.But the river the guides had feared might block us never overwhelmed the bridge that spans it. Plus we were moving through forest again, which made the journey more soothing. By 2 in the afternoon, our hike was over.
I’ve been trying to figure out how I feel about it. Certainly, it would have been more fun and pleasant had the sun shone. We would have been able to drink in the glorious views, unobscured by storm clouds and drenching downpours. Spring flowers might have been blooming, as they are in the Ultimate Hikes promotional video. The trek still would have been physically demanding. But it would have fallen into the realm of the normal.
Any time you commit to a trek in a place with unpredictable weather, however, you have to accept that fate may serve up the violent, savage stuff. What happens then? It was interesting to observe how gamely all our trekking mates took it. Everyone joked a lot. We kept our cool. I reached points along the trail where I wondered how I could go on, and then I learned: you just do. You have to. Over and over I noted how easy it would be to trip up and die. But I never thought, “I’m going to die.” I just did my best not to trip.
Experiences like this change you, at least temporarily. Thought subsides, replaced by concentration on the moment. Only afterward do the reflections crowd in. In the aftermath, I’m proud of myself (and Steve) for accomplishing this. I’m humbled by how much worse we did than almost everyone else in the group. But I also feel vindicated. New Zealand offers epic hiking adventures, and we wanted to have at least one while we still could handle it. We squeaked in under the wire.