Routeburn and Caples Tracks

So despite the Kepler track making every part of my body ache, I decided to head out for another 60 kilometers. However, instead of taking the three to four days that I suggest to everyone who comes to the visitor center, I crammed it into two because I guess I am some kind of masochist. My body is destroyed. My knees hurt when they are bent and straight. My feet, basically soaked for two days, feel like needles and my butt has chafed so bad it was actually bleeding. Muscle aches are nothing too concerning. Butt bleeding is new for me. Sorry to be so graphic but I feel like for those of you who take this post as evidence that you too can push yourself to walk a marathon a day over two mountain saddles with thirty pounds on your back, you should know the consequences. By the last hour of this track I was on my last leg and every inch of me was protesting, every mossy rock was beckoning me. When Alex appeared from the opposite direction I literally wept. That being said… WORTH IT!!

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I started on the Caples track which forms a loop with the Greenstone track and meets up with the Routeburn. The Caples is a fairly easy stroll through Ngai Tahu farm land. It follows the Caples river through the valley.

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I started out so fresh, clean, and strong. I learned my lesson on the Kepler about packing too many outfits so my bag was significantly lighter and my back seemed initially pleased with my new found packing skills. I easily made it up to the first hut and had some lunch with Daniel the hut warden at Midcaples. He was on his day off and it involved hand washing his laundry and then having coffee by the lovely canyon that runs next to his abode.

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There were a few others at Midcaples hut but my goal was to make it to McKellar, another 20 or so kilometers up the valley. After I left Daniel’s hut I had the whole track to myself. Well except for all the fluffy trampers who blocked my path.

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Until the climb up to McKellar saddle, the route is easy going. There are quite a few big streams to cross that can flood in heavy rain but my boots survived with minimal sogginess. And you have to get your feet a little wet anyways. Otherwise its not even tramping, according to Kiwis.

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The valley is wide open so its easy to see the weather ahead. I knew the sunshine was going to end because the mountain pass ahead of me was coming in an out of view every ten minutes. Luckily the rain didn’t start coming down until I was back into the bush and I was able to keep from being drenched.

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McKellar Saddle only sits around 900 meters above sea level so the climb is fairly easy as well. The path up is lined by greenstone. Apparently its only called Jade if it comes from China but regardless its pretty cool walking over giant gem boulders on the track. In another stroke of luck I reached the top and the clouds had dissipated again. Clear views of the surrounding area!

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The last of the clouds slipping away.

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I absolutely love the alpine crossing over the saddles here. When you emerge from the bush into the weird red tussocks and strange little lakes it feels like another planet. The tracks here often have steep climbs and you can see a clear difference between the plants as you move up. Its like a high school science class in action. The McKellar saddle doesn’t last long and you are quickly plunged back into the beautiful valley below.

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The track starts to turn around a lake and the fauna changes again. The rain forest! The trees in Fiordland are covered in moss and the air feels damp and cool. The ground is softer as well which is a nice change for feet that have already put in twenty miles.

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With the hut being only twenty minutes off I almost broke out into a run. After nine hours of walking all I could think about was lessening my load by emptying some of my trusty wine bag and crawling into my sleeping bag. McKellar hut was the perfect place for it. Only had to share a big room with three other people and the hut itself is beautifully isolated in the forest.

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Unfortunately I didn’t sleep very well but I managed to pull myself out of bed at 6 in the morning and get ready for the strenuous adventure ahead. Alex and I had worked out an elaborate plan using hut wardens and radios to find out if he would be waiting for me in the car park at five in the evening. So the entire plan hinged on me making it over the massive saddle and all the way to the Routeburn Falls hut by the afternoon radio call at 4:15 otherwise we would have no other way to contact each other. Which meant I had to take minimal breaks, leave as early as possible, and beat every time the DOC has listed on their signs. It was probably the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. Because Routeburn is a Great Walk, I thought that the track would be easy. This did not turn out to be the case at all.

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In this section I had to use hands and legs to get up. The two glasses of wine I demolished the night before didn’t improve the weight of the pack much and I was feeling every pound of it. It was chilly out but the massive amounts of sweat amplified by that green house moistness effect of a rain coat made the mist coming off of the huge Earland Falls quite refreshing.

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The track evened out a bit and I was starting to finally run into others on the path. This is one reason why the Caples and other non Great Walks are so awesome. The Great Walks are very popular and very busy. The huts limit the amount of people on them which helps limit the highway feeling and I think for most people it wouldn’t be bothersome at all. But the Routeburn track is our visitor center’s baby so nearly every person on the track had come into contact with me prior to their journey. Which means a lot of stopping and “Hey don’t I know you?” and “Hey its the DOC girl!” In some ways its nice to be surrounded by so many friendly people, but at the same time I was on a pretty desperate mission to reach the radio by four and just had to keep pushing past. By the time I made it to the stunning Lake McKenzie I was forty five minutes ahead of schedule.

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Lake McKenzie is truly stunning. Perfectly clear emerald waters way up in the clouds. Not warm enough for a swim but a charming place to wolf down some muesli. Both my undershirt and outer layer were soaked by this time so I switched them out for the only dry merino coat I had left in hopes of avoiding being to cold on the saddle up ahead. I still had hundreds of meters to climb and the clouds looming around the peaks did not look very inviting.

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Up and up and up. After about an hour of heart exploding climbing you can still see Lake McKenzie and that peaceful little hut below. I sat on a rock and gulped down more water. My merino sweater that I just put on was now completely soaked as well. I wanted to rip out my survival bag and try and turn it into a paragliding thingy and fly myself back to that peaceful little hut. I started wondering if there was any chance I would actually make it. It was already noon and I needed to make it to Routeburn Falls by 4:15 and the DOC sign said I still had five hours to go. I looked up and saw two people coming my direction from the other side and they smiled at me and said, “Don’t worry! Once you pass that rock right there its flat for like four or five kilometers!” I wanted to literally kiss them. But I smelled really bad… So I popped another Hokey Pokey chocolate into my mouth and stood up. I was welcomed with the beautiful sights of the Hollyford on the other side, and it was clear enough to see all the way to the ocean (at least I think. It looked like the ocean!).

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Once the path flattened I was renewed in energy. I could feel my toes starting to blister but I was overjoyed by the open views of the braided river below and the tons of waterfalls that fell down to it from high above. Even the sun was attempting to peek out. It didn’t and by Harris Saddle I was in a hale storm but it tried and that’s what counts!
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Any way by the time I reached the saddle I had beat the DOC time by an hour and a half. I sat for five minutes and ate more chocolate in victory. At the top there is another lake, Lake Harris, that empties into hundreds of waterfalls all the way down to the Routeburn Falls.

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The fact that I was now going downhill did not make things any easier. Actually with all the hiking we have been doing Alex and I both agree that going downhill is much harder. I’ll probably never admit it while actively going uphill but down hill rocks your bones and for this bit of the trail your actually climbing down through a stream and with the rain each wrong planted foot was a recipe for a tumble. Luckily they threw in a handrail every so often. Guess that’s why its a great walk!

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I finally made it to Routeburn falls with an hour and fifteen minutes to spare until the radio. I was actually going to make it! I was so excited to see the hut warden and he handed me the radio and I was able to call direct to Alex. I knew I wasn’t going to make it out by our original time of five but he said he’d wait for me so I started racing to the finish. Three hours to go, mostly through bush, and the track had finally become a nicely formed trail. I was flying… until I made it to Routeburn Flats. This is the last hut on the journey and the sign to the car park read an hour and a half left and my body physically crapped out. Every step made me want to scream and the straps on my bag felt like axes. I felt every rock under my foot. The butt rubbing started to feel like fire. There were prickles and tweaks in every tendon and I finally accepted that I wasn’t going to make it. I figured I would just hit the ground and sleep forever and nobody would find me until the morning. I took a seat on a rock and chugged the last of my water hoping that the small amount of weight loss would make a difference. I thought of the chance of having Dominos that evening and stood back up. With every last bit of my energy I took off running. To an outsider it would probably be considered more like a limping gallop but it was all I had left until in front of me was the most beautiful glowing orange human I’d ever seen. Alex in all of his hi-vis gear coming towards me to take the murderous bag. And I will repeat, I cried actual tears.

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In summary. The Routeburn track is spectacular. Breathtaking. Challenging. If you try to combine it with another 30k track and then cram it all into two days you’re going to cry. But I’m not going to say don’t do it. My brother is cramming in two 50k runs back to back even though he’s never done one before. That’s just kind of what we do.


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