Nick Groves leaves the manicured Routeburn Track for alpine passes and tarns in seldom-trod side valleys
It isn’t that I have anything in particular against our most popular hikes, nowadays branded together under the ‘Great Walks’ banner, it’s just that generally I prefer to avoid these busy tracks over the summer season.
The last time I did the Routeburn from end to end was sometime last century. On that particular trip, my two companions and I didn’t encounter a single other person on the entire trail during the four days we enjoyed this classic route through the mountains of Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. Admittedly, we chose to do the trip in the middle of a very hard and snowy August, when the only sensible method of traveling through this winter landscape was on skis, which stayed on our boots from the first swing bridge until we skied onto the Milford Road.
Fast forward a number of years and the popularity of the Routeburn has increased hugely, due in part to the International Big Sell of a selection of our better-known (‘iconic’ is the term generally used) backcountry trails. Marie was keen to experience a taste of a justifiably famous walk, but not especially keen to do so in mid-winter, so I devised a slight variation, in fact a complete deviation, from the well-trodden, and quite likely fully booked, trail.
Upon arriving at the car park and modern day-shelter complex at the start of the track, I felt my stubborn refusal to join the crowds completely vindicated. Being a warm afternoon in mid January, there was barely a place left to squeeze in our car, suggesting that the track and huts along the way were going to be anything but far from the madding crowds.
Shouldering slightly larger packs than most people would consider carrying for this trail, we set off along the perfectly graded track and over a sturdy swingbridge underneath towering stands of red beech. It was easy to see why such a highly maintained footpath attracts so many visitors; there is a certain pleasure in being able to look around and above instead of being forced to keep eyes glued to the ground for the usual rocks, mud and tree roots that adorn many backcountry trails.
There were a fair few people lazing in the late afternoon sun at Routeburn Flats Hut, but this was to be our first and only taste of the Great Walk’s Experience, as my plans from here were to head north to where tracks are less-distinct and huts nonexistent. This would not exactly be the classic Routeburn, but it would involve some beautiful forested trails, a high pass or three, a bit of sidling along mountainsides, more than a couple of picturesque mountain lakes, views of ice-covered peaks and even the occasional waterfall. All this, I assured Marie, would be achieved in roughly the same time as it takes to cross the Ailsa Mountains to the Milford Road by way of the Routeburn.
The track leading across grassy flats and into the North Branch of the Route Burn was well-trodden, no doubt providing an exploratory stroll for those early arrivals at the hut with some energy still to burn. Fairly soon the hut became a mere speck in a very large landscape, with shapely Emily Peak rising up to the south. The track weaves through sections of forest interspersed with grassy flats and a few swampy tarns, with the melodic sound of the tumbling river never far away.
After a late start combined with first day lassitude, we soon searched out a camping spot among a jumble of old boulders just above the river, the tantalisingly level grassy flats being never quite dry enough. These north-south valleys have the disadvantage that all-too-soon the sun drops behind the inconveniently placed mountain barrier to the west, and despite being high summer the temperature drops rapidly. A plentiful supply of firewood alongside the river and a suitably safe and stony fireplace ensured that our ‘wilderness camp’ came with all the trimmings.
The next day started with a surprise frost which, combined with the slow arrival of any sun at the camp, guaranteed we departed fairly late for the crossing of North Col at the head of the valley. Once underway, we were further delayed by the antics of a pair of blue duck – their proficient white water techniques threatening to distract us from the job in hand.
In the clear morning air, the narrow tongue of snow that led up to the pass looked far closer than was actually the case, and we felt in no particular hurry to rush through this delightfully empty country. Filling our vista up valley, the peaks of Somnus and Nereus next to the col lured us ever upwards. The going proved slow, especially when getting lost among the large, mossy boulders and dense scrub-covered moraine that lay strewn around the valley floor. It was amongst this maze of rocks that we bumped into a couple of Queenslanders – the only people we were to encounter over the next four days – who had completed our trip in reverse. They enthused about the route and reported the snow gully leading to the col was straightforward and didn’t require crampons or ice axes in the softening conditions. Unfortunately our news of major flooding in Queensland was not such welcome information.
A profusion of mountain daisies and a large mountain buttercup (Ranunculus buchananii) littered the approaches to North Col, yet another excuse to take our time rather than hurry through such alpine delights.
The snow-filled gully proved far easier and quicker than the endless rocks, and by mid afternoon we were gazing over Fiordland’s rugged landscape, with forest-cloaked Hidden Falls Valley directly below and the unmistakable ice-covered peaks of Mts Tutuko and Madeline on the horizon. Moir’s Guide offered a choice of routes to Lake Nerine, our planned destination for the night. A lower route from the col sounded less dramatic than a high sidle across scree and snowgrass, and although entertaining in places, led to a point at 1580m from where we could gaze upon the exquisite azure waters of the alpine tarn.
With shadows lengthening and many photo opportunities awaiting below, we scurried down scree slopes to the deserted shores of the lake, and while Marie scoped out a campsite for the night, I banged off too much film on clusters of the creamy buttercups that adorned the otherwise stony shoreline of the lake. Moir’s description of this high altitude lake as ‘a very special place’ is not an exaggeration, and after the last rays of sunlight had left our camp, but continued to backlight the rugged crags above, we relaxed into that trampers space of the Here and Now.
The next day suggested the possibility of some challenges that had been worrying Marie, especially when Geoff Spearpoint’s route description in Moir’s referred to ‘unpleasant sidling over steep snowgrass and hard earth slopes’. Despite my assurances that “it wouldn’t be too rugged”, she set off with a degree of trepidation, relieved, at least, by the promise of a perfectly calm, clear day.
Lake Nerine has a smaller companion nearby, which we skirted via some glacially sculptured rock knolls that dropped straight into the deep blue water of the lakelet. A steep haul led us reluctantly away from these lake-filled basins, vowing that next time we’d bring some extra supplies so that such magical places could be fully appreciated for a day longer.
Threading our way between crags and scrabbling up scree we gained a small notch on the ridge, where yet another picturesque tarn lay below. From this high point the long ridge stretching northwards led to Park Pass, our next destination.
Needless to say, the ‘desperate’ sidle proved less traumatic than yesterday’s over-active imaginings, although we were glad it was dry and windless as we sidled carefully along an indistinct ground trail, aware that Rock Burn Valley lay directly below us before reaching easier ground on the broad, tussocky ridge top. Arriving at Park Pass brought us back to familiar territory. It was almost exactly three years since we’d last been here, en route to other passes and wild lakes as a part of the Five Pass Trip. Adding the North Col and Lake Nerine onto this classic tramp would make for a memorable seven day trip through some of the best country on offer in these parts.
This time, however, we were heading homewards, down the pass to the upper reaches of the Rock Burn, which offered some fairly relaxed tramping among clumps of large celmisia daisies in full bloom. The trail was even marked in places, pointing out the way across grassy flats and over forested bluffs down to the grandiose expanses of Theatre Flat.
Deciding it was too late in the day to carry on to the fleshpots, we jumped into the cooling waters of the river before setting up camp among a cluster of tall beech trees, allowing ourselves a small fire to keep the sandflies at bay.
On our final day in the hills we woke to a distinct change in the weather, so quickly packed and set off down valley for the haul over Sugarloaf Pass and back onto the Routeburn. A blustery wind threw us around at the pass, where we bumped into another tramping group, including an old Swiss friend who was paying yet another visit to her favourite country for escaping the crowds.
Back down on the manicured trail of the Routeburn, the only evidence of visitors was a forgotten camera lying on the track. We were able to rescue it just as the rain arrived, and even find somebody back at the car park who was leaving late in the day for the Falls Hut where they could reunite it with its forgetful owner.
The wind gusting down from the mountains had knocked out the power at Glenorchy, so showers were postponed in favour of cold beers and a hot meal at the local hotel.
Such extravagances were justified: our ‘poor man’s Routeburn’ had cost considerably less than the official version.