A strange woman stared back at me in the hotel mirror. She wore a full suit of polypropylene; a hat, gloves and jumper in varying shades of blue microfleece; and a pair of khaki zip-off pants that would have made even the leggiest supermodel look dumpy.
I gave a satisfied smile. Dressed head-to-toe in my mother’s tramping gear, I looked like a real outdoorsy-type.
For our first serious hike, my boyfriend Tom and I had picked the Routeburn Track. We were seduced by the promise of soaring snowy peaks, majestic waterfalls and two fancy lodges equipped with bars and hot showers.
More experienced tramper friends had sniffed at our decision to go guided, but we gave them little thought as we slung on our feather-light packs the first morning.
Rain was falling heavily as the bus dropped our group of 29 at the southern entrance, but if the guides were fazed they didn’t show it. The three young women were all dressed heroically in shorts, cheerily handing out lunch packs as well as last-minute snippets of motivation.
“Remember, this is your holiday,” said Becca. “So the most important thing is to have fun!” And with that, 29 people in waterproof pants disappeared into the bush.
Instantly, we were in another world. We climbed through a thick forest of silver beech trees whose spindly branches knotted and zig-zagged across each other like Pollock paint. Moss carpeted the floor and smothered the trees, coating the forest in soft green fuzz.
After an hour we reached the optional side-walk up to Key Summit which, on a clear day, offered majestic views of something. “You won’t see much today”, our guides warned.
“But you should still go up because there are some really neat bogs!”
We trudged dutifully up the track, and I tried to suppress a nagging sense of anxiety. What if it rained the whole time? What if we never saw any alpine vistas? What if I never got a chance to zip these hideous pants off into shorts?
But as we stepped on to a wooden boardwalk, my thoughts were interrupted by the patchwork of rusty red, ochre and yellow mosses that carpeted the ground.
“Hey wow”, I said to Tom. “This is one hell of a bog”.
After a steamy, crowded lunch at Howden Hutt, we stepped out to find the rain had stopped and a small patch of blue forming in the sky. It grew as we walked and soon sunlight was filtering through the trees and splashing cheerfully on to the path.
The afternoon’s route lead us past the skyscraper-sized Earland Falls, where we had to pull on our raincoats to avoid getting soaked by the spray.
Further on we were treated to our first proper views – indigo mountains iced in an early dump of snow – before meandering down to a flat, grassy field dotted with ribbonwood trees. I realized that this must be The Orchard, which meant the lodge and a cold beer were just around the corner.
Now, I’m sure it’s very rewarding to reach a hut at the end of the day, boil up billy and rehydrate some astronaut lasagna. But there is something to be said for the three-course meal that awaited us at Mackenzie Lodge that afternoon – and more still for the hot showers and soft beds. Had I spoiled myself for tramping forever?
If so, I couldn’t care less.
The majority of our group was Australian, but there were Americans, Europeans and Japanese in the mix, too. At breakfast the next morning the others at our table tried Marmite for the first time, while I recounted the national tragedy that was Marmageddon.
“It was awful,” I told them, between mouthfuls of eggs benedict, “people got so desperate they ate Vegemite.”
But I think something was lost in translation.
We started the day in an enchanted forest, zigzagging up mossy stone steps that may have been built by goblins. Blood thumped in my chest as I paused to remove gloves and extra layers of fleece, and I wondered if I should have done more than a week’s training for this.
Eventually we emerged way up above the trees, still slogging towards the sky, but invigorated by sharp air. The plants were tough as boots up there. Between sun-bleached rocks and golden tussock, Tom spotted the first patch of tiny Edelweiss (then regretted it, as I spent the next four hours singing the song). Mountain daisies battled it out for the last gasp of summer and clumps of grass, burdened with ice, hung in chandeliers from the rock face.
Most of that day was spent on the open mountain ridge and the views were consistently heart-swelling. Across the Hollyford Valley the mountain ranges unfolded in hues of yellow through to purple, stretching for miles to a distant shimmer of Tasman Sea.
After lunch, another optional walk up Conical Hill, the highest point on the track, was offered. The guides warned it wouldn’t be easy – that the path was steep and may be slippery with ice – “but it’s awesome,” they promised. “You’ll truly be scaling
This time we didn’t hesitate. We scrambled up the hillside, picking over piles of large rocks and dodging trampers skidding down the other way. Near the top we stopped to admire Lake Harris – that day an ominous lead colour – and to scoop patchy clumps of ice into snowballs.
And then we were at the top: lungs full of cold air, eyes racing to absorb the new view. It was quite an extraordinary thing: to be standing on top of a mountain in remote Fiordland with peaks marching towards the horizon in every direction.
It seemed impossible that we could have walked here. It was as if we had teleported by mistake to a place humans aren’t supposed to see.
“This calls for a celebration” I said to Tom, and ceremoniously zipped off the lower half of my pants.
I would pay for that climb up Conical Hill, and it’s even more challenging descent, the next day. I emerged from the track a broken woman – twisted and hunched as the beech trees and shuffling like someone learning to ice skate.
Still, I grinned through the pain. Yes, I had slept in soft beds, eaten gourmet meals, and been free of a baby-elephant sized pack for three days. But I was in enough pain to feel like I had done the Routeburn properly.
I felt like a true outdoorsy-type.
Reported by Alice Galletly for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue