2002, Friday 11 January: Routeburn Track, New Zealand
Routeburn Falls Hut from above RELATED PHOTO GALLERY
New Zealand is, by common consent, the most beautiful country in the world. Its particular brand of bucolic wilderness is best sampled by leaving tarmac and tour buses behind and heading into the great outdoors. How you do it is a matter a personal taste: boot, pedal, kayak, crampons and ice axe even - they’ll all take you out of this world. But it’s the country’s network of hiking trails (or ‘tramping tracks’ in local usage) that are justifiably most celebrated around the world. There are great walks to be had in every part of New Zealand, but for sheer spectacle and grandeur, those in and around the South Island’s mountainous south-west corner are hard to beat. The Milford is the best-known, but many who have hiked them both, give the nearby Routeburn Track the edge.
My sampling of the Routeburn was a hurried affair – but enough still to convince me that this was life at its purest and most exhilarating. Graduating from fairytale to mythic splendour as I climbed, the track read like a storybook. Setting forth, I was quickly enveloped in thick old-growth forest with a characteristic Kiwi under-storey of ferns – both the stumpy tree-fern sort and otherwise. Damp corners were festooned with mosses and curling lianas. The soundtrack was classic New Zealand forest. If you haven’t heard it for yourself, it defies description; if you have, it’s a sound you’ll never forget: part equatorial rainforest, part English woodland in spring, with an alien admixture found nowhere else. Aliens aside, Little Ride Riding Hood and Sleeping Beauty would have felt right at home. Cable-slung suspension bridges hefted the path over boulder-choked torrents and soon valley sides were closing in. Before long I came out onto an Alpine meadow. Move over Hansel and Gretel, the grasslands of Routeburn Flats belonged to Heidi and her goats. I was now standing at the very roots of the mountains, their peaks straining upwards to the sky on all sides. But still my immediate surroundings were pastoral. The birds, frogs and stranger creatures of the forest were behind me and silence reigned. One final effort and I was up there with the Gods. From the Harris Saddle, rock, snow and a serrated skyline made it glorious to be alive. Here among the wildness and savage beauty I had come to Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Shouting into the roaring wind for the sheer hell of it, it was time to turn for home.