We spent our second night on the Routeburn Track at Routeburn Falls Lodge. Our two days of hiking so far had been awesome and we had enjoyed perfect weather. Tomorrow would be our last day on the trip. We would be hiking out and cactching a bus to take us back to Queenstown. The trip seemed to have gone by quickly. Maybe it was because it was shorter than our our other big mountain trips. The Milford Track was four days. The Salcantay trek in Peru was six days. My Langtang and Annapurna Sanctuary treks in Nepal had all been two weeks or longer. Of course I'm sure that the fine weather had been a factor. If it had been miserable the entire time, cold and windy and raining, the trip probably would have seemed to take forever. As Albert Einstein would say, that's relativity.
We had dinner at our usual table with the friends we had made on the trip, Karen and Michael from Toronto and Marilyn and Lindsay from Auckland. We were joined by Charlotte, one of the guides, who was born and raised in Queenstown. She was able to provide a local perspective. There was a lot of enjoyable conversation and once again dinner was very good. Afterwards we retired to our room to make sure everything was ready for the hike out tomorrow.
I decided to go back to the main lodge to settle the bill for our beer and wine. We weren't having any more drinks and I thought it would be quicker than doing it in the morning along with everyone else. Before I went into the lodge I stepped aside where I could see a small patch of the southern sky. I was looking for something specific, although I doubted that I would be lucky enough to see it.
The first time that I was ever in the southern hemisphere was in 1983 on my first trip to New Zealand. I have a very vivid memory of the first time that I ever saw the southern skies at night. I am not an expert on the night sky but I do know some constellations, and the most distinctive and familar of those is Orion, The Hunter. I remember looking up and spotting Orion and immediatly being struck by the fact that it was upside down. But of course the stars hadn't moved, I had flown to New Zealand. It was me that was upside down. I could see the proof with my own eyes.
Yes, we all learn in school that the earth is round and goes around the sun. I even got a physics degree in college. But that is all very intellectual and abstract. For practical purposes in our daily lives, we are still just like the ancients. The world is flat and the sun and stars move through the sky. But now I was actually seeing Orion and he looked like he was upside down - because I was upside down. Call me a nerd but I thought that was absolutely amazing.
Since then I have made several trips to the southern hemisphere, to Bolivia and Peru and Australia and New Zealand. And when I do I always look at the stars. I hadn't done that on this trip yet, so I figured this was my best chance. We were in the wilderness where the sky was very dark. It was a clear night. But from where I was standing I could only see a very small patch of sky. We were in the forest and I didn't want to wander off looking for a clearing where I could see more of the sky. But I was lucky. Right in the middle of the patch of sky that I could see was my favorite constellation, Orion, and sure enough he was on his head. Betelgeuse, a red supergiant, which is his shoulder, was at the bottom. Rigel, a bright blue star which is his foot, was at the top. And his sword, instead of hanging down from his belt, was sticking straight up. (NOTE: Insert your own crude joke here. I'm not going to do all the work for you.). I rushed back and got Sandy and she came out to see it too. She's not a nerd but she's been married to one for so long that she thought it was impressive too.
Next morning the group took its time leaving. It was our shortest day of hiking, less than six miles, and mostly downhill or level. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. Ho hum. Another day of perfect weather in Fiordland. We were joking with the guides saying that since we had perfect weather on both the Milford and the Routeburn, maybe Ultimate Hikes should pay us to go on trips to bring good weather. They were all for it.
The trail descended through forest to the floor of the valley and the DOC Routeburn Flats Hut for independent hikers. It was pretty but we soon discovered that there were sandflies there. We took pictures and quickly got back on the trail.
Even more than the weather, sandflies can make hiking in New Zealand miserable. I am more sensitive to their bites than Sandy. When I get one an area about the size of a quarter turns red and swells up. It lasts for at least a week, although the killer sandfly bites that I got in Honduras lasted a month. And they itch. Really, really itch.
Sandflies are slow. As long as you are hiking, you aren't bothered. But when you stop, after about a minute one shows up. Because they are slow it's easy to swat. Then a second shows up. Then a third. After about three minutes, you get tired of killing them and decide to start walking again.
They tend to be found at low elevation near water - rivers, lakes and even the ocean, especially if there is a lot of brush. We had lived with them for four days when we did the Milford Track, which is mostly up and down low river valleys. The end of the Milford Track is at a place called Sandfly Point, a name I find even more ominous than Mosquito Lake, Grizzly Creek or Rattlesnake Gulch.
The sandflies had been an annoyance on the Milford Track but they weren't terrible. Although Sandy and I are slow hikers we don't stop often, so there weren't many opportunities for the sandflies to get us. Still, after four days I ended up with several bites. This time I was hoping that we didn't have to worry about sandflies. We would be up higher, in more alpine environments, where you don't usually find sandflies. This comforting theory was challenged the day that we drove to Milford Sound from Te Anau. We stopped at The Divide to check out the trailhead. I walked over to the trail and read the sign. It took about a minute. I felt something on my arm and instictively swatted. And killed a sandfly. But it was too late. The little bloodsucker had already bit me. One minute at the start of the Routeburn and I had a sandfly bite. Not a good sign. And over the next few days till we started the hike, I was reminded of it everytime I scratched the bite on my arm.
But it turned out to be a false alarm. There were almost no sandflies on this trip. We only saw them at two spots, Lake Howden on the first day (we hid in the hut) and Routeburn Flats (we only stayed two minutes). At the lodges on this trip, they kept the doors open! On the Milford Track you would be lynched by other hikers if you left the door open.
Bottom line, sandflies weren't a problem, although somewhere along the way I accumulated three bites, including the one at The Divide. But sandlies really weren't a factor on the hike.
Which was a good thing, because not much further along we stopped for lunch by the river. It was a beautiful spot, with giant boulders strewn about. They made for great places to sit. The river was rushing by in a series of cascades, a beautiful green color. The water everywhere in Fiordland is always amazing colors. It was an awesome place to have lunch and we spent a long time there. And there were no bugs. I commented on it to Charlotte and she said that usually the sandflies were bad. There was just enough of a breeze today that kept them away. Our run of good luck continued.
After lunch we were on the home stretch. We followed the Route Burn. Burn is a term from Scotland and England, although also used in Australia and New Zealand, for a flow of water that is smaller than a river but bigger than a stream. I have to admit that Route Burn sounds a lot cooler than Route River. It's a good name for the track that we had been hiking the past three days.
We crossed the Route Burn several times on suspension bridges. We passed a waterfall coming in on a side stream. Eventually we made it to the trailhead. We had done the Routeburn Track, something to cross off our bucket list. In New Zealand they frequently refer to it as "the walk of a lifetime". Like the Milford Track, that's a bit of hype, but the Routeburn is certainly a world class hike. Fiordland is spectacularly beautiful and the Routeburn is one of the few established hiking trails that allow access to the beauty of this remote wilderness.
Fiordland National Park is huge. It is 4800 square miles that is mostly wilderness. It's about a third larger than Yellowstone National Park in the US. There are very few roads in the park, the main one going from Te Anau to Milford Sound. There are a few day hike trails off of that road, that go to Lake Marion and Gertrude Saddle. Three of New Zealand's Great Walks are in Fiordland: the Milford Track, the Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track. But most of the rest of the park is roadless, trailess wilderness. Travel is difficult because of harsh weather, extremely rugged terrain, and fierce sandflies. The mountains are incredibly beautiful. The fiords are like only a few other places on earth (Alaska and Norway). There are icy glaciers and dense forests and roaring rivers everywhere. Doing the Routeburn Track had been a chance to spend three days in a unique place, one of the truely beautiful spots on earth. And we even had perfect weather!
A bus picked us up at the trailhead and took us to Glenorchy, a small town at the far end of Lake Wakitipu from Queenstown. We stopped at a pub there and had our post hike celebration. We all had a beer. We got our trip certificates and group photos. We gave the guides a hug. Everyone was happy. After that we piled in the bus for the one hour ride back to Queenstown. When we got there, we put on our packs for the last time and walked to the hotel. We checked in and found that they had already put our stored luggage in our room. We were back to civilization.
That evening we went to Fat Badger's and had pizza for dinner. We even got a tshirt as a gift for someone back in Wisconsin. Then we spent the evening walking along the shore of Lake Wakatipu. We even indulged in an ice cream from Mrs. Ferg (Ferg seems to be everywhere in Queenstown).
The Routeburn Track had been amazing.