I have a really big decision to make- Milford Sound or Abel Tasman next…or perhaps that walk near Invercargill that I can never remember the name of…is it Humpbridge?
Anyways, while browsing for info yesterday, I found an article about the pleasure of doing Routeburn the hard way.
I don’t get it…actually, that’s a lie. I sort of get it. There’s a romance, a reverse glamour, a badge of honour in saying you did the tramp the tough way. It puts you marginally closer to Bear Grylls, makes it more of a trek and survival thing, and less of a holiday walk.
I get the whole drinking from a wine bladder that’s been carried for five hours, possibly with the load being shared between packs and friends.
I even get the unexpected joy of crowding around a table filled with people from all corners of the globe and all walks of life, all of whom have been brought together by the shared misery of wet boots, wet clothes, a wet pack and the forecast of more rain, wetter boots, wetter clothes and a wetter pack tomorrow….all the while glancing out the window at the faint lights from the comfortable lodge just up the hill a bit.
You’d sit there with your new friends, and dehydrated butter chicken and say something like, ‘you know, I feel sorry for those poor sods with their warm beds and real food. They have no idea what it’s like to really do this tramping thing.’
I get all of that.
If I’m honest, there’s a not insignificant part of me that would want to experience this, to have done it differently to everyone else I know, just so I could play the one up game at dinner parties:
‘So you did the Routeburn the posh way, hey? Seriously, Bro, you haven’t done it until you’ve stayed in a D.Con hut. Showers are for sissies.’
Anyways, what I’m saying is that I get the badge of honour thing and the reverse glamour thing, and the romance associated with discomfort, but I don’t want it.
When I first had this idea (I blame Bear Grylls and the Air NZ safety video, Julie from Nomad Safaris, the guy we dropped off at Glenorchy with a pack the size of a small child, and the insanely good bottle of pinot we’d had at Botswana Butchery that night) the thought of doing it the tough way didn’t occur to me.
After all, there I was, a 46 year old overweight woman with dodgy joints, a chiropractic habit and a dislike of roughing it that went all the way back to my childhood in Merriwa and the “camping” trips my mother would take us on involving ground sheets, too many snakes, and spades with toilet rolls.
When I announced my plans in the car home from the airport that day a year ago, my husband smiled condescendingly- much as you would to someone prone to spur of the moment, crazy arsed ideas, and who is prone to acting without thinking those crazy arsed ideas through:
‘That sounds great, Darlin’, but you don’t like camping, you can’t sleep unless conditions are perfect, you don’t like being too close to other people, you have bad knees, bad ankles and a bad back, you don’t eat powdered potatoes and you need a hot shower and a flushing toilet under the same roof. Have you really thought this through, or is it just that there wasn’t anything decent to watch on the plane?’
He’s right- my idea of camping is a 3 star motel and cask wine. Underneath my aging hippie exterior beats the heart of a comfort snob.
‘Well, that’s where you’re wrong, smart arse,’ I replied. ‘Bear Grylls was in Routeburn on the security briefing, and I’ve found a way to do this that only involves me being uncomfortable while I’m actually on the track. How hard could it be?’
I finished my tirade with a mature, ‘so there.’
Even though I was doing this to challenge my personal comfort zone, I know myself well enough to know that I’ll want something to look forward to at the end of each days walking- and that that something nice won’t involve wet boots, someone else’s snoring, a sleeping bag, and a cold walk to a dark toilet.
I wanted the reward of a warm bed (with sheets), a proper meal (using real food), a hot shower (that doesn’t require a nudey run) and a glass of wine (from a bottle I didn’t have to carry in) at the end of what I knew would be (for me) a physically challenging day.
I also know myself, and my body, well enough to know that I’m naturally a poor sleeper and tend to do stupid things under the influence of no sleep.
So yes, I sold out and did it the posh way.
Going with a guided group is not for everyone- for a start, the cost puts it outside the reach of your average back-packing tramper, but for me it was worth every dollar.
Here’s why I chose Ultimate Hikes for Routeburn– and why I’ll choose them again if I decide to do Milford Sound:
1. The kit
Kitting up for these walks is surprisingly expensive. You need the right boots, the right core layers, appropriate outer layers, a backpack, and appropriate wet weather gear- regardless of the season. If you have joints like mine, are unused to rough and often steep terrain, or simply want the added support, you’ll also need walking poles.
Not only is all this expensive, possibly will be used just once, it’s also difficult when you’re travelling- especially if the tramp is just a small part of your New Zealand experience.
Don’t forget, New Zealand (and Australian) Biosecurity will want to examine all poles, shoes and other equipment used off road. It might be a pain, but it’s one of the ways the environment is kept as beautiful as it is.
Ultimate Hikes are able to loan you backpacks, sleeping sheets (if you’re in a share room), and rain gear. They’re also able to provide you with pack liners (essential in Fjordland- after day 1 my pack, and everything that wasn’t in a pack liner, was soaked) and rent you poles.
This means that you’re keeping your carried pack weight to an absolute minimum- between 5-7kgs- and they’ll tell you exactly (and all) that needs to be in that pack. Trust them- they know what they’re talking about.
If you were freedom walking, you’d need to work it all out for yourself, and also carry a cover for the mattress in the huts, sleeping bag, extra clothes (in the event of severe soaking), and all your food.
2. The group
Our group wasn’t large- around twenty of us…that’s half of the maximum group that Ultimate Hikes take on the Routeburn Track.
From an age viewpoint, it ranged from (I think) late thirties (although I could be being kind) early forties to late sixties (I think…I’m hopeless with age guess-timation).
As for nationalities, our group was a mix of mostly Aussies, with a handful of Kiwis, a few Americans, and one Irishman. All of us were from completely different walks of life, had different reasons for being here, and had different levels of experience.
There was the seasoned bushwalkers- some of whom had completed walks across England, through Spain, and a group from Melbourne backing up from Milford Sound. There were a couple of runners, one who regularly runs mountains and tracks like this for fun (yes, really), a few track newbies (like me), some corporate refugees, some weekend warriors.
The track is a great leveller- it doesn’t matter what you do for a living- simply being there gave us something in common as a conversation starter around the table. The good food, wine and sense of shared accomplishment did the rest. We had some good laughs.
3. The guides
The guides- Liane, Charlotte and Seamus- dealt with us all, and our varied abilities, seamlessly. Aside from hiring for vitality, resilience and personality, I think Ultimate Hikes also recruit for acting ability. I can’t speak highly enough about them.
There’s always a guide up front, one floating through the middle, and another at the back, ready with a chat, encouragement and the distraction of a bird call or an impromptu chat about plant life and conservation.
Speaking of which, I think it’s important to learn a bit about the history of the land you’re tramping, the traditional uses of the plants in medicine, and the ways in which conservationists are trying to sustain the population of bird life and the purity of the lakes.
These guys know their stuff, and with them, our safety really is paramount.
4. The lodges
The lodges are beyond comfortable.
You can choose to share, or have a private room (with ensuite), but all rooms are well appointed, clean, dry and hot water bottles are available. On track the nights are cool, and if your back and muscles were like mine at the end of the day, a hot water bottle was welcome!
Each lodge is equipped with a large drying room that does just that- dries and airs everything. Essentially it means that you don’t need to carry additional dry clothes in your pack (see notes above re kit).
5. The meals
Evenings usually involve a few drinks (own cost) and light nibbles, a three course meal (with two choices of main, and all dietary requirements catered for) and a briefing on the following days walk.
Lights are out (literally, as the generator is powered off) at 10pm, and come back on again at 7.30 the next morning.
Mornings are civilised with ingredients for make your own lunches out by 7.45am, followed by continental brekky and the option of something cooked (on Day 2 we had eggs benedict, and on day 3 combo of scrambled eggs, bacon, beans and tomato).
So, the food is real, flavoursome, nutritious, well cooked, and doesn’t need to be carried.
Oh, and there’s a bar.
Want more information?
Ultimate Hikes operate guided walks with departures from Queenstown 5 days a week during the season, ie 1 November to mid April. Check them out here.
The fine print
- I paid my own way, and chose a private queen room- as I said, I’m a princess underneath.
- I travelled with three friends.
- The photos of the room and food were taken at Lake Mackenzie Lodge- menus and rooms obviously differ between lodges.