Every year we try to head to New Zealand’s South Island for an extended hiking trip, both to enjoy the magnificent wilderness country of the Southern Alps, and to explore new opportunities for landscape photography. This year we decided on a circuit through the Ailsa Mountains west of Queenstown, travelling up the Caples Valley and then onto the Routeburn Track. We chose mid-March as a generally reliable time for dry weather. We prepared well, upping the training walks, dehydrating meals, and getting all our gear sorted into tip-top order. But as Robbie Burns famously said, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry – and this was one of those trips! All caused by a cold front laden with rain from the sub-tropics, and trapped over our intended route between two stationary high pressure systems.
Despite the grey skies and gloomy forecast on our first morning, we decided to go ahead, and were duly picked up by our super-friendly shuttle driver from the main street in Queenstown. By the time we were delivered to our drop off point at the Greenstone shelter, the first of the rain was falling, and it continued intermittently for most of the day, increasing in intensity as we finally reached the Upper Caples Hut. The Otago Deerstalkers Association now owns this well-positioned hut, and while the booking sheet had indicated that we were the only ones staying there, we were surprised to find a cheery Auckland GP already in residence.
All night the rain continued, and in the morning the roar of the river, now flowing across the full width of its gravel bed, could be easily heard from the hut, despite the drumming of the rain on the roof. After a protracted debate about the wisdom of attempting the walk over the McKellar Saddle to Lake Howden we decided to give it a go, setting out into the damp about mid-morning with an air of reluctance. It’s a gradual climb to the saddle and it was sheltered enough under the forest canopy, although occasional glimpses of the river made clear just how much rain had fallen in the upper catchment over the last few days. Once we reached the treeline, the short section of track across the tops required a wade along a flooded wetland board-walk; further on, a sudden fierce wind squall nearly caught both of us off balance on a section of exposed boardwalk at the saddle – it was no place to stop, despite the spectacular peaks looming out of the cloud and rain. With some relief we dropped off the saddle and descended the track down into the Greenstone, stopping only for a quick bite, and then trudging on in the rain to Lake Howden Hut for a welcome change into dry clothes.
Day three we were due to travel onto Lake McKenzie. The rain had continued all night, and by the time we were due to leave, the hut rain-gauge had accumulated 350 mm of rain for the three day period. Reluctantly donning our damp clothes, we packed the rest of our gear and set out into the rain again on the gradual climb up towards the Earland Falls. Needless to say, photography opportunities were limited. There was the odd occasion when I was tempted to briefly get the camera out, but the risks of getting it wet were generally too great, except during a rare break or two in the rain. It wasn’t until that evening at Lake McKenzie that the rain finally eased up a little, and we were able to get out for a wander.
We were finally greeted by a welcome break in the weather on day four. The walk out from Lake McKenzie was spectacular, the track climbing in a long zig-zag back into the head of the valley, with the lake lying below us in its classic u-shaped glacial-carved depression. The track then climbed back around to sidle northwards across a series of high faces above the Hollyford River, with spectacular views out across to the steep granite slopes of the Darran Mountains on the other side of the valley. The weather gradually improved as we made our way over the Harris Saddle and around Lake Harris before descending through the upper Routeburn to the Falls Hut, this stretch of track giving some of the best opportunities for photos.
After a comfortable night in the somewhat palatial Routeburn Falls Hut, our last day was a walk out down the Routeburn Valley. Unfortunately both the forecast and the spectacular sunrise indicated a high likelihood of returning rain. We had plenty of time to make our mid-afternoon pickup at the road end, so I spent an hour photographing the Routeburn Falls, just above the hut. We then loaded up with our packs and headed off, spits of rain heralding the arrival of the next cold front. The rain gradually increased in intensity as we walked, and the camera came out only briefly two or three times to photograph a couple of spectacular features on the Routeburn River.
The motel at the end of our last day was a welcome respite, providing an opportunity to shower and at last dry out our extensive collection of damp clothes. The photos I’d grabbed on the way were mostly a disappointment – there was the odd image that showed promise of what might be gained by a repeat trip in kinder weather (below), but that will need to wait until another time. However, given the very high numbers of people now using this track, and its degree of commercialization, less populated routes will probably win out for the foreseeable future.