The Heartbeat of a Dead Ogre

The Maori language wasn’t written until New Zealand was colonized, so words are spelled phonetically, and pronounced with a slight roll of the r“Maori” is pronounced “MOW-dee.” Lake Wakatipu is a very large lake shaped like a lightning bolt, or a dogleg, or a mythical ogre who was burned while he slept by a heroic Maori. It is told that the ogre’s heart still beats. Perched on the knee of the dead ogre, in a crotch of the Southern Alps, Queenstown is pure travel. Its bustle is equally matched by its hustle. Every nook is packed with hawking signs, visual stimuli for the purebred tourist. Even the white-eyed terns want something from you. Despite its steroidal salesmanship, Queenstown can’t help its draw. The drolly named Remarkables mountain range peers over the lake from the east (do the mountains to the north, south, and west feel slighted, or do they poke fun?), and literally everything about the landscape is distractingly epic.

A view from Queenstown

Going to Queenstown specifically for beer is just silly. You don’t go there for beer. You drink beer after your tramp (Glossary: Walk = Hike; Tramping = Backpacking; Track = Trail) and before your next outing. Sorry, beer. You are second fiddle. You are also extremely expensive, thanks to insane taxes. But will we pay $8.50 – $13 for a shaker pint of you? Yes. Bob’s your uncle. Speight’s Ale House, an indigenous chain, offers smooth, malty, English brews and well-portioned dishes in the same style. Stop number one.

A tramp on the Routeburn Track, 32 kilometers of alpine sure-footery, is best completed in three days, though it can be done in two (ask me how). It begins innocently enough, through damp jungle of southern beech, ferns, and the occasional waterfall along the Route Burn (river; it’s Scottish). The track is well maintained, not overworn or muddy. Tomtits and tiny, tailless riflemen peep and dart in the foliage, and inseparable pairs of paradise shelducks rattle and sigh (zeek! zonk…) as you approach them in the high wetlands of the Routeburn Flats, just at the edge of the bushline.

Routeburn Flats

The first of four possible nights is at Routeburn Flats Hut 6.5 km in; there is also space to pitch a tent, though all require advance reservation and fee. Little waterfalls squirt from the mountainsides across the flats. It might rain on and off forever; “it’s New Zealand,” says the warden. It’s cold at night.

On your second and final day, you crazy person, the trail heads vertically to Harris Saddle. About halfway up, amid the moraine and hardy evergreen scrub, you begin to think about a beer. There are very few switchbacks. You pass Routeburn Falls Hut, scaffolded and stilted onto the mountainside, very luxurious for being nearly 9 km away from the trailhead. Don’t stop, your day has just begun. The alpine lakes shine like Cleopatra’s eyeliner, the streams gleam an Absinthe-like louche: glacial flour, powdered minerals; liquid jade. Stay hydrated, you sweaty crazy person.

Looking back on Routeburn Flats
Looking south from Harris Saddle. Forward, march!

At the saddle, where an uninviting emergency bunker sits like a lost Lego, it looks like all downhill from here. At 1,255 meters elevation, the bare mountain peaks and some glaciers are visible, as is a swamp harrier’s view of your footsteps. You rest for a bite in the cold wind that threatens to freeze your sweaty shirt, then move on; about 16 km to go.

Along the way, the terrain shifts. Watch out for wet rocks, keep those hiking poles nimble. Around a bend, you see Lake Mackenzie glowing butane blue way down below. Its nearness is deceptive. Your knees start to think about having a beer. Quiet, knees!

Lake Mackenzie
Lake Mackenzie & Hut

Routeburn Track is a through-hike, and transport can be arranged at either end. Timing is key, as missing the bus at the end means you’ll be either hitching or pitching. The downhill gets downier until Lake Mackenzie, whereupon a surprising rise leads to Earland Falls, which dusts your ankles with its spray. It is well advised at this point to be “in the zone.” Heading downwards again, there are trees that, to an Oregonian, resemble madrone. With sloughing, scaly bark and dark ovate leaves, these are giant fuchsia! … Can you dry-hop a beer with fuchsia?

Down, down, down, the flames in your trail-rusty heels tell you it’s time to stop; don’t stop. Streams are more frequent on this side of the saddle. Thick moss and more ferns are welcome sights, though the trail has remained largely pebbled. The mountains loom once again as you retreat back to the land of organic material. Looking back and up is satisfying: “I was just there!” That’s the duality of trail-time; looking forward you see time stretched out, while it has tessellated like an accordion behind you.

Lake Harlow stinks something sulfur. Use the loo at the hut (you have been drinking water, right?), splash the sweat off your brow, and continue over the next steep hump and descend quickly to the end of the trail, The Divide. The Divide indicates just that: the separation of ranges to the east and west. At the northwest end of the road is Milford Sound and the Tasman Sea, as we will see later.

The transport arrives–you were an hour early, you silly sweaty crazy person–and brings you to Te Anau (tay AH-no), where you drop your gear at a hostel and walk to the strippy downtown along the lake and find a pizza joint, Naturally Fiordland (vegetarian flair with notable omission of cashews listed in its pesto salad dressing; pizza was fine for very hungry folks just off the trail). And, holy of holies you were worried, as today is Easter and April Fool’s Day, and there was the threat that restaurants would not sell beer on Easter, and you were not able to arrange for transport of beer along with your ride. But there is beer. Bottles of Monteith’s Lager and Pilsner whirlpool down your throat leading to satisfying tomato sauce burps.

The next day, you want to jump off a bridge…

(This is part of my New Zealand adventure, a fast week in the south of the South Island with my friend Scott, and a quick visit in Auckland with Sam and Annelies (and their two kiddos), whom Liz and I originally met as their Couchsurfing hosts in Eugene. We partied with them in The Hague in 2014, so perhaps another country in 2022.)


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