Thursday, March 24, 2011

What? It rains here?

I didn’t realize until I got to New Zealand that many native walkers consider the Routeburn Track a finer walk than the infinitely better known Milford. I’ve never walked the Milford, and comparisons interest me less and less as I get older, but the three days of the Routeburn are pretty fine.

It offers more sustained challenge as a walk, because, unlike the Tasman and the Kepler, the track was built and is maintained by muscle and hand tools. So it was a little more familiar feeling to most of us. (Not that we didn’t appreciate being able to waltz along the other trails gaping at flora and fauna with no chance of a pratfall).

The Routeburn also offers terrific scenery and views. Climbing up from Divide on the first day, we had magnificent alpine scenery off our left shoulders, and steep terrain off our right. We eventually achieved the base of  Earland Falls.

More ups, then a steepish down to Mackenzie Hut. The water at MacKenzie Lake was the coldest of the trip. It was dive in fast or not at all, and I think I now have permanent goose bumps on various parts of my body. It was summer there, wasn’t it?

We set out the next morning sullenly, in rain gear. We’d been amazingly fortunate with the weather, and had come to feel we deserved sunshine and blue skies. View potential is high on this walk, but we missed out, because this was the only day of our entire trip when the weather closed in on us a bit. Predictions called for steady rain, though all we got was drizzle and mist. Most of us stripped off to one extent or another, some of us down to our usual shorts and tees. It was a very fine walk across the Hollyford face toward Harris Saddle, almost all above treeline, and we knew Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea were out there somewhere. Gave ’em a wave. 

At windy Harris Saddle, we stopped for lunch and got some wind layers back on.

The shelter on the left is for independent walkers. It’s a very nice version of what it is—a place to get safely out of the wind, rain, cold, snow, sleet, or whatever else the universe is hurling at you. The other is for guided groups. “Tea, madam?” “May I press your anorak, sir?” Behind the shelters is Conical Hill, which has a famed 360° view. Unfortunately, there was no chance of seeing anything from there on this day, so we passed it by. Not sure if its naming is connected in any way to the eminence of similar title near Loch Lomond.

At Harris Saddle, we crossed from Fiordland National Park to Mount Aspiring National Park. I’ll drop you here for awhile and let you wander around. Just don’t try to sneak your plebean self into that palace on the right!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Superficial critique

Just in case you didn’t know:


OK, so my Brasher boots didn’t work out so well.

One or two other items were not so hot, but most of my kit was fine. Some of it was terrific. Here’s a little rundown, based on notes I (ominously) don’t remember making after returning to Queenstown after the Routeburn.

I just don’t like REI Adventure Pants. I’ve tried. They’re more oriented to traveling than to trekking. A little baggy, a fraction heavy. Now I’m going back to my rufty-tufty RailRider Weatherpants, which are near-ludicrous for general travel, but perform admirably in the hills.

The Kindle was superb, just as I thought it would be. I read on the plane down and back, of course, and a fair amount on the ground. Perhaps five or six books. In close to a month, I used about 80 percent of the original charge (and, of course, could have recharged it any any hostel wall outlet). I was concerned about how best to carry it. The natural first instinct for anyone, I think, would be to simply slide it vertically down along the side or the back of the pack as you might a stiff envelope. It would be well-padded and safe from rattling around. But I was afraid of putting edge pressure on it from above (especially when cramming the food bag down) and buckling it. Instead I laid it flat and horizontal, on top of one soft stuffsack (sleeping bag) and below another (hut clothes). It rode well there and was out of the way during the day. (It was also in its little protective envelope, of course.) I would advise even my Luddite friends (and they are legion) that this is a must-have for travelers who read. As in read.

As always, my ancient Patagonia Zephur (similar to a Marmot DriClime) saw a lot of use. It’s light, packs small, sheds wind and light rain, and takes the chill off before the sun comes up and after it goes down. The Napoleon pocket is actually big enough to be of use (glasses, mostly, but sometimes an iPod or even a camera). Stuffed in a small sack at night, it also makes a decent pillow.

I brought a redundant fleece—a Rab 100 pullover. I made it unredundant by wearing it on the plane, in huts, and around town. What can I say? Simple, light, warm, decent breast pocket. And tuck-wrapped into that small sack with the Zephur? L’oreiller de luxe.

I’m getting fond of Ex Officio Boxer Briefs for travel, but for walking I stick with Patagonia Baggies which supply their own liner. They are quick drying, they have useful pockets (seldom used on the trail, but I appreciate them nonetheless), and are excellent bathing trunks. And I’m old enough (as you can tell by my use of the term bathing trunks) to prefer my shorts...short. These aren’t those nasty flapping knee-dusters. They come with a natty 5-inch inseam.

The Western Mountaineering HighLite sleeping bag weighs a pound, compresses to a tiny package, and will keep me cozy in temps 10° or 15°F colder than I’m likely to experience from late spring through early fall. Spectacular.

Finally, the Petzl Tikka XP2 headlamp was brilliant. Even set at half-power (yielding 10 hours of regulated light—four hours more than I needed in two weeks), it was—by far—the brightest lamp on the walk. I used it primarily on power-saving Lo for cooking and in red mode in the bunkrooms (on the theory it would be less likely to disturb sleepers), but when I needed light, I got light. (And, as with the Kindle, I could have recharged it in town.)

I was interested in the rather elegant Snow Peak 450 double-wall titanium mugs some of my group were using. On the other hand, the determinedly inelegant insulated plastic mug, pictured above with the HighLite, continues to the the job just fine.

Oh, and a bit on packs. I carried my usual excellent McHale 0-SARC, volume about 50L. Six of our number carried Ospreys, mostly the Aether/Ariel model at about 60L. Two carried Gregorys, one a Deuter, one an REI, and one something large and tagless that I didn’t recognize. We were not a cutting-edge or ultra-light group, to say the least. Everyone seemed to be reasonably comfy toting their loads, though. I certainly was.

This leaves the iPhone. A post of its own.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Well-formed and easy to follow

The Kepler Track was the second of the three we walked. It starts and ends across Lake Te Anau from the town of the same name (where I would now be living if there weren’t a few people in this neck of the woods I rather like to see). And although the area had been walked (and even skiied) for many years, the current Great Walk was only opened in the summer of 1988, explicitly to ease strain on the Milford (the so-called “finest walk in the world”) and the Routeburn (which many New Zealanders believe is finer).

There are several types of formal tracks in New Zealand. The best known are what we were on—the Great Walks. These are described by the Department of Conservation as “Easier Tramping Tracks ... well-formed and easy to follow with plenty of direction signs. All major streams and rivers have bridges. These are the best sort of tracks for people with limited multi-day tramping experience ... Moderate fitness required.” So, lovely but unchallenging. And this was absolutely accurate.

Tramping Tracks “... offer challenging tramping on mostly unformed surfaces. Moderate to high level backcountry skills and experience are required, including navigation, river crossing and survival skills. Trampers need to be completely self sufficient ... Good fitness required ....” So, Mark’s TGO Challenge.

Routes are “unformed, and may be rough and steep ... Suitable for highly experienced trampers only.” So, Martin’s TGO Challenge.

As you would expect from these definitions, the Kepler is beautifully built and maintained—almost unbelievably so to people used to negotiating the rocky and boulder-strewn trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The treadway was apparently constructed by machinery airlifted in by helicopter, and machines are still used for serious maintenance. (I’m imagining a sort of even-more-miniature Bobcat, but I’m not sure) It’s not exactly a wilderness experience or a challenge. What it is, for much of the second day (that big bump, below) and occasionally before and after, is stunningly beautiful.

That second day is well above tree line, and also well above the deep blue Lake TeAnau and its South Arm. Above, along a great sweep of the horizon, are jagged Sierra-style peaks, showing off twinkling waterfalls and bright patches of snow and ice, all of which you get a quick glimpse of in the little video two posts ago. Quite beautiful, and a very fine walk by just about anyone’s standards.

After a steep descent, we spent the night at Iris Burn Hut. (I kept imagining a hearty local woman who lived along the stream and gave it her name, but, of course, the hut is named after a brook—a burn.) The ranger here gave us a bit of a talking to about watching our steps up above, since, he joked, he and his colleagues were not paid enough to come out and rescue us—only enough to feel some distant concern. (The DOC rangers do come out as needed, of course, though they rely to a much greater extent than our Northeastern U.S. Search and Rescue people on helicopters.)

On the third day, we wandered further down Iris Burn to the Moturau Hut, where most of us dove into the lake, which is overlooked by more impressive and lofty eminences. Certainly one of the prettiest places I’ve ever instantly, and happily, acquired goosebumps.

Friday, March 18, 2011


I think most of us left from Boston, but I met our mostly New England group at Los Angeles Airport. We eventually made our way to Nelson, on the South Island, for a night in the Youth Hostel, where we got organizied.

More or less.

We are all reasonably experienced walkers, and almost all of a certain age. We understand teamwork, but we’ve developed our own styles, and, for want of a better term, our own physicalities.

I’m definitely a social walker. I really like having someone to appreciate the landscape and chat with. On my aborted TGO Challenge in 2008, I also enjoyed the more elastic fellowship of others going more or less our way at more or less our speed. At home, I love walking with old friends and, especially, my daughter and son-in-law.

What I’ve never liked is walking with any sort of formal group. I’m too shy, too set in my ways, too resentful of being told what to do. For example, I don’t like to stop more than a few minutes for lunch. I prefer the common American approach of snacking from breakfast to supper. But our group stopped not only for a leisurely lunch, but for relatively frequent rest breaks that seemed perfectly timed to keep me from getting inside a good rhythm. Milling about eating or “resting,” I always wanted to run screaming into the bush and emulate Charlie Brown: “Arrrrgh!”

There were other issues, too. Some minor acrimony over food, a gentle rebuke for exceeding the approved pace up a long rise and bringing “social pressure” to bear on less hyper walkers....

But here’s the thing: I enjoyed this trip, these walks, and this group of people enormously. Yes, I’d rather walk my own walk, in my own time, at my own speed, with my own food in my own stomach.

But I would have missed so much. Blister company, of course, but also the kidding and stories we traded as we cleaned and taped. Running (well, moderate walking) jokes. Never getting up so early that J didn’t already have water on the boil. Never wanting tea so late that J didn’t still have water on the boil. Being accepted into the Keen sisterhood. Dinner out with the boys in Te Anau and Queenstown (who knows why the women chose those elegant places?) Losing loud games of “Bones”—a game with five dice and rules I never fully understood. Laughing company in cold water in stunning locations.

AMC leaders are trained volunteers. They get a free trip for doing the work of organization, but they don’t get a dime of pay—more “first among equals” than “Leaders.” J (a different J) and C did a fine job. They handled our travel logistics without a flaw, and they employed a usually effective light hand in dealing with individual oddities and faux pas.

So, no, I won’t be joining a lot of these AMC trips. I don't really like my oddities and faux pas dealt with at all. But if the right trip, to the right place, with a bunch of these people comes up....

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sole man

I brought my Brasher boots to New Zealand because my old Keens had lost their waterproof qualities, and I assumed we would have significant rain. In the event, we had only a few light showers on one day. The Keens would have been fine. But the Brashers really didn’t work out.

Our first Great Walk was the Abel Tasman Coast Track. It’s the most popular of New Zealand’s Great Walks—about 200,000 people use it every year.

It’s easy walking. The profile above is misleading. Imagine stretching it out to maybe double length for a  better sense of its (lack of) steepness. And we walked easy, too. Over four days, we strolled about 50 kilometers (30 miles or so), completing all  but the last wee bit of the trail—the 5.5 kilometers past Whariwharangi Hut.

Nonetheless, on our very first day of the trip, half of us found ourselves dealing with blistering problems. Not one of us was a chronic blisterer, though my limping gait during the first few days of 2008 TGO Challenge had raised up a few beauts. The other folks attributed their difficulties—mostly on and between toes—to sand we picked up periodically walking along gorgeous (and mostly empty) beaches. I never progressed to actual blisters, but I had significant hot spots on the heels and balls of both feet. Not a sand problem, I thought and still think, but a boot problem.The treadway on the Tasman Track is, when it's not down on a beach or crossing an inlet or estuary, wide, flat and packed as hard as any paving. I think this contributed, too.

For the next three days, duct tape was energetically deployed by all sufferers, and some of us, me included, laid a foundation of Moleskin. I also walked the rest of the Tasman in Keen Newport H2 sandals, which turned out to be very good. Don’t get me going on how well trainers would have worked for the whole trip. (Very well indeed.)

The Anchorage Hut was right on the beach—it was only a few enthusiastic steps to the turquoise water of Anchorage Bay. The area was bustling with walkers, campers, kayakers, and boaters, and we learned that you could hire a water taxi to carry your gear for you from hut to hut while you wander comfortably along under a daypack alone. We, however, saddled up fully the next morning and began our walk by squelching across the Torrent Bay estuary.

This second day, about 14 miles of beautiful walking, and more great, empty beaches, began toward the end to feel like a real slog to most of us—the only time this happened during the two weeks. I think our travel fatigue had caught up with us. And for some of us, of course, our feet hurt.

The third day, to the wonderfully euphonious Whariwharangi Hut, began with a crossing of the muddy Awaroa inlet. At the other side, we dried our feet and enjoyed another jolly foot-taping break. I can confirm that misery does, indeed, love company. Actually, by this time we all had our problems under control and the worry that we had all felt—privately at first, publicly as it waned—that we might not be able to continue on to the other walks, had faded. The day’s walk was lovely ...  more spectacular beaches and stunning, quasi-tropical scenery. The next, last, day was a short walk, essentially backtracking to Mutton Cove, where we were met by one of those water taxis for an hour-long joyride back to our starting point—and one mighty fine beer.

Returning to Nelson before flying down to Te Anau, I headed out to Mountain Designs, bought a new pair of Keen Targhee Mids, which served very well for the rest of the trip, and then quartered the town, searching for more Moleskin to replace what I’d used up. It turns out they don’t really do Moleskin in New Zealand. (I’ve had the same problem in the UK. This strikes me as taking that stiff upper lip business a bit far.) I finally turned up two packages in a large pharmacy and took them to the counter. In my neck of the woods, similar packages hold three 4-5/8-inch x 3-3/8-inch rectangles of the stuff and cost $3.95 or so. I was gobsmacked to be asked for $25. Right: $12.50 (NZ) per packet. And I also discovered that each held only one pad. And that was the only Moleskin in Nelson, aside from that riding, I assume, in the packs of smarter Americans than I.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I’ve been listening to Melvyn Bragg’s wonderful book, The Adventure of English. He’s just called Dr. Johnson (and, in passing, Isaac Newton) an “effortless eccentric.” A lovely turn of phrase I thought I’d just pass along. I know a few self-conscious iconoclasts (mostly pains in the ass), and some self-congratulatory oddballs (don’t we all), not to mention the occasional utter loon, but the pure Johnsonian ... well, I can only hope to encounter it in the future.

I’m trying to figure out how to write about my fabulous month in New Zealand. Mere chronology, I can attest from my efforts, feels too dogged and ... cardinal sin ... boring. So I’m going to try to organize a few posts around riveting subjects instead. I’ll start tomorrow. With blisters.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I’m back

But I don’t really know where to start, beyond saying I had a spectacular, sensational, superb, splendid, stupendous, and snowless time, and want to go back the day after tomorrow with all my favorite people.

So here’s a tiny first taste:

The gorgeous Abel Tasman Coastal Track 

A minute or two on the Kepler’s Mount Luxmore, well above treeline, as was much of the Routeburn.

The only problem was that this squalid character kept turning up.