I wiggled my toes on the rock, its cool, smooth surface chilling the soles of my feet. I thought, if I don’t jump now I never will… So, one big step forward and I plunged beneath the water, emerging with a gasp, a shudder – and a massive smile. I swam towards the waterfall at the far end of my private swimming pool’, stroking through the ice melt, feeling its cold embrace. I looked up at the ribbon of water plunging over the sharp edge of the rocky escarpment in front, and wondered at its power.
This clear, crisp water was, until recently, frozen in the lake above; now it would make its way down through the Southern Alps, following the same path as the glaciers that formed this dramatic alpine landscape thousands of years ago. It seemed unbelievable that this water, currently falling as mere droplets and collecting in a small placid pool, could be stronger than the rock it was cradled by. I was blown away by its strength – and yet, almost more unbelievable was the fact that I had this landscape all to myself.
I was at the end of day two of my walk along the 32km Routeburn Track, which links Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. The three-day tramp through meadows and forest, past lakes and tarns, is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’, a series of nine well-maintained tracks through some of the country’s most dramatic scenery – and yet it is largely quiet. Maintained by the Department of Conservation, the Routeburn Track is well-defined and easy to follow, making it perfect for independent hikers. It is even carved up into manageable sections, bookended by huts that have toilets, running water and cooking facilities. So why had I only seen a handful of people all day? Why don’t more people hike this trail?
The answer lies a few clicks west: the Milford Track. Another of the Great Walks, this 53km hike through Fiordland National Park is said to be one of the finest in the world; it steals all the headlines and tops all the ticklists. Given its proximity to the Routeburn, most trampers who come to the area opt to walk Milford instead. But to me, this seemed foolish. Not only do some believe the Routeburn to be more beautiful that Milford, its location is ideal for those wanting to link two of South Islands big hitters. Starting just 68km north-west of adventure-capital Queenstown, and finishing close to Milford Sound, the Routeburn offers a tranquil conduit between them.
ON THE TOWN – There was less tranquility in Queenstown. For years travellers intent on getting away from it all in New Zealand’s sublime South Island have congregated here, filling the bars with tales of adventure – and complaints about how too many people have followed their trail. It’s a common gripe as popularity turns into commercial success. But although Queenstown has embraced its status as New’ Zealand’s all-action hub it remains a small town at heart and there is a strong sense of community – albeit a transient one.
Here I met effusive travellers who waxed lyrical about lakes and forests, and I gathered advice on everything from rucksack size to sock brand from hardened hikers. I also picked up information on the Routeburn from the Department of Conservation office, where you must book tickets and accommodation for the track. I was itching to get out on the trail but there is something seductive about Queenstown; something in the air that makes you do mad-cap things you wouldn’t usually contemplate.