Chaotic rainbows are being flung across the gravel of the Routeburn shelter carpark – clothes, packs, hiking poles, supermarket bags, raincoats. Twenty four of us are setting out to walk the Grand Traverse – the Routeburn and Greenstone tracks – over 5 days and 76km. There is a frenzy of final preparation. Sunscreen, insect repellant. Last minute toe strapping. Boots being laced tighter, packs adjusted. A parade of loo trips. We share slightly nervous conversations about sock choices, hikers wool versus blister pads, water bottles and Camelbacks. There are scurrying efforts to find sunhats carefully stowed somewhere that no longer seems obvious. The group’s food is divided up and we stash our share under stern instructions. Do not squash the bread.
This is my first Great Walk, and I am lurching between excitement and fear. I’m also feeling seriously sleep deprived, thanks to the drunk dudes at the Glenorchy Hotel. We were treated to a nocturnal symphony of their hollering and crashing backwards and forwards between the bar and bathrooms – the crescendo of which occurred at about 3am when one of their troupe walked up and down the hall, hammering on every door in turn, yelling ‘Oi! Mark! Lemme in!’. Over breakfast, my sister is still furious. She reveals she stood, all 5ft 4" of her, just behind the door to her room, consumed with the white-hot rage of the sleepless. Fists clenched, ready to go out and crack some heads. My brother in law only just managed to keep her contained.
And then, packs re-stuffed, briefed and readied, we are walking.
We talk many times over the next few days about how remarkable all this is – to have nothing demanded of you except that you walk. One foot then the other. Some footfalls are blissful, some are miserable, but now I get it. To just walk, for days on end, is joyfully liberating. There are no other demands on your time – those thousand daily insistent claims for my attention have vanished. Middle Of Nowhere. Uncontactable. Only Way Out By Foot. Even four days in, limping along with a blister the size of a quail egg, this offers a kind of sanctuary.
Our feet lead us through beech forests, rich with the smell of leaf litter and earth. Then wild alpine landscapes – soaring peaks, snow. We look down on braided rivers, silver with light. Ochre flatlands of grass and tussock. Waterfalls that cut soft swathes of white through deep olive green scrub. Flaxes. Hebes. There are tiny, tiny, daisies smaller than the head of a pin, and impossibly delicate mosses. They’re so small they are only noticeable during breaks – sitting on a rock, pack off – or when I’m reduced to climbing, hands grasping for grip, on the rocky ascents up Conical Hill or Paddy’s Point. There is some kind of plant that looks like a little blanket quilted from green hexagons. Tiny red berries. An entire world in miniature.
The dramatic landscape is, one morning, softened by fog – moody drifts sweep in around the sharp angles of the rocks, and obscure the jagged edges of the mountains. It is a haunting beauty made for grainy photographs or time-lapse film. And then, swiftly, the cloud is gone and we are back to endless views. Mountain range after range after range. On and on. Snowy peak to snowy peak. Valleys dotted with the gloss of alpine tarns. Turquoise streams. The white breakers of the coast a tiny blurry line on the horizon.
We walk and walk and walk – almost 100km in all. Physically we wear ourselves down, and each day my feet hurt more and more. My blisters gather in size and number. I lose more sleep in the snore-rattled huts, and the sandflies think I am delicious. I am bruised and filthy, I have a rash on my hips from the pack straps, and I’ve bashed up my shin somehow. There are moments when I would sorely love to throw down what my friend’s fiancé calls ‘The Princess Card’.
But moment by moment there is also sanctuary. There is restoration. That scenery. Those views. Holding in my hands a cup of tea boiled in a billy on the side of the track. Sitting on a rock, sun on my back, while I soak my feet in a glacier-fed lake. The camaraderie of a group, new friends, shared commiserations. The taste of a salami and cheese sandwich – which seems, at that moment, to be the very best thing I have ever eaten. Renewal is that moment each day when my pack comes off and I feel weightless. When my feet are released from their boots. Nourishment is the robins and riflemen that visit us as we walk. Resilient is how I feel when I emerge from an end-of-day alpine stream plunge – squealing, shivering, euphoric. The first hot shower in three days. I am CLEAN! Connectedness is the vivid, collective food fantasising – custard squares, raspberry buns, burgers and beer, please. Restoration is feeling of the tussock as it runs through my outstretched fingers.
It’s realising, pack sitting in the dust beside me as we wait for the shuttle bus, that I did it.
Routeburn and Greenstone tracks
Milton Rotary and the Otago Youth Adventure Trust