Lord of the Hills

After a couple of farewell dinners with friends and former colleagues of Man Australia it was time to say goodbye to Australia. I was looking for a change in scenery and hence hopped on a flight to Queenstown, New Zealand. When I peeked out of the window after only 2 1/2 hours of flight the scenery was quite different indeed. There was snow covered mountains everywhere I looked and of course my Swiss heart started beating faster immediately. Queenstown has a beautiful location at Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by mountains (not very high but they definitely look like mountains), most notably the Remarkables range. The city has seen a huge tourism boom over the past decade or so and prides itself as being the adventure capital of the world. Sky diving, bungy jumping, jetboating, heli-biking, mountain biking, white water rafting – anything is possible around here. In winter, skiing is very popular around here. In fact, I was told that they just had the best winter season ever (in terms of visitors) and the most snow in 25 years (more on that later)!

Initially, the weather was not very good (snowfall in the first night!) but when the skies started to clear up and the temperatures got a little warmer I got ready to explore the mountains. My goal was to do the Routeburn Track (funny enough some of the other Great Walks like the Milford Track are booked for months and months). It traverses 32 kilometres of Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks and usually takes 3 days to complete. The profile did not look too challenging and I was confident I could complete the walk in 2 days (just too lazy to carry too much food). As it turns out the organization of the logistics proved more challenging than expected. While the hiking track is only 32km, it is not a loop and to get back to the starting point its a 270km drive… What made things difficult is that everything had to be booked individually. So first I booked the huts but then I had to find transportation (drop off and pick up) at reasonable cost and in line with my hiking timetable (not easy in the off season) and then finally when I picked up the hut tickets at the DOC they told me that part of the track is closed due to avalanche risk and that hikers have to get a helicoptre lift that is only available once per day. Gee, this sounds like the most complicated hiking trip I have ever done…

However, next morning when I jumped in a mini van all the logistical stress was soon forgotten. The skies were deep blue and the snow covered mountains shining beautifully in the morning sun. Putting 10kg on my back felt like a deja vu – except after all the partying in Australia I really felt out of shape. So I took it easy, marched up the track at a slow pace, enjoyed the crisp air and the beautiful environment. The track started off in a stunning green forest (it looked greener than a normal forest because of all the fern and a lot of the trees are covered by moss, it really looks like an Alpine rainforest), following a river with crystal clear waters and eventually the forest opened up to reveal open grassed flats and we also got some glimpses of the mountains. The higher we climbed in the valley (it was not very steep though) the better we could see the mountains and eventually the full panorama. This made me realize how much I have missed the mountains – I could not get enough of the views! Despite my slow pace I got to Routeburn Flats early and took the side trip to the North Branch. Again, very interesting landscapes characterized by beech forests, tussock clearings and of course the towering mountains. I got more impressed by the minute and it was fascinating to observe the changing light conditions throughout the afternoon. Finally, I tackled the ascent to the Routeburn Falls Hut which was only 45min up the hill from the Routeburn Flats Hut. Some beautiful waterfalls around the hut and only 17 hikers staying there (capacity of 50). Over dinner I had another deja vu – I was hungry like a wolf!

I was almost certain that this beautiful day could not be topped, but the following day got even better. We hiked uphill for about one hour to Lake Harris where we had to wait for the helicopter to pick us up. There was now more and more snow on the track and made me realize why the track was closed. The scenery at Lake Harris was simply spectacular and so was the 5 minute helicopter ride to Mackenzie Hut. Instead of me trying to describe it, I suggest you just have a look at the pictures. From Mackenzie Hut it was all downhill towards The Divide and I felt kind of sad to leave this beautiful scenery behind. It was like walking away from a beautiful dream…

Anyway, I made it to The Divide in time for my bus pick-up and was driven to Te Anau, a sleepy but lovely town on the shores of Lake Te Anau. From here I took a bus trip to Milford Sound the following day. The fjords of Milford Sound are one of the most visited attractions in New Zealand. When visiting you are not sure whether you should wish for a blue sky day so you can see properly all the stunning mountains and rock formations rising from the water or should you wish for a rainy day that creates hundreds of waterfalls in the fjords. Well, turns out we had something of a mixed bag, grey skies but no rain. Nevertheless, a beautiful experience.

After returning to Queenstown I spent a couple of lazy days around town with some amazing spring weather. Also made a short trip to Wanaka, a smaller sibling of Queenstown that probably gets more action in winter because the skiing is better. I put on my hiking boots again for a short hike to see the Rob Rory Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park. From Wanaka, the experience begins with a one hour drive along the beautiful Matukituki Valley into the national park. The drive was great because mostly on unsealed roads and the numerous fords seriously stresstested my little Toyota rental car (of course I was not supposed to drive there)…

So much about the mountains and Queenstown. I will be heading to Christchurch tomorrow and now really curious to see more of New Zealand. This is an amazingly beautiful country and there are a lot of good things happening down here…

Beaches, Manly

Farewell 1 with Lindsay and Richard at Beaches in Manly

Billy Kwong, Sydney

Farewell 2 with the Man Crew at Billy Kwong in Sydney

En Route to Routeburn Track

En route to Routeburn – looks promising…

Side trip to North Branch

North Branch of Routeburn

Lake Harris

A very happy Lord of the Hills at Lake Harris – amazing!!

??? Mountain

Ups, forgot the name of this one…

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Rob Rory Glacier

Rob Rory Glacier

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