Friday, 25 November 2016


I said in the last post that the journey to Queenstown was the beginning of an insane few days.  Lumped in the middle of this was my little side trip to Glenorchy, a beautiful area of wilderness about 50Km from Queenstown along the shores of Lake Wakatipu.

Firstly, if I thought 50Km would be be an easy, short day, I was quickly troubled by the elevation profile on Google.

Cycling profile from Queenstown to Glenorchy.

As you can see, there were no hugely long climbs, but the climbs came regularly and although short, were incredibly steep.  Not too bad on the way there, on reasonably fresh legs, but hellish on the way back when heavily fatigued.

There was a reward, though, stunning views beside the lake of the towering mountains in the distance.  I was starting to realise that the harder the cycle, generally the better the views.  It was a good source of motivation to keep going through the pain.

Once in Glenorchy, I had my sights set on at least one hike and that was up Mount Alfred, which I'd done a bit of research on and was supposed to give outstanding panoramic views of the mountains and valleys, and sat directly in the middle of a huge delta-like river mouth.  Again, however, there was a problem; everyone I asked about the hike said that the farmer who owned the land had shut the summit track to hikers a couple of months ago.  I could hike to the tree line, but no further.

The top of Mount Alfred.  Perhaps you could forgive me for bending the rules.

Well, I figured that it'd be unlikely the farmer would be guarding the track night and day, so I went up anyway.  The worst that could happen was that I was turned back.  As it turned out, the only problem I had was a steep, slightly icy in places, scramble to the top on not very much of a track.  Not much of a problem, if care was taken.  Bending the rules proved to give rich rewards once more, as a beautiful day yielded more spectacular views.

An older couple I met up there can just be seen bottom left of picture.

Funnily enough, the only people I met up there were an older couple, one of whom was a former park ranger on the Routeburn Track (one of the great hikes and a hike I was to start later on that day).  He said that he didn't really listen to what the Department of Conservation advised most of the time.  Their advice was mainly for the average Joe with no mountain or hiking experience.

It was a 360° view from the top.  The view from the other side wasn't bad either.

The hike up Mount Alfred wasn't an easy one.  The mountain was about 1500m high and the track was steep and ill-formed near the summit.  I needed to make good time because I formulated a plan to stay in a hut on the Routeburn Track overnight.  This meant hustling it up and down the mountain and cycling a further 25 Km or so, partly on rough, unsealed road, and then hiking a further 12 Km.  In all, the day was mounting-up on me; 75Km cycling and about 25+Km of hiking, a bit headless, especially as it was all rather steep.

The reason I was doing all this was to squeeze everything in before a slightly bad weather forecast the following day.  This happened quite often throughout the trip, I found myself pushing huge days just to beat the rain, which occurred quite frequently. Strenuous at the time, but when the rain hit, I often had days off or did just a short trail run in the rain or something, so I did have time to recover after the really physically arduous days.

I intended to park my bike up at the beginning of the Routeburn Track and do half of it and then come back down the next day.  The reason I didn't do all of it was that it was one-way, and the other side would require a lift by car of over 200Km to get back, and leaving my bike for that long just wasn't going to happen.  Glenorchy is surprisingly close to Milford Sound on the map, but is there are no roads though the mountains. The road at the other end of the Routeburn takes a massive detour.

The Routeburn Track is roughly where the red line is on the map.  Perhaps you can see how it was rather difficult to get back to my bike had I done the whole walk.

I only intended on making it to the second hut on the map, but the weather the next day was so unexpectedly good, I tried to make it to the Harris Saddle the next morning, which would've given me excellent views of the other side of the valley.

I actually didn't make it to the saddle for safety reasons.  Because of the fact I'd cycled to Glenorchy and planned to do the Routeburn at the last minute, I couldn't hire an ice axe and crampons and they were needed to get through one particular section safely. As I looked up at this part of the hike, however, I was very tempted to just go for it, as it was such a lovely day and the potential views were tempting me into a risky decision. I think I wisely decided not to continue though, especially as I was on my own, and if I got into trouble, there was no one there to help me.

If you look at the picture above, you will see a small section of snow just above a shear cliff face on the left-hand side.  The track passed through this, as I could see footprints in it.  Without the snow the track would be level, but as it was here, the snow meant that I would have had to cross it on an angle, and that angle lead to straight off the edge of the cliff.  To compound matters, it had rained quite a lot overnight, likely making the top of the snow loose and slippery and prone to give way underfoot.  As tempting as it was to just risk it, it would've been very dangerous and quite foolish on my own.  It was especially galling because there actually wasn't much snow and ice anywhere else on the track, just this tiny patch, probably less than 100 metres long, and there was no way around it.

When I came back down, I ironically met a volunteer rescuer, who had been part of a couple of rescues on the Routeburn Track this year.  What he told me made me glad of my decision.  Apparently, a couple of hikers got into trouble a few months previously and one fell to his death in precisely the fashion I had envisaged, losing his footing on the snow and sliding off the edge of a cliff.  The surviving woman then spent a month in one of the huts on the track (See this article in the Guardian).  Despite being on a popular and well-marked track, Winter conditions had trapped her and no one else passed-through in that time.  She undoubtedly would've run out of provisions within a few days, so surviving all that time must have been quite a feat.

I stayed the night in the huts at the bottom of the picture.

Aside from the disappointment of not being able to go further, the half of the Routeburn that I did complete didn't disappoint, as usual.  New Zealand is one of the few places in the world I have been to that truly never disappoints, I think this is because it is difficult to convey quite how awe-inspiring the scenery is in pictures.  It is always such a special feeling to actually be there, and not even the best photographers can quite capture the sensation you get when you experience these places in the flesh.

Glenorchy was another place that featured in The Lord of the Rings, this time as the backdrop for Isengaard, the home of Saruman, the white wizard.  Parts of the forest were also used for Lothlorien, the forest home of the elves.  Passing me and stopping at some scenic lookouts both on the way there and on the way back were small tour mini-buses with guides explaining the background and where it cropped-up in the films. They also had stories to tell about some of the main characters.

After an exhausting day hiking and biking, I contemplated staying in Glenorchy the following day, as I still had about 20Km of hiking to be done and 75Km of cycling if I wanted to get back to Queenstown.  Despite being yet another long day, I decided to just go all the way to Queenstown after the morning hiking.  A desperately difficult bike back down that horrendously hilly road ensued.

As I climbed one of the longer steeper hills on the way back, I saw someone stop ahead of me and get out of their car.  He looked at me waving, and as I moved closer I suddenly realised it was Alex, so I stopped and spoke to him in a fairly exhausted state. He had driven up to Glenorchy for the day with a friend who was visiting him shortly after me, I think it gave him a good idea how hard cycling around New Zealand can be sometimes.

A finally made it back to Queenstown, utterly shattered and resigned myself to a short day of cycling the following day, after a bit of a lie-in.  To cap-off a few crazy days, though, it ultimately wasn't to be that way as I made my way to Te Anau and the Sounds.

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