Intrepid trampers or a bunch of softies? Pam Neville puts the case for guided walks.
We're a bedraggled bunch at times, we tail-end Charlies. One has boots with soles flapping loose, held together only by regular applications of sticky tape. Another is walking in Jandals, having abandoned boots because of agonising foot pain. A third has a nasty head wound after scalping himself on a fallen tree. More knees than not are encased in braces, bandages, straps and supports.
The proper trampers are out in front, leaping over boulders and cantering up steep tracks like mountain goats.
Leading the herd is a fit and competitive Australian. He is barely challenged by the hike, even at the end of the longest day when he finds someone sneaked rocks into his pack in a breakfast-time practical joke. (It turns out the joker is a demure Englishwoman. "It's always the quiet ones," mutters the Australian.)
My group of 24 is on a six-day adventure in the foothills of the Southern Alps, walking the Greenstone and the Routeburn tracks.
Guiding company Ultimate Hikes calls this the Grand Traverse. They have combined what are usually two separate walks for the benefit of foreigners such as Australians and Aucklanders for whom getting to Queenstown is expensive.
Accommodation is three nights in huts with bunkrooms and two nights in lodges with private rooms. Breakfast, dinner and bedding are provided but walkers carry their own personal gear and lunch.
But guided walkers are not "real" trampers, according to a friend back home, who lugs her own food, clothing, and sleeping bag — even a tent if there are no DoC huts on her route — in a pack weighing two or three times the 6kg I allow myself.
Another "real" tramper pooh-poohs the guided folk relaxing in their lodge, wine in hand.
"A well-earned rest after a hard day carrying a pack containing a spare handkerchief," he scoffs.
Unfair, I reckon. We are still walking 65km, over difficult terrain, and a guide assures us we will have walked nearly 100km by the time we've done some extra sightseeing, side tracks, and trips to the bar. We traversed the Main Divide — twice — and we ventured into two national parks, Fiordland and Mt Aspiring.
From a look-out called Key Summit, there are sweeping views down three valleys, the Greenstone to the east, the Eglinton to the south and the Hollyford to the west, with rivers leading to three oceans, the Pacific and Southern Oceans and the Tasman Sea.
From the Hollyford face, we look across at the Darran Mountains, down the Hollyford valley and out to the Tasman Sea reaching towards Australia. From the Harris Saddle and Conical Hill we see the surf at Martins Bay on the West Coast.
As well as the mighty panoramas are myriad close-up views of South Island robins and wrens, of tomtits and kea, of sparkling waterfalls, fast-moving crystal streams, alpine lakes and cushion plants and snow berries.
Grand views indeed on the clear days we are blessed with — fewer than half of the trampers who come here enjoy such fine conditions. It is sobering to pass a plaque commemorating two children who died in a storm on the track 50 years ago.
The weather gods were kind on this Grand Traverse in April. When I walked the Milford Track in January last year, conditions were entirely the opposite.
"Pray for rain," the publicity people say, "as you've only seen Fiordland at its most incredible when the waterfalls are in full flow."
So before starting the Milford, I put up a prayer. It rained so much that the Clinton river rose 1½m in as many hours. Ahead of us, the track was neck-deep in water. Whole cliffs became waterfalls. Plunging sheets of water obliterated the mountains. Twelve kilometers past our last lodge and 4km before the next, my group was rescued by helicopter.
I realised too late that the pray-for-rain mantra is just a public relations excuse to cover the fact it rains pretty much all the time in Fiordland, up to 8m a year. So walking the Greenstone and the Routeburn for six dry days is a blessing. Dainty, silken waterfalls suit me fine. I saw enough of nature's raw anger on the Milford.
By lunchtime on Day Six we have conquered the Grand Traverse. Fast or slow, fleet-footed or flappy-booted, we knocked it off, and grand is the rejoicing.
I might not be a real tramper, I might even be a pampered pansy, but I am a convert to guided walking. Why not have a hot shower at the end of six or seven hours' hard slog?
The Greenstone track is gentler, but the Routeburn has a couple of tough climbs, with rocks to scramble over and steep descents. And then there are the sandflies and the snorers in the shared bunkrooms. It's not easy. Every steak, every lamb rack, every pudding and every pinot noir was well-earned.
IF YOU GO
The Grand Traverse is a six-day guided walk, including accommodation for five nights and all meals.
Further information: See ultimatehikes.co.nz.
The writer paid her own way.