Trip 5. Deadmans Track, Conical Hill, eastern Routeburn Track & Pass Creek Track, 9th April

It has been a record year for international tourism in New Zealand. Apparently, use of DOC infrastructure is at record highs. Just before we left Wellington I heard Kathryn Ryan say on mid-morning radio on Radio New Zealand National that it was not possible for New Zealanders to experience wilderness in their own country any more. This trip tested that notion for Dave (not being a New Zealander, I am not eligible!) It contained two obscure tracks and one very popular one. If use had changed the way that Ryan described then we should encounter people on every segment of the walk, if you use encounter rates in a national park as a measure of wilderness.
It is a walk I devised back in October last year when I came down to meet Dave and his sister Wendy, who were walking the Routeburn. You start on the Hollyford Road, go up the Deadmans track, across on the Routeburn, down the Pass Creek track to the road and then back to the car. There is very little on the DOC website, or anywhere on the web for that matter, about either the Deadmans and Pass Creek tracks. There was the possibility of both being very steep and rough and hard to follow and so I was a bit nervous about what to expect. I never found out whether my concerns were valid because I ran out of time during that particular trip. 
Our chosen day was absolutely perfect, the first for many days. 
Deadmans was glorious. Not too steep, not if you were wearing a light pack!
Despite the warning signs…

 

 There were some beautiful sections through a shelf of old gnarled forest.

 

And because it has been so dry, a potentially tricky creek crossing was very straightforward.
 
We heard kaka and kea, and saw many of the small birds of the forest. But we did not see a soul.
The Routeburn was an entirely different experience. 
First, it was a wonderful running surface. As usual Dave took off.  I see a lot of the back of him when we go running together.
Second, being above the bushline, the views are big, and extraordinary. Here is Lake Harris. When Dave and Wendy were there last October they had to be helicoptered over this because of the avalanche risk. In mid-winter the lake freezes over.

  

And this is Lake Mackenzie. It was in flood back in October. You can see how far the lake level has dropped.
 
It looks all very benign but near here there is a very large rock with three plaques affixed to it. A Czech man died here last winter. Under ice and snow the track is hard to follow and he slipped on the snow and was entangled in some trees. His partner could not free him, and he died of his injuries and the cold. She waited for help for a month in a near-by hut. The alarm was only raised when the Consul for the Czech Republic, who lives in Glenorchy (just out of Queenstown), noticed that there was no activity on their Facebook account.
The other two plaques memorialise two 14 year olds who died of hypothermia during a school trip in the 1960s. For our Tasmanian readers, it’s the story of Scott Kilvert all over again.
Here is some even gnarlier forest further along the track, near ‘The Orchard’.
We do a lot of our walking in the north of the South Island, which was badly affected by a windstorm during Easter about 3 years ago. Vast swathes of old forest were toppled. If you have ever seen photos of the damage to pine forests after firestorms, where massive trees are smashed into matchsticks all facing one direction, then this is exactly what the storm damage looks like. We walked in the Richmond Forest Park over Christmas and it was heartbreaking to see the vast areas of mature red beech that had been trashed. 
What we’ve seen in Fiordland is quite different. The hillsides have a uniform coat of old forest, liberally speckled with white where the tree is covered with lichen. There is very little obvious sign of windbreak or slip damage. 
Third, there was a continual stream of people on the Routeburn. They were of many backgrounds and of all ages, the youngest being an infant in a pack back. The wonderful thing about running on a track with lots of people is that there are many opportunities to stop and chat. If there is too long a space between contacts, you can use the scenery as an excuse for a stop.
The curious thing about the management of the Routeburn is that while it is a Great Walk, it is not used exclusively by people doing the Great Walk (as is the case on the Milford, for instance). All the Great Walk label means here is that you have to book overnight accommodation. DOC has granted day walk concessions on both ends of the track. Anyone can walk or run any accessible part of the track, as we were doing. That means it can get very very busy in places, and this was certainly the case for the last section of the Routeburn before we turned off onto Pass Creek.
Pass Creek used to be the access route for cattle between the Hollyford and Greenstone. In places it was a trench 2m deep, in others a pretty path through deep moss. 
The forest became more diverse the lower into the Hollyford you descended, where we saw our first kereru. But we were the only people on this track.
And no-one else was walking the long haul back to Tonka on the Hollyford Road. Anyone with any sense was driving it.
 
Or enjoying the boneseed nectar.
 
The verdict? A 10/10 day. Did Dave experience ‘wilderness’? I’d say he did, but it didn’t necessarily relate to encounter rates. But more on that later. I can feel a Rant coming on!