We always aimed to make it to the lake. Whether this would actually happen remained at the mercy of the weather, our fitness and my sense of direction (bearing in mind that it’s about as accurate as Happy Feet the emperor penguin’s (RIP)).
After a solid 3 hours sleep we were up and ready to go. Little did we know these precious 5am moments would be the last time we’d be dry for the next 12 hours. We began our walk at the same time as the Xenicus and Erebus groups, starting at the beginning of the Routeburn track (east). With only the head-torch illuminated path ahead and the rain muffling most sound, there was an eerie sense that we were walking into a black void from which we might never return…that was until the sun came up and the trees began to take form around us.
We played leap-frog with the hard–core groups for a while but they eventually sped off. We made good time, arriving at the Routeburn Flats Hut as the sun was still ascending. By this point we were all soaked through our raincoats. Amazing what a laughing stock Fiordland rain can make of Gortex. The next hut wasn’t far behind the first. While having a short break, we stared out at the thick mist which definitely added to the ambience of the area but sadly blocked what on a good day is a stunning view down the valley.
We travelled up to Harris Saddle, marvelling at the views of distant waterfalls when the mist would briefly clear – one of the few things we could thank the rain for. Lake Harris tried to disguise itself as a valley floor, until we noticed that grassland doesn’t usually ripple or reflect. Our moment atop Harris Saddle was possible the most miserable of the day as we stopped to strip off wet under-layers and were blasted with a sudden bout of torrential rain. God looked down and laughed.
As we headed down and around the lake, the weather cleared somewhat, giving us fantastic views back across to the saddle. We followed a muddy but well-established tracking line that led us to the entrance of the Valley of the Trolls. With the mist swirling amongst huge glacier-deposited boulders, the mysterious valley was aptly named and we were all somewhat disappointed that we did not in fact see any trolls. Asia had dissuaded me from buying a troll mask and jumping out at people so you know who to blame.
The going was boggy from there but relatively easy underfoot. We crouched under a ‘rock biv’ for a snack stop and felt at-one with the trolls. Soon the waterfall fed by Lake Wilson was ahead of us, with another stream to our right which flows from Mt Erebus. We followed this stream because the other way was a tad too dodge for us moderate folks.
We were aiming for a ridge which you can then sidle over to the lake from, but this elusive formation took longer to get to than hoped. We knew we had to turn around at 1pm so at 12.30 we made the call to just try scrambling up the side of the lake basin and see how we went.
What ensued was a slippery climb over scree and mossy rock. I think we were all surprised at how the unassuming Sam suddenly turned into a mountain goat. 4/7th of the party made it to the top and though initially disappointed to see yet more tussock and not a lot of lake, a short walk forward finally rewarded us with a view of Lake Wilson. We had made it!
We didn’t stick around to pat ourselves on the back because we were all too cold and wet to stop. With a final glance at our watery friend we headed back down. The reverse trip along the saddle and down felt long, but we were buoyed by the fact that we’d achieved what we’d set out to do and the weather began to improve as time wore on. Josh was the hero of the final hour, providing cups of tea and chupa chups as the tiredness set in.
We made it back to the shelter at 6pm on the dot, emerging slightly shell-shocked from the bush and into civilization. We were then greeted by Beth who tried to make us do a quiz – we stared at her uncomprehendingly – and Daniel who said, “where were you guys?”. Turns out the Xenicus/Erebus groups had convinced everyone that we were lost and didn’t know how to use a PLB etc…just because they decided not to attempt their trips and went to Lake Wilson as well, but didn’t see us at all along the way. Sounds like we managed to perfectly time missing each other because they went up the water-fall and we must have come through after that. We were naturally outraged, having done exactly what we said we would and arriving back exactly on time. But I guess it’s better than them not caring at all.
Despite this interesting end to the day, it was a brilliant adventure with an awesome bunch of people. Thanks for being such good sports Abi, Josh, Claire, Sam and Sydney.
P.s we later found out that what we had thought was a 14km round trip was in fact a 14km trip one-way.You do the maths. •