The Greenstone: Roots Rock

(Note: while the following may not sound like much fun, the next trail I did, The Kepler, was amazing and more than made up for my cranky Greenstone experience. So it all evens out. Stay tuned for The Kepler Report in a subsequent post.)

From its intersection with the Routeburn at Lake Howden, the Greenstone Trail follows the river and valley of the same name for about 35km to its end at Lake Wakatipu. It’s a low level trail, with no alpine crossings, and is touted in both DOC literature and my Lonely Planet Tramping in New Zealand guide as an excellent “beginner” trail, particularly good for families and inexperienced hikers.

Well, I’m pretty sure that, if the Greenstone had been my first trail, it would have put me off hiking for good.

Note: it was not awful. It was just a bad combination of tedious and boring.

My issues are more with the trail descriptions than the trail itself, particularly the LP claim that there is merely “an occasional rock or tree root.” Yeah. “Occasional” as in every other step. There were a few stretches of level ground, particularly on the third day, but I did a lot of tripping, slipping, sliding and wobbling over roots and long stretches of loose rock. It wasn’t difficult, it was just exactly the kind of terrain my bad ankles hate. About three hours into the first day, all the wiggle-wobbling my ankles were doing had my feet rubbed raw.

Then there was the humidity. I’d forgotten how much I dislike hiking with a full pack in humid weather. It wasn’t that it was hot, but it was probably in the 70s and so humid that I felt every pore was a swimming pool. In the forest and even the brief stretches of trail that crossed the open valley floor, the air was so still and stagnant that it was hard to breathe.

I started to fantasize about swimming in Lake Wakatipu, about rolling around a glacier, about a long, cold, jasmine-scented shower.

Then there were the sandflies.

Apparently, the enemy combatants that had survived my thumb-led countersquishattack on the Routeburn had radioed ahead to their Greenstone brethren, because they were waiting for me. My first night, I camped beside MacKellar Hut… the hut itself, built to house 12 people, was overflowing with more than 40, most of them semi-feral children and teenagers. At MacKellar, the sandflies swarmed me, landing anywhere they could, including in my nose and ears and, worst of all, on my eyeballs. My eyeballs! Is nothing sacred?

The tent next to me had two French guys who were singing to each other, badly, until late into the night. When I finally fell asleep, perhaps not surprisingly, I had a nightmare that the MacKellar hut was built on top of a Hungarian or Turkish or Czech (it wasn’t clear in the dream) 19th century prospectors’ site called “Taril Zazo” that was haunted and, like Silent Hill, once there you could never leave.

Fittingly, the nightmare was accompanied by a loop of the guitar solo to “Hotel California.”

The next morning, I was on the trail by 6 a.m. … can you blame me? As a plus, I was up before most of the sandflies. It was another 16km or so through rock and root-infested forest, in thick air, with not much to see. Yeah, sure, it was a nice river and a pretty valley, but again, I’ve been spoiled by the magnificent, sandfly-free panoramas from Mt. Alfred and Ben Lomond.

I had the crazy idea to push on and do Day Three’s 11km all at once, but my ankles warned me that they would be doing no more root and rock-scrambling for the day, so I took the side trail to Greenstone Hut. It was supposed to rain, heavily, and I thought I would stay in the hut instead of dealing with packing a wet tent in the morning.

Greenstone Hut is very prettily situated, in a clearing on a slope surrounded by mountains and forests, and the warden was very nice. Otherwise, it was a horror. I got there early and managed to get one of the last bunks. By 5pm it was overflowing, with a lot of people having to set up tents. The hut itself had a large kitchen and two bunkrooms, each with ten bunks, each room about the size of a small to medium bedroom. Because the bunks were packed in, and because everyone had a lot of gear with them, there was little room. No air, either. It was humid and we had only a tiny screened window that let in little of the swampy air outside. It was also dark.

And, well, let’s face it. People hiking all day in humid weather with heavy packs and only one set of clothing for several days on the trail do not smell good. Ten people in these circumstances, crammed into an airless bunkroom, really do not smell good. To top it off, since it had started to rain, the people camping didn’t want to sit in their tents so they were packed into the kitchen, loudly getting drunk and yammering on well after dark (which is 10pm here). One guy kept leaving the door open, an invitation to the sandflies. The guy I was sleeping feet-to-feet with snored like a tractor and kept putting his gnarly bare feet on my sleeping bag. One of the German girls on the bunk above me, perhaps to distract herself from everything else, kept click-clacking beads or something. The Israeli couple on the other side of me had their iPod speakers on, inflicting upon us all their dismal musical taste, which ran towards New Age whiney.

The only way I got through it was thinking about Vikings. Saxons, too, and other folk that I tend to romanticize in my head. I just thought about the human condition, and how, for millennia, this is pretty much how people lived, cheek by jowl, no privacy or peace. It’s too bad we didn’t have a sheep or cow in the bunkroom to complete the ambience.

And oh, how I envied the guy feet-to-feet with me. Oh, to be able to fall asleep and stay asleep amid the clamor.

Not surprisingly, I got another early start the following morning, off on the trail just as it was getting light. The final day on the Greenstone was the best, with something close to a cool breeze and long stretches of flat ground. There were still roots and rocks, muddy and slippery after the night’s rain, but there was enough that was easy-going to keep me in a good mood. Or maybe I was just feelin’ it because I knew it was almost over.

There was one exciting stream ford that had me knee-deep in water, but otherwise it was a lot more forest with occasional valley views. Nearly at the end, there was a long swing bridge over the Caples River, where the Greenstone and Caples Trails meet again. I thought to stop and have lunch before pushing on the final kilometer, but the sandflies swarmed again so I kept going.

I got to the shelter at the trailhead around 1100 and found it blissfully fly-free. I took my boots off and sat there unmoving until nearly 2 pm when the backpacker shuttle came. During the wait, I ran into a pair of Austrians that I’d met on the Routeburn. They’re traveling around the world (next stop: Tahiti). They’d done the Caples and reported it was scenic but tough, and that the sandflies were particularly vicious and the huts overflowing and hot. Hmmm, sounds like I didn’t miss that much. Two Swedish girls who’d been in the Hut of Horrors with me the night before also showed up to wait for the shuttle, as did an 18 year old from Seattle taking a year off before college to trek around New Zealand. All in all a nice group, and I think we were all looking forward to the hour-long bus ride back to Glenorchy.

So, after the bus came and we piled our gear into its trailer and climbed aboard, we were all a little surprised when, after about a kilometer on the road, the driver pulled off onto the grass and said “Get out, get your gear and head to the water.”

Uhm, okay.

For a second, I wondered if this was some kind of hijacking attempt, or if I was going to wake up and find myself truly trapped, a la Silent Hill, in “Taril Zazo.”

Then I saw the tiny pier and the tinier black motorboat beside it. Turns out the shuttle back to Glenorchy was by water taxi, a surprise to us all (the Austrian guy exclaimed “Vat now eez dees?” in the adorable way only German-speakers can). We zipped across Lake Wakatipu, getting fantastic views and a wonderful, fresh, splendiforous cool breeze off the water.

And yeah, that was the highlight of the Greenstone.

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