There are still clumps (mounds?) of snow along the track - it would have been amazing to see the plateau completely covered in snow but the Track is closed in inclement weather, so we would have had to take the helicopter ride from the Falls hut to Lake Mackenzie hut. I'm glad we're walking. The air is so clear. A few trampers rush past us - they only see their bootcaps in their rush to get from A to B. I look back towards the cleavage in the mountain - the wind ruffles the tussock grass as I pass by.
The crows of Mordor evade us as we hide under these rocks. If only Frodo was here too, it would make my day. It is easy to spot Gollum lurking in the small streams or waterfalls that rush below us under steel bridges (which are removed over winter to stop trampers trying to cross the plateau).
I am enjoying the walk so much with my new backpack (No. 4 over nearly 40 years) and my newish boots (also No. 4 pair). The Aarn backpack has been designed by a Kiwi to fit a body perfectly. It moulds to the spine and the pack contents are distributed evenly between the main back pack and the two front 'boob' packs. I walk upright for the first time ever with a pack. It's bliss. Richard wishes he had one too (I did offer to buy one for him but he said his old one was fine - it isn't).
This lake marks the start of the Harris Saddle. We are almost at the peak.
We stop for lunch at the peak - there is a refuge hut (small, nothing inside but it would be ok if needed for an emergency) that is home to a kea, but we don't see it, only the poo it leaves on the little verandah. Some people ditch their packs and scamper up Conical Hill (a one hour return walk). We don't. I need some coffee and hot soup to get going again, but I think it's downhill from here to Lake Mackenzie. I ask Richard to try using the super-duper Aero Press coffee plunger and Rhino grounder I've brought all the way from Perth. It isn't a success, coffee grinds are large and we need more practise to get it drinkable.
The track winds downhill, edging back into the treeline again. So much tillandsia dripping from the trees. I can't photograph it all, but I'm tempted to try.
We knew day 2 would be a 6 hour tramp. We have been averaging under the max. time but only just! We have a long hike across several ridges, along narrow gullies, dipping in and out of trees and stopping for a breather at the top of the mountain to spy far below us Lake Mackenzie Hut, before a steep descent over gnarled tree roots, large boulders, fallen logs and more waterfalls amidst quite dark forests. Suddenly we emerge into daylight in front of Lake Mackenzie huts. The black sandflies are out in force here and stupidly I take off my boots. Thousands seem to latch onto me, biting any bit of flesh or clothing that takes their fancy. I sit outside and sketch, but eventually I'm driven indoors. We take bunks 1 & 2 again, maybe we're getting superstitious as those bunks are always available when we register in the logbook.
We are amongst the first to arrive and select the larger bunkhouse, surreptitiously suggesting to the younger, rowdier walkers that there's a lovely smaller hut behind the main one, which they head for. We are in the trees, but close by is the luxury hut for the guided walkers. They have electricity and hot water.
Day 3 and we leave Lake Mackenzie hut by 8am and head for Howden Hut. It may only take us 4 hours today. I learn to readjust my 'boob' packs so that I don't carry too much on my back. It is such a pleasure to walk upright rather than stooped over. Even my feet don't complain!
The snow is not evident now - we are below 1000m - and the air is warm. I needn't have carried my thermals or wet weather gear. I haven't packed a change of clothes because there are no washing facilities except cold taps at any of the huts. Wet wipes suffice and a toothbrush! I must mention the Kiwi who stopped me yesterday and asked how I liked my Aarn backpack. He was an industrial designer and helped Aarn with the design! He runs the track in 4 hours and we met him again today, at a pit-stop loo, perched on the side of a hill. He explained he transfers cars from either end of the track, then runs back to collect another car. He's done the Track 4 times this week and barely raises a sweat. He says running is easier than walking with poles because by the time the rock underfoot has rolled in the wrong direction, his feet are already off it! I'll stick to walking with poles as we still have two weeks holiday left in NZ.
Our final pleasure for the day is reaching Earland Falls - what an amazing sight. The wind blows spume across the path and one tramper dons wet weather gear, but we brave it!
The track heads steadily downhill, and there's been quite a lot of track maintenance here, with washed away sections, trees that have been sawn to make easy passage and boulders moved to reform the path. The tree roots (Mountain Birch mainly) have a very flimsy hold - they seek purchase in rock crevices and grow to amazing sizes, but there is constant undermining of the roots from the water that comes from snowmelt. We pass so many fallen trees I stop looking at the red wood and don't think about the number of wood fires it would make!
Howden Hut appears after a long boardwalk. We are not the oldest at this hut, which I think is a pleasure! The youngsters have all, en masse, headed out to be picked up at the Divide or start the Greenstone or Caples track, which is a mere hour from Howden Hut. I must mention the mattresses. Each bunkhouse has either bunk beds in a neat foursome, or a long bed with multiple mattresses on it. We avoid those because it is very intimate, no space between mattresses and it reminds me of the POW's Hanoi Hilton 'beds'. Each mattress is covered in an industrial-strength plastic cover, which will easily outlast the mattress. I succumb to using two mattresses on top of each other at Howden so that the slats can't be felt when I lie on my side. The plastic is extremely noisy and hot. I wear ear plugs and an eye shield to help sleep, but with late arrivals banging the fire doors, it takes awhile to nod off.