Tramping recap: Rockburn – Lake Nerine – North Routeburn

This past weekend, D and I decided to do a tramp we have wanted to do for about 6 months. The Sugarloaf/Rockburn tramp was suggested to me several years ago, however D thought this tramp looked too short for the long drive (5 hours) and instead suggested we do the Rockburn – Lake Nerine – North Routeburn loop as it would be more scenic. I was initially hesitant as it was largely unmarked (so, not a track, hardly even a route), but D assured me that because it was Alpine, with good maps it would be nearly impossible to get lost. So I agreed that I would do it, provided we had the maps and took a locator beacon (which we don’t usually take because we are with tramping club or on major tracks). We’ve called it our “Valiversary” trip since it’s closeish to our anniversary and Valentine’s day. Can you tell what a romantic couple we are?

Since I attended the ICEE conference in Queenstown last week, D drove up and met me on Friday and we got to the start of the track (the Routeburn shelter near Glenorchy) at about 12:30.  After a lunch of fish and chips, we hit the trail.

This was the first mistake.  We almost always get fish and chips the night before tramping (on the drive from Dunedin to wherever we are going, particularly if we are with tramping club) and it’s never a good idea.  It’s an even worse idea to eat them right before walking.  I swear, I almost threw up.

We also got a rather late start and both of us were tired.  I was exhausted from conference/not-sleeping-in-my-own-bed and D was exhausted from being sick and driving up from Dunners at 6 am that morning.  So we were supposed to make it to theatre flat, a 6-8 hour walk from the Routeburn.  However, at 7 pm we came across a really good campsite, and we were both exhausted from climbing the sugarloaf saddle (D being sick and me carrying the tent.  Usually D carries the tent but I was being pack mule due to his illness).  We stopped at what we estimated was about 1 hour short of our destination.

View from the Sugarloaf Pass

View from the Sugarloaf Pass

Day2 was supposed to be a 6 hour day.  However, we were already behind schedule.  We left our campsite at 9:15 (a little late by tramping standards) and made it to the far side of Theatre Flat by 11 am.  From there, it was an estimated additional 6 hours to our destination Lake Nerine.  I don’t actually remember what time we reached Park Pass at, but lets just say I was already tired by the time we arrived (again, I was on tent carrying duty – D took over a bit later at about 2ish or so).  And that was “halfway” to Lake Nerine.  At least the track was marked quite a bit beyond Theatre Flat (according to our topo map, it ended there).

Then began our unmarked track along ridgeline, and a sidle back along the valley we had just come from (we doubled back on ourselves, just several hundred metres above) up to Lake Nerine.  Wow.  Wow wow wow.  It was distressing.  I don’t enjoy off-track much.  But off track, combined with clinging precariously to the side of a very steep mountain…  It.  Was.  Not.  Enjoyable.  Poor D, at one point after climbing up a very steep spot I had to sit down and have a big sob session.  I haven’t cried while tramping since the Copland (late December 2009).  It was that bad. Thank goodness snowgrass is extremely strong vegetation to hold onto. I was also quite thankful for my pole (placed on the out/lower side as you are walking).

Sidling - Don't look down!

Sidling – Don’t look down!

But eventually we made it along, even came across some more cairns so we knew we were still in the right spot.  We made it to the unnamed lake at 5:40.

Unnamed lake in the Humbolt Mountains near Lake Nerine

Unnamed lake in the Humbolt Mountains near Lake Nerine

The unnamed lake was absolutely beautiful.  Possibly to due with the time of day we arrived.  That and the weather was clearing up beautifully.  The colours were simply stunning.  We could have ended our day here and camped, but even though we were both tired and our feet and ankles were killing us from all the sidling, we decided to continue on (another 30 min in our estimation) to our quarry – Lake Nerine.

After a ridiculous climb up and down the ridge separating the unnamed lake from Lake Nerine, some tricky rock hopping coming down in particular to avoid bluffs, we finally arrived, totally shattered and never been so thankful to see flat ground in our entire lives at 7pm.  D in particular was stuffed after taking the tent since about 2 pm.  I somehow managed to sum up the energy to unpack our tent and cook some tea.  Then it was into the tent to simply lay.  D was so exhausted he could barely eat his tea (if you’re not hungry while tramping, this is a bad sign).

It was at this point that we decided several things:

  1. We are never tramping again.
  2. If one of us sprains an ankle, it’s a free helicopter ride out of here.
  3. Our packs are too heavy.
  4. Tramping is no longer enjoyable.
  5. We are never going off-track again.

Seriously.  We were broken.  Actually broken.  D was like – the lake is nice, but it isn’t worth the walk (remembering we had seen a lot of beautiful lakes and mountains over Christmas).  And in fact, although Lake Nerine was described as a “magical” place, I felt the unnamed lake before Lake Nerine was more interesting to look at. Maybe it was because we were so utterly exhausted and didn’t have the energy tp do any exploring (it was suggested we look at the lake outlet which gives a good view back down onto theatre flat).

Descending into Lake Nerine

Descending into Lake Nerine

Day 3 arrived and we somehow forced ourselves out of bed since we wanted to get the hell off the mountain.  We were very surprised at about 8:30 am when a couple walked into our campsite.  Easily in their late 50s or early 60s, they had been camped on the other side of Lake Nerine (but we were completely unaware).  They were travelling the track in the opposite direction to us.

The morning started with a nice steep rock hop up away from Lake Nerine, followed by a horrible boulder field.  The boulders were huge (car and bus sized) which resulted in some rather impassable spots that involved ‘rock climbing’ in a sense.  Did I mention the boulders were also razor sharp and I sliced my leg open on one.

Then there was more rock hopping and a bit more sidling along to North Col.  Just as we were nearing the col (after passing more reassuring Cairns), we met a bloke who was walking the entire track (again, in the reverse direction from us) in a single day.  So it’s only a mere 40 km, and the elevation wasn’t terrible (I mean, D and I did 50 km of the Kepler in a single day back in December).  But this track was a different beast altogether.  I would describe it as very “technical” – as in, you misstep at all, and you will surely sprain an ankle, break an ankle, or fall off of a mountain.  Also there was no track so there was the potential for getting lost.  Let’s just say that every time D and I go tramping, we feel immensely humbled because everyone we meet is fitter (and more hardcore) than we are.

Looking down into the North Routeburn valley

Looking down into the North Routeburn valley

Regardless, we made it to North Col by noon, no problems.  Then began a long descent down to the North Routeburn valley.  This started with a nearly endless scree slope (I thought my ankles were going to break from the strain).  Then we came across a beautiful wee glacial fed stream (I dubbed it an Alpine Oasis because, well, it looked like an oasis!).  Then there was nearly endless uneven tussock (again with the broken feeling ankles) until we finally reached the stream.  At this point we just followed the stream for ages.  We rejoined the well-formed track as it skirted through some nearly impassable scrub. Which wreaked havoc on my legs. I probably should have been wearing my gaiters as my legs were scratched all to hell.  Then there a whole lot of grasslands which may have actually been the worst terrain yet.  The grass was very tall and there were very narrow deer/chamois paths going through.  However, there were also many narrow hole/crevasse-like-things (up to 1 metre deep) that were just asking for you to step in and break or sprain an ankle (and I nearly did, falling into one).  Finally, we found cairns and a well formed track – and soon – our first marker pole!

Descending from North Col

Descending from North Col

Oh marker poll, how I love thee!

Oh marker poll, how I love thee!

We made it to the Routeburn flats hut at 7pm, and hooned our way to Routeburn Shelter/Carpark, arriving at 8:45 (track time is 1.5-2.5 hours.  We were pleased at doing it in 1 hr 45 min considering how stuffed we were).  So yes, a 10.5 hour day.  We were pretty much dead at the end.  Not to mention our poor, very sore feet…  Then of course, we had a flat tire between Glenorchy and Queenstown.  You can imagine how much D enjoyed changing 2 tires (because of course, the spare couldn’t go on the front because D’s car is silly.  So he had to put the rear tire on the front and the spare on the rear) in the dark at 9:30 at night on a narrow winding road after a hellishly long day of tramping.  Poor guy.  Oh, and then we drove back to Dunners (D was keen to sleep in his own bed again).  Arrived back at 4 am (we stopped for a 1 hour nap about halfway home).

To sum up: we’ve actually burst our tramping bubble a bit. I mean, the views were amazing. The weather was simply spectacular (not a drop of rain – in fact Day 3 was a little too hot and sunny for us). We never got lost. We really don’t have that much to complain about apart from heavy packs, D being sick, and general reminder that even though we are fit and go tramping all the time, we still clearly can’t hack the pace. *Sigh* It makes me wonder how much tramping I actually need to do in order to enjoy it more.


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