19th Nov 2015 10:15am | By Euan Johnstone
“Cattle thieves and killers”, was the bus driver’s first response as he ticked me off his checklist after I’d clarified my surname was ‘Johnstone’. He smiled but did not delay me any further as my travels through the mountains had been long and it was now time to rest and be thankful to of experienced the journey. I guessed correctly that his family name was ‘Maxwell’ as our ancestral border clans had a long history of hacking at each other with broadswords. Indeed just about every clan in Scotland did have another rival clan they came to heads within days gone by.
However I was not in Scotland when this incident occurred but rather on the other side of the planet in New Zealand. Perhaps this is not as strange as it sounds as the Scots have always been a venturous people and their descendants and Scotland’s modern day explorers show up all over the globe. New Zealand’s Department of Conservations’ ‘Great Walks’ were an instant draw for me as a visitor. With a love of the wilderness I had spent much of my time traversing Scotland’s national parks where I thought we had alluring mountains but New Zealand delivered something so much more impressive. Fortunately the ‘Great Walks’ have an excellent website and trail information which made planning ahead a lot easier and made preparation a lot less daunting. Even for a seasoned traveller these trails provided captivating scenery and a sense of seclusion you would expect from a truly remote region. In actuality these trails are fairly easy to access provided you book ahead and have followed the Department of Conservation’s advice and guidelines. Despite the south end of the South Island of New Zealand being the more sparsely populated part of the country one of the most popular Great Walks, the Routeburn Track, is a short trip from bustling Queenstown. The proclaimed ‘Adventure Capital of the World’ is a great place to visit and prepare for your trek and despite being a small town you will never see and do all the area has to offer in one trip. However for any avid hiker or explorer the Routeburn Track is certainly one of the highlights.
The track can be walked in either direction but most travellers begin from ‘The Routeburn Shelter’ which is a half hour drive from Glenorchy which sits at the end of the stretching Lake Wakatipu. It is hard not to get excited as you drive along the elevated road which runs besides the water heading towards the approaching mountains in the distance. The mountain range ahead with the sun rising over it on an early morning drive promises adventure. Once at the shelter this anticipation is not diminished as you have to crane your neck to look at the stretching green cliffs knowing you will be shortly winding your way through them. This journey takes you through two national parks beginning in Mount Aspiring before moving on to Fiordland and the landscape does indeed develop with striking change throughout the walk. The journey begins in very lush green scenery with the track running along beside the very clear and fresh looking Routeburn River. The track takes in some remarkable waterfalls and deep gorges before leaving the river behind and moving on to stunning views provided by an expansive swing bridge. The views from here look back onto flat grass lands with the river bed at the valleys centre and the green shoulders of the flanking mountains with their white peaks giving a hint of the landscape to come.
Emerging from the treeline of tall beech forest you will find the Routeburn Falls Hut which almost seems like a massive treehouse the way it seems to cling to the canopy. Many end their first day here in one of the forty-eight bunks before setting off in the morning towards the Routeburn Falls cascade and onto the alpine meadows. This leads on to the highest part of the track and winter conditions can make the journey more challenging. My own experience nearly did not allow me to make the trip as there had been snow the night before and there was concerns the track would not be opened at the peak of the journey at the Harris Saddle. In the end this made the trip all the more spectacular as my journey along this elevated rocky valley became increasingly snow covered and majestic in the afternoon sun. This tussock covered valley with its icy streams eventually led to its source at Lake Harris. Snaking along the buffs while looking down at this mountain lake it is amazing to see such an expanse of water at such an altitude. The rocky, snowy mountains with their jagged and cut faces which surround the blue lake provide a perfect example of why New Zealand was selected as the country to film Middle Earth. There is no shortage of dramatic scenery here and the Great Walks can show you some of the highlights. Many trekkers work their way from north to south completing one track after the other. It remains the best way to see New Zealand’s spanning landscape. Some featured more forests, others more mountains, the horizon was sometimes encircling peaks, sometimes the rushing waves of the South Pacific but the landscape was forever changing and alive with character.
Preferring the remoteness of the South Island to the smaller more densely populated North Island, with one-third of the country’s population living in Auckland alone, I spent most of the year living and working on the edge of Queenstown. This was an excellent ‘base camp’ to explore the wilderness of the South Island from. While it provides fantastic nightlife with numerous pubs, clubs and restaurants, the peacefulness of the remote wild was only ever a bike ride or a short car trip away. Indeed having barely seen a sole since leaving Christchurch it is surprising to suddenly arrive in a place full of so much life. The residents of Queenstown are extremely friendly and it is something of a global hub with people from all over the world coming to visit this vibrant lake town. Kiwis from elsewhere in the country come to visit as much as foreigners do and with so many people coming and going they even say, “if you’ve lived in Queenstown more than a month you’re a local”. Needless to say I met more than a few Scots while I was over there. Some just passing through, others having emigrated years ago and others decades more and yet retaining the accent. I’ve always found being Scottish a benefit when travelling abroad. I discovered so many descendants of my country’s kin in far flung regions of the world and they remain immensely proud of this connection. I thus found myself settling in very quickly in New Zealand’s south island.
Queenstown is also in fairly close proximity to three of the ‘Great Walks’ so naturally I walked all three, all be it in various weather conditions, when the opportunity arose. While there is a real sense of traversing the wilderness on these walks the trails themselves remain well maintained and popular with many visitors looking to stretch their legs. Hailing from Scotland it is hard to miss many of the names left in commemoration of the founders of these trails and the family names of many early farmers of these regions. The Milford Sound track, which is accessible only by boat, remains one of New Zealand’s’ most renowned locations and a highlander by the name ‘Quintin Mackinnon’ is credited at length for the discovery of the pass through its’ mountains. With ancient rainforest, valleys carved by glaciers and hundreds of waterfalls caused by extensive rainfall this is another track which is well known for its vivid scenery. Having stepped off the boat this walk stays at a fairly low altitude during the first day and is not too arduous. I can honestly say I have never seen such emerald green water and it is very tempting to go for a dip in the various swimming holes in and around the Clinton River.
As would be expected with a fairly wet region there was a curtain of mist in the morning as I made my way up this valley. When the sun did finally climb high enough to clear this vapour I realised it had been the imposing wall of rock to either side of me which had shielded the mist for so long. The unveiling of the magnitude of these cliff faces and there cascading waterfalls was made all the more impressive when they suddenly did materialise to either side of me. The spectacle of these steep rocks pouring thousands of gallons of water down their faces every second stretched on and on towards the valley’s end at the Mackinnon Pass. At this point in the morning this peak was the only sun kissed face of rock in the valley and so it was easy enough to spot but perhaps harder to climb. The steep assent leads up to a vast plateau where the memorial to ‘Mackinnon’ sits surrounded by the views of the misty Clinton Canyon and the spectacular Lake Mintaro. The descent then curves down the mountain side taking in many water falls before reaching Quintin Shelter and the country’s largest water fall as an optional side trip, Sutherland Falls. Only an hour and a half off the main route this exceptionally powerful flow of water drops in three places throwing up an impressive spray that permeates the atmosphere. The Great Walks all feature optional side trips to either some peak or natural phenomenon and Sutherland Falls is well worth a picture.
The last day of the track takes in more tranquil cascades and there is a return of emerald green water, meandering rivers and lengthy swing bridges. The final leg of this track was constructed by a prison work force in the 1890s and this smooth walk through the forest eventually opens out onto the world famous Milford Sound. Here I waited for the boat to take us across this spectacular stretch of water while the rest of the travellers I had started out with began to arrive in ones and twos. Eventually our transport did arrive but not in the form of a motor boat. Instead a series of double kayaks were provided by a smiling guide and being able to paddle across the water ourselves only added to the sense of adventure. A 53km journey can be tiring but we were in no rush to get to the other side of Milford Sound. There is few sights I have seen which have provided such a perfect combination of lake, forest, waterfalls, mountains and stretching sky. It took years of blasting and digging to tunnel a road though the mountain to reach the secluded Milford Sound and now visitors come from all over the world to see this spectacular location. However the presence of visitors has not disrupted the peacefulness of this place. It remains a remote corner of the world despite the area’s renowned beauty. I cannot imagine how it must have been for early adventurers traversing seemingly endless mountains and forests to suddenly emerge onto such a sight. For a relatively young country it is one that boasts an impressive amount of explorers and I am happy to say Scotland contributed more than a few.
More so than anywhere else I have travelled, the Scots have left their mark in the South Island of New Zealand. This is not to say that the indigenous Maori population is not felt in the islands’ culture. Especially when reminded of its people’s dominating presence in international rugby. Their success in the 2015 World Cup only reiterates this point. This is a nation that seems to have the sport woven into its very identity and from Rugby through to the Olympics this relatively small country excels in athletics.
Having travelled the length of the country it may be understood why. It might have been the same reason which encouraged many of my country’s kin to emigrate there, as it is a land which requires great feats of endurance and a sense of adventure to traverse. Many left Scotland’s glens and wind swept mountains in exchange for even vaster valleys and even taller peaks. Indeed many I talked to acknowledged that they are descendants of Scottish farmers. Entire families who packed up everything they could and made the great journey across the equator down to these shores. If you ask any Kiwi there is certainly a tendency for people living further south to roll their ‘R’s’ and names like Angus and Donald are more common than you would think. Everywhere I went I saw traces of home in shared place names from mountains, to roads, to rivers, which were juxtaposed with Maori names for landmarks. With the likes of Ben Lomand peak overlooking Lake Wakatipu.
There is so much room in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’. Despite having 10% more landmass than the whole of the UK, it has a smaller population than Scotland. It remains a paradise for mountaineers, hunters and fishermen. Despite the connections I found and despite being my home for a time, it remains in my mind’s eye a mysterious and wild place. A truly great land for the wandering traveller and driven explorer.