Jamie Mackay: ‘Red’ light not a death knell for exploring New Zealand


Every cloud has a silver lining and one of the very few to come out of Covid has been the opportunity it has afforded Kiwis to see their own country, with international travel off the menu for most of us.

I was lucky enough to walk the Hollyford Track in early 2020 BC (before Covid), even though we were helicoptered out in a rescue net, following rainfall in Fiordland of biblical proportions. The Alps to Ocean bike ride (Mount Cook to Oamaru) was 2021’s great outdoors adventure. A Great Walk kicked off 2022.

Our Routeburn Track odyssey started with a 6.30am departure from Queenstown, via Te Anau, to the Divide (on the road to Milford Sound) where our three-day hike began. Basically, you’re walking from Fiordland, over a mountain pass, back to Central Otago and the only low point of the whole epic journey was the three-hour-plus bus ride to get to the starting point.

For someone who has led farming and rugby bus tours to Australia, the UK and Ireland, South America, South Africa, the USA, China and Japan, I should be an old hand at coach touring.

And I am. Provided I’m sitting in the front seat, microphone in hand, looking directly ahead through the front window. I’m sure those who suffer chronic motion sickness, will sympathise with me. The back of the bus is no place for the faint-hearted and those faint of stomach.

So, my formal introduction to my fellow tramping group of 38 was a sprint up the aisle of the bus to deposit the remnants of my previous night’s Queenstown dinner (lamb – what a waste!) into a plastic sick bag, hastily thrown in my direction by one of our startled guides. There’s always one on the bus, but why did it have to be me? And just five minutes shy of our destination!

Apparently it rains for 260 days of the year on the Routeburn Track, so statistically we should have got at least two days rain out of three, but Fiordland, like the rest of the country, is going through something of a drought at the moment. So we got rain on day one on the ascent to the Mackenzie Lodge, but beautiful weather on day two when we climbed above the bush line and across the Harris Saddle. Ditto for day three, as we made our way down from the majestic Routeburn Falls Lodge, for a bit of a dawdle along the Routeburn Flats, before back on the bus to Glenorchy then on to Queenstown.

It goes without saying the alpine scenery, flora and fauna was stunning but the most moving thing I witnessed on our hike was a humble rock with a plaque on it. It was there to commemorate two 13-year-old Roxburgh pupils who perished in a deadly snowstorm in December 1963, on a school tramp.

Heroically, one of their teachers, a 23-year-old Miss Judith Egerton, along with another pupil, trekked 21 hours in blizzard-like conditions to raise the alarm so the rest of the party could be rescued. [Equally tragically, Miss Egerton died when she was hit by a car, through no fault of her own, in central Dunedin in 2017 – almost 54 years later, to the day].

Tragically also for many, the next few months are going to be very challenging, both mentally and physically. But the red light traffic setting is not the death knell for exploring our beautiful country and getting out amongst it. After all, the one thing we know Covid doesn’t like, is fresh air and sunshine.

I used to think the only pack I’d ever want to carry on my back, going off-piste amongst the bushes, would have had golf clubs in it. How wrong was I? I’m a late recruit but I’m hooked on walking in the great outdoors.

There are 10 Great Walks in this country. So it’s one down, nine to go! The most iconic, the Milford Track, is definitely next up for me. Then I think I fancy going west to the Abel Tasman, Heaphy or Paparoa Tracks. I could then head south for the Rakiura or Kepler Tracks. Or journey north and have a crack at Lake Waikaremoana, Tongariro or the Whanganui River Journey.

As the old saying goes, don’t leave town ’til you’ve seen the country.

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