Well, I slept that first night. Not sure how long, or how well, but eventually time passed without my realizing it and the sun was up! I must have been asleep then, right? Even if my body didn’t feel like it slept?
Sleeping in a tent presented an interesting new set of challenges. On the positive side, we had a great view of the mountains and valley right from our front door (or rather front flap). Also, it was so much quieter than in a hut! You may remember my grievances about hutmates clomping about on the wooden floor and climbing in and out of their bunks, but the only noises I could hear from our tent were the birds chirping and the bubbling of the nearby stream, the kind of stuff you could buy a recording of if you need help falling asleep. Of course the benefits of this tranquil soundtrack were lost on me because of the inherent discomfort of sleeping on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, we had inflatable sleeping pads and pillows, which were pretty comfortable as long as you were lying motionless on your back. I tend to be a bit of a tosser and turner though, which made the whole getting comfortable thing a little tricky. Ok, ok, I hear all you tough as nails tramping pros out there. “What is this, The Princess and the Pea?” Hey we all have our strengths, and sleeping on the ground just isn’t one of mine.
In spite of these issues I still managed to “sleep” until around 8:00 am! That’s a whole two hours later than our typical hutmate alarm clock would start going off on the Milford Track! Even so, it got to a point where it just wasn’t worth it. The thought of sitting up and doing something seemed more enjoyable than trying to fall back asleep again. Alana was a different story. She looked completely serene on the other side of the tent, and even as I sat up and began noisily munching on my breakfast bar and bagel (for longer lasting satiety this time), Alana continued fighting tooth and nail for every extra second of sleep.
Eventually Alana roused herself to wakefulness. It was a beautiful clear morning, but the tent had accumulated some serious condensation overnight. We rolled everything up and stuffed it in our packs anyway. There would be time to dry it out when we reached the next campsite.
We started off heading uphill again right from the get-go. Alana wasn’t particularly thrilled about this. It didn’t help that she was having a hard time with her breakfast. You may recall from our Milford story, that Alana prefers to eat on the road, while I insist on eating breakfast back at camp before we head out. What I neglected to mention at the time was that I can finish my entire breakfast in under a minute, Alana takes upwards of half an hour to get through a single breakfast bar. So the struggle of the steep uphill climb combined with the struggle of chewing breakfast was proving to be a bit daunting today.
It took us a little over an hour to reach the next hut, where we had planned to fill up on water before heading to Harris Saddle, the highest point of our journey. The hut ranger told us not to bother, there were plenty of streams we could refill at on the way up to the saddle. This was a nice bit of news since carrying enough water, let’s say 3 liters, for a long stretch of hiking adds a considerable amount of extra weight to your pack. And when you’re struggling uphill all day long every pound (or kilo) makes a difference. It was really nice just carrying a 1 liter bottle and refilling it at the streams we passed along the way.
The scenery on the way to the hut was forested with lots of steep switchbacks. After we passed the hut everything suddenly opened up and there were clear views of the mountains all around us, and there were a few smaller, but nonetheless picturesque, waterfalls just off of the trail. We made our way up a “natural staircase” of steep rocks and entered a beautiful alpine valley. There were flowers and tussock all around. Every now and then we passed a massive boulder sticking up out of the ground at an odd angle, leaving me wondering how and when they got like that. In my opinion this was even more scenic than the Milford Track, the so-called finest walk in the world. But everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and really it’s like comparing apples and oranges, giant, mountainous, forested, glacially formed apples and oranges.
We came upon the saddle sooner than expected (time flies when you’re immersed in your stunning surroundings). We rounded a bend in the trail and all the sudden we could see another valley filled with clouds stretching out in front of us. There was an emergency shelter where we stopped for lunch. We left our packs in the hut and, since the weather was still pretty nice, set off on a side trip up Conical Hill.
Even without our packs it was a bit of a challenge getting to the top. The trail was very steep and rocky and involved some scrambling. There were some dark clouds rolling in, and, starting to feel slightly concerned, I tried to keep us moving at a pretty quick pace. Alana was having none of that though, so I just kept my worries to myself. We had our waterproof jackets with us after all.
We made it to the top, passing some snow along the way, and our good luck held out. The views from the top were amazing. There were some really interesting shaped peaks covered in varying amounts of snow. We could see the snow on the path as it slowly melted and trickled down into the rivers and lakes below. The wind gusted all around us and the clouds rolled around the mountains, alternately concealing and revealing the vistas surrounding us. It was cold and arguably not the nicest weather, but in my opinion this only added to the magic of the experience, seeing nature in action on such a grand scale.
The climb back down was much easier. We picked up our packs at the shelter before heading off to the second campsite. Instead of descending into the valley right away, the path wound along the side of the mountains above the tree line, with a steep climb to the left and a steep drop to the right. The trail was relatively level which was a nice break for our legs. Eventually Lake Mackenzie, the location of the campsite, came into view at the bottom of the valley. The lake looked great and I was ready for a swim, but it was still so far down! We began our switchbacking descent into the valley and eventually re-entered the magical mossy forest for a final downhill sprint (not really, it was more like a painfully slow trudge) to the campsite.
This campsite was back in the trees, so it wasn’t as scenic as the first, but we were only a short walk from the lake. We set up our tent, much more efficiently this time, and took our still wet rain fly down to the “beach” by the lake to dry in the sun. Now that we were all set up it was time for a swim! The lake was large and deep enough to go all in. It was as numbingly cold and tinglingly refreshing as I could have hoped. Alana put her feet in and decided that would be enough for her.
We sat in the sun by the lake munching on some 豆干, but after a while the wind picked up and the clouds moved in, so we went back to the campsite for dinner, another dry, sauceless bean and rice mixture. The next day would be shorter and more level, but there was a high chance of rain. We went to bed hoping our good weather luck would hold out for one more day.