Hiking the Routeburn

Like many Kiwis, walking each of the nine (soon to be 10) Great Walks of New Zealand is on my bucket list. So far, I have managed to tick off three: the Milford track, the Rakiura track (Stewart Island) and most recently, the Routeburn track. Doing walks like these always reminds me of how fortunate I am to call New Zealand home. So green, so fresh, so lush.

The Routeburn’s beauty is just as magnificent and awe-inspiring as I’d hoped. We experienced a wide range of weather, meaning we got to see the track in all its glory. Fortunately the rain didn’t hit our alpine adventure until the last day, by which time we were homeward bound. The shimmer of the raindrops on the bush was pure magic! The track was nowhere near as hard as I had expected – in fact I would highly recommend it as a first multi day hike: it wasn’t too long nor was it too steep.

Our group started the 33km trail from Routeburn Shelter near Glenorchy (approximately 45 minutes from Queenstown). This meant we finished up at The Divide, which is about 1 hour from Te Anau. The track is not a loop, meaning that transport needs to be organised at either end of the track. Shuttle services are available however we opted for a vehicle relocation service which made the whole thing very simple.

Day 1 of the hike takes about 3 – 4 hours and is 8.8km. The hike begins by crossing one of many swing bridges and loosely follows the crystal clear waters of the Route Burn. There are a number of cute lunch spots, however the sand-flies in this area sure swam with a vengeance! The track winds gradually upward through beautiful beech forest before crossing some open grassy flats.

The day concludes with an hour of steady uphill to the Routeburn Falls Hut. The hut sleeps 48 (bookings are essential, $65pp/night) and was definitely my favourite of the two huts. Both this hut and Lake McKenzie hut (our second night) provide mattresses, flushing toilets, running water (I treated none of my water and had no problems), cooking facilities, gas and a DOC ranger who does a nightly talk. The Routeburn Falls Hut beds were set up cabin-style with entries at both ends – which seemed to help with the noise of those early birds (trampers) a bit.

We were warned by our ranger that heavy gales might us from 11am on day 2 – not ideal. We left the hut at about 8am, climbing gradually across tussock covered flats and winding our way through impressive rock formations. We reached the luminous Lake Harris – which apparently changes colour depending on the day. It was stunning!

Not far beyond the lake is the Harris Saddle, which at 1255m is the highest point of the track. There is a shelter there to drop your packs and venture up Conical Hill (about 2 hours) for more panoramic views. It was way too cloudy on the day we were there (you could barely see a thing from the Saddle) so we opted to just have a sheltered snack and rest our shoulders instead.

For the most part, we avoided those ghastly gales and made it around the face without too much struggle. We traversed down and along the Hollyford Valley – plentiful in alpine plants and expansive views. Wildlife was a bit more scarce on the track than I’d hoped, although we heard plenty of tomtits (they squeak like mice), kea and saw a few robins. We passed lots of groups coming the other way (Ultimate Hikes guided tours walk in the opposite direction). We were trying to pick a lunch spot that wasn’t too exposed and we eventually found a positively glorious one over-looking Lake McKenzie – it was well worth the wait.

11km later and we found ourselves grateful for our poles as we picked our way down through the bush to the lakeside – it felt like forever! When we arrived at Lake McKenzie hut, we dropped our bags and boosted down to the lake. It was crisp, but so, so refreshing. The colour of the lake was a sheer sparkly blue. And… no sand-flies. Basically paradise!

Day 3 is 12km long and the biggest highlight is Earland Falls, towering spectacularly at a mere 174m. Howden Hut is a great spot for lunch and it’s only about 20 minutes from the turnoff track to Key Summit (a 1hour loop track recommended for a good day). The end of the track is essentially all downhill, through a beautiful moss-draped beech forest to The Divide. Another Great Walk done and dusted!

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