Posted by: cousindampier | 18 April 2011

Routeburn Track

Originally, Routeburn was going to be a seven-day, six-night endurance trek.  The Routeburn Track can easily be hiked in three days and two nights, but it connects with a circular route, the Greenstone-Caples Track.  This track starts from a small hut on Lake Wanaka, heads up the Caples River until a pass is reached, where one hikes over to the Greenstone River and comes back down to the hut (or vice-versa).  One can go from Routeburn to Greenstone or Caples from that pass.

After Kepler, and all the stuff which needed to be purchased to hike Kepler, and the shrinking number of days left in Queenstown, T and I scrapped this plan.  Instead, we decided to do three days, staying in the huts instead of camping, and bringing hardly anything: going light, quick, and dirty.

This trek, we would do right.  We planned out the food, almost exact, as it turned out.  We brought only a change of clothes for sleeping.  No beer (but enough chocolate to feed a small army).  Get up early, get started early, and get done early.

And I brought four pairs of socks.

Routeburn is hiked in two directions.  From Queenstown, a 90 minute bus ride takes one to the Routeburn Shelter, a small car park with bathrooms and a little information about the area.  From here, a DOC-estimated 1.5 to 2.5 hours takes one to Routeburn Flats Hut, with an additional 1-1.5 hours to Routeburn Falls Hut.  Our first day was to Routeburn Falls.

And, in contrast to the first day of Kepler, just six days earlier, it was absolutely beautiful.  The jackets came off, as did the sweatshirts, and I was considering changing to shorts for a while.  The trek starts out across a swing bridge, followed by a slight uphill, and then an absolutely gorgeous walk.  The trail snakes along with the river, not more than a hundred feet above it – close enough to feel mist where the river hit any one of the enormous boulders in its path, and high enough to see how clear and pristine the water is.  It was almost a blue-aqua as it moved, but it was clear.  The rocks on the bottom were sharply visible

T and I took our time hiking this first section of the track.  The sun played through the trees, and we stopped to take a good number of pictures.  Everything from the Kepler Track was accidentally deleted off my camera, which provided a little extra motivation.

The track eventually left the river, and we reluctantly departed along with it.  The path tailed through forest, cutting across the landscape to get from one section of the river to another.  We were passed by a tall Asian guy who was moving rapidly, but otherwise stayed in front of the people whom we’d journeyed with to the Shelter.

We dipped and dived through the forest, taking in small, picturesque views of the valley and clearing.  One section revealed the flat, flowing river almost imperceptible through the tall grass, with a craggy green mountain rising behind it.

All that was missing was a guy in a floppy hat fly-fishing and big letters across the top saying ‘Montana’.

We reached the turnoff to the Flats Hut at about the estimated time – hour and a half or so.  We stopped to look at some ducks in the river.  One seemed to be asserting his territory, quacking loudly at another and chasing it away.  A third duck dunked for food a few yards upstream.  The valley was wide, and much like the ridge on Kepler, filled with a yellow-brown grass.

We ate some dried fruit bought in Queenstown.  Then we took the track up to the Routeburn Falls Hut.

I was stronger than on Kepler.  I tend to enjoy uphills much more than downhills.  Six years spent running in DC, where, inevitably, you will be faced with some nasty uphill no matter where you run, pushed me through some sort of Stockholm Syndrome with hills.  But my running had tailed off before I’d left, due to winter, and Franz Josef was largely flat, so Kepler proved a challenge.  Parts of Routeburn would be, but this was somehow enjoyable.

The track wound uphill, before coming to a clearing – another slip, caused by rain.  A whole side of the mountain was nearly gone, having flowed downhill.  The trees disappeared for a hundred yards, with small shrubs and grass being the only vegetation.  The rain began here as well, just a drizzle, but enough to cause concern.  The wind picked up too.  Jackets came out and hats went on and I pulled out the rain cover for my pack.

It fit much better without a tent and two foam pads strapped on.

But twenty or thirty minutes more and we arrived at the Falls Hut, which appeared near the top of the small mountain we were hiking.  It sits on the side of the glacial valley.  Two huts sit there, one for DOC hikers and another for the guided hikes, with big signs telling DOC hikers to mind their business and stick to their own unheated and cold-water hut, albeit in fewer words.

The bunks were different, four to an alcove, but the hut was nice.  The wood seemed polished and sturdy, and fit together perfectly with smooth curves.  There were no rough edges or signs we were miles from heat and restaurants.

We made food.  Sat down to read.  And when I looked up next, it was pouring rain.

The Routeburn Falls Hut is long, running parallel to a ridge which drops off to the valley.  The bunks sit at one end, and the kitchen and common area at the other.  A passageway leading from the trail to the long porch, which runs along the length of the hut, divides the two.  The porch is covered, however, and benches are attached to the walls, so one can sit and look out over the valley with ease – or, for the rest of the day, look at gray clouds and rain.

The valley proved pretty in the rain.  It was difficult to see fully, but to the left was a small waterfall, almost appearing out of the green mountain behind it.  In the mist, looking down at the valley, a mountain dominated the center of it, its gray shape rising quickly.

Later in the evening, the rain lessened and more could be seen. I sat out on the bench with my pencils and drawing pad and worked to draw the valley.  Two mountain ridges ran in the distance, one behind the other, seemingly the same height as me, but probably much taller.  The clouds hovered over them.  The valley seemed to make an S-shape, and the further curve was caused by a steep and rocky mountain rising high.  The nearer curve was caused by the mist-shrouded mountain I’d seen earlier.  It rose into a fat hump, but connected to the larger mountains on my left.  A ridge ran along until it rose in a V-shape, leading to the glacial valley I would hike tomorrow and to a set of peaks which ended sharply in the sky.

I drew and tried to get all the angles on the mountains correct and my eraser grew round as I often failed.  It soon became too dark to draw.  I went and made rice and beans and tea for dinner.

The night ended with T and I guessing languages, as the Ranger had two tapestries hanging in the lodge.  Both were covered with different languages saying Merry Christmas, and if we could guess twenty the prize was a chocolate bar.  I think we were lucky to get five, as I found out much later one language which I imagined to be vaguely Scandinavian was actually Basque.

T crawled into bed and I was about to when I realized I left my water in the common room.  I went to get it, and walking back noticed the stars out over the valley.  I stopped and stared. They were amazing.  The night was clear – not a cloud in sight, and from the porch I could see hundreds, and I was only looking west.  I couldn’t look up, because the roof hung over me.

I hurried out, through the passageway, into a clear area just outside of the hut in which I could look up. And the cold went away as did my exhaustion and my mouth hung open and I took my glasses off and cleaned them with my shirt to make sure I was seeing correctly.

They were everywhere.

More stars are visible from the Southern Hemisphere than from the Northern.  At Franz Josef, some nights were breathtakingly clear.  One night after coming back from a bar, a friend and I looked up at the stars and chatted about reasons to believe or disbelieve in god, based on the sheer number of stars in the sky.  The Milky Way was a common sight.  Constellations were easily spotted.  The view from Franz is what one sees after driving for an hour outside of the city, with a few extra stars thrown in.

The view from Routeburn Falls was a view from space.  Maybe because I was higher, up on a mountain, and there was no moon, but the stars were so clear they seemed to be streaks in the sky, small lines instead of dots.  The Milky Way was a mass of bright stars, as opposed the hazy gray background it usually provides, and directly over my head a planet – Mars or Jupiter or Saturn, I don’t know which – dominated the sky.   Its light was piercing, the way the moon can be at night.  Surrounding it were seeming infinite points of light.  The constellations were difficult to pick out because they were surrounded by so many other stars.

There were more stars than I felt I knew existed.

Fifteen or twenty minutes must have passed before I was truly cold enough to go back in.  I half-started twice, before stopping and looking more.    I felt like a gleeful child locked in a toy store at night, and I felt the big, goofy smile on my face.  I couldn’t get enough of craning my neck back and looking up at what seemed like thousands of points of light.

I crawled into bed, still smiling.


The day was clear and crisp and not too cold.  I strapped my jacket to my backpack, hiking in a hoodie and gloves and a hat.  The hike for this day was from Routeburn Falls to Lake Mackenzie, over the Harris Saddle.

The whole valley was carved by a glacier, which at one point ran to the Tasman Sea.  It is now gone, leaving behind a U-shaped valley, strewn with rock and boulders upon closer inspection, and beset with dozens of small waterfalls and streams, which flowed to larger waterfalls and creeks and soon enough they formed a river.

There was no threat of rain in the sky.  I was able to take my time and walk through tall grass and around magnificent boulders, with a cascading waterfall – really a series of waterfalls – growing closer and closer.  Hiking through a glacial valley brings a good understanding of how a glacier formed.  I could see the U-shaped end of the valley for a mile, with two mountain passes on either side of it, and as I hiked higher and higher, Lake Harris appeared.  The last remnants of the glacier, it is fed by a few mountain streams and drained by the waterfall which provided the backdrop to the first hour of the walk.

Trekking up a glacial valley is an odd feeling at times.  I could see how much the land was carved out by the glacier.  The ground, even with all the vegetation, was smoothed, and the valley was neatly U-shaped.  The boulders, which would be pebbles in the face of the glacier, were left at random in the valley.  There is a sense of history in walking the valley, though I didn’t understand it well – mostly because comprehending thousands of years is hard to do.  The glacier was last here thousands of years ago, and formed thousands of years before that – and yet, I walked to its source.

Just before the Lake, a group of kids – not much younger than me, if at all – appeared headed back down the valley, towards the Flats Hut.  I saw them the day before, chatting briefly.  They were headed to hike at Lake McKenzie that night, to hike back to the Routeburn Shelter today.  A long hike, maybe 10 hours, but it avoids the expensive huts and the much longer and more expensive ride back from The Divide.

The day before, they’d been mocked by the older campers who’d arrived after T and me.  Not to their face – they were too superficially polite and encouraging to do that – but after the group left, the cries began.

“They’re crazy.”

“I don’t know why they’d do that.  Gonna get caught in the rain”

“Just foolish to do.”

Which was odd, considering the older trekkers, with all their expensive, brightly-coloured camping gear, were not actually using it for camping.  Though, when hiking, it does make it difficult to discuss important matters of the day.  Those are best left for deep conversations in the Huts.

The view from Lake Harris, down the old glacial valley, with the sun rising over it, changing the water from blue to just bright, provided for the second sublime sight of the day.  Harris Saddle was not far beyond.  Though it was uphill much of the first hour, it did not seem as such in many places.  The gradual uphill of the valley was replaced by a steeper uphill around the lake; but T and I lingered in a few places, admiring the clarity of the Lake and the valleys surrounding it.

Harris Saddle was a small shack, the same type as on Kepler.  For an emergency hut, it is rather nice, providing total seclusion from the weather outside.  It sat next to a slightly larger hut next door, for the guided hikers.  Through the window we could see orange juice and paper cups laid out for them.

We dropped our bags.  Grabbing water, we headed down a small side-trail from the Shelter, to climb Conical Hill.  One of the higher peaks around, it supposedly provided beautiful views.

The path climbed the hill on the southwest side.  The night before was cold at the Falls Hut, freezing in the mountains, and though the sun was bright, this side of the hill was not yet warmed.   I was doubled over, using my hands to climb over icy rock or to grab at shrubbery for much of the first part of the climb.

The path levelled out and became mud and water and then, after scrambling over a few large rocks, the top appears.

The third sublime sight of the day.

To the west and south stretched mountains, snow-capped, with a few puffy gray clouds just hanging over them.  Mt. Aspiring was one of them, a little more east, towards the center of the island.  Far in the distance were the waves of the Tasman Sea, lapping at the shore surrounding the Hollyford River.  They seemed like lines of white, with flat nothingness beyond.  Behind me lay the Lake and the valley and the sun.

Two middle-aged women, the two chatting on the bus with T and I to the beginning of the track, also made it.  The ice was not that much of a difficulty.

I felt free without my pack strapped to me.  I ran part of the way up, until the trail turned from gravel to rock and I was forced to climb more.  Out of the icy area, I jumped from rock to rock when I could.  I started to do the same on the way down.  This proved to be a poor idea as soon as I misjudged one rock, thinking it clear of ice.  I was wrong and slammed down on my butt, sliding a few feet.

I called out to T, behind me.  “Watch out for this going down.  I just fell.”

I turned.  Took a few steps.  Heard a crash.

“I did watch out.  It didn’t help!”

The rest of the descent went much more slowly.

The trail after the Saddle snakes along the sides of mountains for a few hours.  We passed the incoming guided hike, stepping to the side for most of them.  McKenzie Hut is clear from high above the treeline, 45 minutes before one gets to the hut, along with the clear lake.

T and I sat next to the Lake until it got dark.  I spent some time writing notes of the day and sketching, discovering that trees can be difficult to draw.  And in the evening, when the temperature dropped again, and neither of us felt like hanging out with the other trekkers downstairs, we watched an episode of American Dad on my iPod.

Which probably violates about 67 different rules of camping, but as I was discovering, the Great Walks are an odd form of camping.

The third day was a day of steady hiking.  The trail reaches the treeline again, before slowly descending through forest to Howden Hut.  It was pretty forest this time, not covered in moss nor complicated by rain.

The path climbs out of Lake McKenzie briefly – not more than 20 minutes.  Then it starts its descent, every now and then coming to clearings with views of the Hollyford Valley and the mountains beyond.  Like McKenzie Hut, Howden Hut, the last hut on the trail, is visible from high up.

We got there in the early afternoon.  A group was headed out to hike Greenstone.  One was from Spokane, graduating from Gonzaga Prep.  He was introduced to me as K-Dawg.

I figured I would meet somebody from Spokane in New Zealand.  I didn’t think it would be on the Routeburn Track.  And I didn’t get any more from him, as he started down the Greenstone Track right after we were introduced.

90 minutes more, and T and I arrived at The Divide, the end point for the trail.  For the first time, we sat and talked with Jeff, who had trekked ahead of us for most of the three days.  I chatted with him about food and New Zealand and trekking in Europe.  T talked to a guy from France who was headed to Milford.

And then the bus came and picked T and I up and we said our goodbyes and settled in for the hour and a half journey back to Queenstown and showers and food and our hostel.

I stared out the window for much of the ride.  Tried to get a little sleep.  T and I had done this well.  We only had a few pieces of bread left.  The last day, our packs were light and we jogged briefly a few times.  It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t especially difficult.

The Great Walks in Fiordland are an odd form of camping.  They’re not designed for tents.  One can camp on Routeburn, but only at two places – Routeburn Flats and Lake McKenzie.  This means one has one very short day of hiking followed by two very long days.  Kepler is much the same, and camping is not allowed at all on the Milford Track.

The Huts are nice. They’re very nice, and it makes the whole experience different than camping.  Routeburn was almost three day hikes, interspersed with cold nights, instead of a three-day trek.  It’s an odd form of being outdoors, because there is no real challenge to it.  Routeburn is difficult because of the uphill, and in poor weather it would be very tough in places, but at night one gets a sturdy cabin, gas stoves, a warm fireplace, and a good mattress.

T and I did it light and quick and easy.  Three days with no real problems and nearly perfect weather.  But Kepler left me feeling as if I accomplished something, fighting through the elements and the boredom.  Routeburn left me feeling normal.  I thought that was wrong.

But as I stared out the window, it seemed more right.  New Zealand is a young country.  There isn’t much here which is old, in the sense of Europe or India or Egypt.  It is a place to go do things, ranging from skydiving and bungee-jumping to trekking to kayaking.  It is a place to be outside.  Some things are going to be difficult to fight through, hard to learn, or just plain scary.

Others are going to be nice jaunty walks over a mountain.



  1. Great post! Living vicariously through you guys!

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