Routeburn Track

Nov 14, 2015

Okay, finally we’re off for a real walk! We got up early to catch the 8 am shuttle bus to the start of the Routeburn Track, stopping at the nearby bakery to get muffins for breakfast. Our bus had about 15 people heading to the trailhead, only one of whom was going for a day walk. En route the driver stopped at a viewpoint for a photo-op, then at Glenorchy for a tea/bathroom break. Finally at about 10 am we arrived at Routeburn Shelter, the start of the Routeburn Track.

Weather on Lake Wakatipu

Weather on Lake Wakatipu

It had been fine weather when we left Queenstown, but the rainy-looking clouds had followed us here and now it was raining quite a bit. So we put on our rain gear and started off.

Routeburn Track trailhead

Routeburn Track trailhead

The trail winds its way through silver beech forests for the majority of the way; initially it was reasonably flat but we soon started climbing steadily, crossing several suspension bridges to reach the head of the valley. We followed the Route Burn as it tumbled its way down and despite the rain and low clouds the pools of water were a lovely blue colour. Along the trail we passed a very high-tech toilet which, as John the ranger later told us, is known locally as “Cape Canaveral” due to its resemblance to the space centre.

Crossing the Route Burn

Crossing the Route Burn

It didn’t take long before we reached Routeburn Flats, an open grassy area. Here we saw a pair of Paradise Shelducks plus a mysterious mammal which Rosemary managed to get a photo of. The shelter at the flats was the obvious place for lunch, with its plastic roof on which the rain was pouring down. It was fairly crowded, with both upward and downward hikers stopping for lunch.

Mysterious mammal

Mysterious mammal

The next part of the trail climbed more steeply up to the Routeburn Falls hut, which was our overnight destination. The trail sign had said it would take an hour and a half to get to the hut, so we were very surprised to arrive there after only an hour. What a welcome sight!

View from Routeburn Falls hut

View from Routeburn Falls hut

The main building was already loaded with people trying to dry clothing. There was the smell of a coal fire and we could see people stoking it up. We only had wet rain gear to deal with, and there was a place outside to hang that. Next door was the bunkhouse, an almost windowless block with rows of bunks. We chose two beds at the end of the block and put our sleeping bags on them, and then headed back to the marginally warmer main building. It was still too early for dinner so we made some roasted chicken soup, which tasted really good.

When dinner time rolled around we had one of the freeze-dried dinners we’d bought in Queenstown, made by a company named Back Country Cuisine. It was roast lamb and creamy mashed potatoes, with mint sauce, and it turned out to be very good. We were initially dubious about the mashed potatoes but they were very good too.

At 7:30 pm the hut manager, John, gave his talk. It was a combination of “Welcome to the hut” and “Here are the hut rules” and “Here’s the weather forecast”. The weather forecast was for possible snow overnight, so we were going to have to wait until tomorrow to find out if the trail would be open. After John had collected the hut tickets he had a contest where the prize was a big block of chocolate. At the end of the room was a banner where people had written “Welcome, Merry Christmas” in their own languages, and we were invited to form teams and try to identify as many of the languages as we could. In the end Paul identified 26 of the languages and narrowly won the block of chocolate.

Paul with language-identifying prize

Paul with language-identifying prize

Pretty much everybody went to bed around 9:30 pm, with the rain still pouring down on the roof.

Nov 15, 2015

The rain continued all night and finally stopped at about 7 am. But when we got up at 8 am we found that was because it was snowing instead. The fresh snow on the trees and nearby mountain slopes was quite beautiful. There wasn’t much snow accumulation so the track was open, but John suggested people should hang around until 10 or 11 am because the forecast was for improving weather conditions.

Snow at Routeburn Falls

Snow at Routeburn Falls

Harris Saddle avalanche area

Harris Saddle avalanche area

We watched the weather and indeed the conditions improved, so we packed up and started up the trail at about 11:15 am. It took about an hour to reach Harris Saddle, including scuttling through the avalanche danger area. We had lunch at the shelter there, sitting outside in the sun with a great view of the snowy mountains across the valley. We sat on the deck enjoying ourselves until we finally decided we should leave. The trail was still supposed to take three or four hours to reach the next hut.

Lake Harris

Lake Harris

Harris Shelter

Harris Shelter

This part of the trail side-hilled along the ridge above the Hollyford River valley and gave us very good views of the mountain ranges. It was all above the tree line, or “bush line” as they say here. The trail seemed to take forever as we walked in the same direction for a couple of hours, and we kept bumping into the two Australian guys who had been in the bunks next to us last night. But finally we reached the end of the ridge and turned a corner, and suddenly Lake Mackenzie appeared below us. It was a brilliant dark green colour, unlike any lake we’d ever seen.

On the trail to Lake Mackenzie

On the trail to Lake Mackenzie

Lake Mackenzie from above

Lake Mackenzie from above

But the lake was still a long way down and it took over an hour to reach the hut. The trail was quite rough in spots as we zigzagged down into a forest of red beech trees which were covered with beautiful moss and lichens. We were very happy to reach the hut and finally get our packs off.

Mossy beech trees

Mossy beech trees

Mackenzie hut

Mackenzie hut

By arriving at 4:30 pm we had missed our chance at the regular bunks, so we took the first two spaces of the platform, next to the wall. After setting up our beds we went down to the kitchen area to start preparing our dinner. We had the yummy roast chicken soup to start, and then a freeze-dried food packet which we had brought from home. It was “chicken with rice” according to the label but it was mostly rice, quite salty, and very bland. Definitely the New Zealand variety of freeze-dried food was far superior!

Nov 16, 2015

A fine morning today for our last day on the trail, with frost on the grass outside. Our bunkhouse was supplied with large windows, so a lot of people had got up at 6:30 am when it became light. But we were in sort of a dark corner so we slept longer than that, so as a result the kitchen wasn’t busy when we went in to make our breakfast.

Lake Mackenzie in the morning

Lake Mackenzie in the morning

When we left the hut just after 9 am the thermometer was still registering 0°C, so we dressed warmly to start out. But our trail headed uphill quite steeply and so after half an hour we were already too warm. Here we saw a couple of Keas flying over the forest—our first Keas! The trail levelled off before descending through the forest. Along the way we got some spectacular views down the Hollyford valley and across to the other mountain ranges, and there were several large waterfalls which were flowing very strongly due to the recent rainfall. Earland Falls is 174 meters high and the trail goes very close to its base, so you walk through the spray which falls on the trail.

Hollyford valley

Hollyford valley

Earland Falls

Earland Falls

By the time we reached the Lake Howden hut it was after lunch so we sat on the porch and enjoyed the views while we ate. It was very busy here because the hut is within day-walking range of the trailhead; there was a guided group arriving and people were being offered cocktails. Definitely a nice day walk destination!

Lake Howden hut

Lake Howden hut

We had to be at the car park at The Divide by 3 pm so we needed to keep an eye on the time. There was a highly-recommended side trip to Key Summit on the way, and we couldn’t decide whether we had time to do it and still catch the shuttle bus. So in the end we dropped our packs at the junction, did the math, and set off up the hill to Key Summit with a turnaround time in mind. We did a pretty good pace and it only took us 20 minutes to get up there.

Key Summit view

Key Summit view

Key Summit is an unremarkable bump which turns out to be the triple point for the Fiordland mountains. From here rivers flow to the east, south, and west coasts. We didn’t have time to do the nature trail at the top but we did get to enjoy the views, which opened up in all directions. We also spent some time photographing the kea which was hanging about.

Kea

Kea

It only took us 10 minutes back down to the packs, which fortunately hadn’t been ravaged by keas while we were away. In the last part of the trail there was supposed to be a forest of tree fuchsias, which we did find. Some of them were very large trees, but their flowers were surprisingly tiny, even by fuchsia standards. At the car park the shuttle bus was already there so we signed in and climbed aboard, but we had to wait about half an hour before it left.

Tree fuchsia

Tree fuchsia

From here we still had a long journey. This shuttle took us through beautiful countryside to Te Anau, where we switched to another bus which went to Queenstown with a stop at Five Rivers to change buses and drivers. By the time we got to Queenstown it was after 7 pm and we were hungry, so we got a quick Domino’s pizza for dinner again. The rest of the evening was spent repacking our bags for tomorrow’s bus ride back to Te Anau; no time for laundry, that would have to wait until tomorrow.

Next: Doubtful Sound

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