Ask anyone who lives or has gone trekking in New Zealand, and they will tell you it is all about the Milford Track. This is THE one to be experienced.
So when Kevin and I found out this news in December, we both decided we wanted to do the Milford Track. I mean, it must be the most popular one for a reason.
Unfortunately, by the time we realized you needed to book this Great Walk in advance, there was not a chance of us getting a booking. The Milford Track has been rumoured to sell out in 4 hours. That’s right, 4 hours!
No, it is not a concert.
But it must be one hell of track.
Anyway, the next best thing to the Milford Track is the Routeburn Track. It peaks at 1,255 metres above sea level, links Mount Aspiring National Park with Fiordland National Park, and includes soaring mountain peaks, huge valleys, waterfalls and jewel-like lakes.
Well … What’s not to like? Definitely doesn’t sound like a bad second choice, if you ask me!
In December, we were able to book two huts on the Routeburn Track but the options were still limited. At that time, Lake Mackenzie Hut was already full, so we settled for the Routeburn Falls Hut and Lake Howden Hut.
This would make our second day close to 20 kms and 10 hours long.
Normally, I would have panicked at the thought.. But luckily, I had been feeling unstoppable these days, so I wasn’t worried at all!
I liked this new Tori.
In addition to booking our huts, we needed to figure out our transportation. Like all other walks we had done, The Routeburn Track is not a loop track and can be walked in either direction beginning at the Routeburn Shelter (near Glenorchy) or The Divide (near Te Anau). Both ends of the track are hours away from Queenstown, and are about 6 hours apart by car.
So walking was not quite an option.
There are two main options for transportation to the Routeburn. The first is to book transport to and from Queenstown. The second is to use a car relocation service that drives your car from one end of the track to the other.
While both options are great, we determined that it cost more to use the car relocation service if there are only two people in the vehicle. Through Track Hopper, it is $265NZD + fuel for your car, compared to the transport to and from Queenstown with Info & Track which is $125NZD each. The $125 fee is actually a pretty good deal as it takes 2 hours to get to the Routeburn Shelter and 4 hours to The Divide.
So, we booked with Info & Track for our transport through the local iSite. We also found out that the Queenstown Holiday Park where we were staying had a parking lot we could leave our car in for $10/night. Not to mention the campsite was a short walking distance to town.Things were working out great!
I love when that happens.
Last but not least, we picked up our official track tickets from the Department of Conservation in Queenstown.
That was it. We were ready to go!
Day #1 Queenstown to Routeburn Falls Hut
Our first day of the hike, we woke up early and excited! After breakfast and some last minute packing, we headed into town to catch our 8:00am bus to the Routeburn Shelter.
The drive leaving Queenstown was beautiful. We had a clear morning giving us hope for the weather on the track. Deep down I feared we were finally going to run out of our weather luck.
Not to mention, the upcoming forecast was confirming these fears with rain Saturday and Sunday. It was Thursday – would the rain come early?
I sure hoped not..
The drive to the Routeburn Shelter took just under 2 hours with a quick stop in Glenorchy to pickup and drop off a few people from the bus.
We walked through this tiny town to warm up and stretch our legs before arriving at the Routeburn. On our walk, we passed this sculpture of the largest known eagle which is now extinct.
Have to say, I am not sure how upset I am about it being extinct. Look at the talons on that thing. It could easily pick me off in the alpine along the track if it was still alive..
When we arrived at the Routeburn Shelter, the sun was still shining! First thing we did before walking was strip off our rain gear and warm clothing. It was going to be a beautiful day!
I was so relieved. While I loved my new rain pants, I did not want to have wear them any more than I needed to.
The start of the trail at the Routeburn Shelter is in Mount Aspiring National Park characterized by remote wilderness, high mountains and beautiful river valleys.
Before we started walking, we soaked in the views around us.
Finally, we couldn’t wait any longer. We were ready!
The beginning of the track led us across the first of multiple bridges onto a forested trail weaving along side a crystal clear turquoise river.
Well, forget the Milford! It was five minutes in and we were already loving the Routeburn!
The air was fresh and crisp, and the sound of the river flowing was tranquil. As we walked through the forest, I could not take my eyes off of the river.
I was lovin’ it!
I was so thankful we got to be here to see, yet another, side of New Zealand. The Great Walks truly are the best way to explore this country.
After passing along the river, we began our climb above the gorge leading us to the Routeburn Flats. Here the sun shone down on the Routeburn’s golden grasses and highlighted the beautiful mountain range that surrounded the valley.
Man, I love hiking! Why did I never hike in Canada?
Oh right. I was too “busy” all the time. Work. Drink. Sleep. Repeat. On the scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most important, I put fitness around a 3.
But I did put drinking wine around a 9. I have continued this commitment confirmed by the bag of wine I was carrying in my backpack for our nights in the huts. Perhaps, I needed to combine drinking wine with physical activities much sooner.
After the flats, the track began to ascend steeply. I knew it was going too easy in the beginning. We had 2.3 kms left to go until we arrived to the Routeburn Falls Hut where we were staying our first night.
Luckily, I can do steep for 2.3 kms. Especially, through a beautiful beech forest with a continually changing trail to keep things interesting!
While the trail was steep, it was an easy walk with our focus on our surroundings. It’s easy to forget about the pain and strain when you have something beautiful to look at.
Must be how Kevin puts up with me.
Eventually, not far from the hut, we were rewarded with an incredible view of the Humboldt Mountains and Routeburn Flats Valley.
Now, this is what makes all the effort worth it!
Finally, after 3 hours, we arrived at the Routeburn Falls Hut!
Perched on the side of the mountain, this hut had magnificent views! I was excited to enjoy the afternoon sitting on the patio, drinking my wine and soaking in the scenery.
While we were relaxing on the patio, every 20 minutes for an hour or so, there was a constant landing of helicopters next to the hut.
I couldn’t figure out what they were doing until we realized they appeared to be picking up and dropping off items.
What we learned is that there are two very different ways to walk the Routeburn. There is the basic way where you carrying your clothes, equipment and food in with you and stay at the Department of Conservation huts and campsites. There is also a luxurious way where helicopters fly in your bags and food and you stay at luxurious lodges with electricity where meals, beds and warm showers are provided for you.
Guess which way we didn’t travel? I mean seriously, they fly your bags in?
After lots of wine and relaxing, we cooked up some Backcountry “Cuisines” for dinner and headed to bed!
Tomorrow was going to be our big day! We needed to be ready.
Day 2 – Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Howden Hut
The weather board posted in the hut confirmed that the weather for day 2 (Friday) was likely going to involve some rain. So with that information, we decided to get up early to get started!
We had a lot of ground to cover.
We left the hut around 7:30am in the morning. Dressed warm and prepared for whatever weather was coming our way, we headed back out on to the track.
The first stretch of our walk was from the Routeburn Falls Hut to the Harris Saddle where the Routeburn Track peaks.
While we intended to get moving early, we took a little more time than we anticipated. The weather in the morning was clear and we were rewarded with such great views! As the weather was likely to take a turn for the worst later, we thought we would enjoy capturing some good photos while we could.
Finally, after about 30 minutes of enjoying the Routeburn Falls area, we moved on..
And so did our good weather..
It was a steady climb toward the Harris Saddle. While the clouds rolled in bringing mist and fog throughout the valley, our views were not compromised. Every time we stopped and turned around to soak everything in, I was left speechless.
Figuratively only, of course. I couldn’t stop talking about how amazing everything was!
The clouds in the sky brought its own beauty to the scenery with rays of light piercing through, lighting up the valley.
I didn’t care if it was raining a bit. As long as I had these views and could keep my camera lens dry – I was happy!
From the viewing point in the valley, we continued to climb up to Lake Harris, a small alpine lake near the Harris Saddle.
Once we got close, the views of the lake were breathtaking.
A little further beyond the lake, we finally reached the Harris Saddle!
The views from the Saddle are supposed to be spectacular on a clear day. From the top of the saddle, you are surrounded by mountains – the Darren Range, Mount Madeline (2537m) and Mount Tutoko (2746m), just to mention a few.
Unfortunately, the coverage of the clouds had reached a new level by this point. Even my optimism had to admit to defeat. The clouds were no longer “adding” to the experience.
The only thing we could see was the emergency shelter at the peak.
It was official – we had entered Fiordland National Park! As this area receives an average of 200 days of rain per year, the odds were definitely against us. Cold temperatures, snow, strong winds and heavy rain can occur at any time of the year.
So when you think about it, while it was raining we were still having pretty good luck because it wasn’t cold, and we were yet to experience snow, strong winds, or heavy rain.
There we go. My optimism is back!
After a quick break, we headed back out to the next part of the track toward the Mackenzie Hut.
While our views were restricted from the clouds for the next couple of hours, the rain continued to be light and we were still treated to beautiful colours of the alpine scenery.
Thanks to the amount of rain received, there is an abundance of waterfalls, streams, and colourful shrubs along the way.
All around, we were both still excited to be on the track. We were not going to let a little rain and cloud coverage get us down.
With that said, we passed a women along the way who shared that it was her second time on the Routeburn and, like the first time, she hadn’t caught any views along the trail. She definitely was not sharing our optimism.
She also let us know that there was no view today of Lake Mackenzie up ahead. She had just come from that direction.
But when we reached Lake Mackenzie, we couldn’t believe our luck! For the first time in hours, the clouds parted and we were privileged with a beautiful view of the lake.
Seriously, we ARE lucky with weather!
After enjoying some views of something other than each other, we descended down toward the Lake Mackenzie Hut where we stopped for lunch.
We were 4.5 hours into our hike with only another 2.5 hours to go! The day was going to be much shorter than we originally estimated.
I was starting to REALLY look forward to the rest of our wine.
When we made it to the hut, our timing could not have been better! The rain really started to come down. My light weight Gore-Tex jacket was starting to fail me as it could only fight off so much rain.
Not to mention my body was starting to ache and my knee was throbbing from all of the downhill. Once again, Kevin appeared to be in fine shape.
What WAS his secret?
That night we drained the last of our wine and caught a good night sleep. It was a long and hard day but totally worth it!
Day 3 – Lake Howden Hut to The Divide
A major benefit of our long second day, was a very short third day. The walk to The Divide, where our shuttle would pick us up, was only one hour away.
I was so thankful because unlike the day before, it was POURING rain outside. I could not imagine stepping out for a 5 hour day in weather like that.
No matter how great I thought my rain pants were.
Overall, it was an amazing three days on the mountain! Rain or shine, the Routeburn provided a beautiful variety of scenery for us to enjoy our last couple of days in New Zealand.
We decided there was only one perfect way to celebrate our achievement that night and it was to go back to Rātā for our final dinner in Queenstown.
Between meeting up with friends, enjoying the amazing town of Queenstown, our flight and cruise through the Milford Sound and our walk along the Routeburn Trail, the last week was exceptional.
The South of New Zealand had blown us away!
So much so that we are currently tracking the release date for the Milford Track for 2016. Yet, another reason to come back. If anyone is interested in joining us, please let us know!
SO, see you later, New Zealand.
Until next time!