Two weeks after I did the Milford Track, I was again entitled to 4 days off with my work at the Lakeview Holiday Park. From Saturday 12th to Tuesday 15th of November. Lucky me! In addition the weather forecast seems to be good for the weekend! I decide to go on the Routeburn Track, the third Great Walks in the Fiordland area!
Being now in the summer season (since October 25th), it is necessary to reserve its place in huts or campsites along the way. Having received my new tent (Hubba NX Solo from MSR) a week ago, I opt for the campsites. The place costs 18$ against 54$ in hut (!!!!!). Along the trail are two campsites: one of nine spots on Mackenzie Lake and one of fifteen spots on the Routeburn Flats. I visit the DOC (Department of Conservation) website to check availability. There are still places available for the Routeburn Flats but nothing for Mackenzie Lake. The next available place is at the end of January !! As the Routeburn Flats campsite is near the end of the hike, it obliges me to do almost the entire hike in one day!
My second option is to bet on chance and hope that there will be room left at the Mackenzie Lake campsite. A discussion with Lenka, one of the ladies working with me at the Lakeview Holiday Park and whose companion is one of the Mackenzie hut warden, tells me that despite the fact that the campsite is full on the site, half of the sites were free the last few weeks! Apparently quite a few people having booked do not finally come. That suits me well. So, I decide to bet on luck for my first night and only book my place for the Routeburn Flats for the second night.
Day 1. November 2016 | 15 kilometers
Saturday, early wake up to embark in a Tracknet shuttle at 7am. Contrary to what was announced, the weather is cloudy and rainy. I talk a bit with the driver along the way. The Routeburn Track is a trek of about thirty kilometers through peaks and valleys starting at The Divide to finish at Routeburn Shelter which can also be done in the opposite direction. The Divide is a stop along the Milford road that leads to the fjord of the same name that I starting to know pretty well. The driver drops me off at 8:30am at The Divide. A whole group of cyclists is preparing for a course.
The trail climbs into the forest along the valley. The weather is quite strange mixing sun and light rain. After an hour of climbing, I arrive at a branch: a trail proposes to go to see Key Summit at about thirty minutes of climb from here. What I decide to do. It is hot in the ascent and the view of the valleys below is superb. But I can see a gigantic mass of gray clouds over the mountains where the Routeburn Track is located.
Arriving at the summit (919m), I am greeted by gusts of wind and rain. The trail loops on a small plateau to enjoy small lakes and marshes, views of the surrounding peaks, and Miriam Lake on the other side of the valley (a lovely lake in the bottom of a glacial valley. There is a very nice day-hike to reach the lake that I will probably do soon. It is even possible to see small avalanches pouring into the lake). A beautiful rainbow spans the valley. It’s one of the biggest I’ve seen in my life! The view makes me forget the coldness of the air.
I go down from Key Summit and take the main trail. Fifteen minutes later, I arrived at the Howden hut on the shores of the lake of the same name. From there it is possible to start the Greenstone / Caples hiking trail which loops through the valleys of the same name. (It will be for another time). A cold wind refreshes me and I continue the climb. 3h to the Mackenzie Lake hut / campsite indicates the sign. It’s 11am, I have the whole day in front of me. The climb is quiet, mainly on the flank, alternating passages in New Zealand beech forest (which I start to know perfectly after three hikes in the same type of vegetation), and passages without forest with a superb view on mountains. The weather is better but a light rain falls continuously. Fortunately it does not get very wet. I meet lots of people who go almost all in the opposite direction of mine.
I arrive at Earland Falls, a waterfall of 174m which I find damn impressive. Almost more than the Sutherland Falls on the Milford Track. The water makes a deafening sound as it poured into the river below. Around 1:00pm I reach The Orchard, a small open area covered with a meadow of large yellow herbs, where I decide to eat.
I reached the hut at about 3:00pm. I go beyond the lodge (a gigantic thing,very-cozy with restaurant) reserved for hikers with guide (who needs a guide to do the Great Walks in NZ ??? Guys full of money with zero hiking experience I imagine…), and arrives at the hut on the edge of Mackenzie Lake, a large lake in the bottom of the plateau with superb bluish reflections waters.
Having no reservation for the campsite, I have to find the warden of the hut to discuss with him about the possibility of having a location. Alas, he’s not around right now. I go see the campsite, about ten minutes from the hut. Nine well-defined sites are available along the lake in a quiet corner. A couple is setting up their tent on one of the pitches. Not many people for now. I cross very strongly my fingers hoping that people have canceled their reservation or will not come, in order for me to have a site. If not, I do not know where I’m going to camp because there are not really clear spaces around the lake.
I go to the toilet (of an absolute cleanliness !!!! This is where I see that I am during the “official” season, because when I made the Kepler Track and the Milford Track, (outside of theseason) well, the toilet was not pretty nice). I take the opportunity to go see a Split Rock 15 minutes away. An enormous rock cracked in two is standing in the forest. The fault is impressive.
Back at the hut around 4pm, still no guard in sight. I chat with an Irish woman who tells me that one of the pitches is available !! A father and son, supposed to sleep in the tent, decided to sleep in the hut! The lady also tells me that the guard is probably gone to work somewhere in the mountain (maintaining the trail or renewing the traps to capture the pests) and that he is suppose to be back around 5pm. I take the opportunity to relax on the hut veranda waiting for the return of the warden. The weather is nice and the atmosphere is very quiet. Only interrupted by the cries of some brave hikers who decided to go for a dip in the lake and realized too late that the water was very cold.
At 5 o’clock precisely, the warden appears covered in dust and I give him a little time to clean himself before asking my questions. I explained my case and I say that I am willing to pay the penalty rate (which is twice the price of the campsite, so $36 instead of $18). He replied that there is no worries, I can take the available location, he will come to collect the money later. Alleluia !! Luck smiled at me. I go back to the campsite with a light heart and install my new tent under a drizzle a little more heavy than before. It rains for a good hour but always accompanied by the sun.
A little later, the warden comes to visit me and I finally only pay $18, the normal rate for a tent site !! As I have a reservation for tomorrow night and the campsite here tonight being not full (there are three free pitches), he is indulgent with me. Thank you very much ! I dine quietly enjoying the view of the lake and the beautiful surrounding mountains and I go to bed. Not so many stars in the sky tonight. The moon, almost full, diffuses a powerful light and a couple of clouds appear in the sky.
Day 2. November 2016 | 14 kilometers
I wake up after a rather pleasant night in my little home. I take my breakfast, put away my tent and leave at 10am, under a beautiful sun. Lake Mackenzie offers great reflections and the light is incredible.
The first part of the trail climbs rather stiffly by making laces through a superb beech forest covered with moss. It is very hot. After half an hour under the cover of the trees I reach the limit of the forest. The next part of the journey takes place through the alpine meadows, a clear alpine area covered with yellow grasses.
The view of the valley and of Mackenzie Lake is beautiful. By taking the height, one realizes the color differences of the lake. The borders are a turquoise green, while the center is a deep blue. The lake must be very deep. It is absolutely beautiful. I spend a long time contemplating this gradation of colors whose intensity changes with the passage of the clouds.
The trail continues to flank along the mountains, in the alpine pastures with a superb view of the Hollyford valley below. This is the kind of hike I prefer. The forest is nice but it does not offer much visibility. In height, in the alpine pastures or on the ridges, the hike is much more impressive and the view always fantastic. With alight and euphoric mind, I walk quietly the two hours on the flank that separates me from Harris Saddle. I meet again lots of hikers including groups with guide but the atmosphere is quiet. The weather is beautiful with a small breeze that forces at times.
At about thirty minutes from the saddle, I passed a sign pointing to the left: “Deadmans Track”. The trail carries its name well since it is hardly a marked trail and descends abruptly through the grass. It is not really a path, more a blind navigation with only the red poles placed every 20 meters as a trail mark. The trail leads back down to the Hollyford valley. It is not marked on the DOC card. Probably too hard for basic hikers and reserved for regulars, and those who know the area, I guess. I take a snack break on one of the rocks overlooking the valley to satisfying my stomach and enjoying the view.
At the saddle is located an emergency shelter where most hikers stop to eat. I decided to push 10 minutes more to have lunch on the shores of Lake Harris. Very good idea since it is a splendid panorama that awaits me. The lake is sumptuous, also with green-turquoise borders. I descend a little along the banks of the lake to find a location sheltered from the wind. Lunch basking in the sun with a most impressive view. I would have stayed all afternoon but the rest of the trip is waiting for me.
I follow the outlines of the lake then go down into the Routeburn Valley where I meet the warden of the Routeburn Falls hut working on the trail. He is in the process of removing snow from the track. I pass him and continue my descent. Five minutes later, the warden catches me and also going to the hut we continue the descent together. He visited several times France and we discuss about the places he went. I finally reach the Routeburn Falls hut where a splendid view awaits me. The refuge is built on stilts overlooking the valley below. The Route Burn River flows in the valley with splendid reflections.
I continue my hike for another hour, descending through the beech forest to reach the bottom of the valley where is located the Routeburn Flats hut and its campsite. Unlike yesterday, no delimited pitches but a pretty area in a meadow by the river. The view of the valley and the mountains is impressive. Absolute calm and apart from a tent already mounted but with no one inside, I am the only one present on the premises. I set up my tent a bit away from the main area to be in a quiet corner. Two more tents will be set up an hour after me. I hope to see the sunset and the stars but clouds slowly cover the sky disturbing my hopes.
Day 3. November 2014 | 6.5 kilometers
The next day I wake up around 6am under a cloudy and rainy sky. I walk the last few kilometers of the trail. Beech forest and green-blue waters of the river Route Burn which flows in a gorge a few meters below the trail serve as a landscape.
The mist envelop the mountains and the atmosphere exudes a mix of mystery and sadness. I take an hour and a half to get to the Routeburn Shelter, the end of the hike. Sun rays pierce the veil of the clouds at my arrival. I spend about thirty quiet minutes waiting for the shuttle to Queenstown. It arrives around 9:50am and unloads about fifteen hikers ready to start the walk. Unlike me, they will probably gonna have bad weather. The shuttle is covered of references from the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies with slogans like “There and Back Again” and a license plate in tribute to the Wargs (enormous ferocious wolves serving as Orcs mount).
I’m the only one in the shuttle. The ride to Glenorchy is stunning. The valley where theDart and Rees rivers flow is surrounded by fabulous mountains and makes me think a lot about Isengard, the home of Saruman the mage in The Lord of the Rings. And indeed !! This is where the scenes of the film were shot! I will definitely come back at Glenorchy again to enjoy the surroundings. The village at the beginning of Lake Wakatipu is also surrounded by a phenomenal landscape.
The second part of the journey to Queenstown follows the banks of Lake Wakatipu extremely impressive for its length but the ride turning quite a lot, it makes my stomach a little sick.
The bus drops me off at Queenstown around 11am in a hot, humid weather. I have to wait 4:30pm to get my next bus that will take me back to Te Anau. So I take the opportunity to do some shopping I had to do for a long time (like buying a helmet for my bike). Queenstown has not changed since the last time I came (two months ago). Always filled with tourists and trendy young people.
The line too long for the Fergburger (the famous best burger of NZ) discourages me again and I decide to eat empanadas. While I eat them quietly on a bench, a chaffinch absolutely not frightened arises a few meters from me, then on my shoe, then on my knee, then on my bag, then again on my knee !! He is interested in my empanadas. He flies all around me and arises several times on my knee! It’s extraordinary. I can appreciate the beautiful colors of his plumage. As a thank you, I give him some crumbs of my meal that he swallows greedily.
I spend the rest of the afternoon in the library, a torrential rain falling on the city. I get the bus that drops me off at Te Anau around 7:30pm, a little tired by this day spent to not doing much but well pleased with my hike. For now the Routeburn Track is the most beautiful of the three Great Walks I did. But the hike is a bit too short. The ideal would be to take the second day of the hike on the Kepler Track (on the ridges) and combine it with the Routeburn Track. We would definitely get a tremendous three day hike.
Summary: The Routeburn Track is one of the nine Great Walks to discover the New Zealand nature. Two / three days hiking on the peaks to discover the Fiordland National Park.
Location: South Island. The departure can be from The Divide on the Milford Road or The Routeburn Shelter on Glenorchy’s side.
Duration: From one day to three days, depending on your physical condition and the time you want to spend on the trail.
Distance: About thirty kilometers, one-way.
_ in the area
A four-day hike along the shores of Te Anau and Manapouri lakes and on the ridges of the Kepler Mountains
A three day hike in the New Zealand beech forest in one of the narrowest valleys of the Fiordland.
Hiking stories is a love letter to nature, to walking and camping. And to all that’s come with it: weather troubles, muscles pain and noisy tourists on the trails.
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