Routeburn Track

Warning: This blog contains a lot of pictures

I have lost track of how many tramps I have done in my life….not that I was actually counting….but let’s just say it has been a lot. I grew up with a redwood forest as my backyard and spent most of my youth rambling around the mountains and woods. One hike that I had never done was the Routeburn track in New Zealand. It is a 3-day, 40 km hike in the mountains of the Fiordlands. There are a variety of ways to do it—from self-supported, to DOC huts, to super-swanky private guided trips. It is nearly impossible to get a reservation for the DOC huts—this year they sold out in 4 minutes.

In 2020, we had booked a trip and I was so excited that it was finally going to happen. I had always wanted to take Susanne on this hike and give her a sense for what my field work was like and really get to experience to grandness of these mountains. We decided to go super-swanky and booked our trip with Ultimate Hikes. Then there was a huge flood the week before we were scheduled to go that wiped out the road, the trail, and a hut. Bummer.

Not gonna drive down this road, for sure!
One of the huts got wiped out

So way back in May when we first arrived in New Zealand, we rebooked our trip for December. We went all out and got the private ensuite room at the hut. We were very hopeful that this time we would finally get to do the trek.

We drove from Cromwell to Queenstown the day before so we could attend the mandatory “pre-trip briefing” at 1:45 pm. We found the parking garage and headed over to the Ultimate Hikes building. There were about 20 people at the briefing and to be honest, it was the low point of the trip. It wasn’t very helpful, but there you have it. The good news was that we got to check out the parking garage and it felt like a pretty secure place to leave the car and all of our earthly belongings. We headed to the hotel and hung out, excited to get the trip under way.

Day 1: The bus left the office at 6:30 am, so we got up early, finished packing up our stuff and headed to Queenstown. My pack was a little heavy because I had decided to pack some of our very nice Mt. Difficulty Pinot into a plastic bottle so that we could take it with us. Always worth carrying the weight if it is good wine. We got to the garage, parked, got coffee, and went to the office. It looked like a pretty full trip and clearly not everyone had attended the “mandatory” pre-hike briefing. We piled on the bus and got ready for the 3.5 hr drive to the trailhead.

Long drive

We stopped for some tea in Te Anau at a little cafe where we got some more briefings and introductions to everyone on the trip. We had people from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, and the US on the trip. There was quite an age range in the group, from old fogies to 20 somethings. We had four guides: Max, Tom, Sophie, and Gen. They were all super fit…not surprisingly.

We got to the trailhead around 11 or so, got our gear sorted, and headed up the trail. It was a pretty steady but not steep climb through some beautiful native bush with some very old looking beech trees. I love the beech trees; they have such an amazing look to them and they, like redwoods, create a very dense cover that only moss and ferns can grow under.

Start of Routeburn Hike
Snow-capped Fiordlands mountains

Susanne and I were really lollygagging our way up the trail. I was trying to focus on some photography, which always slows the pace to a crawl. Even with that I was feeling pretty rushed and ended up taking a lot of bad shots with bad settings. Bummer. The first side trek was up to Key Summit which had an expansive view down toward the mountains surrounding Milford Sound and Lake Gunn. It was a mix of clouds and sun and the views were amazing. Surprisingly hard to capture in photos.

We had some lunch after our side trip and then continued on our way toward the hut which was still 9 km away. It was clear it was going to be a pretty long day between getting up at 5:30 am, the 3.5 hr bus ride, and now the hike. Sophie, one of the guides, hung out with us after lunch. She was a good conversationalist, and made us think she was hanging with us because we were so cool, but the truth is that we were the caboose of the group, were ambling along gawking at the scenery, and she was the designated “sweep” and could not let anyone hike behind her!

The clouds began to move in, bringing a spooky and mystical feeling to place. The trail continued to ascend steadily up through the beech forest. Near the tree line we got to Earland falls, which was a lovely 174 meter cascade.

Hiking in the clouds

We reached the high point for the day around 4 pm and, both feeling a bit tired, were glad to know that it was all downhill to the lodge. Although this assessment was true, what it didn’t account for was that it was a steep and rocky descent to hut, with tough footing and big step-downs. It required a fair amount of concentration to keep my mind from dreaming too much about the fine Otago Pinot I had in my backpack. We got to the Lake MacKenzie hut around 5:30 pm and were greeted by the host who, plied us with snacks and showed us to our room.

Now, I’ve been calling this a “hut,” but really it is a hotel. Nothing hut about it. We had swanked out and had our own room with an ensuite bathroom. We unloaded our stuff and luxuriated in the shower. It was pretty nice after a long day of travel and hiking to have a hot shower and a comfy bed to sit on. I opened up our wine and we sat on the bed enjoying the flavor talking about how grateful we were to be there.

Our “hut”

I would describe the day as harder than I expected. It wasn’t killer, but it wasn’t easy either—9.42 miles with 2600′ of climbing. Maybe if I hadn’t hauled wine up the hill it would have been easier, but I was glad to have our own stash in our room. We were late to dinner, so we had to sit at separate tables, which was ok as it gave us both a chance to meet a few more people. After dinner I walked down to the lake to snap a few photos. It was stunning. It was a long but pretty awesome first day.

Day 2: It was a bit chilly in the morning when we got up, so we had to pull out the down coats. Susanne and I walked down to the lake and took in the early morning light. Stunning. The surroundings were amazing.

Coffee with a view

The days hike was about the same length as the previous day and also had an optional side hike up Conical Hill. Sophie had told me that Day 2 was the most magical and the hike across the Hollyford Shelf was going to be amazing…especially because the weather was just incredible. Tom had told me that the trip he had guided the week before was pretty miserable and it just rained the entire time and you couldn’t really see anything. University of Otago did a big scientific study and determined that the probability of being “soaked to a squishy” in Fiordland was about 86.3%. Been there, done that. I was super happy that we weren’t going to do that on this trip!

To start the day, the trail climbed pretty steeply up and out of the valley toward the Hollyford shelf. Looking down on Lake MacKenzie from above was super cool because of the weird green water color in the lake.

I will probably say at least 50 times in the blog that the views were stunning. But as we reached the top and got a peek down into the Hollyford valley, the views were stunning. I am sure I could come up with more adjectives to describe it, but I going to stick with stunning. Kind of like when you see the Remarkables in Queenstown and all you can think to say is “remarkable!”

From the vista point called Ocean Peak Corner, you can look all of the way down the Hollyford Valley and see the Tasman Sea off in the distance. Or at least we could, because we weren’t being soaked to a squishy! We stood there for a while just marveling at the stunning panorama that went from Te Anau to the Tasman. It really did remind me of the times when I was doing field work and would get dropped off on the top of a mountain and could see the immense expanse of Fiordland. You have to see it to really appreciate it. It is humbling.

Quite the panoramic view!

From the vista point, we ambled along the trail which traversed the Hollyford shelf. I had a huge smile on my face. I couldn’t believe our luck to be there on such a spectacular day. Tom (one of the guides) hiked along with Susanne and me for part of the time. It was fun chatting with him and he would ask me about the geology. I had really wished I had studied up on the geology of this region a bit more as I have forgotten so much over the last 3 decades!

Our holiday card shot, taken by Tom!

We were once again lagging behind because our jaws kept dragging on the ground as we looked at the scenery we were walking through. Before Tom left us in the dust, he said we needed to get to the lunch spot by 1 if we were going to do the side hike up Conical Hill. Susanne said she wasn’t planning on doing it. I said I was. He sprinted off. Oh to be 20 with good knees again! After a while, Susanne told me to go ahead so I would have time to do the side hike. I sprinted … well, increased the pace … and made it to the lunch spot in time. As I was climbing up a set of stairs to the hut, a Kea came screeching by me and I got a beautiful view of this amazing bird. No pic, though. Rats.

Springtime in the mountains
What are you doing up here buddy?

It was about a 1000′ climb up to the top of Conical Hill. Tom told me he was running sweep, so eat some food and I could go with him. It was a class 2+ scramble, but not too bad. The view were … wait for it … stunning. Looking down on Lake Harris toward the Dart river valley was super cool. I took some photos with my crazy 10-20 super wide angle lens and hoped they would turn out. There were only two other Americans on the trip, Noelle and Bobby, who were on their honeymoon—they took my photo at the top of Conical Hill. They were really nice people and seemed to be having the time of their lives. Good for them!

Top of Conical Hill

We made our way back down to the main trail and picked up our packs for the final 1.5 hrs to the hut (you get to do the side hikes without your backpack). Luckily it was mostly downhill and the footing wasn’t as bad as the day before. My old beat-up knees were starting to feel the effort of the last two days, so I was looking forward to getting to the lodge.

Sophie (one of our guides) on Conical Hill
Bad for the old knees
Wine and a shower awaits just past that big knob!
Room with a view

I got to the hut around 4 pm and found my way up to our room. It really had an amazing view. Susanne was all showered and relaxed, so I quickly followed suit. We sat on the bed just chilling and talking about what an amazing day we had just had. I have really been trying the practice of gratitude since coming to New Zealand and I will say it is amazing the impact it has on your life. That said, how can I not be grateful to have my health, some wealth, an amazing partner, and be so lucky to be here in New Zealand getting to experience an exceptional life? But trust me, give it a try. Spend some time each day thinking about what your are grateful for and tell me how it works.

By the time dinner rolled around, the skies had really darkened up. It was not looking promising for the last day, but to be honest I didn’t care. The first two days were so amazing, nothing really mattered from here on out. We got to our room, laid down, let out a big contented sigh, and fell asleep happy.

It rained all night long, and pretty hard, too. Bummer. We were both pretty sure that we were going to get soaked to a squishy on the 8 km walk out to the car park. We packed accordingly and put on the rain gear before heading out. The good news was that the rain was letting up and the forecast was looking favorable for the rest of the day.

Drizzly start

We, of course, overdressed and had to strip down layers quickly. I am always torn on rain coats, too. I sweat so much it becomes unclear if it is getting me more wet than if I just went without. Finally I just stripped down to the basics and was much happier. It was a pretty easy hike and we had done most of this section before in 2020 as a day hike. The Dart river has this amazing color of green that is so cool to look at.

Overdressed again
There must be hobbits in there
Dart river

We made it to the car park, took off our packs, and celebrated the amazing journey. After being chowed by sand flies while we waited, we finally piled into the bus and headed for home. We stopped in Glenorchy for a bite and a drink. And we avoided the TV for fear of seeing the results of the World Cup semi-final.

We got to Queenstown and said our goodbyes to the many cool people we had met on the trip and headed for our hotel. After the debacle of an attempt in 2020, the weather gods decided to let us pass this time. Thank you so much!

It is not a long hike … just 3 days … not particularly rugged … we got to sleep in a comfy bed after a shower … but it is so unique that time seems to slow down and take you to another world. If it is not on your bucket list, you must put it there. A must do. This is one of the experiential things that make people happy. I know it worked for me.

The photography was harder than I thought it would be. It is difficult to capture the magic and uniqueness of the forest, ferns, and moss. As obvious as the mountains are, it is difficult to find a way to reflect their intensity. And what is clear is I need to develop a better methodology for sorting through a 1000 photos to find the best ones to put in the blog. But I will keep trying.

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