Walking the Routeburn Track

Last week we walked the second of our Great Walks – The Routeburn Track. The Routeburn Track is a 3 to 4 day tramp through Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring National Parks. Often rated as one of the top 3 walks in New Zealand it is a hike well known for its stunning vistas, temperate rainforests and rain.

This is my experience of that hike.

We began our first day by waking up early in Queenstown and taking the TrackNet bus 4 hours in a loop to The Divide where we we started our hike.

As the bus driver exclaimed “it couldn’t be a more perfect day for it” and I was almost skipping as we started up through the lush green silver beech forest. Almost as soon as we had joined the track we heard crowing and screeching from above. When we stopped to look we saw a large parrot scrambling about above us in a tree. We later found out that this was a Kaka. Kaka are subalpine parrots not to be confused with the alpine Kea which we also saw later on our hike. The Kaka is an endangered endemic parrot and a really noisy bugger. We were lucky to hear – and then see him.

Our first hour or so on the track took us up through the forest to meet the Key Summit track and then down slightly to reach the first hut on the trail – Lake Howden hut. We sat by the lake and enjoyed our lunch before beginning again upwards. At first we continued through beech forest occasionally crossing streams and passing waterfalls until we reached the impressive Earland Falls. At 173 metres they are a fair sight and we took a moment to enjoy them. After the Falls the vegetation began to change and we were frequently out in the open instead of under the damp canopy as we had been before.


Then came “The Orchard”. We’d read about the area called “The Orchard” before beginning our hike but despite this it was still a bemusing sight to see all the ribbonwood trees growing as if in a heritage orchard with surrounded by lovely landscaping. “The Orchard” marked the beginning of our last leg for the first day and afterwards we made our final climb and then a short decent to Lake MacKensie where we would stay the night in our tent.


Like with our Tongariro hike we had chosen to camp because 1. it’s cheaper and 2. because camps are slower to get booked up so we had more flexibility. Also like Tongariro we had not brought our camping stove as we had expected to use the hut facilities. Sadly a sign notified us at the campsite that campers are not allowed to use hut facilities in the Fiordland National Park and we were compelled to ask the warden (ranger) at the hut for help. Regrettably he was not best pleased and proceeded to reprimand us for being so silly as to assume it was ok to use them. After some debate about whether Tongariro allow you to use hut facilities (they did) he was kind enough to lend us his camping stove but was sure to remind us “that the hut was not for campers.” So we made our dinner of noodles and some tea for bedtime as quickly as possible to avoid using all his gas and settled in for the night.


The next morning we woke to a little rain and kept our fingers crossed it would blow over and we’d have a good day to make the high crossing. Thankfully it did. It started off grey as we made our climb up over Lake MacKensie but as we rounded the corner and began the nicely paced walk over the Hollyford Face the weather remained fair and we were able to make it all the way to Harris Saddle, our highest point for the this hike, without any bad weather. The walk over to the saddle was exposed with stunning views right across the valley to the Darren Mountains in Fiordland National Park and down to the valley and Hollyford River below but it was also flat and steady offering a nice change from the ups we’d done and the downs we’d experience later.



After a break at the saddle we started the descent down to Routeburn Falls. A little rough on the knees, the way down was reminiscent of a Scottish mountainside complete with endemic New Zealand red tussock. Steep but short we were at Routeburn Falls within an hour and able to take another wee rest before we headed out on our final leg for the day. As we waited at the hut (yes, us dirty camper went into the hut!) we were able to witness gas tanks being brought in by helicopter to supply the huts nearby.



Our final leg was an easy stretch down through an open canopy beech forest to the meadows and steams of Routeburn Flats where we would camp. A nice afternoon was had enjoying the now full sun. Ian had a quick dip in the icy stream, a Kea chased us out of the toilet and I was hunted down by sand flies and resorted to hiding in the tent!


Our final day was very short with just a 90 minute hike out to the Routeburn Shelter. We enjoyed it at a leisurely pace and took some time to view the Route Burn and falls as we passed along the way. When we arrived at the shelter the sun was shining and we were in a good spirits. We’d successfully completed a notoriously wet great walk with no need for a rain jacket and were on time for our pickup. Good times!


For more information on hiking Routeburn checkout this Q and A post.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Hiking the Routeburn track: questions and answers | Somewhere about there

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