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Published: March 18th 2010
Day one....getting ready to go.
Our good friend Sarah has joined us for a week in Queenstown. True to form, in just over one week, Sarah managed to see half of the North Island and a good part of the South Island before zooming into Queenstown to meet up with us.
One evening last July, Sarah stopped by our house in San Francisco. We drank wine, ate pizza and talked about New Zealand. She said she was very interested in visiting New Zealand while we in residence and, since we all love hiking, quickly agreed to do a tramping (trekking) trip with us. We arbitrarily picked a date in February (typically the month with the best weather on the South Island) and made reservations for the popular Routeburn Track, one of the nine "Great Walks" of New Zealand.
A word about trekking (hiking, tramping - whatever you want to call it) in New Zealand. Deeply rooted in the Kiwi psyche is a love of nature and nowhere is this more apparent than in their strong devotion to the outdoors and especially, their national parks.
It has been a strangely exhilerating feeling to spend time in a country whose government is so dedicated to
First of several beautiful meadows along the walk.
protecting its natural resources AND to ensuring that its people can enjoy them. One of the most notable features of this commitment is the downright impressive trail and hut system that the DOC (Department of Conservation) has developed in the national and regional parks and forests. This is a country where locals love to spend time in the outdoors.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the New Zealand tramping huts, well, it is a bit like luxury camping. The huts generally consist of one or more communal bunk rooms with bunk beds and mattresses (BYO sleeping bag). In the larger (nicer) huts, like those on the Great Walks, there is often a separate communal dining room/kitchen with gas burners and tables/chairs. Some huts even have that greatest of all luxuries: bathrooms with flush toilets. Typically you wash up with cold water from the faucet; there is no hot water and most huts do not have showers but there is no shortage of gorgeous lakes in New Zealand for a quick, if chilly, bath. The huts on the major treks can often accommodate 40 or more people so you have the added bonus of meeting interesting people and
The Routeburn Falls Hut
enjoying great conversation.
Fortunately, the DOC understands that having so many options (there are tens of thousands kilometers of trails in the parks and over 950 huts) can be a bit overwhelming. How to choose which one or two hikes to fill those few, precious vacation days? To help narrow down your options, the DOC has put together a list of nine multi-day hikes that have earned "Great Walk" status (by the way, it's not hiking here - it's "walking" or, for the more difficult hikes or more macho-minded, "tramping").
The Routeburn was an easy choice for us. It is located in the same general area as Queenstown, takes 3 days/2 nights to complete, crosses two national parks (Fiordland and Mt. Aspiring), is reasonably tough and contains some of the most spectacular alpine scenery in the country.
It is really all about the photos so have a look. However, below are some particulars regarding the track for anyone who might be considering giving it a go.
Day 1: Queenstown to Routeburn Falls Hut
We woke up at 6:30am, put on our backpacks and jogged (well, not really but we were moving quickly since it was cold)
Looking back at the Routeburn Valley
down the hill in the crisp morning mountain air to our shuttle bus in downtown Queenstown. After a quick breakfast of coffee and pastries we cruised along the shores of Lake Wakatipu past the tiny town of Glenorchy to the trailhead.
At the trailhead, we took the obligatory "before" photos (clean, happy, smiling) and then crossed our first suspension bridge (an easy one; some are positively terrifying because they are high up over crashing waters). The trail climbed steadily up through gorgeous red beech forest for several hours (and 9km or ~5.5 miles) to our home for the night: Routeburn Falls Hut. The hut is located right at the treeline so we had fantastic views from the deck.
Dinner was a feast of freeze-dried "honey soy chicken" with rice (pretty good) and a side of freeze-dried mashed potatoes (not the best- but filling). Cadbury chockie bars for dessert (yum!).
Day 2: Routeburn Falls Hut to Mackenzie Hut
This was a tough day. It is a long, slow climb up and over the Harris Saddle (at 4,117 feet), then a long walk above the tree line and finally down, down, down to Lake Mackenzie at about 3,100 feet.
Sunrise on Day 2 of the Routeburn trek
Fortunately, the views from the trail are amazing. Above the treeline, you feel like you're on top of the world with divine views of dozens of mountains in this sublime wilderness. In the forest, the scenery is positively "Lord of the Rings" - sunlight peeking through a dense canopy of silver beech trees, huge oversized ferns and enormous boulders covered in bright green moss. The total distance today was 11km (~7 miles).
In the late afternoon clouds started gathering. At the hut, we crawled into our sleeping bags for a short nap and some much-needed Advil. Sarah arrived about an hour later, having done a super tough side hike up Conical Hill ("up" being the key word here - up, up, up).
We spent the rest of the afternoon reading books and chatting with our fellow travelers. One group was a dad and two of his four kids (a son and a daughter, both in their early 20s). He's a farmer from the Coromandel Peninsula and this trip was his Christmas present to his kids (he was taking his other kids on another trip in a few weeks time). We thought it was a magnificent and enlightened idea
Lake Harris below the Harris Saddle - Day 2 of the Routeburn trek.
- giving your kids time with you, vs. some cheap plastic stuff that will eventually end up in landfill. Another reason why we love this country.
After a dinner of freeze-dried beef casserole (the chicken was much much better), mashed potatoes and more chocolate bars, we called it a night.
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut to the Divide
A storm moved in overnight. Rain is common year-round on this trek so we weren't too surprised and fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the roof of the bunkhouse. Around 1am, there was a ruckus when a possum (the most vile and hated creature in New Zealand) got into the bunkhouse and had to be chased out.
Fortunately the rain tapered off by mid-morning and so most of the hike was in a pretty mist which made the beech forest seem even more eerie and otherworldly. We covered the 12km (~7.5 miles) quickly and arrived at the Divide about an hour before our shuttle.
After a 4-hour shuttle bus drive back to Queenstown we celebrated with a great bottle of Central Otago Pinot Noir and called out for pizza.
A final thought: taking a hot
The Harris Saddle
shower after a few days of trekking is one of the best feelings in the world. 😊
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