The Routeburn Great Walk

Once I knew about Sabrina, Marc and Alexandra’s plans to travel to New Zealand, it wasn’t a matter of if we’d do a Great Walk together, it was a matter of choosing which one. The Milford Track is the obvious choice – world famous, challenging but not too difficult, excellent huts and stunning scenery. Three flaws though – it has to be booked months in advance, it often gets rained on, heavily, and the clincher – it takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete it. Which, when you only have 17 days in New Zealand, is a good amount of time. So I considered other options. The Routeburn was the next, and fit perfectly.

While the Milford Track gets the most international attention, the Routeburn is often considered to be superior (I’ll find out before this month is out). It’s a considerably shorter trek, only taking 3 days and 2 nights, and also receives less rain and heavy cloud than the Milford. Bookings don’t need to be quite so far in advance either. And what worked out perfectly was how you can hike it. You start on the Queenstown side of mountains and hike into the Milford Sound side.

Often this would pose a transport problem, as you leave your car at one end of the trail…and end up 32km of hiking or 250+km of driving away from it. But, this is where a past friend came to help. Hanna offered to take a couple days off of work to look after my car, and drive it around to the other side. There is a business in Queenstown that does the same thing, but this was a much better option!

Thus, it was just down to the hike then. 32km of hiking, spread over 3 days. I was the only one of the 4 of us that has done this before, so we spent a decent amount of time in Queenstown getting supplies and figuring out how everyone will handle things.

We found ourselves at the trail start on a partly cloudy day, near 6pm. A very late start for most tracks, but on the Routeburn, our first day wouldn’t even be 2 full hours of hiking. A pretty easy start.

The days are still long enough we walked a bit in the sunshine, though under the cover of forest for the 2 hours to our campsite.

Some nice stream scenery popped up as well.

At the camping area, called the Routeburn Flats. Probably one of the most scenic campgrounds I’ve stayed at, it was a great start to the hike.

The next morning, the skies looked moderately better than the evening before, with clouds clearing. Today would be the big day – up and over the Harris Saddle, the high point of the track. Being able to see the scenery would be nice, people that had come down the day before mentioned not seeing much.

The first half of the day would be a stead climb, and soon we could look back down to the open grassy area where we camped.

And reaching above the tree line now.

The Routeburn Falls.

And now above the 2nd Hut (at Routeburn Falls), you are treated to some pretty stellar scenery behind you.

Not to mention the climb you still have in front. And the weather was behaving perfectly, clearing as we went and the clouds were staying clear of the peaks.

Taking a break on the way up to the saddle.

Looking back to where we had climbed from.

And the open area leading to the Harris Saddle. Just stunning.

Looking back once again, the clouds started coming in a bit more at this point. The forecast had been for rain in the afternoon/evening, so we were on a bit of a timer.

The first sights of Lake Harris. Sitting well above the treeline (probably 1100m above sea level now), it gives quite the views – and we’d be skirting well above it.

Still climbing, the Routeburn track takes you well above Harris Lake.

Until you finally reach the Harris Saddle.

A well deserved lunch break and rest were in order, and then contemplating our next step. We could continue on to our next campground, still 3-4 hours away…or detour to the highest point on the Routeburn track, Conical Hill (seen behind the shelter).

We climbed Conical Hill.

The views from the peak were well worth the ~1.5 hours of detouring.

After returning to the shelter to retrieve our packs, we continued along the track towards Lake Mackenzie, and our campsite for the night. The trail skirts high above the Hollyford Valley.

With sprinkling showers closing in, we finally got views of Lake Mackenzie.

And then descended back into forest for the last 30 minutes of hiking for the day.

After the stellar surroundings of our first night camping, the Lake Mackenzie campground was a pretty big letdown. Surrounded by trees, on hard rock and pretty much a thin layer of ancient astro-turf, none of us were thrilled. But, evening was already here and the rain starting coming down in earnest, so after our pasta dinner we all retired pretty early. We had just one more day of hiking to go!

And it started with a waterfall. This was Earland Falls, a towering waterfall.

That you could pretty much walk right under if you so chose. Since it was already sprinkling a bit during the morning walk, what is a bit more water?

Then it was simply a forest walk for the majority of the way out.

We made our last stop at Lake Howden, the site of the 4th hut on the Routeburn. It is also where you can skip over to the Greenstone track, which starts 30 or so minutes from here.

We were headed for the exit though, and by early afternoon, we had made it!

3 days of hiking and we were FINISHED! And everyone survived too!

In the end, we were very fortunate with the weather. It stayed pleasant enough for us to get the big views for the first half, and didn’t soak us at any point. Everyone enjoyed the experience, and it’s something you can only do one way – by walking it yourself. No vehicle access to those views!

So, how does this Great Walk rank for me? It’s often considered the best of the Great Walks, and I can understand why. There is a huge amount of variety, outstandingly massive views once you get out of the forest, beautiful huts, a very well maintained trail…but I still can’t place it above the Tongariro Circuit. 2nd place? You bet. And I’m very curious to see how the Milford Track compares, to see if it can live up to the reputation that it has gained over dozens of years. That will be a story for another day though!

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