The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks,” and probably the second or third most famous (after the Milford, the mother of all successfully marketed tracks, and tied with, more or less, the Kepler).
I originally thought I wouldn’t get into the Routeburn… the number of trampers is regulated by DOC, the Department of Conservation, and you have to book ahead.
As luck would have it, there were cancellations for campsites at the last minute (by comparison, the Kepler has a lot of open spots but the Milford is booked solid until April… April!!). So, the Routeburn it was… my first Great Walk.
Don’t get me wrong… it was nice and all, and parts were splendid, it’s just that I’ve been spoiled by day trips to the summits of Mt. Alfred and Ben Lomond, among others. I was expecting something a little more, you know… “great.”
I started by leaving Bill and all my non-hiking related possessions at the Glenorchy Holiday Park, where for $10 you can leave your vehicle indefinitely while off in the wild. Then I caught one of the backpacker shuttles to the trailhead, about 45 minutes away.
The Routeburn starts across a swing bridge that goes, yes, over the Route Burn (brought over by Scottish settlers, “burn” is just another term for wee river, and there are plenty of those around here). Traveling slightly uphill through beech forest, I crossed a few more bridges before arriving, after a mere 6.6km, at my campsite for the night, Routeburn Flats. There are only two campgrounds on the Routeburn, which all told is more than 30km long. If you’re camping, it makes for a very short first day and a very long second, but them’s the rules.
A guy I worked with who used to work for DOC as a warden on the Routeburn told me there was a place I could wild camp called “The Valley of the Trolls.” With a name like that, hell yeah I was interested… but he had a lot of, er, short-term memory problems (long-term memory problems too, for that matter) and couldn’t remember which side of Lake Harris one had to sidle to reach the valley. I looked online and talked to other people, but came up empty on directions. So I booked sites, officially. And I’m glad I did… when I got to Lake Harris and saw the terrain, I realized it would have been foolhardy to attempt sidling anything, even to get to a place as cool-sounding at “The Valley of the Trolls.”
Leaving the flats behind, I started the 16km day with a steady ascent through forest to Routeburn Falls (I know… they’re not very diverse when it comes to naming things… at least nothing around here is named after Captain Cook, who has the market on placenames in New Zealand). Above the falls, which were not particularly impressive, I entered alpine terrain, all the more atmospheric in fog. It reminded me a lot of Iceland, which is about the nicest thing I can say about a place.
The trail climbed up fairly steeply past Lake Harris and the mysterious Valley of the Trolls to Harris Saddle, which offers reportedly one of the most beautiful vistas in New Zealand and is considered the highlight of the Routeburn Trail.
Uhm, yeah. When it’s not foggy.
I had lunch (trail mix and peanut butter… mmm!) at the shelter on the saddle, hoping the fog would clear. When it didn’t, I began the long descent down along the Hollyford Face. The last kilometer or so was the worst… very steep, rocky switchbacks down into mossy forest to the banks of Lake Mackensie, my destination for the night.
The campsite was right on the water. Pretty, but… well, I’ve been cocky for the past few months. People warned me about New Zealand’s sandflies but I wasn’t getting bit, so I thought ha, I’m one of the people they don’t like the taste of… too bitter, perhaps?
In any case, the sandflies at Routeburn Flats on the first night were annoying, and I got about a dozen bites. I also killed a few dozen in the tent, their little bodies smeared and squished all over the place. Here on the shores of Lake Mackensie, the kin of the fallen apparently took their revenge. They were nearly swarming (I say “nearly” only because of what I experienced on the Greenstone Trail on the days that followed… that was true swarming). Add a couple dozen more bites, including particularly itchy ones on the bottom of my feet and fingertips. Argh!
The vicious little creatures mocked my bug spray, sitting on the bottle. After I hunted down all of the enemy combatants inside the tent, I stretched out and stared at the speckled walls… shadows cast by scores of sandflies on the outside trying to find a way in.
Sandflies apparently do not like rain, because on the morning of the third day it was drizzly and they were nowhere to be seen (although, in hindsight, I think they may have been regrouping and regathering their strength for a fresh assault). By the time I had my tent shaken free of most of their tiny little corpses, folded and packed, it was starting to clear. It turned into a glorious morning for the 16km or so ahead of me, and through the trees I could see much of the mountain scenery hidden in fog the day before.
The trail ascended straight off the bat, fairly steeply, then leveled out for a long time, passing the 180m high Earland Falls, one of the prettiest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. And one of the hardest to photograph, due to its sheer length. I got an early start and had the trail mostly to myself until it began the long, gentle descent toward Lake Howden, where the Routeburn intersects with two other trails, The Greenstone and The Caples.
The Routeburn itself, from Howden, continues another 3km to The Divide, a point on the road to Milford Sound. Yes, the trail is that close to the famous Milford Sound. I took a side trip from Howden, heading up to Key Summit, which turned out to be the highlight of the trail.
At 919m, Key Summit isn’t as high as Harris Saddle (which is more than 1500m) but it’s a neat place. It’s called the Key Summit because it marks the spot where a ridiculously ginormous glacier divided into three, branching north to carve the Hollyford Valley all the way to the Tasman Sea, northwest to gouge out Eglinton Valley towards Milford and southeast toward Lake Wakatipu. I know all these directions and placenames may not mean anything to you without a map of New Zealand in front of you (and an interest in glaciation), but trust me, it is pretty damn cool to stand there and clearly see just how badass Nature can be when she feels like tearing up mountains as if they were tissue paper.
It’s also awe-inspiring to stand at a 919m summit (that’s about 3000 feet, give or take) and read on the interpretive signage (yay interpretive signage!) that the glacier that chewed up all the mountains and valleys would have been more than 500m higher than Key Summit.
I mean, damn.
From Key Summit, it was a descent back to Lake Howden to pick up the Greenstone Trail. Originally I’d planned to do the Caples, allegedly more scenic and also shorter, but rain was forecast for the following few days, and it’s a tougher track prone to flooding. So the Greenstone it was. A fateful decision, but more on that in the next post.