The Routeburn

Emma Lodes University of Otago, New Zealand


April 20, 2015

On the Arcadia-hosted Queenstown weekend, we got a quick, rainy taste of the Routeburn Great Walk. It was glorious, but definitely a tease: a few short-lived mountain vistas when curtains of clouds parted for hasty intermittent flurries of snapping camera shutters.

Unlike Kepler’s loop, The Routeburn is a one-way hike that begins a couple hours out of Queenstown and ends a couple hours out of Te Anau, at “The Divide”. With Arcadia, we had hiked from the Queenstown end, up about one-third of the trail to Routeburn Falls hut and back, mostly through soggy emerald-green forests, rushing rivers and waterfalls. After our good weather on the Kepler, I was hoping we might be on a good luck streak long enough to experience the Routeburn in the sun this time. So the weekend after the Kepler, we (a slightly rearranged but equally stellar) group of friends planned a trip to complete the Routeburn journey.

The trip is half as long as Kepler, so we had the luxury of being able to stay in a hostel the first night and only camp once on the trail. The difficult part was logistical– if we drive to one side of the track, and hike to the other, how do we get our car back…? Luckily, a Routeburn master plan had been in the works for weeks, spearheaded by Kirsten, who had plans of her own to make the hike more challenging: She was hiking barefoot.

She had lost “Odds Are”– a more luck-driven version of Truth or Dare. Biggie, Kirsten’s Kiwi Host (the same Biggie that climbed through my window on the first day in Dunedin, dubbing my room ‘The Portal’), challenged her to hike the entirety of the Routeburn with no shoes– or shave both her eyebrows.

Now the Routeburn may be shorter than some of the other Great Walks, but it may also be stock full of sharp rocks and gravel that look like they could slice your feet open. Our group’s collective response to the barefoot plan (Me, Riz, Bri, Micah and Biggie) was– sounds great, but bring extra shoes. She agreed.

The best and most realistic way to do a long one-way hike is to get a big group together, split in half, drive to opposites ends of the trail, hike in opposite directions, and converge in the middle to swap car keys and drive each other’s cars home. So that we did. The other group was a group of girlfriends mostly from Arcadia. Biggie offered up his big SUV, and the other girls had a little sedan. We had six in our group, so we just had to commit to being a little squished (A little challenging, especially since Biggie has the nickname “Biggie” for a reason… this ended up involving Micah driving with this knees bent against his chest and Bri curled up in a ball on the car floor).

Both groups booked a campsite together for the one night on the trail, Saturday night. The logical intention was to camp about halfway along the trek, but that campsite was booked up (the Routeburn is popular!) so our campsite ended up being far at the Queenstown end of the track, meaning the groups either had a long first day and short second day or vice versa.

My group started in Te Anau, hiked a long Saturday (ended up being about 10 hours) and had a quick and breezy Sunday to pop out in beautiful Queenstown. We thought we had got the best end of the deal– get the bulk of hiking over with early, and end in Queenstown for… FERGBURGER! (World’s best burger joint, if you can remember from my Queenstown weekend post.) So Saturday was our big hiking day: the day of spectacular mountain vistas, glacier sightings, sweeping panoramas, spine tingling cliff faces and scenes straight out of Lord of the Rings.

Turns out, of the three weekend days, Friday and Sunday were gloriously sunny, and on Saturday… it Rained. All. Day.

The sun was shining on Friday evening when we took off, though, and we were in high spirits. We left late after Biggies lab, squished into the car like cozy peas in a pod, cranked up the tunes, and coasted up Highway 1 as the sun set golden on rolling green hills.

By 8 or so it was dark, and we were in the middle of nowhere, no streetlights to be found. The stars shone brilliantly in the crystal clear sky, and the milky way was a distinct stripe through the middle. We stopped the car on the side of the road to do some star gazin’ and moonlight dancin'. We left the car doors open so we could hear Slightly Stoopid and 311 drifting out into the night, and danced on the empty night road, taking in the universe. An hour or so later, the mood took a dramatic twist when somebody spotted violent flames leaping through the forest across a dark field. Forest fire! It looked as if the entire distant hillside was aflame, and strangely, as if it had already burned all the trees in the area down to ash. Away from the major flame, smaller fires specked the hillside like hundreds of campfires.

We slowed the car and checked reception… What would Smoky the Bear do? What number were we supposed to call in these situations? It almost sounded like music was drifting towards us on the breeze… And then we realized: It’s a cult! They must be sacrificing something, or burning something down, with sacrificial bonfires sprinkled about the area.

There was only one way to find out: Go to the fire. And there was only one way there: a little dirt road that wove through the trees along side someone’s farmland and toward the hills. Biggie turned the car around and started down the road. It was pitch black in the trees. Suddenly the highbeams caught: A RABBIT! We all screamed, whiteknuckled, clutching each others hands. A little bit farther we entered a strange and eerie farm complex. A caged dog barked at our car and a light flicked on in a hut at the top of the hill. The fire roared just beyond the buildings.

Was it a wildfire, a cult, or a controlled fire? We sat in the safety of the car, peeking out of the windows, and eventually decided that if the farm residents were probably aware that their entire hillside was on fire without our assistance. Right as we were leaving, a truck pulled up behind us. Biggie stopped the car and rolled down the window; the rest of us coiled into balls of fright: Here we go! This is it! He’s gotta have a gun!

“Howdy!” It was an older gentleman farmer with a warm smile.

“Hi, we were concerned about the fire?”

“Oh, no worries, it’s completely controlled!” he said.

“We’re burning off the dead crops to plant the next round.”

Whew. My fear drizzled away and we got back on the road, laughing. This is New Zealand… It couldn’t be safer; even the police don’t own guns.

We got to the hostel in Te Anau around 10pm and went straight to sleep, to wake up just at sunrise. It still hadn’t rained! The day was beautiful, the sky was clear, and the sun rose a brilliant orange. Maybe it wouldn’t rain at all! We ate our oatmeal in leisure, watching the sunrise and doing a little yoga before the hour long drive to the trailhead, where we would leave the car for the other group to pick up as they finished the following day. We got to the car park at The Divide after 10, and just as we arrived the drizzle began. Ah, good– the clouds were just holding their breath so they could start letting loose the raindrops as we started hiking.

We all watched apprehensively as Kirsten took the first few ginger steps across the gravel parking lot without shoes. She seemed fine… But how long would it last? The first few hours of the hike were an uphill stretch along a gnarled dirt trail with intermittent rock, and set a pretty quick pace. Turns out Kirsten is superhuman: she went just as fast as everyone, and didn’t mention her feet once. After the first few minutes I already forgot she was barefoot.

The first few open views on the Routeburn were spectacular: the higher mountains were just starting to accumulate some snow, and low lying, brilliantly white clouds matched the snowy peaks, swirling and snaking along the tree line. The cliffs and mountains along the Routeburn are spectacular and dramatic in a fiercer, wilder way than the Kepler, especially in the moody weather, with dense gray storm clouds lowering over the peaks. Towering cliff faces of deep gray schist, washed in the rain and shining brilliantly, rose above us and fell below into glacier-carved valleys covered in a deep green temperate forest.

The Routeburn traverses two national parks: Fiordland National Park and Mt. Aspiring National Park. For the first half of the hike (the western, Te Anau side) we walked through Fiordland’s mossy temperate forests, and over the Alisa mountains. The border between the two is Harris Saddle, the highest point of the hike at 1,255 meters and the location of a tiny emergency hut for particularly bad weather. Beyond Harris Saddle, you’re in Mt. Aspiring National Park, traversing the Humboldt mountains and lowering into a beech-dominated landscape that’s been completely formed by intense glaciation. It’s also the filming location for Isengard from Lord of the Rings.

Soon after Lake Howden, we stumbled across an unexpected gem: The spectacular Erland Falls. The waterfall is 178 meters high, a thin cascade that tumbles vertically down the dramatic, dark schist cliff face. The falls were too big to capture in one picture, and I could only get the top half. We eagerly put down our packs and ran over to the crystal clear rock pools where the water was collecting; Biggie went under the falls, in the nook between the cliff and the spray. He got drenched by the spray, but in a way it was a good start to a long walk in the rain: Once you’re wet, a few more raindrops don’t feel like much.

Before leaving the falls we waterproofed as best we could: pack covers and garbage bags, and tramped on over increasingly sharp and slick rocks on the trail. Far below, meandering streams snuck through dense vegetation, and little lakes dotted the mountain sides.

It felt like one of the stormier scenes in the Lord of the Rings, where the camera zooms out to a panoramic view of the Fellowship tramping along a thin trail that hugs a cliff face, a storm nearly blowing the hobbits and ponies off into the deep, godforsaken valley below. It was as if someone was slowly and steadily ramping up the grayscale on the distant landscape, but the greenery surrounding us glowed an intense emerald hue that seemed saturated in color as well as rain.

By the time we spotted the Lake Mackenzie hut in the distance, three hours after Lake Howden, my rain jacket was pretty much soaked through and we were already starting to shiver. The hut lay tucked amongst bushy greenery, backed by jade hills. Shy about going inside, we huddled under the awning and dug out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chocolate bars, shivering. Eventually the promise of warmth inside over came us and we snuck in: A wood stove burned merrily in the middle of the hut, and a group of elderly hikers were relaxing around it in a semicircle, cups of whisky in their hands. They welcomed us over and enthusiastically started telling stories and offering us tea. We chatted for a few minutes and then soldiered out into the rain again to tramp on.

The next section took us through eerie, twisting trees that seemed to bend and seemed alive, as if they would reach out and grab us with their branches. It felt like we were lost in the Tugley Wood from Alice in Wonderland, and that strange creatures would pop out any second from within the twisting trees. Soon we were climbing, grateful for the workout because it was keeping us warm.

Half way up the first slope we passed the tree line. The rain was falling harder, and now that we were on an exposed cliff face, we noticed the wind. It buffeted us as much as it could and tried to knock us off the trail. Kirsten was starting to struggle, and we started to sing songs to keep us motivated. Our group strung out into a thinner line, and the singing lost effectiveness when we couldn’t hear each other in the howl of the wind.

Below us, brilliant turquoise lakes shone like jewels in spite of the storm. The dramatic conditions simply made the landscape around us more dramatic: the cliffs seemed to drop more steeply and fiercely and the hardy alpine grass showed its hardiness by clinging on to the mountainside in the downpour. According to the brochure, we had a 4.5-6 hour walk from Lake Mackenzie to Routeburn Falls hut, and then another hour and a half to our campsite. And most of it would be in these conditions. Our next hope for shelter was the Harris Saddle emergency shelter, the highest point of the hike. It didn’t have a time estimate but looked to be about two thirds of the way to Routeburn Falls.

The next few hours were a blur of never ending curves as we wound slowly around the side of the mountain, hoping each time the emergency shelter would appear in the distance. Sometime during this stretch, Kirsten decided to put her shoes on, and Biggie some how convinced her to wait until the emergency shelter, which she did. When we finally spotted it in the distance, tiny and buffeted by the wind, we were triumphant.

We scarfed down some chocolate bars and did some jumping jacks and got back on our way. By this point I was pretty cold and just wanted to keep moving. Somehow, again, Biggie persuaded Kirsten to stick it out barefoot for a bit more, and she agreed. I couldn’t believe it– without a word of complaint, she was trooping like a true barefoot hobbit. The two of them dropped behind a bit more as we continued on and the trail got rockier, and Me, Bri, Riz and Micah continued on ahead. The lower we got, the less dramatic the scene became as the rain let up and the trail became less exposed, closer to the spot we had hiked to with Arcadia on the Queenstown trip.

When we finally spotted Routburn Falls hut in the distance, we were ecstatic again. The view was strikingly familiar, too; I already had a picture of it: the Humboldt mountains as green lumbering beasts seated on a bed of deep yellow grass.

Once Kirsten and Biggie arrived, we headed on again to set up the tents before they arrived. We only had an hour descent until the campsite, and it got dark just as we arrived at the hut, to find the other girls (who we’d swap keys with). The hut warden came out and greeted us; turned out our group was famous– he had heard about Kirsten. The hut wardens were all in the loop on the situation and were quite impressed. Since it was still raining and Kirsten was still on her way down, he ended up offering us the covered space outside the hut to pitch our tent. We were beyond grateful: otherwise the tent would have surely been flooded. We set up the tents in a hurry, changed into dry clothes, and cooked dinner outside– veggie-bean burritos. We snuck into the hut to eat, which was so incredibly delightfully warm. Paradise.

Kirsten and Biggie arrived, and Kirsten was still barefoot. Success! Since at that point she had finished the majority of the hike barefoot (we only had a couple hours the next day) Biggie decided she deserved to keep both her eyebrows. We slept very, very well that night, and woke up to no rain. Turns out that the other group, who we’d swapped keys with, were in for a clear, bright sunshiny day, with spectacular views… we really had drawn the short stick. But we had had an adventure.

The second day’s hike was a repeat of the Arcadia trip hike: an intensely green, mossy, mostly flat stroll with gorgeous river crossings and smaller falls. Even though it was essentially only a one-day hike, we felt like we had gone through many days of adventure. The next challenge was to squeeze into the little red sedan in the car park (which we thankfully found) and drive to Queenstown for… Fergburger!! It was a truly gorgeous day, and the views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables along the road to town were incredible.

Despite the sun, Queenstown was cold and cozy, and we all bundled up in our jackets to get burgers and sat by the lake. We called Jane, our beloved program director, and she and her husband met us there for a quick hello and catch-up.

The mountains, sky and lake were all the bluest of blue, and the clouds brilliant white, snaking along the mountaintops like capricious snow caps. Fergburger tasted better than ever. All in all, it felt as if we were in heaven. An adventure and a challenge, and I can’t imagine a better reward. After a couple hours we piled back into the little car and drove back to Dunedin, deeply satisfied.

Although… now have to do the Routeburn one more time to finally catch it in the sun… Third time’s the charm, right?


New Zealand