A round trip on the Routeburn Track

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Walking the Routeburn Track had been on my to-do list for a long time – ever since doing the Milford Track in the mid 90s – and I was encouraged to find a bunch of others who shared similar bucket-list plans.

Five of us set off in mid-March after an overnight stay at the lovely Kinloch Lodge, not far from Glenorchy, complete with delicious restaurant meal, chilled wine, good coffee and soft beds with sheets – just some of the luxuries we were soon to forgo.

The track spans 32 km from The Divide (Milford Sound side) to Routeburn Shelter (Queenstown side) and can be walked in either direction over 2-4 days (or less if you’re feeling ultra fit). Wanting a little more than a three-day adventure, we made it a round trip by turning off down the Greenstone Track before reaching The Divide, meaning we started and finished on the Queenstown side of the mountains and could experience an extraordinary range of landscapes during our five days – from high country tussock, alpine lakes and old beech forest of the Routeburn to the expansive grassy river valleys of the Greenstone.

A geological feast

Historically, both the Routeburn and Greenstone Valleys were used by Maori as routes to cross the divide. In later years packhorses carried supplies to Martins Bay on the West Coast from Lake Whakatipu, and gradually these tracks improved through the valleys and over passes. After pioneers forged the route down to Lake McKenzie in 1914, the opportunity arose to create a round trip linking the Routeburn and the Greenstone tracks. Rock varieties, rugged mountain ranges and reminders of past glaciations – hanging valleys, basins and ice-smoothed rock faces – can be seen throughout the tracks, making for a feast of discovery for geology lovers.

From Routeburn Shelter on day one, we meandered through beech forest up the Route Burn (river) on an easy-graded track with some steeper inclines, before levelling out to the Routeburn Flats, where a short side-track leads to a hut and campground. A couple of hours in, this made a good lunch-stop, although campers need to overnight here as the Routeburn Falls Hut offers no tent sites.

With heavy packs, the hike up to Routeburn Falls Hut was a fairly grunty hour’s climb, but one which offered fantastic views to the flats below and of the surrounding Humboldt mountain peaks. Both huts we stayed in (there are four on the Routeburn) were more palatial than expected, with flush toilets, gas hobs, solar lights, great views and plenty of room for cooking, eating and socialising. Sleeping areas are separate.

Crossing the saddle

The track continued up the valley on day two, steadily climbing through alpine tussock to exposed bluffs and the pretty Lake Harris to reach the highest point on the track, Harris Saddle, for a mid-morning stop. Views from here are supposedly impressive of the Darran Mountains across the Hollyford Valley and even out to Martins Bay at the coast. Unfortunately misty haze at the top meant we had to settle for occasional glimpses of snowy peaks between cloud breaks.

We enjoyed the brisk traverse around the rocky slopes, still well above the bushline, with kea swooping in to say ‘hi’. Rounding a spur we took in the impressive view of Lake McKenzie below us and the hut nestled lakeside by the bush. A zigzag track wound its way down the mountain to the hut through old-worldly, moss-covered forest, to another well-earned billy of tea. That night the DOC ranger talked about the massive loss of birdlife in the park and the trapping system in place to try and curb the devastation from small killer mammals, like the stoat, which have put so many of our native birds into ‘endangered’ categories.

Day three took us on an up-down track through the forest and past Earland Falls (174 mt) before descending to Howden Hut and Lake Howden. From there it’s an hour to The Divide and the end of the track. Well worth a short detour was a one-hour side-trip up Key Summit to see the fabulous mountain views we missed the day before.

Landscape contrasts

From Howden we diverted down the Greenstone Track and into the expansive river valley for another two days. Another popular walk is a round trip on the Greenstone and Caples Tracks with the Caples junction a few kilometres past Howden Hut.

McKellar and Greenstone huts are equally impressive but smaller than those on the Routeburn and you need to carry your own cookers for this leg of the journey. Food en route is always glorious because you’re so hungry, and on day three we treated ourselves to dessert – the only thing that literally did turn to custard on our adventure, along with rehydrated stewed apple, chocolate sauce and a wee nip of Drambuie – followed by an intense game of cards by torchlight to complete a wonderful day.

We loved the contrast of walking down this river valley, with a combination of open tussock flats, narrow gorges and sections of bush. From Greenstone Hut, it was a 12km hike to the road end, although we added a couple of extra by detouring alongside Lake Rere and via Elfin Bay where we emerged to stunning views of Lake Whakatipu with snow-capped Mt Earnslaw adorning the head of the lake.

Back at Kinloch Lodge it was a case of what to do first – Latte? A swim in the lake? Hot spa? Wine? Lunch? So many luxurious choices. We settled for coffee and cake overlooking the lake, a sumptuous dinner and a good, long sleep.

Facts

  • The Routeburn Track is a ‘Great Walk’, so huts need to be booked in advance. Huts on the Greenstone and Caples Tracks can’t be booked, but you still need to buy a hut pass from DOC before you go. The hiking season runs from October to April as snow covers much of the alpine area during winter.
  • Guided walks are also available on the Routeburn Track where you carry your own essentials and stay in luxury lodges.
  • Over 32km, the Routeburn Track covers a variety of terrain, from easy forest walking, to steep inclines, to exposed alpine bluffs, so thermals, waterproof clothing and good hiking boots are essential. There are some challenging uphills, but overall it’s not a difficult track. An appropriate level of fitness is required and we saw retirees and family groups enjoying the hike, although it is not recommended for children under 10. Alternative family options include overnighting at Routeburn Flats or Howden huts for a shorter Routeburn experience.
  • Kinloch Lodge runs a shuttle van to Routeburn Shelter and collects hikers from the Greenstone Road end. They offer a range of accommodation options for families, hikers and those wanting something extra special; fabulous restaurant dining as well as full kitchen facilities for backpackers.
  • Glenorchy Journeys provides shuttle transport between Queenstown and Kinloch and this can also be booked through Kinloch Lodge.