Walk 16 - Routeburn Track 'Great Walk'

Waiting in the sunshine

The three big Fiordland walks (Kepler, Routeburn and Milford) can only be tramped by reservation, which means that it is difficult to predict what the weather will be like when you head out. After four days of sunshine on the Kepler, a still, sunny day at Milford and another travelling from Te Anau to Glenorchy, we were sure that rain was not far away. This was the longest fine spell that we had had in our 5 months in New Zealand; but no, the sun continued to shine and, due to the dates of our reservation for the Routeburn, we spent a compulsory free day at Glenorchy. Despite chafing at the bit to get out there in such fine weather, this enabled us to catch up on a variety of lapsed tasks and also to get an appreciation for the magnificent mountain and lake setting of this small village, through a few short excursions, including the Glenorchy Walkway in the wetlands of the Dart-Rees river delta.

Upper Arm of Lake Wakatipu - looking towards Glenorchy

Reflections of Mt Alfred (1375m) and snow-capped Mt Earnslaw (2820m)

Glenorchy wetlands and the Humboldt Mountains

This description of the Routeburn Track is dedicate to our good friend Jules, who walked this track 31 years ago, before 90% of fellow trampers were even born.

Day 1: Routeburn Car Park to Routeburn Falls Hut - following the burn*

(*Many of the mountain streams in this part of New Zealand are called burns, reflecting the Scottish heritage of the early settlers in the South Island)

Our day did not begin brilliantly - we had left our trusty walking poles in the car when we caught the shuttle to the Routeburn trackhead - nonetheless, a quick fossick in the forest and we soon had two fine beech staffs that Little John would have been proud of and which would see us well throughout the 5-day tramp we were embarking on. The weather on the other hand was brilliant and we set off in great anticipation across the swingbridge over the Route Burn; its icy blue-green waters and steep mountainous backdrop setting the scene for the day to come.

Route Burn at the start of the Routeburn Track

Obligatory start through beech forest

One of the many clear green pools in the stream
Following the tradition of virtually all New Zealand walks, we were immediately under the canopy of a dense beech forest and winding our way westward and upward into the heart of the Humboldt Mountains. The track kept close to the northern edge of the Route Burn, crossing several side streams and cascades as it climbed steadily into a narrowing valley, the sound of the rushing waters rising and falling as we passed nearer or further from the stream banks.

Periodically, views of the stream appeared below through the trees, foaming white at times, and subtily different shades of blue to green at others, as the glacial meltwaters tumbled across shallow stony beds or flowed quietly in deep pools. The Route is an exquisite burn.
The different shades of crystal clear icy blue-green waters of the Route Burn

After a period of climbing the track flattened out onto a wider terrace, crossed the Route Burn via a swingbridge and started to follow the edge of a grassy flat, which widened as we progressed. With no steep fall, the burn meandered gently through these straw-coloured flats, enclosed by steep-walled mountains. Soon we arrived at a junction and made a 5 minute detour to Routeburn Flats Hut, where we had an early lunch taking in the magnificent views down the valley of the North Arm of the burn toward glacier topped Mts Somnus and Momus.

Crossing the Flats

The Route Burn meandering across
the flats

Routeburn Flats

View from Routeburn Flats Hut toward
Mts Momus and Somnus
Returning to the main track, we commenced a steep 300m climb following the left branch of the burn up to the high valley beyond the Routeburn Falls. It was still, humid and 30ºC under the forest canopy as we climbed, our clothes soon becoming drenched. However, the rewards came in the way of magnificent views as we crossed the clearings created by a rock fall from Phoenix Bluff and a large slip a few hundred metres further on; back down along the crescent shape of the Routeburn Flats with the silvery thread of the burn meandering through it and the steep sided razor-ridged mountains rising steeply up from it.

Panorama of the Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

A couple of bridges over sidestreams cascading down to the flats below and we arrived at Routeburn Falls Hut, an ultra-modern hut on the edge of the high valley, with glorious views from its wide verandah down our route up and the valleys of the burn with its two branches cutting deeply through the Humboldt Mountains. A little distance further up was the private hut for guided walkers; they got the hot showers, cooked meals and duvets, we got the views.

Part of the Routeburn Falls

The falls in the aftenoon sun

After a cup of coffee, we decided to explore the Falls or, strictly speaking the cataract, as the Route Burn tumbles down through the rocky outcrops in a series of leaps, falls and foaming cascades, taking a number of courses into a narrow gorge that runs perpendicular to the stream - almost a mini Victoria Falls!

At 30ºC and a hot sun overhead, there was no need for further encouragement; we were soon soaking our tired bodies in the invigorating cold and foaming waters at the base of the falls and soaking up the sun between icy dips. What a pleasant way to finish up and spend a summer's afternoon!

Cold but very invigorating

That evening we sat out on the deck watching the shadows of the Ailsa Mountains to our west climb slowly up the slopes of the jagged Humboldt Mountains enclosing the valley to our east, until the last ray on the highest peak snuffed out. The sun had finally set on a perfect Routeburn day.

Day 2: Routeburn Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut - the alpine crossing

Another glorious day - the tenth in a row. We headed up the rocky ridge behind the hut past the upper falls of the cataract and commenced a slow climb along a broad grassy valley. Reaching the next terrace, we followed a sweeping arc which climbed steadily around the southern rim of the upper valley. Across this valley we could see our path wending its way higher above a second cataract, as the Route Burn flowed out of the unseen Lake Harris.


Cataract tumbling down from
unseen Lake Harris

Looking up the upper valley beyond the falls

View back down along our path up the valley

Climbing the Harris Saddle through
the herb fields

As we climbed steadily upward through the rocky landscape, the leaves of the alpine daisies shone silver in the morning sun. We continued on through thickets of low alpine shrubs (Hebe, Coprosma) until the first views of Lake Harris appeared. The track then flattened out as it sidled across a steep slope high above the dark glacial waters of Lake Harris, with 1900m Mt Xenicus behind.

Alpine daisies

Lake Harris in its glacial bowl

Reflections in a tarn

Finally, turning west again, the track took us over 1255m Harris Saddle and down through a tarn-dotted grassy landscape to Harris Shelter, revealing more and more of the long spine of the Darran Mountains and their glaciers.

Cushion plant kaleidoscope

Harris Shelter nestled amongst the tarns below the saddle
- track up Conical Hill on right

The shelter provided the chance to have a bit of energy food before leaving our packs and starting the steep rocky ascent of Conical Hill, its slopes dotted with a tapestry of yellow and white daisies, flowering herbs and buttercups. We crossed a tiny snow-drift and climbed over the top of the 1512m hill, to be greeted by a glorious panorama of the snow-capped Darran Range on the opposite side of the Hollyford Valley. The views extended both up and down the valley, where low cloud spilled in from the Tasman Sea. Behind us, more views extended back over Lake Harris, now far below, and the route that we had taken this morning.

Lake Harris and the Alisa Mountains from Conical Hill

Panorama of the Darran Mountains from Conical Hill

I had worried that too many trampers might make this walk less enjoyable, but even with 50 people from the public huts and more from the guided walkers huts on the route each day, we were all swallowed up by the immensity of this landscape; occasional encounters with fellow trampers apart, you could be as alone as you wanted and still feel part of this superb alpine environment.

Flora of the Routeburn

Looking back along the Hollyford Face to Conical Hill

Rocky alpine gardenon the track

We lingered as long as we could, but finally had to leave. Our descent back down from this sidetrip to Harris Shelter was much quicker and we soon had our packs back on and were heading down off the saddle and its collection of picturesque tarns, dropping quickly to commence a long, undulating traverse across the Hollyford face of the Ailsa Mountains; an alpine floral wonderland, with daisies, button plants, bluebells, flax, hebes, gentians and many other unrecognised alpine flowers dotting the steep slopes, criss-crossed by small streams pouring off the mountain in series of cascades and mini-waterfalls.

The only spot of shade for lunch

Barely a breath of air, one or two clouds drifting aimlessly across the blue sky and another 30ºC day made for a hot crossing of this amazing landscape, all the time looking down on the pale turquoise thread of the Hollyford River and across at the glacier-capped peaks of the Darran Mountains.

Potter Creek Falls

The magnificent Darran Mountains

Emily Peak

Soon after crossing the Potter Creek Falls (and refilling our water bottle with icy mountain dew), the track climbed up again through a predominantly tussock grass and flax vegetation before crossing a ridgeline from where the tiny shape of Lake Mackenzie Hut, 300m below, could be seen. One last short climb followed and then a long descent, traversing the steep rocky slopes of Ocean Peak, all the time providing a superb view over the emerald green waters of glacial Lake Mackenzie. Eventually, the track dropped below the timberline and entered the cool dark shade of a beech forest (oh much maligned beech, how glad we were to see you!).

The glacial valley of Lake Mackenzie

Looking down on Lake Mackenzie - the hut is in the clearing at the right

The rocky knee-jarring descent finally levelled out and we emerged at Lake Mackenzie Hut; how inviting the clear green lake looked with its morain rock garden merging land and water. How freezing was the glacial water when we jumped in. Still, it would take more than 10ºC waters to keep us from a refreshing dip or two on such a hot day, though we did test the threshold between pleasure and pain.

Evening reflections in Lake Mackenzie

Lake Mackenzie Hut

Icy dip in the rock garden pool at the end of the lake

Swimming in clear cold fresh water, exploring the intricacies of the surrounds, comparing experiences with fellow trampers, contemplating a brilliant sunset over the Darran Mountains and the magic of Emily Peak towering above the beech-lined shores of Lake Mackenzie; tramping is so much more than putting one foot in front of the other for kilometre after kilometre.

What a magical spot Lake Mackenzie is and what a superb track the Routeburn! How much longer can this perfect weather last?

Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut to Howden Hut

The eleventh fine day in a row in Fiordland - it was still warm in the early morning even in our shady hollow at Lake Mackenzie under the walls of the Ailsa Mountains. To the west, the sun shone brightly on the glaciers of the Darran Mountains. We were glad that our route headed southward, traversing the west-facing slopes of the Ailsa Mountains as we set off in the deep shade of the peaks above; it was going to be yet another 30ºC day.

Morning reflections in Lake Mackenzie

Leaving the hut, we quickly crossed a hebarium (i.e. monoculture of low flowering hebe) and past the guided walkers hut, where the chink of china and smell of eggs and bacon and freshly brewed coffee wafted out over the track, the porridge having barely settled in our stomachs.

We re-entered the beech forest and climbed up steadily to reach the level of traverse, at intervals the silhouettes of the trees framing the various peaks of the Darran Mountains across the valley.

Beech-framed vignette of the Darrans

Sun, beech and mountains

Down below a river of fog flowed up the Hollyford Valley from the distant sea. The track wound around the ridges of the mountain range, the beech occasionally being replaced by patches of lower shrubs and a grove of ribbonwood (New Zealand's only native deciduous tree).

Beautiful but unnamed

River of fog in the Hollyford Valley

Looking back at the Hollyford face of the Ailsa Mountains

80m Earland Falls

Base and plunge pool of Earland Falls

We crossed another series of cascades and small waterfalls, before eventually rounding a corner to see the majestic sight of the 80m high Earland Falls plunging out from a gap in the rockface above into a boulder-filled pool. This was a good place for a rest before crossing the face of the falls to be refreshed by the mist and cool wind generated by the force of the falling water.

A slow descent now started, winding through the beech forest to emerge at Howden Hut, situated at the head of beautiful Lake Howden; a good place for lunch.

Small stream in the forest

Lake Howden

As we ate, we compared our past few days with our earlier tramp on the Kepler Track, which we greatly enjoyed and of which I have sung the praises in a previous page. With no reservations, the Routeburn came out on top - the Kepler is a designer track and with its well-formed machine-laid pathway across the mountain ridges you still feel like an observer of the alpine landscapes around you. On the Routeburn, you feel as though you have become part of landscape; the path, at times rocky and gnarly as one cut by pick and shovel over a century ago should be, contributing to this impression. The Routeburn Track was simply stunning and has become the new standard - it will be interesting to see how the famous Milford Track stacks up when we do it in a month's time.

The one problem with the Routeburn is that, while it is a 33km walk, it is 270km and 6 hours by road back to its beginning near the upper reaches Lake Wakatipu from its end at the Divide near Milford Sound. At Howden Hut we had a choice; ahead lay the last few kilometres of the Routeburn Track and 6 hour bus trip, to the left lay the Greenstone Track and a 2½ day tramp back to 12km from where we had left the car.

We turned left.

Unfinished business 2 ........... completion of the Routeburn

The fact that we had not strictly finished the Routeburn Track began to play on my mind - especially with our target of completing all the Great Walks of New Zealand. Hence, when we found ourselves with a day to spare on our return to Te Anau to do the last of the Great Walks, the Milford Track, we grabbed the opportunity to do a day walk from The Divide (the one end of the Routeburn) to Howden Hut (where we had left the Routeburn 5 weeks earlier to head down the Greenstone Track) and thus complete the track.

Lake Howden (5 weeks later)

The hanging valley of Lake Marian

Pyramid Peak (2280m) generating its own cloud

It was only a 3 km climb over a beech-forested ridge to get to the hut and back, but it provided a chance to see the full length of the Hollyford Face of the Ailsa Range, along which we had walked on the second and third days of our Routeburn tramp. We also saw beautiful Lake Howden in a different light and had the opportunity to climb up to Key Summit, from where there was a magnificent panorama of the near end of the Darran Mountains and the Hollyford Valley. In addition, there is a great interpretative walk through a landscape of alpine bogs, tarns and mountain flora. If you are doing the Routeburn, do not miss this short sidetrip - it is spectacular!

Panorama of Mt Christina (2470m), Mt Lyttle (1890m) and the Hollyford face of the Ailsa Range (Routeburn Track) across the tarns of Key Summit

Key Summit is so-called because it overlooks the common head of the Hollyford, Eglinton and Greenstone Valleys, a central point of the massive system of glaciers that flowed down these valleys thousands of years ago and ground out the present landscape. Features of this, the deep U-shaped valleys, hanging valleys, cirques, aretes, tarns etc are all visible from the summit and it was great to be able to sit on a rock in the warm autumn sun and take it all in.

Returning from paradise to the sandfly hell of The Divide, we felt at ease - now we only had the big one, Milford, to do and we would complete the full set of 8 Great Walk tramps without any reservations.