Date of Adventure: 14 – 16 April 2021
When we came to New Zealand in 2017, Kadi and I had planned to hike the Routeburn Track. In the end we didn’t quite have enough time, so we hiked in from one side of the track to stay in a hut for the night. Back then, we had seen the vast views of the Darran Mountains briefly, and knew we wanted more!
Similar to the Milford Track, this Great Walk isn’t a loop so transport to/from either end is almost the most difficult part of the whole experience! Since we had hiked in from the West side last time, we decided to start from the East entrance this time. To get around the transportation issue, our plan was to stay in the two huts along the way over two nights. On the third day, instead of hiking out covering much of our 2017 hike, we would traverse back the way came.
The drive to the start from Queenstown is one of the more stunning drives in the country, especially if there has been a recent snow on the tops!
You pass by a couple Lord of the Rings filming locations along the way, so you could stop for a photo op!
Though it was already fall in the Southern hemisphere, the warm air still felt like summer for us as we arrived in the car park. We pulled out our packs, ate our jam & cheese sammies and started down the trail!
The track follows the Dart river for the first few hours, crossing several times over wiry swing bridges. Each time you exit the dense forest, grand views up and down the river reveal themselves.
The turquoise waters of the river accented the deep green of the forest, and we found ourselves stopping often to marvel at the beauty.
Before long, the river valley opens to a large field, scoured flat by ancient glaciers. This golden field signals the trail’s departure from the Dart, as we immediately found ourselves walking up a steep incline.
As we continued to climb up the valley wall, the plains we just left started to appear below us. The spectacular frosted mountains appeared as well, revealing the immense grandeur of the area!
Looking at our map, we knew the first hut was close. The Routeburn Falls hut is known as one of the newest, fanciest huts in the country, so we were excited to see it.
The front of the hut belies it’s grandeur, with a simple entrance greeting us as we walked up.
The hut is built on a steep hill, so the ground (and trees growing on it) decline quickly away from the other side of the hut, revealing a clear view of the snow-covered range we had glimpsed through the day.
Divided in two by the entrance walkway, the Falls hut has a sleeping section and a cooking section. Since it is on a Great Walk, there are cookers with Gas, and a wood stove free to use for walkers (who have booked the hut).
Before making dinner, Kadi and I wanted to see the Falls themselves. A steep jaunt brought us to Routeburn Falls, right at the edge of the Alpine. There were a number of other photographers with the same idea, hoping the sunset would light up the clouds.
We continued past the waterfall until we could see beyond the next hill. We had seen the forecast for the next day (hint: rain), so we decided it might be nice to look ahead in case we couldn’t see it tomorrow.
The trail lead to a wide alpine bowl, bathed in golden light from the setting sun. We hadn’t planned to walk this far, so we hadn’t brought warmer layers. Cool breezes ran down the valley, so I hurriedly took a few dozen pictures before heading back down.
Feeling the chill, we headed back down to the hut where most people had already finished their evening meals. The hut ranger, John, was quizzing trampers on what languages the flag on the wall was written in. Some groups were beginning to talk with others, breaking the ice warmed by the fire. We finished making (and eating) our dinners, but almost everyone was already heading to bed by then. We shared a short conversation with John before packing up and heading in to our bunks.
The second day greeted us with rain, as forecast. The grey skies let the sun through for a moment as it rose, but it quickly hid away again. We set off in our rain gear.
Routeburn Falls roared louder than the evening before due to the overnight rain. The top of the hill revealed a much different view today, with a light rainbow peeking through!
The rain enhanced the colors of all the rocks and flora, and we noticed the cool colors of the rocks on the trail.
The trail wove through a variety of massive rocks, once creating a small tunnel to climb through!
We rose through the valley as steadily as the autumn rain fell. That is to say: we were getting wet. Though we should’ve be excited to reach the high point of the track, the upcoming Harris Saddle, the constant drizzle dampened our spirits a bit.
The rain broke for a little bit as we reached the plateau of the saddle, giving us a view across Lake Harris to a giant waterfall cascading into the Valley of Goblins.
There is a shelter at the top of Harris saddle, a simple set of huts meant for short stops or emergencies. Most people stop for a lunch break, as it is about halfway between the Routeburn Falls hut and the Lake Mackenzie Hut. There are two shelters there — one for independent hikers and another for guided walkers. We peered longingly into the guided walker’s shelter and saw the teacups and propane water boiler, but it was locked tight, as the Guided walks season was over.
There was a large group already taking shelter when we arrived, but everyone had a similar goal: warm up and eat some some food before venturing out into the rain again.
Heading downhill again, the other side of the saddle had a different feel to it. We traversed sideways across a steep hill, at times holding onto metal railings bolted into the rocky faces.
The rain worsened as we continued, though anyone we passed seemed happy to be outside, unaffected by the rain. After we passed a bubbly group of trampers, our mood was considerably heightened–we were out adventuring after all!
We eventually made it to a rocky shoulder of the hill we were sidling. As we crossed over into the next valley, momentary lapses in the rain allowed us glimpses of the valley floor. Far below, we could see the Lake Mackenzie hut, siting on it’s namesake.
Unfortunately, we had to complete two large switchbacks to finish the descent to our destination. The sun broke through for a few minutes, giving us a spectacular view up the valley accented with a rainbow!
We returned to the forest for the first time since the hut that morning, soggy from the day of rain. My rain pants had wetted through a few hours ago and the rain wasn’t meant to stop, so the last couple kilometers seemed to stretch out longer than could be possible.
The hut appeared eventually and a fire had already been lit! We found some bunks and unpacked our stuff, then returned to the main room and had some tea to warm up.
The hut warden was passionate about birdlife, and was devoted to helping fight off introduced predators. He gave a great educational presentation about the difficulties and their solutions while we ate dinner. After the talk, he updated us on the weather forecast for the next day: rain. Dang. We joined the mass exodus to the toilets, then to the bunkroom, where we crawled into our sleeping bags.
As we tried our best to settle our minds down amid the snores of our neighbors, distant thunder rumbled–a rarity in New Zealand, especially at night. Our plan for the next day, traversing the previous two days’ distance, was seeming nigh impossible. The constant rain on the outside of the hut, meant to turn to snow, kept our spirits low as we drifted off to fitful sleep.
That’s probably enough for this post – wait for part two next (soon), which hit us with a few surprises!
Thanks for reading! –Cameron