Routeburn Track: Great Walks

DAY 1

Breakfast was a conglomerate of the last of the eggs and our extra packets of oatmeal. Thus begins the Great Oatmeal Mystery of 2015. (Hayden, reading this over my shoulder: “No, oh my gosh…” *whines softly*) While I thought that I had Sweet Maple that morning, Hayden contested that I had told him that he was eating Sweet Maple, and that I must have had the Honey and Golden Syrup. His evil plot quickly became clear: For our backpacking trip, I had packed myself 2 Sunrise Caramel and 2 Sweet Maple, and Hayden had packed 2 Sunrise Caramel and 2 Honey and Golden Syrup. However, while I wasn’t looking, Hayden switched mine with his. Nefarious boy! Later, seeing that my pack contained Sunrise Caramel and Honey and Golden Syrup, I was led to beleive that I had previously had Sweet Maple, to complete the trio. But wrong was I! For Hayden had fooled me! Tricked me! Duped me!

Anyway, I had Honey and Golden Syrup and Hayden had Sweet Maple that morning. We also drank some milk.

After cleaning up the room and getting the rest of our things in order, we headed out to Glenorchy, where the Routeburn Track began. On our way to the Routeburn, we drove by a baby sheep that had somehow gotten out of his pen. He clearly wanted to go back to his mama inside the pen, and baa’d sadly next to the fence. Hayden and I tried to chase him with our car to an open hole in the gate, but he was too far from the gate and wouldn’t go the direction we wanted. We stopped the car and got out, and I started chasing him down the fence towards the gate, when the baby sheep decided that he was more scared of me than he was of the fence and popped right through the fence. He ran straight to his mama looking for milk. Moral of the story: WE SAVED A BABY SHEEP. He could have been hit by a car, and it looked like the owner didn’t stop by too frequently. WE SAVED HIM. That’s how awesome Glenorchy is. Glenorchy: the town where tourists get to save baby sheep.

The Routeburn Track, one of nine Great Walks in New Zealand, spans 32 kilometers one-way, beginning in Glenorchy and ending near Milford Sound. We would be backpacking across the track for 3 days and 2 nights, with the nights spent in huts along the track. We left the car in the parking lot. If it was fate, we would meet again. We started the Routeburn at noon and set off to hike the very short 6.5 kilometer distance to the Routeburn Flats Hut. Ideally, we would have hiked up to the Routeburn Falls Hut, which was only a few kilometers past the Flats Hut, but it had been all booked when we had reserved our hut spaces. So the first day was just a short, 2 hour jaunt across a gently sloping uphill trail.

We crossed many bridges on our first day. The bridges all had signs listing their maximum capacity, which was usually between 5-15 people. About an hour in, we stopped for lunch at a bridge crossing a big waterfall, which a really intense tour group was climbing down. It looked like a lot of fun. Hayden and I ate lunch meat sandwiches that we had packed back at the motel, since it would be all peanut butter and jelly from hereon out.

Close to the Flats Hut, we came upon the Routeburn Flats themselves and wandered around for a bit, exploring the big, expansive flats surrounded by mountains. According to informative signage, the flats were created by a glacier that is now gone. We continued on down the trail and soon found ourselves at the Routeburn Flats Hut. It was only 2pm! The hut had cold running water, flushing toilets, stoves, and a central heating furnace — such luxury! We reserved our bunk bed for the night and went outside to relax on the flats. Though we had realized by this time that we had rather unnecessarily brought along our sleeping pads when there were beds provided, I used mine as a mat on which to read and nap. Hayden wandered around and took photos and tried dipping his feet in the ice cold stream by the hut. The weather was supposed to be rainy, but it was fantastic all afternoon and we relaxed outdoors until it was time for dinner.

We made dehydrated Roast Lamb and Vegetables, which I didn’t think was that great. Then I read my book and Hayden wrote in his little notebook in the bunk room. Around that time, a very large, loud family consisting of more children than adults chaotically thundered into the hut. Three children all began loudly counting the bunks all at once, which meant that we had the honor of hearing three shrill voices shout over one another, “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN — SEVEN!!! MOM THERE ARE SEVEN!!!” The parents were incredibly inconsiderate as well — almost worse than the kids! Mom came in, looking for her phone, and started rummaging through another couple’s belongings, like she would have left it there. Hmph! The very large, loud family was noisy and disruptive all through the evening, and I slept pretty restlessly. Please do not bring ill-behaved children (or ill-behaved parents?) on the Great Walks! I will be bringing earplugs on future trips.

DAY 2

Hayden and I woke up at 5:30am ready to jump out of bed. We had (you guessed it!) oatmeal for breakfast, and we both selected the Sunrise Caramel flavor. It took awhile to get all our things together and such, but we were out the door by 6:40am, onward to the Lake Mackenzie Hut, our stay for that night. Today was supposed to be a difficult day, since we would be surmounting the maximum elevation point of the Routeburn Track and walking a total of 13.6 kilometers, totaling to an estimated 5.5-8 hours. However, Day 2 of the Routeburn Track was far from the challenge of Day 2 of the Freycinet Circuit. The trail was good and not too big of a challenge for us — we are fast!

We reached the Routeburn Falls by 7:30am, which was already ahead of schedule, and sat down by the falls for a snack. The view from the falls was beautiful, and I got an awesome landscape shot of the mountains and flats from the high vantage point. We started to get chilly, so we got back on the trail to continue up to Harris Saddle, which would more or less mark the highest point in elevation. After a short steep incline, the trail flattened out some and we walked through a beautiful flat area between the mountains. Then we went up into the mountains, and Hayden’s heavy snow boots finally had a purpose for 10 steps through one snowy patch, which he thought was really funny.

The Routeburn Track goes through avalanche territory, right in the middle section of the track. That was us today! We traveled through a few areas that said not to stop moving until we had reached the next sign saying we were in the clear. Luckily, the weather was fine and sunny all day long, which was doubly good because the middle section is the least tree-sheltered portion of the track. We reached Harris Saddle by 9:15am, where we had an early lunch (ha-ha) and met three Austrian hikers who were doing the Routeburnn in only 1 day! It was completely possible, given our speed, but Hayden and I decided that we enjoyed the leisure of arriving early in the day and enjoying the scenery.

The trail continued through the mountains until it was time to zig-zag down to Lake Mackenzie. From up above, we saw a little village-looking thing next to the lake and thought, wow, who lives there?! The rest of the trail took us through lush greenery and eventually spat us out at the lake, where we would be staying. Our hut was the little village! We had arrived by 12:20pm, meaning it had only taken us 5.5 hours, including breaks, to reach the hut. We were even earlier than we had been the day before. Piece of cake!

The lake was beautiful and we stayed out in the sun, perhaps for too long, enjoying the atmosphere. For second lunch, we ate dark chocolate and salami while sitting on my sleeping pad (it was useful after all!) At some point while we were sitting on the grass, a helicopter flew in, stopped, and then flew out. No explanation was given.

Though the Lake Mackenzie Hut housed 50 people compared to the 20 at Routeburn Flats Hut, the hut was quiet and peaceful and full of respectful adults. Hayden and I made dehydrated Spaghetti Bolognese, a favorite of ours, and had a little more chocolate for dessert. Yum. I love pasta. After dinner in the bunk room, I read my book and Hayden wrote in his little notebook. It was very peaceful.

Then the Department of Conservation ranger called us all down to the kitchen to give the “evening talk” and collect our hut tickets from us. The evening talk involved the ranger going on for nearly an hour about hut safety and the entire history of New Zealand animal life and geography. Firstly, we learned about the location of every fire escape in the building, along with the fire emergency protocol. We also learned that there was solar-heated water available to us, and to please do use it. Following the safety briefing, the ranger went into great detail on a very large portion of the history of New Zealand. There was a long description of every location along the Routeburn Track and its history. There is a place near the Mackenzie Hut that some guy set up for other people to visit, but then he drowned and his son had to come to take care of his remaining business, and the son ended up staying and running the place, and I think you can visit it today if you want, but I don’t know what it’s called. The ranger talked about the largest land bird in New Zealand, and the largest eagle in New Zealand, which preyed on the largest land bird in New Zealand. There was a guy named Cook who came to New Zealand and claimed it for the British empire and saw all the birds in the country and liked them a lot. Then all the British people brough rabbits so that they could continue the time-honored tradition of murdering living things for sport, but the rabbits multiplied out of control and the farmers complained about it. So they brought the stoat to kill all the rabbits, but the stoat is really quite clever and understands that it is a lot easier to catch a land bird or a baby bird or a bird egg than it is to catch a rabbit. So the stoat started killing all of the beautiful birds in New Zealand, and that process continues today. At this point, the ranger brought out a taxiderm stoat, so that we could all understand the size and general appearance of a stoat. Apparently, the stoats also breed like rabbits, and studies have been done that show that stoats impregnate baby female stoats, and then the baby female grows up and gives birth. We learned in great detail the extent of stoat incest. Stoats also kill for sport, like cats do. Even if they are not hungry, they still kill all of New Zealand’s beautiful birds. The Department of Conservation has decided that, since there are not enough birds in the Lake Mackenzie area due to the stoats, the funding towards stoat trapping should go towards locations where there are more birds still alive. However, our very passionate and long-winded ranger was determined, and told the DOC that he would set and maintain all the traps if they would just give him a few, and it’s been going on like that ever since. At the end of this hour-long spiel, the ranger asked us to donate to the area so that he could get more stoat traps and help the birds. Hayden and I handed him our hut ticket and rushed out of there. But I think we will be going to the Te Anau Department of Conservation to donate money to the birds and to our passionate ranger friend. I like the birds.

After that, we went to bed in a peaceful environment. The sound of snoring was nothing compared to the sound of seven screaming children. I will still be bringing earplugs for our next backpacking trip.

DAY 3

Everyone in our hut started waking up around 6am, which had been our projected wake-up time anyway, so we got out of bed and prepared for the final day of the Routeburn Track. We had oatmeal for the last time — I had Sweet Maple and Hayden had Honey and Golden Syrup, and we both said that those respective flavors were our favorites. Today would be 12 kilometers mostly downhill, plus an optional 1.8 kilometer return hike up to Key Summit, which would total to an estimate of 5 hours of hiking.
We set off at 7:10am, hiking up a particularly rocky part of the trail that went through more lush greenery. The weather was supposed to be rainy today, but we were hiking away from the rain and ended up being in the sun the entire day. Lucky us! We passed the Earland Falls on our way to Lake Howden, and stopped for a snack at the lake. I wouldn’t have minded staying at Lake Howden Hut! Truth be told, all of the huts were located at beautiful stopping points.

From Lake Howden to the Divide, which marked the end of the Routeburn Track, it was only an hour more of hiking. But we wanted to do the option Key Summit hike, and left our packs at the turnoff when we went up. We explored the Key Summit, which had more great views of the mountains, and circled around something called the Alpine Nature Walk. We sat on a rock overlooking the mountains and ate our peanut butter and jelly lunch. Then we went back down to the turnoff, collected our packs, and hiked the last 45 minutes to the Divide.

We were at the parking lot by 11:45am — woohoo! We had one Great Walk on our respective belts. After the Routeburn, Hayden and I were excited to start thinking about doing more Great Walks!

As fate would have it, our little Barina had found its way to the Divide and was waiting for us there. That was good. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had a way to get to Milford Sound. We drove 36 kilometers to Milford Sound. On the way, we saw some cool Cheeky Kea birds hanging out on the freeway tunnel and on some tourists’ car. Oh, so that’s where all the birds have been — hanging out on the highway.

For the next two nights, we would be staying in a dorm room at the Milford Sound Lodge — the best and only place to stay at Milford Sound. There is no internet here except for an expensive satellite internet connection, so we’re pretty much in the boonies for a bit. The lodge has a great cafe, and we indulged in a yummy second lunch there. We shared a dorm room with these two older Australian guys who were intensely biking a big loop around the whole of the south island. All the private rooms had been booked way far in advance. It wasn’t so bad, though. It was significantly more private than our previous hut experience, and more sheltered than camping would have been. Dinner was at the lodge, with pasta for me and goat curry for Hayden and carrot cake for the both of us. We were so happy to have a big, full meal.

In the evening, it started raining pretty hard — we’re glad we aren’t camping! Tomorrow, we will be doing the Morning Glory (read: 6:30am start time) kayaking tour with Roscoe’s Kayaks through the Milford Sound. This is a bucket list item for Hayden, so he’s very excited about it.

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