Te Araroa (Part 18) : The Routeburn Detour and The Struggle to Keep Going, day 127-131

Day 127 : Routeburn Shelter – McKellar hut (35 km / 21.7 mi – Total: n/a) (off-trail)
Day 128 : McKellar hut – beyond Greenstone hut (20 km / 12.4 mi – Total: 2727.7 km / 1694.9 mi) (mostly off-trail)
Day 129 : beyond Greenstone hut – Boundary hut (19.1 km / 11.9 mi – Total: 2746.8 km / 1706.8 mi)
Day 130 : Boundary hut – Kiwi Burn swingbridge (28.9 km / 18 mi – Total: 2775.7 km / 1724.7 mi)
Day 131 : Kiwi Burn swingbridge – Princhester Road (31.4 km / 19.5 mi – Total: 2807.1 km / 1744.3 mi)

Mar 15 – Mar 19
Total days : 5 | Walking days: 5
Section distance : 134.4 km / 83.5 mi (including Routeburn detour)
Average distance per day : 26.9 km / 16.7 mi (including Routeburn detour)
Total distance : 2807.1 km / 1744.3 mi

Queenstown was busy. There were no campsites in town so I had booked myself one of the very last beds in a busy hostel that was filled with partying millennials. I had a day off, and spent it eating ample food, wandering around town and paying the Kathmandu outdoor store a visit – to complain about my broken hiking pole (where I was subsequently informed it wasn’t actually broken at all, although the quality clearly left a lot to desire.) I did some planning. I was thinking of doing some side trips, and Queenstown was the perfect spot for this. I’d considered the Dart/Rees Track until I found out a bridge in the middle of the circular trail had been damaged and could no longer be used. As I didn’t much fancy hiking half the trail twice I decided against. The one trip I did want to add to my itinerary was the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s most popular Great Walks.

This was a common addition for TA hikers, as it was easy to include in the trail. Queenstown was situated north of Lake Wakatipu, which broke up the trail. The town was considered a natural end, and the trail continued again on the far end of the lake, at Greenstone car park. Thruhikers were supposed to hitch or book a shuttle bus around to the other side of the lake to continue their hike. This created the perfect opportunity to add the Routeburn to the TA, as the track was in the same greater area.

Tourists usually completed the Routeburn in two or three days, but to thruhikers the entire trail was very doable in just one day, and it avoided having to prebook any of the hut accommodation along the way, which filled up well in advance. It was possible to hike the Routeburn up until Lake Howden hut, just an hour before the end of the track, and then connect back to the TA via one of two options. You could either hike 29 kilometres along the Caples Track to the official TA trailhead at the Greenstone car park, or hike 25 kilometres along Greenstone Track to Greenstone hut, 11 kilometres into the TA. My plan was to complete the Routeburn in one day, camp just after joining the Greenstone Track and head back to the TA the following day.

I booked a shuttle at the i-Site (where they’d never heard of the TA before, and were significantly confused about the one-way booking) and left the following day in a small van that dropped me off at the Routeburn Shelter trailhead. It was a little before ten and I’d expected crowds of tourists, but it was quiet with just a few people around. There’d been a severe weather warnings for that day which I’d opted to ignore, but perhaps many others had decided to postpone their hike. After six days of being hold off because of a cyclone, I didn’t want the weather to impair on my trip again, unless I really had no choice. I figured it may not be as bad as they’d warned for – it often wasn’t. In the worst case, it was allowed to camp 500 meters away from any tracks, which wasn’t ideal, but it was good to know it was an option.

The trail began by winding through the forest, following a clear, light blue river. I tried to relax, enjoy the day without pressuring myself to go fast or wear myself out. I needed to try and leave that trailburn behind me as much as I could. The path was wide and well-maintained, and soon began to ascend, slowly, overlooking the Routeburn Flats, a grand valley that lead towards the first huts at Routeburn Falls. It was nothing like the huts I’d grown accustomed to. It resembled a small village with numerous buildings, some DOC huts, some private. It was like walking through an expensive eco tropical resort. It was mind blowing. I browsed a little without going inside, until I spotted a notice board that crushed my carefree attitude: the weather forecast warned for evening thunderstorms. Suddenly, finding adequate shelter for the night became a lot more pressing.

Looking back towards the huts and the Routeburn Flats

There was nothing I could do, except for continuing and keeping a steady pace. Right after the huts I entered an Alpine section with notice boards warning for winter conditions. The sudden change in scenery was remarkable, and I would continually notice this throughout the hike. Although nothing about these landscapes was anything I hadn’t already seen on the TA, it was diverse and it was all packed in this one 32 kilometre hike, as opposed to spread out over hundreds or thousands of kilometres. I understood why this trail was considered a ‘Great Walk’.

The winter warning proved painfully accurate. The moment I passed the sign it was freezing cold, with a strong wind and the beginnings of rain. I quickly put on extra clothes, and slowly moved through the rugged land towards Harris Saddle and its eponymous lake up high, a dramatic sight of black water and stark cliffs.

Climbing up towards Harris Saddle and the lake

There was a small shelter on top, and I quickly went inside and put on all the layers I had. I forced down a bar but there was no time for rest. I went out into the fog and continued down the other side, a sidle through the tussock where all the views over the valley and mountains ahead were obliterated by a whiteout. The wind was so strong I had to crouch low to skirt around some of the corners, scared to get blown off the side of the mountain. There were some steep drops below me and I realised this terrain was much too rugged for wild camping – there was no way I could possibly get 500 meters off trail to find a camping spot. I’d have to make it through the entire trail before I could call it a day.

McKenzie Lake

At the foot of the mountain I passed the blue-green Lake McKenzie. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should stay but instead I kept moving through the cold, damp trail as the rain picked up again. It continued in similar fashion, meandering through forests and valleys of tussock. I passed the enormous Earland waterfall before the conditions got too uncomfortable and finally put my phone away, walking steadily through rain and mist to the end of the track.

It took another three hours to reach Lake Howden hut, the turnoff to Greenstone Track. It was seven, and I was saturated and deeply cold. It was raining uninterruptedly now and I needed shelter, badly. I was trying to decide what to do, where to go, but I couldn’t figure out what the best plan was. The hut was packed, hikers and their wet gear everywhere. I hovered around the porch and thought of setting up my tent right there until I opened the door and asked about the warden, but she wasn’t there. I closed the door again, everyone safe inside looking at me weirdly. Staying there wasn’t an option. I had two alternatives. I could walk another hour to the far end of the Routeburn trailhead and stay at the shelter next to the road. I hoped it was a building much like the one at the start, which would keep me safe from thunderstorms, although I really couldn’t be sure what it looked like. Moreover, I’d have to backtrack for an hour the following day. Alternatively, I could turn onto the Greenstone Track. I could check out the nearby camping on the way or aim for McKellar hut, which was two hours away, according to the signage. I had no idea if it was a popular hut, or if it required booking, but at least it wasn’t on the Routeburn track, which gave me hope. Although I’d never felt any desire to stay at a hut before, this day was turning into the one occasion I wanted nothing more, and I decided to aim for the hut.

Immediately after I made my decision I put my head down and barged on, walking as fast as I could. The trail was no longer the Routeburn and immediately it was a little less maintained, although it was still easy enough, a mostly flat run through the forest. I passed the campsite which was a soggy open field and despite tempted by the idea of crawling into my tent before dark, the forecast of thunder frightened me too much. I continued to half-run through the forest, the old trees creaking dangerously while rainwater streamed down my face and I ploughed straight through the many deep puddles, wringing out my possum gloves as I walked in an attempt to keep my hands somewhat warm. Light was fading now. The last kilometres were completed in the dark while I held up my phone with the torch on, illuminating the trail reluctantly. When I finally spotted lights in the distance, I couldn’t believe how happy I was.

It was 9 pm. A few tents were erected outside and several people were just leaving the hut to retreat into their shelters. I assumed the hut was full but before I’d pitch my tent I needed to get inside, get warm, sit. I hadn’t stopped walking since that morning, more than eleven hours earlier. I was just standing outside of a window, fumbling with my sudden shoes, when suddenly the door opened and someone shrieked my name, ‘Cosmo!’

Kei was standing in the open doorframe to welcome me in. She had recognised my shoes through the window. I couldn’t believe it – Nobu and Kei were there. I felt like everything was going to be okay now. I’d had daydreams of running into them, which I’d thought was wishful thinking as they left for the Routeburn days before me. But here they were. They’d given themselves two days to enjoy the trail, and had stayed in the hut that day, waiting out the bad weather. Although they weren’t planning on continuing towards the TA the next day (instead they would backtrack to the end of the trail and hitch out) I was relieved I was with people I knew.

They told me the hut had been full the night before but today there were only a few people. It felt different to be inside. Odd, but nice. In fact, for the first time it looked as though I was actually going to use that DOC hut pass I’d bought months ago. It would be my very first hut experience, and a luxury one at that, as the hut was spacious and it wasn’t even on the TA. I enjoyed an idle evening with Nobu and Kei, who had been chatting with a friendly German couple. They all gave me little snacks and hot drinks, a comforting treat for someone who travels without a stove. After everyone had gone to bed, I found my own bunk, and slept there instead of my trusty tent. The next morning I woke up late, and said goodbye to Nobu and Kei, and the German couple, They were all continuing in the opposite direction.

I continued on the Greenstone Track, back to the TA. The trail was as the night before, still much better maintained than the TA had ever been, and I marvelled at finding a bridge across a river close to the hut – I’d worried about the rain causing unfordable conditions. It was another reminder that I was not on the TA.

As the day passed the weather warmed up, and I left the rain and grey clouds far behind. It took most of the day to join the TA and reach Greenstone hut, where I immediately checked the hut book to find out where everyone I knew was. I’d run behind on the Motatapu Track, and by adding the Routeburn, I was no doubt quite far behind. They were all two or three days ahead of me, except for Sunshine, who was only half a day away. Perhaps I had a chance of catching up with her.

Back on the TA!

I managed to walk for another hour until I lost the sun behind the mountains and it got too cold and dark to continue. After a long search, I set up just off the trail, in between two small trees, a calming spot with mountains on one side and a forest on the other. It was a great place after an intense few days. I couldn’t help but sleep in late again, waiting for the sun to hit me and warm me up. It was good to be back on the TA.

Unfortunately, once I started walking, my mood changed. It seemed the very last thing I wanted to do that day, was move. It was after 11 when I set off, and the happiness of camping in that quiet spot wore off quickly. I’d thought the Mavora Walkway would prove an easy path, but it was a typical TA track – the forest section undeniably frustrating with lots off bad trail and when I reached the open valleys I struggled to follow the route, the way markers and GPS not matching at all. I kept following conflicting directions and found myself crawling through overgrown paths. It was tiring and unnecessary and I felt wholly unmotivated. Whenever I sat down I struggled to get going again. I just didn’t want to go. The effort was too much. The valley around me was uninspiring, and I just couldn’t get closer to Sunshine. It seemed my chances of catching up were diminishing quickly.

I didn’t see anyone that day, until I reached Boundary hut, where I decided to call it a day. There were two men, neither hiking the TA. The oldest had written a message in the hut book, praising TA hikers, then asked if I needed help setting up my tent – I couldn’t decide if he was insulting me or just awkwardly trying to make conversation, but I wasn’t in the mood, especially after what had felt like one of the longest days on trail. I brushed him off, and hid in my tent, the shade of sun moving behind the mountains bringing the cold once more. I huddled up and thought of what Sunshine had written in the hut book – she had said how great the landscape had been for thinking. I wished I’d felt the same.

The good thing was that I was just two days from reaching Princhester Road, where I would hitch into the town of Te Anau to resupply. Getting to Te Anau also meant I was getting close to the very last sections, the last mountains and forests and beaches before reaching Bluff. The end of the trail. I was looking forward to it. But I wasn’t there yet.

I left Boundary hut in the morning and wound my way towards the Mavora Lakes, where I enjoyed the walk around, the change of scenery. The path turned off a 4WD onto a forested walk around the north lake, where tourists populated the campsites.

After the northern lake I crossed a swing bridge to the west side of the south lake and wound around it through a pleasant forest. I was happy to find it took a lot less time to reach the bottom of the lake, where I continued to follow the trail in the woods next to Mararoa River. I passed by a serene spot in the sun, next to a creek, but regrettably decided not to stay for the night. I had a long road walk the following day, and a track through farmland in the morning.

I had a few options to consider. I could walk through the forest until Kiwi Burn swing bridge, cross the river and follow the faint trail along the other side of the river until I met the road. The other option was to continue the track through the forest. After another three kilometres, I would have to ford the river before joining the farmland track on the other side. The river had some deep areas, and I wasn’t keen on the risk, so I walked until the bridge and set up camp in the dark forest, a little eerie, planning to cross the bridge the following day.

The next morning I was greeted by a grey bird who hovered around my tent’s entrance, until it stole a tissue paper and abruptly flew off. A new friend. I packed up, crossed the bridge and expected a little marked trail similar to the overgrown farmland tracks on the north island, but it was nothing like it. I’d thought the first section would be hardly formed at all, but there was a clear underfoot track to follow. At times it was overgrown with large prickly bushes, or the track would disappear because the river cutting in, but I realised that when I stayed close to the fence, it wasn’t bad at all. There was only one truly aggravation moment – when I finally reached the road. I’d kept dry all day, but it was impossible to avoid getting my feet wet in the very last creek. I couldn’t help but yell in frustration.

The river crossing I’d avoided by taking the swing bridge instead

Back on the road!

At least I was almost there. I found myself with reception and as I was walking along the road, I text messaged with Sunshine, who’d arrived in town the day before. Nobu and Kei were there as well, and I hoped they would all stay a little longer, so I could catch up. It took 2.5 hours of roadwalking until I reached the crossing from which I would hitch to Te Anau. Finally. I parked myself next to the empty road, and waited for a car to pass.

Published by

Rosanne Luciana

A Dutch-born London-based hiker who has swapped an East Asian backpacking experience for the opportunity to truly immerse herself into nature, by quite simple, walking.

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