The Routeburn has cemented itself as my favourite track in the world. I can’t recall any other hike where the landscape is so consistently breathtaking. As much as I love hiking, there are usually at least few moments on longer trails where I start to get a bit bored because the (admittedly beautiful) forest has looked exactly the same for the last 4 hours. The Routeburn is such a varied and mesmerising place that there’s no chance for repetition. Every turn reveals new wonders. And at an easy 32 km on a well kept track, that’s a lot of reward for relatively little effort. It’s an end-to-end, which can make transport a little tricky, but it links up with the Caples and Greenstone tracks which can turn it into a near loop by adding an extra day or 2. I decided to join it up with the Caples which is slightly shorter than the Greenstone and has an extra foray into the alpine. And what a wonderful alpine it is.
The last time I drove past Lake Wakatipu it was a hot midsummers day and the sun was lighting up the clear blue water like winter had never been. That was 3 days ago. This time a snowstorm has ignored the fact that it’s late January and moved in across the mountain tops. The grandeur of the peaks with their dusty caps is undoubtedly impressive but the temperature is also undoubtably chilly and I’m supposed to be up there this time tomorrow. The weather forecast insists on good news though, so I keep to plan and make my way up the lake to Glenorchy where I settle into a hostel for laundry, a shower and a brief stay in a real bed before hitting the trail again tomorrow.
The forecast holds true. I wake up to a bright sunny day and the chill in the air is already fading. Snowy caps still decorate the mountain peaks though, giving added majesty to the beautiful landscape. The best of both worlds. Someone must be smiling on me up there. After a brief trip back into Queenstown to pick up my hut tickets and some more supplies, I’m on my way to the Routeburn trailhead.
The first section of the trail is an easy steady climb up through some of the most beautiful beech forest I’ve ever experienced. It’s getting on in the afternoon by now and sun’s low enough to light up the forest with gold. The trail follows the Routeburn River high up into the mountains. There’s a wonderful contrast between the tranquil forest and the river raging through a narrow canyon. It’s still in day walker territory, which can be a little frustrating when the odd obnoxious conversation interrupts the magic of the place, but the forest is so wonderful that it’s hard to spoil it for long.
I’m booked in at the Routeburn Flats Hut for the first night which is only a few hours in. I make it there with plenty of daylight to spare. The view from the hut is incredible. It’s situated right at the edge of a beautiful valley with snowy mountains rearing up close in every direction. Up behind is thick beech forest and out in front is a wide open plain stretching out up the North branch of the Routeburn River. It doesn’t take me long to set up my bed for the night and a side trail up the North branch and across the open plain quickly tempts me out for another walk.
I brave a bone-chilling crossing of the Routeburn to start the trail on the other side. A sign confronts me not far in warning me that only experienced hikers should attempt the trail ahead. I’m never quite sure what to make of things like this. I’m not sure exactly what ‘experienced hiker’ means and how stupid I should assume the target audience is. I like to think I’m smart enough to turn back if there’s any chance of getting hurt or lost though so I ignore the sign and plough ahead.
Turns out ‘experienced hiker’ means anyone that is capable following blazes instead of traipsing along near roads that you could only get lost on if you purposely set off perpendicular to them. The hardest bit about the trail is it crosses the river lots of times and there are no bridges. The crossings aren’t difficult but the water is freezing. For the shorter crossings my feet just turn numb and have no chance to recover their senses before I’m at the other side, but there are a few longer ones that send my toes past numbness and into stabbing pains.
The pain is worth it for the vistas though. There are a few nooks up the valley that are nice a get a closer look at but the best thing about the trail is the view back at the hut. It’s a pretty spot no matter where you look at it from but it’s an awesome sight standing from afar and seeing the little hut dwarfed by the distinctive Emily Peak up behind it.
Back at the hut a Frenchman has wandered in who I recognise but can’t quite place until he asks me if I was on the Heaphy Track a few weeks ago. Aha! I wondered if I’d start seeing familiar faces if I did enough of the Great Walks. He’s just finished the Kepler as well which is next on my todo list. I’m excited to hear what it’s like but he describes it rather scathingly and seems reluctant to go into more detail which surprises me. The pictures certainly look wonderful and I can’t quite place what he might be complaining about.
The hut warden comes to chat to everyone just as I’m eating dinner and warns as that the forecast is for bad weather later the next day, so if we want any views of the Darren Mountains it would be best to get an early start. He doesn’t have to tell me twice. I get to bed as soon as the sun goes down, ready to hit the trail at dawn.
Continue the adventure with day two.
Listening to: Funk #49 – James Gang