This is Day Four of my adventure on the Routeburn and Caples tracks. If you’re just tuning in, the full story starts here with the beginning of the Routeburn Track. The first day on the Caples Track begins here.
I leave the Upper Caples Hut at day break and start the long stroll down the Caples Valley. Pro that I am, one of the first things I do in the valley is walk straight into a bog. I’d been so pleased with how well my boots had dried out overnight too. Not that more grace on my part would have mattered too much, the water levels are up after yesterday’s rain so a few steps in the swamp are unavoidable. I end up walking through rivers on purpose just to clean them off a bit. If they’re going to be wet it may as well be clean water!
Wet boots aside, the walk down the valley is gorgeous. The landscape is sleepy and delicate in the early morning light. I’m forever distracted by dew crystals sparkling through the long grass and the misty trees along the valley floor. I have to remind myself regularly to turn around as the views up the valley toward the mountains are equally beautiful.
After the bustling Routeburn Track there’s something wonderful about the quiet of the place. I can see all down the wide open valley and there’s not a soul in sight. Well, except when I get to the Mid Caples Hut which is under construction and a helicopter lands nearby. But most of the time it’s very peaceful! The trail alternates between ambling through the long grass beside the river and diving into stretches of beech forest where I’m chased along the path by friendly robins.
I’m so used to the inflated track times on the Routeburn that I unwittingly dawdle far too long in the valley. I come up to a sign which I presume is going to tell me it’s another 5 minutes to the car park only to find out that no, actually it’s 40 minutes, and my shuttle back to my car leaves in 30. Oh dear. I sprint the last section of the track, pots and pans clattering around in my pack. I’m not a runner at the best of times. Sprinting with a pack on after walking for days is not what I signed up for at all. Luckily the shuttle driver sees me in the distance and yells out that I can stop running now. He’s a lovely fella all round and insists on driving me all the way to the Routeburn trailhead even though I’d only paid to go to the road end. It pays to book with the smaller local shuttle companies. They’re less schedule bound and more likely to offer a helping hand to smelly travellers.
Back in Glenorchy I head for the nearest cafe where I treat myself to a stack of pancakes and my first cup of coffee in about a week. It looks like the good weather isn’t going to hold up in this part of the country so I sadly knock the Reese Valley Track off my schedule. Further south is looking good though so I get in the car and head to Te Anau where the Kepler Track begins.
The Routeburn is one of the best New Zealand hiking experiences I’ve had. A wonderful mixture of beautiful beech forests and stunning alpine adventures in a relatively easy package. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many gorgeous views with such little effort. 3 days is a pretty standard time to do it in but with the wealth of huts there’s plenty of options for longer or shorter itineraries. Beds are popular in the summer though so you may not get your first pick (or a bed at all if you book too late). Hut passes are booked through the Department of Conservation. Be warned, the Great Walks in this area require that you pick up hut passes at specific DOC offices so if you’re staying in Glenorchy you’ll need to make a trip into Queenstown to pick up your tickets even if you book them online.
The Routeburn proper is an end-to-end that will leave you stranded rather a long way from your car, but it joins up with the Greenstone and Caples tracks which both return to a car park on the Glenorchy side of the mountains. You’ll still need to get between there and the Routeburn car park but it’s a hell of a lot closer than Milford! The Caples will add an extra day to your trip, the Greenstone adds 2. There are shuttles that can take you between the trailheads and hitchhiking is also an option, although don’t expect a timely ride, cars can be few and far between on these roads.
Listening to: Moonlight on Vermont – Captain Beefheart