Mapping the Route
Our Track Story
‘What’s your favourite Great Walk?’ That the question I’m expecting based on my experience launching the Great Rides App some years ago. Yet since there are so many Great Rides and Great Walks built in recent years; can you actually rank greatness? I have two Great Walks left to complete on my mapping quest to build the Great Hikes App; the Routeburn and the Milford. I choose the Routeburn next because other trampers tell me the experience exceeds that of the legendary Milford Track.
Given I have walked neither I have an open mind. I'm ready to walk this track on its terms without considering favourites. On another level, I have to walk the track on its terms as it is partly closed after several slips have washed out half the track as well as one hut. Keen to collect data quickly, I plan to walk the track in two parts. Part one will be on the open section on the eastern Wakatipu side, then a month later complete the western section once it reopens. Let’s go!
Part one starts with a sunny period of two days. I drive from home at the southern extent of Lake Wakatipu to its opposite end at Glenorchy 80km away. There are several fantastic walks at the head of the lake in the beautiful Greenstone, Dart and Rees Valleys. Yet I am here to map the Routeburn so I head up a side valley and park next to a large modern trailhead interpretation shelter. It takes little time for me to sort my gear and set off. I carry my pack away, which is fortunate because I think the sandflies would have carried me if I lingered any longer.
Once I cross the suspension bridge over the main river and enter the forest I leave the pesky buggers behind and begin to enjoy the surroundings in peace. Encircling me are giant beech trees, their trunks terminate into searching tentacles that cross the track and anchor them to the ground. The track so far is gentle but then I climb into a gorge where the valley tightens, the lighting dims and the river begins to thunder far below. Then I glimpse the river, which is crystal clear with a hint of blue in the swirling whitewater currents around large rocks. It is mesmerising.
Soon the gorge’s grip releases and I spill out onto a river flat where I get my first view of the simply named Routeburn Flats. There is a pretty meadow of grasses on a gentle river bend, the North Branch holds hanging glaciers on the highest of peaks while straight ahead is a massive waterfall letting go over a cliff which somewhere, somehow the track must navigate. This place is super scenic and a perfect place to stay at the nearby hut before the next climb.
However, I do not dilly dally here and I need to push on. I take a few photos of the hut and campsite, take waypoints and onboard some sustenance before starting the climb towards the Routeburn Falls Hut. The ascent is immediately steep from the flats although it is well benched and wide. I take my time so as to not to tire myself and also to enjoy the elevated views scattered through the wider gaps between tree branches.
Finally, the gradient eases and the track begins to sidle towards the next hut. I have visited dozens of Department of Conservation (DOC) backcountry huts over the years, particularly in the depths of the West Coast’s rainforest. Most are classically cute 4-6 bunk former Forest Service huts complete with a basic fireplace, mattresses and heaps of charm. They are simple, non-flashy, wilderness homes away from home. However, what I encounter takes me by surprise. Without warning, tucked into the canopy, are two blocky long treehouses on either side of the track. They are massive. Good grief! The private lodge is on the left and the DOC Falls Hut is on my right.
Never have I seen a public hut that stands on stilts perched so high above a cliff edge. I have mixed feelings. Am I in awe of the technical marvel or should I consider it awful due to its sheer scale? The single-level public hut undoubtedly has fantastic views over the lower valley and needs to cater for many. Yet I wonder whether it’s just too much of an imposing elevated building and whether a smaller footprint with dorms tucked the communal living space under the canopy would be more appropriate? I don’t resolve it either way before I stop to collect waypoints and photos, chat with another hiker and continue along my way.
Only metres from the hut I exit the bushline and clamber up the edge of a series of waterfalls to the upper catchment. I’m still on the track of course. By now the clouds are starting to roll in which are drifting at my pace as I wander into the alpine gardens. What a walk! The open country is full of alpine orchids, buttercups and daisies. The natural gateways between rocky tors are a highlight before reaching Lake Harris. No other Great Walk has such a wealth of glacier-carved bowls to explore and I love every spoonful that is being dished up. I reach Harris Saddle. The keas are perched mischievously on the shelter which is perched on the hillside overlooking the depths of the Hollyford Valley.
Here I take a waypoint and a short break before continuing. The saddle junction offers a side track to Conical Hill (1,515m). My mission is to walk every metre of track for the app so I branch off the main path. It is a steady climb; initially up a staircase before following a marked route through the snow and the descending cloud. Every metre I climb is matched by a metre the cloud lowers. I reach the summit with my head in the clouds and my feet in the broken mirk. I sit down and peer through the clouds to where I have been and where I am going. It is quiet, still, eerie. The swirling cloud devours the conical peak.
My view is now view-free and I am becoming cold so I drop back to the main track and follow the Hollyford highline. Here the traverse is stunning being just below the cloud and just above the treeline where I mingle with the tough sub-alpine scrub. Down valley, I can see out to sea, up the valley is a line in the forest which is the Milford highway near The Divide – a spot I will depart from in part two of my walk.
Soon I round a corner and see Lake Mackenzie and its nearby hut. It sure looks like a beautiful place to rest my head, which is still in the mountains with not a soul in sight. I reach the hut and it is almost empty and I am blessed with the luxury of having a separate bunkroom to myself for the night. When tomorrow arrives I will return the way I came, as a slip not far from where I sleep is being repaired and in a month’s time the track will be fully opened.
A month passes and part two of mapping the route begins. In the last few days I have just walked the Milford Track after a late season opening resulting from the same weather event that closed the Routeburn. At the western end of the track at The Divide, I prepare for a day walk with my wife.
We first walk to Key Summit tarns where I will continue onward to the now-familiar Lake Mackenzie Hut. After an hour or so climbing from the carpark, a side track to the tarns is reached. The tarns on the mountain top reflect like mirrors the views down the Hollyford Valley and the mountains that cradle the beauty of Lake Marion.
On the main track, I continue beyond the tarns. Soon I pass the site of the former Howden Hut that was inundated with rocks from the slip that closed the track earlier in the year. The area received 1,100mm of rainfall during the storm closing the Milford and Routeburn Tracks for nine months and the Milford highway six weeks. Approximately 500 people (including 195 trampers) were evacuated after this storm in Fiordland. Their rescue was NZ’s largest aerial evacuation.
The hut has now been removed and I move on up the hill through the beech forest to Earland Falls. The falls are a blast of whitewater. As far as a waterfall experience goes this 174 metre fall is epic in the way that it lands right beside the track. Boom! While there are many other Fiordland waterfalls far grander than this, it’s still most impressive given that it’s taller than the North Island’s highest - Wairere Falls (153m). The water’s impact and the spray drift wet the track and it is hard not to be impressed nor remain dry.
I continue up, traversing the hillside passing through ‘The Orchard’. Here I find a scattering of ribbonwood trees in an open grassy meadow. Their crowns and leaf shape resemble fruit trees and it looks like I could easily be picking plums, peaches or other pip fruit from these trees rather than my way along the track.
Onwards and upwards my GPS tells me as it draws in a red line of my travels –almost joining up with last month’s data at Lake Mackenzie Hut on the tiny screen’s map. The day is stunning, the lake is perfectly calm and I am unexpectedly greeted by friends from Northland who are staying here the night. After a long chat, I retrace my steps back to the carpark and my patiently waiting wife.
The next few months are frantic, breathing the Great Hikes App into life while coming in and out of Covid-19 level change lockdowns. Yet when the air clears and we are all free to fly again I expect to meet lots of kiwis and internationals who will be full of questions. Having completed all of New Zealand’s Great Walks, I now have an answer to the inevitable of ‘which is my favourite’. If my oratory skills improve and my memory is slick enough I will deliver this rhyme which may just do the trick:
‘The finest Great Walk could be Milford with colossal mountain peaks, or could it be Stewart Island’s Rakiura Track … it’s an offshore island retreat!
The Paparoa Track is the newby and I’m biased since I lent a hand, or there’s Kepler Track’s alpine ridgeline where it blows and views are grand.
Maybe it’s the Abel Tasman which weaves between the bays, or out east at Lake Waikaremoana being the North’s deepest waterways?
The Tongariro Northern Crossing is unique with colourful volcanic grounds, yet the Heaphy is a good all-rounder and who could forget the magical Gouland Downs.
How about the Whanganui Journey where boots are swapped for a paddle or is it the Routeburn Track with the pretty views from the Harris saddle?
I need not pick a track as a parent won’t favour a child, each Great Walk has a unique personality and characteristics that are wonderfully wild.