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Friday, January 27, 2017

Routeburn Track and Milford Track

About a year ago a couple of the sons and an American friend hatched a plan to walk two of New Zealand's most iconic tracks: the Routeburn and the Milford. The Routeburn runs from Mt Aspiring National Park near Glenorchy over the Harris Saddle into Fiordland National Park. The Milford, perhaps one of the two or three most iconic walks in the world, runs from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound, one the fiords on the west coast of the South Island.

We hovered over our computers about a year ago when bookings opened for the huts, and scored some hut bookings. Then, just a few weeks before this blog entry was posted, we headed off. We flew into Christchurch so as to gently motor up to the mountains, and see how the old town is going after the earthquakes - none of us has been there since those devastating quakes. It's spirit seems undaunted, but there is still devastation on every corner, many years after the disaster.

We started outdoor activities by spending a day at Wanaka, and doing some walks into the base of Mt Cook. Here is our first view of Mt Cook/Aoraki as we approach the track leading to it:

And here is as close as we got to this mighty peak, the highest in Australasia:

Then it was time to move on to the real walking; so on we went to Glenorchy near where the Routeburn starts. The weather was looking a little ominous. Recall the floating ice in the last photo is in midsummer, not what Australians are used to!

The night before we started, we went for a wander along the Dart River

The first days walking on the track in the drizzle was through Beech forest and ferns. The ferns are really amazing, with their golden brown curled fronds looking as though they are about to burst out at any time:

Very soon we were at the first hut. Embarrassingly soon: one of us (your photographer I'm ashamed to admit) had booked the huts a year ago, and had assumed as with most of these tracks, you have to book all the huts. But the Routeburn has more huts than you can possibly need, a result of which is that there was very little distance to the first hut, and little distance to the next one! Serendipitously this turned out to be a good thing. In the first instance it allowed us to explore the Routeburn North Branch, a little explored track that is a real bush track, not a wide tourist track. Here's a lovely cairn near the end of it:

And here are two of us enjoying the ferns and views at the little saddle where the track ends:

The next day was another day with almost no distance to the following hut: but it didn't rain, it poured! Over 100mm of rain! The previous day it poured two once we got to the hut - we got out and did the Routeburn North in the only relatively dry spot of the trip. Here's the single, fleeting, moment when some sun appeared when we were waiting in the hut for a chance to get to the next one without getting soaked:

So we found a moderately drizzly period to dash to the next hut, and hunkered down for the next day: the climb up over the Harris Saddle, which takes you from Mt Aspiring NP to Fiordland NP

This part of the walk, past Routeburn Falls, quickly becomes Alpine: as evidenced by the lovely Mt Cook Lilly (which I'm sure everyone will quickly spot is not a lilly of any kind, but a daisy...)

Then, just as we were rising into the alpine area of the saddle, the sun came out. Thank goodness we had not attempted this walk the previous day! The conditions up to the top of the saddle were superb; cloud and sun chasing each other in a photographically glorious display.

Here we are just having climbed out of the Routeburn valley, and you can see the Routeburn River (or Route Burn) flowing through this higher valley before descending:

And here are a couple of images of the very source of the Route Burn, as it flows out of Lake Harris:

And here is Lake Harris itself, just below the saddle:

After the saddle, and as we began the alpine descent, the weather closed in completely, with driving rain and mist making conditions a little treacherous and needing a bit of care.

This reminds me of something that's worth saying about both of these walks. They are widely publicised, and with the huts providing shelter and gas, you can have a very light pack. In many conditions, they are pretty easy walking to anyone who is a keen bushwalker/tramper/hiker. Even then as conditions deteriorate the routes deserve respect. But a lot of people do these walks who are not well prepared. We met one guy walking for hours in very cold rain in a few tee shirts and a cheap plastic poncho. We remonstrated kindly with him - something I at least am reluctant to do. But we were seriously concerned for his safely. Death from hypothermia is not uncommon. He was in danger even if he kept moving, and had he tripped and become unable to move for a while, hypothermia was extremely likely. We met him agin in Te Anau, buying gear. Our remonstrations were as nothing compared to the serve that one of the hut wardens have him. I like to think she may have saved his life.

Anyhow we descended to Mackenzie hut, where the weather began to improve after we arrived, giving an opportunity to photograph the lake near the hut:

The walk out presented no drama, besides unrelenting rain, and we were soon at our car which had been moved to the other side of the walk by an excellent car moving service (Easyhike). Rating of the walk: superb! The weather wasn't as bad as we feared, and we had good visibility for most of the parts of the walk that needed it, other than the descent.

Then it was on to Te Anau to regroup, dry gear, and eat non freeze dried food. A shout out here is required to Radha's Indian. They used to be a takeaway place in the Mobil petrol station, but demand grew and they have a place of their own. And it is excellent - it wouldn't be out of place in a major city with a large Indian population, and is likely far and away the best food in Te Anau (there are some attempts at fine dining which are like fine but an order of magnitude, literally, more expensive).

The next walk, the iconic Milford Track, begins with a boat trip across lake Te Anau. Here's one of use getting excited:

And here's a typical piece of goodness that you see from the boat:

Then we begin the first short leg of the track. The forest here has a floor which is purely moss and lichen:

Here's what that looks like closer up

The next day dawned misty, as we clung to the Clinton River

But soon some sun came out, lighting up glorious views of the river, the valley and peaks

At one point we made our way off the track into the valley itself, and were rewarded by this glorious view of the mountains framed by iconic Toi-Toi (the native grass).

Here's some of the grass close up:

Here is one of the wonderful little lakes that form at the base of the sheer cliff lines, which are over a thousand metres high and almost perfectly vertical because of the way the glaciers scoured out these valleys.

The next day dawned a little cloudy, but dry and with not too strong a wind, which is important for safety over the Mackinnon Pass. Here is one of us on the top of the Mackinnon Pass, by the memorial to Quintin Mackinnon, one of the people who found this route from lake Te Anau to Milford.

At the beginning of the descent from the pass there is quite a lot of a dwarf, Alpine variety of the iconic New Zealand Flax. Here are a couple of flower spikes against the mountains.

A little further down the descent is an old shelter, which is is growing a most impressive kind of furry orange lichen:

After a side trip to the Sutherland Falls, the tallest permanent falls in NZ at nearly 600m) we hit the hut.  The falls were remarkable, but not in way that could be captured on camera in the conditions we were in. But one of the truly amazing things about this walk, especially in this weather, is the waterfalls. Huge ones, falling over a thousand metres, small rills, rushing whitewater. I have a vast number of photos. But I think in their profusion they'd bore most of you, so here's one, smaller but lovely, that can stand in for the rest:

All too soon, after passing Lake Ada, we reach the end of the track. Here's the view from where we waited for the boat to pick us up and take us through Milford Sound to Milford:

Talking of waterfalls, here's one we saw on the boat, given scale by the three or four story high cruise boat at its base!


And so ends our summer holiday and two wonderful walks! We'll be back, likely on some of the unformed routes through Fiordland. Just a small coda: the night before we flew back we stayed in a motel in Queenstown where the airport is, which turned out to have the most remarkable view of the Remarkables which we could enjoy from our room's balcony. Sitting there watching the light change on the hills in the evening was the perfect way to end a great trip:


  1. Fabulous photos. Revives memories of my four days on the Kepler track in Fiordland.

  2. Very informative and beautiful photos
    Thank you for sharing


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