The Routeburn Track is located in Fiordland and Aspiring National Parks on the South Island of New Zealand. Over the course of our trip on the Routeburn, we would stay the night in two huts. New Zealand has over 900 public use huts in a country with a land mass the size of Colorado. My best guess is that Colorado, my home state, has maybe 30 public use huts.
We made our way from Te Anau up towards the western entry point to the Routeburn Wednesday biking around 60 Kilometers to a camsite on the Eglinton River. The sand flies were crazy vicious, but once into our tent we were safe watching them through the mesh. There was some some rain on our bike ride and the next day was really pretty cold and wet as we headed the last 20K to another camp site before starting our backpacking Friday morning.
Sitting in the rain under a tree eating lunch a Department of Conservation (DOC) warden, aka forest ranger, told us of a campground with showers and a kitchen to hang out as the weather was going to be wet all day, night and into the next morning. We thanked Rob, the DOC guy, and headed to Camp Gunn. Unfortunatley, as almost always, our luxury would come at a cost. Camp Gunn is past the Routberun start at the Divide, by 11k. The 11k from the divide to Camp Gunn was nearly 400 meters(1,500 feet) lower than that of our start the next morning. The decent was really steep is sections and finished with an 8k dirt road. The following day’s grind back up was worth it. We stayed in a tiny little hut with a bunk bed, two windows, and a wood burning stove for $40 (like $35 US). The hut was awesome… super warm with all the red beach wood we wanted for fuel and the hut had tons of charachter.
This was my favorite night’s accomadation since arriving in NZ. The hut was originally for the men who built the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound and you could just feel the history being in the hut. Felix and Maggie loved it just as much. No electricity, just a small little old hut and a wood stove. We even decided to forego the kichen and use the stove to cook and boil our dinner and tea, it was that awesome. The camp showers were heated by a fire powered water heater, pretty cool.
The next day we made the steep climb back and were treated with seeing Kea flying around and perched in trees next to the road… a good example of something we would not have seen flying by in a car. Kea is the only alpine parot in the world and is considered the smartest bird in the world as well. I would see the Kea and it’s cousin, Kaka (I know, funny), on the Routeburn later.
The weather improved and we were soon hiking up the trail to the first hut. The trail climbs up for about 45 minutes in thick Beech tree forests with ferns and other neat plants I have no idea the name of. The track was smooth, wide and well plummed for the 7 meters of rain it sees every year. Once to the top it was a quick 10 minute descent to the Howden hut adjacent Howden lake. The hut beds about 28 upstairs with the kitchen, stove and living area below. I went for a nice run along the lake after putting our stuff in the hut. Lake Howden and a number of NZ alpine lakes are home of the largest freshwater eels. These eels grow to 2 meters in length, yeah like 6.5 ft. They breed once just before they die in the pacific ocean… incredible.
The trail weaved along until the lake turned into a creek and the creek turned into another lake, Greenstone lake. Greenstone was found in this valley by the Maori and they used the rock for jewelry, tools and weapons. Just a 2 hour hike or 40 minutes running, there is another 20 person hut, pretty crazy. At the hut that night, we met some new Kiwi friends and a couple on a honey moon that were from Cherry Creek CO and San Diego CA. Phil was the Hut Warden and a seriously wonderful guy. We would see Phil the next morning on the trail and then the next day on our way back. Phil is seriously one of the nicest guys ever and really thought the world of us for doing our journey with Felix. Phil wanted to do anything he could to help us, including cary stuff, take pictures, etc… how often to do run into a ranger like that in the US?
The next morning I ran up about 1,000 feet to Key Summit and ridge line where I could see wonderful views of the steep valeys, fiords, lakes, peaks and even the ocean. After my run we continued on to Mackenzie hut 3 hours down the trail. The hike was scenic, traversing the canyon and crossing big waterfalls accompanied by great views. The hut was located in a valley with Mackenzie lake at the base. This hut had two sleeping areas with a kitchen and a capacity of over 50. The next day was a huge day, a 12+ hour mountain triathalon. In the morning I was running at 6:15 to to the east terminus of the Routeburn 13 miles away. The run started with some surprising excitement. I ran up on two backpackers from Europe and starteld one of them so much they nearly fell off the trail down a steep ravine, but fortunatley I grabbed the guy’s arm and pulled him back onto the trail. An hour later I ran into both Kea and Kaka flying about at a spectacular saddle above ridge line. There was a short hike up to conical peak that was marked closed due to avalanch conditions, but being that is was before 8am and the snow was still cold, I went up. On the last pitch before the peak it turned to snow and I turned around as I didn’t feel like slipping around and getting wet on an already enormous day. Next was a very impressive lake with waterfalls and then another 50+ person hut. Down to the flats and then to the car park I went where I borrowed some sunscreen from a young couple from Holland, as I was going to get scorched. Just a week after Kepler and what was supposed to be a relaxed “off” month, I was a bit nervous I was going to regret my plan to complete the whole track. I took in some decent calories via vitargo and drinking from numerous streams, as NZ doesn’t have much giardia due to the lack of mamals in their alpine eco systems.
Back to the hut after 26 miles and 6,000 feet of climbing I was ready for some food and then a hike for 4 hours with a 50 lb pack. After the hike, we jumped onto the bikes and cycled 20+ kilometers to our camp. I was absolutely destroyed. I was tired and flat for the next 3 days due to this epic Routeburn journey. It was absouletly worth it and I will let the pictures be evidence. NZ has seriously wonderful trails with huts that are beyond a North American’s comprehension.
Now we start the Keppler Track tomorrow morning for 3 days… forests, lakes, high alpine, caves and huts = perfect.