June 10, 2004

Following the Routeburn (New Zealand)

After spending a few days on the North Island dashing in and out of cities (Wellington, Auckland) and undertaking the Tongariro Crossing, Miriam and I headed to Queenstown on the South Island, our base for attempting the 3-day, 33km Routeburn Track, another one of New Zealand's alpine Great Walks.

A friend of mine from the Kennedy School, Campbell, had recommended this track after tramping it in January, and I'm glad we followed in his footsteps. The Routeburn straddles some of the most spectacular scenery in the South Island, as you start in Mt. Aspiring National Park and end in Fiordland National Park at "the Divide", the lowest east-west crossing in New Zealand's Southern Alps. As with the Kepler Track and Tongariro Crossing before it, we had exceptional luck with the weather, with only one morning of rain after we had descended from the alpine section.

Running highlights of the tramp included unbelievable views and the presence, for the first part of the trip, of the rushing Routeburn River (you actually end up following the river up the mountain to its outlet from Lake Harris at about 1250m). Some specific "wow" features include:

  • Dripping Wall: The forests that hugged the Routeburn River on the first day of the tramp were beautiful and wet. At one point, we came across an amazing, sheer vertical wall dripping water lightly over mosses and plants. It's difficult to describe but it was totally entrancing. It was equally difficult to photograph, being right next to the track and therefore causing perspective and lighting problems, but we did our best.

  • Climbing Conical Hill: Climbing this "hill" was easily the most, er, challenging part of the track. By the time we were tramping the Routeburn (mid-April), fresh snow had been falling in the mid-ranges (down to 600-800m or so) of the Southern Alps. Conical Hill is, in theory, a one-hour return sidetrip from the Harris Saddle shelter. When we got to the shelter, we heard reports that people had been turning back from the Conical Hill ascent because of "an impassable sheet of ice." Undeterred (o.k., mildly deterred but wondering if "sheet of ice" meant the same thing to Canadians as it did to trampers from warmer countries), we started the ascent. To cut a long, slippery story short, we made it to the peak. It took us three hours (i.e. three times as long as the "typical" time, measured in summer). There was certainly no "impassable sheet of ice", although the going was tough at times. In any case, we were joined on the climb up by a group of Israeli trampers. They were as fearless as us, although ostensibly for different reasons. As one of them said: "This is the first time I've climbed on ice. And the last." For all the difficulty of the climb, the 360-degree views at the top -- on what was a crystal clear day -- were well worth it. We could see all the way to the coast, where the Hollyford River empties into the Tasman Sea. Anyway, it was an arduous but rewarding side trip, and suffice it to say that we used a familiar Canadian technique -- le glissage sur le derriere -- to make a more speedy descent. This stitched panorama captures most of the view from the peak (click to enlarge):

  • Waterfalls and Rainbows:The track is full of really nice waterfalls. The first night is spent at the appropriately named Routeburn Falls Hut, with the falls literally a few steps away up the hill.

    The other waterfall highlight comes on the third day, when you see -- first from a distance and then from right underneath -- the 80m high Earland Falls (vertical stitched photo):

    From a distance you can also spot several other large waterfalls cascading down the same mountain. We were lucky that the weather was clearing up as we approached the falls, and so as the sun peaked out we were treated to a variety of bright, full-arc rainbows along our path. This is one was at the base of Earland Falls.

    Especially with the rainfall on the third morning, a number of other waterfalls, creeks, and streams were gushing across and above the track at a variety of locations. We were lucky to avoid most of the rain itself (overnight) but benefit from the visual aftermath.

  • Stunning Lakes: I thought that one of the most amazing things about the Routeburn Track was its lakes. We first came across Harris Lake, an alpine lake near Harris Saddle -- above the treeline and, at this time of year, tucked away in a pocket of scattered snow.

    Next up was Lake Mackenzie , where you spend the second night (almost literally on its beach!). You see the lake from your high point along the Hollyford Faces before descending through the forest and across a flat to get to the hut -- and a more close-up view. From the far-off vantage point, the lake reflected the valley's walls around it. We might have been treated to a similar view the next morning had the cloud cover not persisted through the morning.

    Last in line was Lake Howden. There's a hut there for an optional extra night's sleep (or for those connecting to/from the Greenstone/Caples tracks), but we just stopped in for lunch. With the skies having cleared up, Lake Howden was, like Lake Mackenzie, reflecting everything around it.

  • The Hollyford Faces: The term "the Hollyford Faces" is used to describe the mountain slopes you walk along, high above the Hollyford Valley and River, on the middle day of the tramp. You hit "The Faces" after descending from the alpine section of the track, en route to Lake Mackenzie Hut. The views from the slopes are spectacular. You can see the river down below, and the sun sets behind the mountains on the other side of the valley. We also saw beautiful flowers, and noisy keas (alpine parrots) criss-crossed the blue skies above.


All in all, what can I say? It was another beautiful area of New Zealand where words, and even photos, do not do it justice. Way to go DOC!

NOTE: To see all of our photos from the Routeburn Track, click here.

Posted by anatole at June 10, 2004 12:11 PM

Most of the links in this post don't go anywhere. Augh!

Posted by: madhava at June 11, 2004 07:26 AM

Also, will there be any photos from Auckland or Wellington?

Posted by: madhava at June 11, 2004 07:27 AM

Fixed the links. I copied in an older version of the text into MT. Oops.

As for Auckland and Wellington ... we will post a few city pictures. Wellington, Queenstown, and Akaroa, mainly, I think. To be honest, we barely spent any time in Auckland on this trip. In fact, we spent relatively little time in any of the larger cities, period. There's only so much you can squeeze into a few weeks.

Posted by: Anatole at June 11, 2004 02:35 PM

Beauteous! I'm assuming this is from your earlier to trip to NZ, right? I'm amazed at how similar the Hollyford valley is to some scenes from the Selkirks in Canada (and, really, a lot of the Rockies).

I like the pictures of the lodges. IN the future we must take more pictures of lodges, because it's interesting to see how they vary, what stays the same, and how they're built. And where the shit goes, of course.

Posted by: George at June 13, 2004 11:51 AM

Yup, we're still trying to catch up with our New Zealand pictures (well, also pictures from some other trips). At this rate you'll still be able to find new stuff on the blog two months after we get back. Just kidding (I hope ;).

Posted by: Miriam at June 14, 2004 01:18 AM

Just went through the Routeburn Track photos... great work! Some really stunning ones.


Posted by: Madhava at June 17, 2004 02:10 AM

"From Conical Hill, a view of the Hollyford River flowing into the Tasman sea."

Many, many spectacular photos, especially of lakes reflecting or otherwise. The sheer perspective of the above captioned photo makes it my favourite though. Entertaining reading as always... :)

Posted by: Mehmet at June 27, 2004 01:09 PM