The Routeburn Track, one of the New Zealand Great Walks, is a 32km track linking the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks in the South Island.
Before we arrived in NZ, we had various plans. Mark wanted to improve his surfing at Raglan (only an hour away from Hamilton where we are based and a top surfing spot); after 2 months we have yet to go there! We were also going to start track cycling at the velodrome in Cambridge; Mark succeeded whereas I completely lost my nerve after sliding down the banking during one of the accreditation modules.
Finally we wanted to hike at least one of the NZ Great Walks, having done the Kepler Track on South Island 10 years ago. But, as usual, road cycling took over; the cycling here in the Waikato has turned out so much better than we thought. The result of this was that we didn’t get ourselves organised and before we knew it, it was the summer school holidays and impossible to book into any of the huts.
Mark then came up with the seemingly mad idea of running one of the tracks instead. He did some research and found that the Routeburn is one of the shorter Great Walks. The usual recommended time for hiking the track is 2 – 4 days with 4 DOC (Department of Conservation) huts along the way. As it is “only” 32km long, he decided that we could forgo the heavy rucksacks and staying in huts entirely, and by walking briskly and running the flat bits whilst carrying light day packs, we could complete the route in one day.
At this point I was completely sceptical about his plan. Mark did more research and found a blog written by an American woman who did the Routeburn in one day and presented this as “evidence” that it could be done… except this blogger was a professional ultra-runner. I’m a reluctant runner – running only as cross training from cycling, once a week, though with our recent travels in Japan and Taiwan, not even as often as that.
So, I started running again in an attempt to get strong enough to complete the Routeburn in one day. By “run”, I actually mean plodding around on legs tired from all the cycling we have been doing. We also did a few walks in the Waikato and up Mount Ngaurohoe (used as Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings) in the Tongariro National Park – a very steep climb and descent on horribly loose scree which resulted in very painful legs for a few days afterwards. However, if nothing else it toughened up my feet.
The Milford Sound end of the Routeburn Track is at The Divide and the Glenorchy/Queenstown end is at the Routeburn Shelter. This makes can make logistics a little tricky as it is a 4 – 5 hour, 325km drive between the two ends. We found a company (trackhopper.co.nz) that would relocate our car whilst we were walking/running the track – picking up the car from The Divide after we started the walk, and then driving it to the other end so that it would be ready for us at the Routeburn Shelter when we finished.
So, after the New Year we flew down to Queenstown and spent 3 days on the Otago Rail Trail, with the plan being to do the Routeburn one day later. We had no access to wifi whilst on the Rail Trail, so as soon we finished, we were straight onto the internet and started obsessing about the weather forecast.
NZ weather is crazily changeable – sunny and hot one minute and then dark clouds and strong winds can roll in the next. To our dismay, the forecast was predicting 100kph winds on the Harris Saddle, the high point of the walk. The next day (the day before we planned to do the Routeburn), it was even worse with 4mm of rain being forecast. Following much debate and changing of minds, we eventually decided to cancel. The problem was that once we started the Routeburn, there really was no turning back as our hire car would already have been collected and on its way to the other end of the track.
So… we went straight to Glenorchy instead with the plan of walking part of the Routeburn the following day from the Routeburn Shelter end which would allow us to turn back if the weather deteriorated.
As we sat in the motel in Glenorchy that evening eating dinner, we watched the black clouds roll in over the mountains and sand swirl around the car park… and congratulated ourselves as we had clearly made the right decision. We packed our backpacks for the walk the next day preparing for all weather eventualities: waterproof trousers, long gloves, merino beanie and we even went as far as carrying 2 space blankets and a bivvy bag just in case…
The next morning, we woke up to a bright blue sky and glorious sunshine. So much for the heavy rain and strong wind that had been predicted. Oh well.
We drove from our motel to Routeburn Shelter and at 7.40am we set off from the car park.
The first part of the track is wide and has a good surface and gradually winds its way through beech forest next to the crystal clear water of the Route Burn (river).
We walked most of the time at a good pace, and slow jogged the flatter bits. From Routeburn Flats the track narrowed and started climbing more steeply towards Routeburn Falls.
By now we were starting to meet people coming in the opposite direction, carrying heavy rucksacks after having spent their last night on the track in the Routeburn Falls Hut. It took us less than 2 hours to get to Routeburn Falls whereas the DOC reckons 2.5 – 4 hours average. We had a brief stop to refill our water bottles and take a few pictures by the waterfalls and quickly set off again.
By now we were above the treeline and the landscape turned to tussock covered slopes. From here on, I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking. Suffice to say, the views were stunning.
Soon it was cliff on one side and the beautiful Lake Harris and Mt Xenicus on the other.
Harris Saddle, at 1,255 metres, is the high point of the track; we reached this in just under 3 hours (average walking time to this point according to the DOC is 4.5 – 6 hours).
We felt pretty pleased with ourselves that we had beaten the guidebook times (not that it’s a race or anything…).
From Harris Saddle, we did a further extra little climb up Conical Hill (1,515m) which took us another half an hour. We were the only people up there and ate our lunch whilst enjoying more spectacular views.
Along the way there were views of the rest of track and in the distance The Divide (it’s at the end of the valley in the photo below). The track traverses towards it just above the forest.
We could also clearly see Lake Harris and the path that we had taken up from Routeburn Falls.
The next two photos taken as we were descending, show the emergency shelter on Harris Saddle…
… and Conical Hill to the right of the Saddle.
Getting back down to the car took us another 3.5 hours or so – I often find going downhill much harder work than going uphill and it is definitely tough on the thighs and the knees. As the picture below shows it is long way out of the valley from the Routeburn Falls Hut.
The next morning, I was aching all over and getting in and out of the car elicited a little yelp each time.
In total, Routeburn Shelter to Conical Hill return was 28km so only a little shorter than the full Routeburn Track. Having done this walk, the entire Routeburn Track in one day is definitely possible for anyone who is fit – you don’t need to be a runner (I’m certainly not). Based on the pace we were doing, Mark estimates that we could’ve done the entire track in around 8 hours. Maybe next time we’re back in NZ.
Whilst we were a little disappointed that we didn’t go ahead with our original plan due to the dodgy weather forecast, this alternative was a great walk and Conical Hill (which we probably wouldn’t have climbed if we had been doing the whole track) was well worth climbing.