A Great Walk Attempt on the Routeburn Track

Alright, taking a quick break from chronicling our Japan adventure to talk about our first attempt at a full Great Walk – the Routeburn Track!

New Zealand has ten multi-day hikes that are deemed “Great Walks.” They take anywhere from three to five days, and have huts and campsites with extra amenities on the way to make it easier to spend several days in the wilderness. Doing a Great Walk has been on our must-do list since we moved here, but the entire experience has always seemed super daunting.

Beyond investing in proper gear and navigating trails with a pack the size of a small child, the first challenge is that you have to book your bunks in a hut or a campsite nearly a year in advance. DOC (Department of Conservation) opens the bookings in June (that’s winter!) each year. And this year there was extra noise around that time, as they were increasing the site fees for non-NZ residents. Luckily our residency had just come through, so we secured two nights on the Routeburn Track for $80.00 all up. On top of that, you need to book a shuttle bus to drop you off on one end and pick you up at the other.

Our first mistake was booking camping sites on the Routeburn. We thought having a private tent would be much more enjoyable than staying in a bunkhouse with 80 other trampers. But, we didn’t factor in that the weather in this area (Fiordland National Park) is notoriously wet and unpredictable. We should know better based on our South Island campervan trip – plus Tongariro Crossing and pretty much any other outdoor activity we’ve ever planned in this country!

You can probably tell where this is going…

Despite our diligent preparation — dusting off our 10-year-old hiking packs and studiously researching the best freeze-dried meals — when it came to actually packing, we saw the weather forecast and panicked. On Thursday night, the day before we were set to fly to Queenstown to start our adventure, we had to make a call – would camping actually be safe in gale winds and  just-above-freezing overnight temperatures? The answer was: even if our lives weren’t in danger, we’re not such hardcore adventurers that we’d have fun in those conditions. The trip had all of a sudden turned soggy. And we realised we were kind of dreading it.

So, we cancelled our Routeburn Track shuttles for a full refund (phew!) and impulsively re-booked a glamping tent in Moke Lake.

We reported to the DOC office on Saturday morning to let them know not to send out the search parties – we wouldn’t be camping. And the ranger – who was sitting directly next to a sign about ‘severe weather warnings’ – looked up at us confused. “Oh, what a shame. Why not?”

We felt severely judged and kindly asked if he would camp in this weather if he felt unprepared.

Happy with our decision, we set off to hike Ben Lomond, which I’ll write another post about soon.

The next day, the weather forecast was looking up. Despite our sore legs and my blisters from Ben Lomond, we set out to the Glenorchy end of the Routeburn Track for an out-and-back day hike. We planned to hike just to the waterfall, but the views were so incredible in the valley above it, we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn back!

We were pushing for the Harris Saddle, but other trampers advised us that there was nothing to see there unless you added several extra hours to your day to climb to Conical Hill. Unfortunately we didn’t have that much time before dark, and a storm was brewing, so we turned back. And actually deliriously jogged a majority of the return – exhausted and desperate for a burger and beer.

But man, did we feel accomplished! We hiked 24 km (12 out, 12 back) of the Routeburn – and the entire track end-to-end is 33 km. Add that to the more than 10 km at Ben Lomond, and we had surpassed our distance had we stuck to our soggy plan.

We think our weekend turned out for the best! We still had time to check out Queenstown wineries and spend some time in Wanaka.

Will we do the Routeburn again? Likely not. Maybe another day walk from the Te Anau end to make it to the summit.

Will we do a Great Walk someday? I hope so! We’re thinking about a more weather-safe option like Abel Tasman – but again, have already done part of it as a day walk.

Should you do a Great Walk? Yes! Don’t let our experience discourage you! Some tips:

  1. Plan for the height of summer and cross your fingers for good weather
  2. Watch DOC’s booking system for open season in June, and book HUTS (not campsites) as soon as they’re available – followed by shuttles
  3. Know that you may have a lot of downtime on the trail, as the huts aren’t always spaced evenly – meaning you’ll have long days and short days.
  4. Download DOC’s packing list and don’t skimp on anything. Especially the wet weather gear.
  5. Check with the local DOC office if you have any concerns at all!

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