Day 130 to 139 – Winter is coming
Saturday 23 February – Monday 4 March
Queenstown to Te Anau
Day: 130 – 139
Km’s: 97km (+ some off-trail km’s)
Cumulative km’s: 2,763km / 3,000km
As we get closer to the end of the Te Araroa trail, we have been making an effort to slow down and incorporate a few side trips, including some of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
In this blog, we take an alternate path out of Queenstown, hiking the famous Routeburn Track before rejoining the official trail at Greenstone Hut, adding an extra two days to our journey south.
From there, we walked along the shores of the stunning Mavora Lakes, battled some challenging weather, and ended the week checking out the stunning Milford Sound while resting for a few days in Te Anau as Leigh waited for a physio appointment to sort out some foot pain.
Day 130 – Saturday 23 February, 6km (off-trail)
Queenstown to Routeburn Flats
We ended our stay in Queenstown with a short breakfast catch up with two friends from Sydney who happened to be in Queenstown for a wedding. It was great to see Tsae and Jason and hear what they have been up to since we last saw them. What a great way to end our time in Queenstown – the breakfast food at Bespoke Kitchen was super tasty too!
With breakfast in the bag, we headed down to the chemist, which was also a post office, to send our bounce box of excess gear to its final destination, Invercargill. After lugging that stupidly heavy box around each time we reach a major town for the past 4 months, I’m really looking forward to the moment I can burn that box to the ground. It’s going to be a profoundly satisfying moment when it arrives.
We’d pre-organised a shuttle to drop us out at the start of the Routeburn Track, but it wasn’t due to pick us up until after lunchtime, so we still had a few hours to kill. We did what any rational person would do, we headed to Patagonia Chocolates for one final serving of ice cream and a hot chocolate.
While we’d been told that it was possible to walk the Routeburn Track in a single day, we decided to take it a bit easier. Arriving at the start of the trail by late afternoon, we booked a campsite at Routeburn Flats, which was about 6kms or so into the hike.
Once the shuttle dropped us at the start of the trail, Leigh headed off to the car park to check out the destructive gang of keas that were attacking the parked cars. With the trail being so popular, there were plenty of cars for them to choose between.
After a quick snack and review of the trail map and distances, we started walking. Being late in the afternoon, we were going against the flow of people, as a lot of day walkers headed back to their cars.
The first section of the trail was a nice forest track, winding its way past a few rivers – the walking was easy but there wasn’t much in the way of views yet. Pleasant, but no wow factor that I had expected for a Great Walk. It was strange walking on a trail without having to get your feet wet for once though! I was pretty keen to get to the campsite before the weather turned as we were expecting rain to set in by the evening.
Eventually the people thinned out after a while and we reached Routeburn Flats. After checking in with the Hut warden, we stared through the large glass windows of the $130 per person per night hut, wondering what it looked like inside compared to the huts we have stayed in so far on the Te Araroa trail. Following the track past the hut for about 5 minutes, we arrived at the Routeburn Flats campground, which was the first real glimpse into what lay ahead for us tomorrow, with great views of the mountains around us.
Our timing couldn’t have been better as the rain started almost immediately after pitching the tent. With limited shelter around, we scurried inside and stayed there for the rest of the night.
Day 131 – Sunday 24 February, 28km (off-trail)
Routeburn Flats to McKellar Hut
With a biggish day ahead of us on the Routeburn Track, we had planned to get away early but the rain put a stop to that. Waking up to the sound of rain on the tent, we decided to have a slower morning, opting instead to wait for the rain to lighten up before facing the day.
Once we did manage to get up, the rain had passed and we could see a fresh dusting of snow on the mountain tops around us. The weather forecast was for potential snow down to 1,700m overnight, so it didn’t exactly come as a surprise, but it was a pleasant sight first thing in the morning nonetheless.
The track had us climbing all morning, from Routeburn Flats up to Routeburn Falls. The gradient was steady, but there were a few bottlenecks along the way, which slowed our progress as hikers came from the other direction. At one point, we were stuck waiting at a narrow bridge for what seemed like 20 or 30 people to cross one by one from the other direction.
Once we eventually reached Routeburn Falls, we were only expecting to see one DOC hut there but were astounded to see at least 3 or 4 multi-storey buildings. It seemed like we had stumbled into a resort village rather than a DOC hut location. As we hiked past the buildings we realised that some of the buildings were actually huts owned by private companies that do guided walks on the Routeburn Track. Suddenly the big glass windows, fancy lounges and acoustic guitars we could see from outside all made sense.
By the time we had reached Routeburn Falls, the scenery had already started to get better, but it turned out that it would become a lot more stunning as we approached Harris Saddle, the highest point on the track.
On the way to Harris Saddle, the track led us through a magnificent valley, with beautiful mountains surrounding us. The wind was icy cold on account of the overnight dusting of snow, but the weather was definitely on our side as we took in the amazing views. As we approached the saddle, we climbed up past a stunning tarn.
Once we popped over the saddle, more snow-capped mountains came into view and it finally became clear why this was such a popular walk. It is a pretty epic part of New Zealand.
We braved the cold and stopped near the saddle for lunch before heading off towards Lake Mackenzie.
As we siddled the mountain from the saddle, we had to stop and pinch ourselves regularly for the views that we had from the track. The contrast of the vibrantly coloured vegetation on the edge of the track with the snow capped mountains in the distance was really stunning.
We floated along the track until we reached the descent into Lake Mackenzie. The first steep section of trail in some time, careful attention had to be paid to where you were putting your feet as we descended. Making the most of the sunshine, we took a break on the grass foreshore of Lake Mackenzie and dried our soggy tent out while we had a quick break.
The walk from Lake Mackenzie to the next hut at Lake Howden was a busy one, as we regularly passed people heading in the opposite direction to us. As the track was quite narrow in parts, this often required a bit of coordination to work out who was going to let who go through first.
The highlight of the walk to Lake Howden was without doubt Earland Falls – the wind blowing the water spray through the air at the base of the falls to create a perfect miniature rainbow.
We had originally planned to camp at Greenstone Saddle, which was a free campsite on the adjoining Greenstone-Caples Track rather than the Routeburn Track, however, we got got confused when we passed the Lake Howden campground. We figured the Greenstone Saddle campground must be further along the track but after another 15 minutes of walking it seemed that the campground had been renamed from Greenstone Saddle to Howden Hut. Apparently, this was an initial step by DOC towards making the campsite a fee charging site in the near future.
We didn’t like the idea of backtracking, particularly as it was getting late in the day, so we decided to continue on to the next closest hut covered by our backcountry Hut passes, McKellar Hut. McKellar Hut turned out to be one of the nicest huts we’ve stayed in so far. It even had a flushing toilet, which was a real luxury in our books!
We reached the hut just in time to run into Martina and Dylan, who we had met way back in the Richmond Ranges. They had finished the TA a week or so beforehand and were now travelling around New Zealand doing a few hikes that they missed on the way down.
It was great to be in a hut again with separate sleeping quarters to the kitchen/dining area. Apparently it is common for people to walk the Greenstone-Caples Track then Routeburn, which is why the huts in this area are of a bit higher standard than your average backcountry hut. In any case, we were glad to only be sharing the 20 something bed hut with half a dozen other people.
Day 132 – Monday 25 February, 15km
McKellar Hut to Greenstone Hut
Another cold morning today. As we would be taking the quicker Greenstone Track instead of the slower Caples Track, we were in no rush to leave McKellar Hut.
We spent a bit of time chatting to the other guys who stayed in the hut last night. They were also all having a shorter day so were equally in no rush to leave the hut and the warmth of the fireplace.
Eventually we left the hut and ventured out in to the cold. The mountains still blocking the sun from providing any warmth on the trail.
Despite the cold, the Greenstone Track was a nice walk and well maintained for the most part. A beautiful mossy forest trail to begin with, the track soon reached an open farm valley, just in time to see a helicopter fly ovehead enroute to clean out the septic tank at McKellar Hut.
We pretty much stayed in the valley for the rest of the day. Other than the odd muddy section of trail due to cattle, the rest of the day went quickly as we stuck to a well graded forest trail. After the highs of the Routeburn Track, this was a fairly uneventful day.
We arrived at the spacious Greenstone Hut by early afternoon. Having heard some horror stories a few weeks ago about 50 people spending the night at the 20 bed hut, we were expecting it to be busy but we were glad when no more than half a dozen people turned up by the time the sun went down.
Day 133 – Tuesday 26 February, 21km
Greenstone Hut to Boundary Hut
With the end of the Te Araroa trail getting near and some shorter days planned this week, we’ve felt less pressure to get up early in the mornings now. It was another late start today.
The track should have been easy walking through the valley, but we didn’t expect the track to be as soggy as it ended up being. It was frustratingly difficult trying to keep your feet dry.
Luckily the picturesque valley made the wet feet and extra effort worthwhile.
We stopped briefly at Taipo Hut for lunch, which was a nice smaller hut but the sandflies were pretty bad outside. We met two German TA hikers inside and discussed the merits of hiking with an umbrella over lunch.
It was more of the same walking after lunch. With so much focus on where your feet were to avoid the soggy muck, you had to constantly remind yourself to look behind you and take the valley views in.
The wind started to pick up as we approached Boundary Hut but the forecasted rain held off. Some heavy rain is forecast overnight and tomorrow morning, so it could be a long wet day tomorrow.
Day 134 – Wednesday 27 February, 32km
Boundary Hut to Kiwi Burn Hut
The rain came through in a big way in the early hours of this morning. When we woke up around first light, the wind was bouncing off our small little hut and the rain bucketed down.
We decided to wait for a while to see if it would calm down a bit. About an hour later things had slowed down to the point where we felt ok about getting out on the trail.
By the time we packed up and left the hut it was still raining, but at least we could see where we were going through the rain which wouldn’t have been the case an hour earlier.
Throwing on our rain jackets and rain pants, we set out into the rain along a waterlogged 4wd track towards Carey’s Hut.
The rain and wind moved through the valley in waves – one minute the weather was good and the rain jackets came off, the next minute the weather was bad again and on went the rain jackets.
We reached the lakeside Carey’s Hut slightly ahead of schedule and dropped in for lunch. While we were there, the weather seemed to do a complete 180 – the rain disappeared and blue sky appeared. Thinking that this was a, promising sign, we set off towards Kiwi Burn Hut on the other side of Mavora Lakes.
As we got further away from the hut, the clouds suddenly got darker to the point where it looked like a storm was brewing. At one point it started to rain again, only it seemed like the rain was bouncing off the ground. On closer inspection, it turned out that it was in fact the smallest hail either of us had even seen.
The walking for the rest of the day wasn’t overly fun. It was so cold my hands were stinging and the driving rain didn’t help things. It was a relief to reach a swing bridge which got us across to the other side of the lake and under the protection of some trees.
The trail for the remainder of the day was in the forest. Mostly easy walking but the heavy rain from earlier in the day had turned the track into a river in parts. Even the waterproof socks I was wearing didn’t seem to help in keeping my feet dry.
We were glad to finally reach Kiwi Burn Hut. It was a nice surprise to have a fire already going inside the hut thanks to two Canadian hikers. The hut itself was nice but was one of the older styled huts that we have come across. The bunks in particular looked like they came straight out of the mid 1900s.
Day 135 – Thursday 28 February, 29km (+9km off-trail)
Kiwi Burn Hut to Te Anau
It was another freezing morning today. We were so glad to be inside the hut rather than in a tent. We woke to the smell of smoke as on of the other hikers started the fire again.
The worst part of the morning was without doubt putting on our wet socks and shoes again.
With a big day ahead of us, we tried to leave early-ish this morning. The cold air stung the hands again, so we made the call to avoid the river crossing and instead doubled back to the nearest bridge, keeping our feet as dry as possible.
The only problem with doubling back to the bridge was that our day would be closer than 40km instead of 30km.
Once we reached the gravel road, the sun started to come out and we started to defrost.
The walking was pretty uneventful from that point onwards. Just gravel road walking with no real mountains around us to look at. It was great for listening to audiobooks and podcasts.
With about 10km to go, Leigh started to get some pain in the top of her foot, so she switched to my crocs to alleviate her pain a little.
To top off the day, we finished with a 2.5km walk along the highway shoulder. We’d already organised a shuttle to pick us up but we were 45 minutes early, so had to sit around waiting on the side of the road for the bus.
Eventually the bus turned up and we took the shuttle into Te Anau. We had planned to walk the Kepler Track tomorrow but with Leigh’s foot not being 100% we may need to change up our plans.
Day 136 to 139 – Friday 1 March to Monday 4 March, 0km
Te Anau (rest days)
After discovering that there were only two physios in town, Leigh took the first available appointment on Monday morning to get her foot checked out. This meant we would have at least three days up our sleeve in Te Anau to rest in the interim.
We had originally planned to do a Milford Sound tour once we finished the Te Araroa trail, but with some extra time now to play with we decided to bring those plans forward. Thankfully, most tours involve only a bus ride and cruise, neither of which involve much walking.
After spending so much time on the trail, it was a tad strange to be on the normal tourist path – getting on and off the bus as directed by the driver in order to take photos of spots that have been chosen in advance for us to look at. Still, the drive out to Milford Sound was nice all the same, particularly once we reached the impressive Homer Tunnel.
We had perfect weather for our Milford Sound cruise, and really enjoyed playing tourist for the day. At times, it felt as though we were in an ad with the way the light bounced off the mountains.
We spent the rest of our downtime chilling out at the hostel, hanging out with friends of the four legged variety, and eating ice cream.