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May 17, 2017

BlisterFest 2016: Hiking the Routeburn Track

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands, Steff

steffmetal routeburn track

After successfully completing the Inca Trail in 2015, I resolved that I would spend more time exploring the natural areas of my own country. New Zealand is so incredibly beautiful, and yet here I was schlepping halfway around the world to do my hiking? It wouldn’t do.

Luckily, the perfect opportunity presented itself. A lovely couple asked me to perform their wedding ceremony in Greymouth, down in the South Island. I said yes immediately, and started planning where else I would go while I was in the South Island.

For those who don’t know, New Zealand is divided into three islands – the North Island (the most populous), the South Island (where most of our farming takes place), and Stewart Island (it’s tiny and far away and mysterious and I don’t really know what goes on there except that maybe there are dinosaurs). I live in Auckland, our largest city, which is located near the top of the North Island. Despite living in New Zealand my entire life, I’ve only visited the South Island twice – once when I was three, for some eye tests in Christchurch, and once for three days of relaxing in Queenstown following our wedding. This isn’t an uncommon statement to hear from a North Islander, so I wanted to rectify it with a bit of a meander.

I settled on an itinerary – two nights in Greymouth for the wedding, then I’d take the TransAlpine – one of the most beautiful railway journeys in the world – across the island to Christchurch. Three nights exploring Christchurch, and then down to Queenstown, where three intrepid friends and I would hike the Routeburn track. We decided to call this adventure BLISTERFEST 2016, like a rock festival, except there would be actual rocks.

(Thanks to Jess Lowe for taking all the epic photos along the way.)

About the Routeburn Track

The Routeburn Track is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks – outlined hiking routes famous for their epic scenery. The Routeburn is one of the most popular, and for good reason – the trek takes you through some of the most impressive alpine landscapes. From lush meadows, reflective tarns, and alpine gardens, you’ll climb through epic valleys and over soaring ridges.

steffmetal routeburn track

It’s epic, in the truest sense of the word.

Day 0

John, Jess and I arrived into Queenstown from Christchurch, and we met up with Inez at our backpackers. I’d chosen the Sir Cedric’s Southern Laughter hostel for the one single fact that it offered guests free use of a spa pool. The place was really cool – our rooms were set off from little lounges/kitchenettes, a bit like motel rooms. The place had a relaxed, outdoorsy vibe.

We started the day with lunch at the local Speights Alehouse, where we made a list of all the pre-hike chores we had to do. Luckily, the alehouse was located directly opposite the Department of Conservation centre, where we needed to head first to collect our hut passes and emergency beacon. The lady in the DoC office gave us a great run down of the trail and the weather (bad, bad, and worse), and wished us good luck!

Then, it was on to the supermarket, where we chose a menu of porridge (breakfast), bangers and mash (day 1 dinner), and sweet and sour sausages (dinner day 1). We each chose our own lunch and snack food. My menu included pumpernickel bread, venison salami, cheese, nuts, and grapes (which I pulled off the bunch and stored in a plastic container).

Our final stop was to the outdoors shop, where we picked up hiking gear we’d rented for the trail (renting can be cheaper than hiking if you need lots of gear – I rented a sleeping bag so I didn’t have to carry one through my whole trip. Others rented hiking poles). We returned to the hostel to pack our bags and store our non-hiking gear, then went out for dinner.

The trendy place to head for dinner in Queenstown is a place called Fergburger. At all times of day it has a line that stretches down the road and sometimes around the corner. After our day of traipsing around, that was the last thing we wanted to do, so we asked at the hostel for the best “non-fergburger” cheap dinner. She pointed us to The London, right next to Fergburger.

If you go to Christchurch, you should totally go here. We paid $60 for an EPIC three-foot pizza with three different toppings, and sides of loaded wedges and jalopeno toppers. All the food was fantastic and they had a decent beer selection.

Day 1

Off we go!

routeburn track1

We rose with our alarms, had our last breakfast in civilisation, and took our last hot showers. We checked out of the hostel and lugged our packs down into the village, where we’d be meeting our bus to take us to the Routeburn Shelter.

The bus trip took approximately two hours, and was mostly made up of other hikers. We stopped in Te Anau for thirty-five minutes, where we had some quite delicious scones and went to the bathroom. Then it was on to the trail entrance.

When we arrived, it was raining steadily. We all crowded into the shelter with the other hikers and started adjustments. Packs were repacked, poles untangled, toilet stops taken, clothing added or removed, and then, eventually, finally, we hit the trail, with two new friends in tow.

steffmetal routeburn track

The first day is a steady four hours uphill through a dense forest. For much of the journey, we walk alongside or cross over the Route Burn (river). We clambered over an epic swingbridge to admire the Bridal Veil fall, then on past the Routeburn Flats hut. From here, we started climbing more sharply, and we got some epic views of the Humboldt mountains.

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

Uphill is my favourite hiking terrain. It’s easier on my eyes and I have the fitness level to be able to just keep going. Of all the people in our group, Jess struggled the most on this day, because she didn’t have the fitness level the rest of us did. But even though she was tired and frustrated, she did it, and when we arrived at the Routeburn Falls hut, hugging the edge of the mountain and overlooking a cascading waterfall, we were all pretty stoked.

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

This woman is literally amazing.

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

The doc huts on the Routeburn can accommodate around 50 people, and they’re very well equipped (pretty luxurious, from my hiking experience). The Routeburn Falls hut looked out over this magnificent cone.

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

Everything has to be flown in by helicopter. This is a helicopter changing the septic tank. (Yup, that’s a whole tank of hiker poo just flying through the sky).

steffmetal routeburn track

That night the hut held a competition. There were two large banners on the wall, where the hut ranger had got people of different nationalities to write the same phrase in their native tongue. You had to guess as many as you could, and the team who got the most would win a prize. I puffed out my chest. I studied five languages at university. Surely I’d be able to make an educated guess on a few!

Hahahaha. Ha. Ha.

We lost pitifully, to a table of Germans who managed to pick up Basque and Farsi, along with a bunch of others. I got Greek and Russian mixed up. I STUDIED Greek. Clearly, hiking messes with my brain.

steffmetal routeburn track

Let’s see how many you can get.

Jess cooked us an amazing dinner of bangers and mash and garlicky onions. Most people brought along freeze-dried food, and were rather envious of our epic feast. Our ranger gave a talk about the local wildlife, as well as a weather report for the next day. We were heading in to a six-hour hike, and the weather was supposed to get really bad about 1PM. We decided to get up at 5AM, and try and hit the track before sunrise, so we could reach MacKenzie hut before the nasty stuff hit.

After a dram of whisky each, we all went off to bed.

Day 2

My alarm beeped to life. 5AM. Yikes. There’s a 5 in the AM now? It was still pitch black – the kind of total, deep darkness you only experience when you’re miles from civilisation.

It must be time to make a move.

I got dressed by feel inside my sleeping bag, reminded my mumbling comrades that the alarm had gone off, and tiptoed across to the communal cooking rooms to start the tea boiling.

After half an hour, the tea was boiled, I’d read a few chapters of my book, and no one else had joined me. I returned to the sleeping cabin and gently, so as not to annoying another of the other groups, reminded my peeps that we needed to bust a move.

I then went back and waited, and waited. And waited. It became clear to me that in order to get moving in the morning, my friends needed more than just a gentle coaxing. Lesson learned.

Eventually, everyone did get up, and we ate a delicious warm breakfast of porridge and herbal tea. We were one of the last groups to leave, hitting the track by 7:30AM – later than we’d hoped, but still good time. After a steep climb over slippery rocks, we hit the alpine slopes, passing through deep valleys and getting epic views across the landscape.

steffmetal routeburn track

Jess does an amazing hobbit impression, which had us in giggles as we traipsed across stunning alpine vistas.

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

steffmetal routeburn track

We sidled along the bluffs above Lake Harris to reach the highest point on the track at Harris Saddle/TarahakaWhakatipu (1,255 m). About thirty minutes before we hit the saddle, the weather started to get really bad. We were freezing cold and tired by the time we crashed through the doors of the Harris Saddle shelter. Saddles are exposed, and the wind tore through like a hurricane, bending and beating at everything in its path, including us. We took a long break here to eat a bunch of snacks and chat with some of the other hikers, to re-energise before the descent to Lake MacKenzie hut.

steffmetal routeburn track

Harris Saddle shelter – the most welcome sight in the universe.

steffmetal routeburn track

The weather held off for us as we descended the Hollyford Face. This rocky path proved difficult for me and my comrade John. We both have the same eye condition, which makes depth perception and downhill across rocky surfaces different. Hiking poles help, but I still struggled to go as fast as the others in the group.

At least the view was epic – we could see all the way across the Darran Mountains and over the crystalline Lake Mackenzie.

steffmetal routeburn track

Remember that bad weather? Well, excepting a few horrifically cold gusts, it held off until literally the moment we stepped on to the porch of Lake MacKenzie hut, and then the heavens opened up. We rushed inside, put our wet clothes by the fire, and chilled out with the other hikers until it was time to cook dinner.

steffmetal routeburn track

This is what hut life looks like – trying to find room around the fire to get your boots dry.

Jess’ culinary masterpiece for the evening was sweet and sour sausages, and it was delicious. We had a hilarious Irish hut ranger who gave an equally hilarious hut talk about how someone brought a garden gnome on the hike just to shove it into the bushes to scare him. Another dram of whisky, and off to bed for us.

Day 3

After another early morning (5:30AM awake, 7:30AM left the hut … yeah, we need to get a bit better at this), we hit the track and started out with a climb toward the treeline.

steffmetal routeburn track

After a gradual descent, we entered an open grassy area dotted with ribbon wood trees, and I discovered to my great delight (and no one elses’ delight) that it was snowing! There was snow! How cool was that? Actually, it was freezing, but the snow buzz kept me going for a bit longer.

We descended through the forest, heading to the Earland Falls. The falls actually go over the track, so your choice is to take a frigid cold bath, or a detour around them that involves some pretty serious climbing. With huge packs. We took the detour, which was … an adventure. But we made it.

The track continues its descent through beech forest to Lake Howden Hut.

steffmetal routeburn track

Our attempt at a group snow selfie.

We arrived at Lake Howden hut with enough time to hang around for an hour, eat some food, and warm ourselves by the fire. A few of the German hikers we’d been friendly with were already there, so we hung out and had a great time. Until … a woman came up to us and fake-asked us to move tables. Apparently, she had a tour-group of guided hikers coming in, and she ALWAYS used the central table – the table closest to the fire.

Now, if you don’t know about guided hikers, they are the people who pay literally thousands of dollars to, as my friend Jess puts it, “faux-hike” the track. Their packs are lifted in by chopper. They have lunches prepared and hot tea made for them at each stop. They even sleep in different huts with coffee machines and bars and pillows and beds and such. They’re kind of a standing joke amongst all us wet, bedraggled sloggers who’d dragged our own gear across the whole track.

Now, we were all wet and miserable after three hours hiking through driving rain, freezing wind, and snow. These guys had hiked an hour up from the carpark with no packs, and they were getting the fire? Um … sure. Whatever. We moved tables, and proceeded to mock these hikers under our breath. Then Jess went outside to go to the bathroom, and told us the guided walkers had dumped all their wet gear on top of ours outside, knocking people’s jackets into puddles, filling boots with water. And she found several of their paper lunch bags lying on the ground.

Not impressed. After the left, we sat around the fire a bit longer, making up choice insults, then hit the track again – we needed to reach the parking lot by 3PM to catch our bus.

The feeling of elation when we stepped out into the parking lot was absolutely indescribable.

steffmetal routeburn track

Twenty minutes later, our buss arrived and we hopped on board. Unbeknownst to me, the bus I’d booked was actually a tour company who take tourists from Queenstown to Milford Sound for a champagne cruise around the sound, and then bring them back again. So while the four of us had spent three days hiking in the rain and snow, these most walking these guys had done was from their seat on the boat to the bar and back. You should have seen the looks they were giving us.

Giddy with post-hiking high, we found some seats, and proceeded to loudly recount our favourite moments from the trek. We looked like escaped convicts. We smelled like you’d expect people who hadn’t showered for three days to smell. Under normal circumstances I’d be worried about making us all be quiet so we didn’t disturb the others, but this day I didn’t give a fuck.

We had a stop at Te Anau for coffee. When we got back on the bus, we discovered that several passengers had deliberately moved away from us.

Dicks.

Back in Queenstown, we each had glorious hot showers, called our loved ones, jumped in the hostel spa with the last of our whisky (a double stroke of genius. Seriously, this was the best thing ever.), and then headed out around 10PM to find some food.

steffmetal routeburn track

Travel tip: Very few places in Queenstown are open for dinner after 10PM at night. We went back to the pub, and they told us to head to a place called the Fat Badger. Turns out, this is a rad pizza and beer place.

I ordered a “bowl” of cider, not really sure what that was. What came out from the bar was less of a “bowl” and more of a “baptismal font.” What an epic way to finish this adventure.

The whole trip was amazing. It was an absolute joy to be able to experience such raw, untouched landscapes, and sharing this experience with awesome people makes it all the better. We’re already planning BlisterFest 2017 (The Rakiura track, on the mysterious Stewart Island).

Tips and recommendations:

If you ever find yourself in New Zealand, definitely consider doing the Routeburn. It wasn’t too difficult and for three days offered a simply spectacular view of alpine scenery. Many people believe it is better than the more popular Milford Track, and it’s definitely a bit quieter.

Here are some tips from me and my group:

  • If you’re all in a small group, work together to come up with a food menu. It will save you room versus each person carrying/cooking their own thing, and will mean you’re able to create more tasty meals.
  • Bring a pot of water for boiling and some tea bags. Seriously, this was the most amazing luxury ever.
  • We started from the Routeburn Shelter end of the track, and finished at the Divide. I’d recommend this for beginning hikers, as the first day is a bit shorter than the subsequent days. It also means you get most of the uphill sections done on day one.
  • DoC offer rental of emergency beacons. They’re around $30-40. I’d definitely recommend this, especially as it helps those friends and family who aren’t hiking with you to feel secure that you’re safe.
  • Take the time to participate in the hut activities and talk to you fellow hikes. We met some awesome people.
  • Don’t worry too much about how short/long you take. DoC gives an estimated walking time for each day. We were bang on for days 1 and 3, and took one hour longer on day 2. Some hikers did the second day in literally half the estimated time (3 hours instead of 6). If you enjoy the challenge of speeding through as fast as you can, more power to you, but personally I’m happy we were able to really enjoy the landscape.
  • Pick up all your rubbish and don’t leave anything behind but your footprints.
  • Don’t wait in line for burgers like a fool.

Have you hiked the Routeburn Track before? Or another epic hiking trail? Tell us about it!

When I’m not hiking off into the wilderness, I write dark urban fantasy novels. My latest book, Petrified City, first in the new Chronicles of the Wraith series, is out now. Grab your copy from Amazon, or join my mailing list to stay up-to-date with the series.