The Routeburn Track offers some of the most magnificent scenery any hiker could wish for. And if you're lucky, writes KARL QUINN, you might even see it.
On a clear day in Fiordland you can see for kilometres. Unfortunately, this is not a clear day in Fiordland. In fact there's so much rain falling I'm beginning to wonder if Fiordland even has clear days. Judging from this hike on the Routeburn Track – and another I took, years ago, on the Milford Track – I'm starting to suspect not. What it does have is a whole lot of ways to experience moisture in its many forms.
Over the course of four days, I am rained upon, I walk through mist and low-lying cloud, I become drenched in my own sweat, I am lightly sprayed with mist from waterfalls, I am dusted in snowflakes, and – having briefly taken leave of my senses – I am immersed in the icy-cold waters of a lake 1000 metres above sea level. (For the record, I'm in the water for all of a minute, after which it takes me three hours to fully warm up. But I would do it again in a heartbeat because it was awesome.)
However many words the Inuit have for snow, the inhabitants of the south-western corner of New Zealand should by rights have almost as many for rain. The Routeburn runs through the Hollyford Valley, which gets an average of four metres (4000 millimetres) of rain a year. By way of comparison, Sydney averages about 1200 millimetres, Melbourne about 600 millimetres.
A couple of valleys over is the Milford Track, where I last hiked in this part of the world eight years ago, and it's even wetter. It gets more than seven metres of rain a year.
I'm not complaining, mind. This is some of the most beautiful countryside I have ever had the joy to walk through. There are rivers, waterfalls, lakes and forests dripping with moisture and moss everywhere you look. Besides, it's not as if we weren't warned. On all the websites, trampers (as they call hikers and bushwalkers here) are told to be prepared for "at least one day of rain" and to pack appropriate gear. In the DOC (Department of Conservation) offices in Queenstown they have photos of the tracks before rain and after rain; in the before shots, trampers are walking on well-marked paths; in the after shots, they're wading in waist-deep water.
And yet … if you look up the pictures of either one of these Great Walks online you'll see shot after shot of stunning vistas, all of them with blue skies. I'm sorry, but there's no filter I could use on my iPhone to generate such snaps, and I'm here in March, one of the drier months.
It's lightly raining when we set off on our 32-kilometre hike from the Routeburn Shelter. On day two, as we near Harris Saddle, the highest point on the track, the rain is much heavier, and constant. The walking tracks are trickling streams, the rocky hillsides an endless series of mini-waterfalls.
But for all the dampness, it's far from miserable. The mist and low-lying cloud through which we're walking lends the entire landscape an air of smudged beauty. It's easy to see why the Scots were drawn to this part of the world: its forbidding magnificence must have seemed immediately familiar.
The views come in snatches as clouds part or rain eases, and they seem that much more precious when they do.
"Oh my God," says my hiking buddy, Charles, at one such moment. "I think that may be the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
His breath has been taken by Lake Harris, a heart-shaped body of water nestled in what looks like a volcanic crater but is probably, like much of the landscape around here, the product of deep glaciation over millions of years.
At one end, the lake drains via a zigzagging river back down through the valley we've just climbed out of; somewhere along its meandering journey is the waterfall we passed this morning, a wide and thundering thing that, astonishingly, freezes solid in the depths of winter.
"I'd like to see that," I say, wiping the raindrops from my specs.
"No you wouldn't," says Drew, the third amigo in our little party. He's probably right; too bloody cold.
We spent last night in the 48-bed DOC hut just below Routeburn Falls. In the large meals/drying/hanging-out area we were treated to tales of lodge life by the resident ranger. We felt ashamed of our aching feet when he told us about 87-year-olds doing this same walk, and even more so when he spoke of a pregnant trekker who came through just a week shy of her due date. "I was really keen to make sure she made it to the hut at Harris Saddle," he told us. Dramatic pause. "Because once she passed there, she was someone else's responsibility."
That's because Harris Saddle marks the boundary between two national parks – Fiordland, which also encompasses the Milford Track, and Mount Aspiring.
You can walk the Routeburn in either direction, and do it in one, two or three nights. If you're really game, you can run it in a day.
We have opted to do it in a leisurely three nights – not because we're slackers (well, not only), but because the hour-long walk out on the final day allows time for a boat cruise of Milford Sound before the five-hour bus trip back to Queenstown (do it; it's magnificent).
Typically, though, people walk the track in three days of roughly equal length, staying just two nights, at Routeburn Falls and Lake McKenzie.
At Routeburn Falls, we slept in bunks, four to a room about the size of a large pantry. Cozy, eh bro?
We cook the food we carry and we eat, like everyone else, in a well-heated room buzzing with the excited energy of strangers from around the world bonding over a shared physical challenge and the odd compulsion to get to know each other. It is comfortable, convivial and, at $65 each per night, cheap*.
Just 100 metres away, we can see how the other half live.
The hut for private hikers is close enough to touch, but the Keep Out signs suggested we might be electrocuted if we did. The building is in almost exactly the same style and materials as our lodgings, but as we peek through the windows we can see spacious rooms and beds – with actual bed linen – and a fancier communal meals area.
Do it this way and there's no need to carry a sleeping bag or cooking gear, or even food – the day's hiking ends with a three-course meal prepared by the tour organisers. You can even buy beer and wine in the huts.
On the trail, the private packagers were easy to spot – their packs were much smaller than ours, their strides light. At times, it was hard not to envy them, especially when we slept like sardines in a four-abreast bunk on our second night, at Lake McKenzie. But all that spreading out doesn't come cheap – two nights this way will set you back more than 10 times what two nights in a DOC lodge will cost you.
Doing it this way raises a philosophical question, too: is it really hiking when someone else cooks for you, when you get into a bed made for you at the end of the day, when your pack is light enough to hoist with one arm?
I say whatever works for you. Surely the key thing is to get out there and experience it: the mountains, the lakes, the beech forests, open grasslands, waterfalls – so many waterfalls, of such magnificence – the rivers tumbling over rounded boulders.
This is a landscape to inspire both dreams and memories.
Of course, there's a good chance you'll be experiencing it in the wet, at least some of the time. But really, don't let that deter you. New Zealand's south-west is spectacular, whatever the conditions. Besides, nothing screams Nature like a jolly good drenching.
I've been soaked both times I've been hiking there (in March and April), and even when your gear is good enough to keep the water out, chances are you'll sweat enough to be soaked inside it anyway. It doesn't matter. Just keep walking and you'll stay warm (assuming your gear is merino or a decent synthetic – cotton is a big no-no because it doesn't retain heat when wet).
When you get to a hut you can dry your gear. With any luck, by the time you start out the next day everything will be dry.
And if not? Well, it was only going to get wet again anyway …
Karl Quinn travelled at his own expense.
The official hiking season runs from October 23, 2018 to April 30, 2019. The hike can be done in one, two or three nights.
* From the 2018-19 season, accommodation in a DOC hut will cost $65 per person per night (children under 17 are free) for New Zealand residents, but $130 per night for everyone else (including children). Bookings are essential. It is possible to hike out-of-season, too, but be prepared for snow and to carry cooking fuel, as the huts are not manned and there is no electricity or gas. See doc.govt.nz
Ultimate Hikes offers a fully catered two-night experience, with accommodation in the private lodges at Routeburn Falls and Lake McKenzie. Linen and all meals are provided, with costs from $1375 per person in a four-bed shared room in low season (November and April) to $2380 per person in high season (December to March) for a private room. See ultimatehikes.co.nz
You might get lucky and experience nothing but blue skies, but it's far more likely you will get at least some rain. Be prepared with a good light-weight rainproof jacket and overpants, and a rain cover for your backpack. It can snow at any time of year, so make sure you have good woollen base layers, and warm mid and outer layers, too. See therouteburntrack.com
Air New Zealand also flies to Queenstown, both direct and via Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au
Queenstown is the ideal base for hiking in the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks. Accommodation options are plentiful, at a wide variety of price points. See queenstownnz.co.nz