Wind buffets my body and raindrops patter against my backpack as I trudge along the Routeburn Track in New Zealand’s South Island. All around me are the towering grey peaks of the Southern Alps, including the distinctive wedged shape of Mount Emily.
Although this is midsummer, the mountains are flecked with snow and I’m wearing thermals to keep out the chill. In a valley below, a pair of keas – parrots that inhabit the high country – flick by giving shrill, piping cries.
My wife and I are into the second day of a three-day trek into the wild and wonderful alpine country of Fiordland National Park. On day one, in fine weather, we’d traversed mossy native beech forests before stopping for the night at a lodge at pristine Lake Mackenzie.
Today the weather has closed in, but it’s no surprise. This is one of the wettest regions of New Zealand. It’s no hardship as it happens; it all adds to the exhilarating experience. Moreover Ultimate Hikes in Queenstown has kitted us out with most of the gear we need before we left, from back packs to raincoats and sleepsheets.
While some of the ascents have undeniably been hard work, none of the tramping on the well-graded tracks has been too taxing. And we’ve been thoroughly looked after. One of our guides, Ryan Kelly, has stayed at the back of the party to make sure no one gets lost and to keep stragglers company. “No hurry,” he assures us. “We can take as long as we like.”
The Routeburn track is 32 kilometres long, though the walk spans 40 kilometres, including optional detours off the main path to peaks known as Key Summit and Conical Hill. It starts with a two-hour bus trip from Queenstown to the Great Divide, near the town of Te Anau. From here the first day’s walk includes an optional stop and climb to Key Summit, where we look down into three valleys from which water flows west, south and east.
On day two we tramp 15 kilometres along the Hollyford Face, skirting Lake Harris, a glacial tarn surrounded by an enchanting native garden of mountain daisies and edelweiss.
Then on day three it’s a relatively easy ten-kilometre descent through dense forests along the Routeburn river. The bus picks us up at a pre-arranged spot and ferries us back to Queenstown, stopping at the pub in Glenorchy on the way.
An especially appealing feature of the Routeburn walk is its accommodation. Each of the two lodges – at Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls – sleeps 40 guests in a combination of private ensuite bedrooms and comfortable bunk rooms, four-to-a-room. Like ski lodges, they each have a common room where guests can buy beer and wine and where the staff miraculously whip up a first-rate meal with supplies mostly supplied by helicopter. The RT Falls lodge is pictured here. (Picture courtesy of Ultimate Hikes).
Like the other members of our group, we ended our journey leg-weary but well-fed and happy – and with our appetite for more high-country tramping well whetted.
The price, as advertised on the ‘net, starts at NZD1,225. The 40km (24.4miles) trek takes three days, and departs every day of the week except for Thursdays and Saturdays, from November to April.