My Mum had always wanted to do a family tramping trip on the Milford Track, one of the most famous tracks in NZ. We (Mum, Dad, my brother and me) were sitting in a café in May with two family friends (both keen trampers) when the topic came up again. Both of them insisted that the Milford Track, although beautiful, wasn’t the one to do, the Routeburn was. Less crowded, they said, and just as beautiful.
The only downside was, as the Routeburn is a one-way track: the bus ride back from the end of the track to the starting point took five hours. Mum thought that sounded miserable, and so our friends convinced her that the best way to do the Routeburn was to walk back to near the start on one of the adjacent tracks: the Caples. This would add an extra two days to the three-day tramp, but would save us a five-hour bus ride, so it made total sense!
The Routeburn is one of NZ’s Great Walks, so booking well ahead of time is essential. The only option available for the six of us was to start on Christmas day. So mum booked, and we started the preparation, the training, the endless emails about food, packs and sleeping bags. (I will write another post about our food choices, we took a ridiculous amount!) I bought new boots and promised myself to wear them in properly before the tramp (I wore them once..). I even started training!
Finally, Christmas was here! We stayed at the local backpackers in Glenorchy (about an hours drive from Queenstown) on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning dawned sunny and warm, it was going to be a hot day! We got ready slowly, cooking ourselves bacon and eggs for breakfast, baking the ham for Christmas dinner and making the final adjustments to our packs. All our packs seemed heavy. We went through each other’s packs, discarding additional luxuries, like spare pairs of shorts and thick jumpers (read about my packing list here.) At 11am, we were ready to depart.
Just a few notes on logistics: Mum booked us a shuttle to take us to the start of the tramp. We had prearranged to leave our cars in the carpark of the backpackers, as we thought this would be safer than at the start of the tramp. Unfortunately, NZ has people that will target cars left in the isolated car parks, so keep your car safe! The shuttle would also pick us up at the end of the walk in 5 days’ time.
Day 1: Routeburn Shelter to Routeburn Falls Hut
The first day was a half day walk. With the heat, heavy bags and a steep climb ahead of us, we were in no rush. One of the great things about the Routeburn is that the water comes directly from the glaciers in the mountains and is generally safe to drink. We didn’t carry a large amount of water, we just stopped at every stream for a drink and to enjoy our surroundings.
The walk onwards took a much steeper turn, and the heat made climbing tough. We got to the Routeburn Falls Hut at about 6pm, just in time to watch the sun set through the valley.
Christmas dinner was baked ham, new potatoes and salad, with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, followed by mini pavolva with cream and chocolate sprinkles for dessert. We got a few jealous looks!
Day 2: Routeburn Falls Hut to Lake Mackenzie Hut
The second day started with a moderate 2 hour climb up to Harris Saddle, with a stop on the way so the boys could have a swim. From the screeching, I guessed it was cold!
Harris Saddle is the highest point on the Routeburn, at 1,255m.
At Harris Saddle, we decided to take the 1.5 hour detour to climb Conical Hill (1,515m). This was a very steep climb for us amateurs, so Mum and Dad decided not to even attempt it. The view was phenomenal, well worth the climb. We could see the entire Darran Mountain range and also down into the valley, where the Hollyford Track wanders, and out to the sea on the west coast.
Once down Conical Hill, we had a long hot walk along the side of the valley. This should have taken us about 3 hours, but my brother had hurt his knee on Conical Hill.
Eventually one of our friends and I raced ahead, through the forest to dump our packs at the bottom. The friend climbed back up to carry my brother’s pack, while I carried mine, then our friend’s pack to Lake MacKenzie Hut and its beautiful, cold lake. This time, I had a swim!
Day 3: Lake Mackenzie Hut to Howden Hut
The worst part of tramping is the sleeping arrangements. Although the huts are comfortable and furnished with bunks and mattresses, I find it impossible to sleep in a room with 25 other people. I eventually resorted to sleeping out on the deck, but the lack of sleep and the previous long day were starting to wear on me.
Luckily, the third day was a short climb up to the bush, then a nice easy walk down. We stopped to refresh at the Earland Falls (174 m).
The shade made walking a lot easier, I actually found myself running down parts of it! We arrived at Lake Howden Hut early in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day resting in the sunshine.
Day 4: Lake Howden Hut to Mid Caples Hut
Luckily we had such an easy day 3, as day 4 was the hardest of our trip: the first day of the Caples. The first hour was gentle, through the forest.
We then had a steep hour climb up to McKellar Saddle (945 m). This would be our last view of the Darran Mountains.
Although it was all downhill from here, my brother’s knee was causing him to struggle. we emptied his pack completely and shared it out amongst dad, our friends, and me. My pack, originally about 14kgs, went up to about 18kgs. I swear my brother’s hoody weighed about 2kgs on its own!
It was hot and slow going. We walked for over 10 hours before finally reaching the Mid Caples Hut. Dinner was pasta, followed by port and rum balls. I have never eaten so much pasta or gotten so tipsy from rum balls!
Day 5: Mid Caples Hut to Greenstone Road End
I can’t say I remember much of day 5. I was sore, covered in sandfly bites from the Mid Caples Hut and sleep deprived. Still carrying a lot of my brother’s stuff, including the hoody, I just wanted to get to the end as quickly as possible. I led the way and hardly stopped for a rest, except once, when I realised dad had the last of the chocolate.
Finally, after 3 hours, we were at the end. I felt sorry for the lady who picked us up in her shuttle, we all smelt terrible!
Would I do it again? Yes – although I won’t be letting my brother take a hoody!