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The Routeburn Track

A group of seven of us ventured to New Zealand for what seems to have become an annual destination to complete one of their Great Walks. After walking the Heaphy Track last year, this time the Routeburn Track was selected. This track is generally a 2 night/3 day tramp and is located in the Fiordland and Mt Aspiring regions, not far from Queenstown. The Routeburn Track is possibly the next most popular walk in New Zealand (after the Milford Track) and it’s stunning scenery deserves such a reputation. It covers 36km of scenic alpine vistas, lush moss and lichen filled forests, spectacular and abundant waterfalls, lakes (in that wonderful azure glacial blue), gorges and mountain views.

Day 1 : The Divide to Lake MacKenzie Hut

Our transport picks us up at 7.15am from Te Anau and drops us off at The Divide just over an hour later. It is a grey drizzly morning so, after taking a few photos to commemorate the start of our walk, we head off wearing raincoats and pack covers. One of our group can’t find her pack cover so we rig up an alternative from a plastic poncho, using a variety of knots combined with delicate placement. I wonder how effective it will be and how long it will last. Although it is reasonably cool, layers start to come off quickly as it is nearly all uphill on Day 1.

From The Divide, there is a gradual climb for about an hour at a steady pace on a well-formed track. The beech forest drips with the light mist of rain and it is clear why everything is so lush and green. The forest is covered in ferns, many varieties of moss – literally dripping from the trees – and some interesting looking lichens. The mist offers a surreal glimpse into the landscape and we are not concerned about distant mountain views as we wonder at this wet green outlook that would feel quite at home on a movie set like the Lord of the Rings or perhaps within a fairy story. We start to pass the first of many streams and waterfalls and even have our first taste of the local water gushing from the rocks.

We pass the path to Key Summit Track and elect not to make this one hour side trip as we have been advised that it is not worth the climb when there is no view. Shortly after this we start to head down and arrive at the Lake Howden Hut for a break. This small hut overlooks a pretty lake and has the bonus of being under cover and with toilet facilities.

After morning tea, we head off past the lake and climb gradually through more ancient beech forests. There are more waterfalls to enjoy – in particular the spectacular Earland Falls which are 174m high. The mist from the falls is so profuse and we have to put on raincoats to simply walk past it. At one stage the Forest appears to end and we enter a clearing known as ‘The Orchard’. This is an open grassy area with shorter, different trees that do look a bit like fruit trees. We later learn that The Orchard was formed following a huge landslide many years ago and the trees are actually young trees which will eventually grow to the height of the other forest trees. Whilst we want to stop here for lunch, a drizzle has set in and we elect to move into the forest canopy for some protection from the wet for a quick lunch on the side of the track.

Towards the end of our first day, the surface of the track becomes rockier and the path seems to narrow. The rocks are at times slippery and one of our group has a scary fall off the side of the path and she descends down the mountain – backpack and all. She is fortunately stopped by vegetation and pulled up by the rest of us. The incident alerts and reminds us to watch our feet and keep safe. Although we are only walking about 14km today, it is a slower journey time than any of us expect due to the terrain.

As we descend to our accommodation at Lake Mackenzie, the track starts to get tough on aging knees so we are relieved to see buildings when they come into view. The first one however is the rather lavish building for the guided walkers which we have to walk past before reaching our own accommodation. We are cheered however that the Lake Mackenzie DOC hut has a much better view and location. This hut is slightly older than some we have used in New Zealand and has 50 bunks over two buildings – most of the beds are on a sleeping platform which takes a little getting used to especially when the person sleeping next to you is someone unfamiliar to you.

After setting up, most of us visit and swim in the stunning azure blue Lake Mackenzie (who needs a hot shower anyway?) which is dotted with rather spectacular rocks. The dip is highly refreshing and recommended despite the rather cold water temperature.

That evening the resident hut warden treats us to a chat that bears some resemblance to a comedy show peppered with lots of interesting information (or maybe it was the other way round). His talks are somewhat legendary in these parts and well worth catching (unlike the fish in the lake). We also learn about the stoat boxes which we have seen on the track and this ranger has been instrumental in introducing in order to return native birdlife to the area.

That night, there is quite a bit of faffing about in the backpacks. This becomes a key word in our group as people attempt to find things in their backpacks.

Day 2: Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut

The rain has disappeared for our second day and we set off to hike over Harris Saddle to reach the highest point of the track. From Lake Mackenzie, we climb steadily, zigzagging as we traverse across the steep terrain.  Soon we are above the tree line and look back towards Lake Mackenzie – a seriously spectacular view. Having left the forest, we enter a world of rocks, grasses and alpine plants including edelweiss. Needless to say, some of us sing from the Sound of Music.

The path is tricky in places and we decide that we would much rather climb this terrain than descend it.

We pass the memorials to three trampers who have died on this track – the most recent death in 2016. There is also a pickaxe to remind us how the track was made – it is clear that no machinery has made this path.

We stop for a break at a great vantage point overlooking the Hollyford valley with views of the mountain range. At this time of the year, there is little snow on the peaks. It’s a beautiful walk from here as we spot sub-alpine plants and our first kea bird. The path traverses across the range and, whilst it feels exposed, the weather is kind to us. The combination of the slope, tussock grasses and narrow windy path with mountain views make this the most scenic day. When we reach the highest point on the track at Harris Saddle, we stop for lunch. Be prepared everyone else is having lunch here at the same time so it does seem a little crowded. There is another side track from here to climb Conical Hill which we decide not to walk.

After lunch we descend past Lake Harris. We walk through tussock grasses interspersed with streams, waterfalls and a wetland area. There are even giant rocks that have fallen from the mountain above and a rock shelter to walk through. The river bubbles beside us and meanders merrily to one side of the track. The path seems to have become considerably easier to walk – in sections there are even steps! As we reach our accommodation, the stunning Routeburn Valley comes into view.

Our hut for tonight is the Routeburn Falls Hut which is a newer hut with 48 bunks with greater privacy. The platform running at the front of this building overlooks the valley below with elevated views over the tree canopy. Not for the first time, we think the DOC hut has a better location compare to the guided walkers’ hut.

As the Falls are close by, we explore and find a path that leads to the water’s edge. All of us dip in the icy cold water but we seem to be in full view of the track above! Whilst the walkers are a long distance away, we imagine they are finding the sight of so many naked women below more interesting than the valley view or mountains above. Indeed one man remains there for the entire time we are bathing. We agree that we don’t need a hot shower as this outdoor experience is much more memorable.

Day 3: Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter

On our final day, we wake to the sound of rain. It’s not too hard but definitely worth wearing raincoats and pack covers. The makeshift poncho cover from our first day is however no match so there is rummaging around in bags to find extra gear.

As this part of the track is used by day walkers, our remaining walk is on a well-formed track. Finally it is wide enough for two of us to walk side-by-side. We are back in the beech forest almost immediately we leave the hut. We sidetrack to Routeburn Flats Hut for a short break from the rain. The view here of the valley with its grassy meadows and meandering river is lovely. We warm to this smaller hut which would be a great base to explore from.

Walking past the flats, we cross our first swing bridge and then shadow the crystal clear river as it roars through a magnificent gorge. The river plunges under and over rocks and there is an opportunity to walk down to its edge. If there weren’t so many other people here we might have gone for a swim! From here it is a gentle walk through the beech forest with a side trip through a nature reserve. We spot a few small native birds which skip on the forest floor next to us. They are hoping our feet will have disturbed insects for their next meal.

At the Routeburn Shelter we dry off, have lunch, make tea/miso soup and wait for our transport to take us back to Queenstown. There is much celebration as this has been the first multi-day hike for a number of our group. We hope to see everyone back for more another time.


29 Mar 2018 3:33 am

Routeburn Track

  • Distance 37.38 km
  • Time 15 h 29 min
  • Speed 4.0 km/h
  • Min altitude 473 m
  • Peak 1296 m
  • Climb 1635 m
  • Descent 1583 m
  • Distance Instructions

Logistics In A Nutshell


Huts are pre-booked through the Department of Conservation. The Great Walk season is from end October to end April when huts are serviced and have cooking facilities. Outside of these dates, facilities are limited including the removal of many bridges. Huts are basic but comfortable and have stunning views. The Lake Mackenzie hut is due to close shortly and will be rebuilt for next season. Huts in 2017/18 season cost NZ$65 per night. We recommend booking early – we booked ours 10 months ahead as did many of the walkers on the same track.


Huts are pre-booked through the Department of Conservation. The Great Walk season is from end October to end April when huts are serviced and have cooking facilities. Outside of these dates, facilities are limited including the removal of many bridges. Huts are basic but comfortable and have stunning views. The Lake Mackenzie hut is due to close shortly and will be rebuilt for next season. Huts in 2017/18 season cost NZ$65 per night. We recommend booking early – we booked ours 10 months ahead as did many of the walkers on the same track.

Buddy System:

The buddy system, of putting people together (in 2s or 3s) for shopping, cooking, sleeping, walking/looking out for one another, worked well especially cooking together. We would however advance on this to suggest buddies carry only one first aid kit (for example) to lighten loads further.


We chose to walk the track in 3 days but it would be possible to shorten it by one day. We felt that 3 days/2 nights was optimal as the track in places is narrow, rocky and slippery so covering it at speed would be difficult.


The walk can be covered in either direction although we start at The Divide and finish at the Routeburn Shelter (west to east). The views from either direction are similar but the walk is easier this way. As the guided walkers always walk west to east, the track guides for unguided walkers are printed to encourage you to walk east to west. We now realise why it is printed this way as there are, quite simply, an enormous number of guided walkers. This makes the track seem crowded in places. Their sheer number detracts from the remoteness of the location. We would therefore recommend unguided walkers travel east to west.


You can expect wet weather is in this region as around two-thirds of the days historically experience rain. This is evident in the beautiful mossy and lichen forests and the plentiful water sources. We chose to walk at beginning of March when historical rain had been low. Unfortunately we were not blessed with blue skies although the track had been dry and clear for many weeks prior. The rain was not heavy but it was humid and damp. In hindsight, we would walk earlier in the season when the mountains had more snow (it is alpine after all). This would would have necessitated extra layers, gloves etc to be prepared for more inclement weather.


We used Tracknet to transport us to and from Queenstown to the walk (including stopping in Te Anau for one night so that we were closer to the start of the walk). They partner with Info & Track to offer a loop which travels from Queenstown – Te Anau – The Divide and then Routeburn Shelter – Queenstown. The cost for the loop when we went was NZ$123.


Expect to carry 10-11kg on this walk including water and food. As streams are plentiful, only 1L of water is generally required. The gear list published by DOC and on this website was our main guide. To this I add the following tips:

  1. Don’t forget your earplugs – snorers can be very noisy!
  2. A cloth handkerchief (rather than tissue packets) will last all trip and doesn’t need to be replaced or added to your rubbish.
  3. A cut up piece of an old yoga mat makes a good seat if it is rocky or wet (also very light and doesn’t cost anything).
  4. If you are using a water bladder make sure you also carry a water bottle in case it fails. Also think about a spare mouthpiece. 
  5. You can put a few rounds of duct tape around your water bottle which might be useful for fixing things on the track – saves having to carry too much extra weight. 
  6. If you have weak knees or other stressed body parts, think about carrying physio strapping tape and/or braces. Strapping tape can also be put around your water bottle. 
  7. A spare pair of shoelaces is a good idea to include.
  8. There are miniature bottles/containers for sale in most $2 shops (including Daiso) which are useful for decanting your face creams etc. You can use a small spray bottle with water to cool yourself down.
  9. A battery pack to charge your mobile phone is useful if you are using it to take photos etc. Best to make sure it is protected though. 
  10. You can buy “Goodbye Sandfly” in New Zealand which is a natural repellent and bite soother. It is considerably safer (and lighter) than Bushmans.
  11. Take a small tube of SuperGlue – you never know if old boots will fall to pieces!
  12. A short pair of gaiters is useful to prevent rain going down the top of your boots.
  13. A Buff is great for keeping wind, cold and sun out.
  14. A light-weight sarong is good for modesty dashes to the communal toilets at night.
  15. Clean your boots before you leave as they will need to be inspected at customs. Most people opt to wear them on the flight which saves on luggage space and makes them easier to access.
  16. Check your passport is in date! And don’t leave it behind on the photocopier….
  17. Pack a few small Ziploc bags to put food into when you buy it in NZ.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Susan Clarke

    Great blog and photos. Well done

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