Day 2 and 3 of Routeburn Track: Lake MacKenzie to Routeburn Flats, out to Routeburn Shelter

Well, it certainly did snow overnight, and it continued to snow well into the morning. I was no longer able to continue sleeping at 6:30am, so I threw off my warm sleeping bag, slipped on my camp shoes, and headed down to the great room to make breakfast. Already a small handful of people were up and making good progress towards heading out.

There was light snow coming down and while it wasn’t sticking at Lake MacKenzie’s elevation, a quick look up at the mountains showed more snow cover than there had been the night before.

I considered lingering even longer over my morning coffee, perhaps making a second cup, but my true nature is to do something once I set my mind to it, and I had set my mind to get a decently early start. I gathered up my belongings and repacked my bags, slipped on my cold hiking shoes, and headed up the mountain.

Photo: Heading out with snow falling at Lake MacKenzie

The trail ascended immediately from Lake MacKenzie and quickly I was out of the cover of tree-line, exposed to the elements. From the trail, I could catch a glimpse of the Lake MacKenzie hut on the edge of the lake (see top photo) and marveled at how quickly I could find myself with such a gorgeous vantage point.

Eventually the trail wound itself over a pass and I found myself on the other side of the valley, with views extending out to the Tasman Sea (this is just barely visible in the top photo of the three below). The snow was headed west, but I luckily had about 20 minutes of clear(ish) views before the snow and winds took over.

Unfortunately, the clear views didn’t last long and I was soon again in cloud cover and blowing snow. The path became icy as I continued to ascend and was especially icy as I neared the Harris Saddle and Lake Harris. I found fellow hikers, nearly all hiking the opposite direction, at the Harris Shelter where I stopped briefly for some hot tea (from my Hydro Flask) and a quick snack.

I continued on, past Lake Harris pictured above, passing many hikers coming from the opposite direction. The trail remained above tree-line for some time and many of the stairs were quite slick from ice. The trail now descended towards Routeburn Falls and the Routeburn Falls hut.

I could sense I was nearing the falls and quickened my pace. It would be nice to stop at the Routeburn Falls hut for a short break. Soon I came upon the falls, the hut ranger, and the hut, in that order. I had a quick conversation with the hut ranger and told him about the conditions I had experienced at the saddle. He was on his way up to see the conditions for himself. According to the hikers I would see later that night that were a few hours behind me on the trail, conditions cleared and improved greatly soon after I passed Harris Saddle.

I stopped briefly at Routeburn Falls hut for a potty break and snack. The views from the Falls Hut were gorgeous, and I had no wonder as to why this hut, despite its 48 person capacity, was fully booked back in late January when I started planning this trip.

I had two more miles to go, all downhill, to get to my destination that night: the Routeburn Flats. So, again, I put my pack back on and headed down once again below tree-line and beech forest.

As I descended, the light was magnificently alighting the flats below. I stopped to marvel at the beautiful country I was trekking through. New Zealand’s Fiordlands certainly give you piece after piece of gorgeous eye candy.

I reached the NZ DOC hut just after 1pm and was greeted by the hut ranger. After agreeing to be the person who tended to the coal-fire stove, I found a bunk in the small hut (only 20 beds in this one), laid out my sleeping bag, grabbed my pot and food bag, and headed to the great room to start a pot of water boiling.

You might recognize that my evenings on the trail seem very routine, and they are. Actually life on the trail can be very routine; however, the views, the nature you experience day to day, and the people you encounter, are not. Every day brings something new, even if the daily schedule from an outsider’s perspective seems awfully repetitive: wake, make breakfast, pack, hike, stop for snacks, hike, stop for the evening, unpack, make dinner, sleep.

As the afternoon continued on, many of the hikers I met at Lake MacKenzie arrived with stories of their hike. As evening arrived, I made dinner, chatted with other hikers, and settled into a few hours of reading before retiring to my bunk.

The next day I would hike out 4.4 miles to the end of the Routeburn Track, where a shuttle to Queenstown would be waiting for me at 10am. My thirteen days of travel in New Zealand were nearly over and I was starting to dream of my next trip to New Zealand already.

Day 1 of Routeburn Track: The Divide to Lake MacKenzie Hut

The day began with a 7:15am pick-up at my hostel in Te Anau. Another shuttle from Tracknet: this time to The Divide, one of the ends of the Routeburn Track just about a one hour drive west on the Te Anau-Milford Highway. My bag would be significantly heavier this trip compared to my trek on the Kepler Track which I had come off just one and a half days ago.

Unlike the Kepler, which is a loop, the Routeburn is a one way (or out and back for the more ambitious). I would end my trek in three days closer to Queenstown than Te Anau and would be shuttled from the end to the adventure capitol of Queenstown to finish my New Zealand adventures before flying back to Auckland and onward to Hong Kong. I had to have ALL of my belongings that I brought to New Zealand with me on my back this trip. There was no locker I could return to for any unnecessary gear.

Our van full of hikers arrived at The Divide at 8:30am. Many of its passengers would become my hiking companions over the next three days. We all hopped out of the van, stretched our legs, and readied ourselves for the day of hiking ahead.

The track began to ascend immediately and continued ascending for about 2 miles; at that point, you arrive at the junction with Key Summit. Knowing the day was relatively low mileage (7.5 miles), the two mile round trip up and back to Key Summit would be quite achievable that day. I took the turn off for Key Summit and ascended further towards the summit and spectacular views of the surrounding ranges and Lake Marian (see photo below).

The summit had nearly 360 degree views, well worth my additional effort in getting there.

After descending back to the main track, now the track descended slightly towards Lake Howden, a pretty little lake, and Howden Hut.

I stopped for a brief snack, but didn’t linger too long because, as with other lower elevation lakes I have encountered in New Zealand, mosquitos were still a force to reckon with. From Lake Howden, the trail ascends again for about 2 miles before leveling off and then descending slightly towards Lake MacKenzie, my destination for the night. On the ascent, I passed the magnificent Earland Falls, a nice photo stop.

You remain in tree-line all the way to Lake MacKenzie, an additional 3 miles past Earland Falls. When you arrive in the valley in which Lake MacKenzie lies, you think the hut you first come upon is the NZ DOC hut, but then you spy Lazy Boy loungers and floor to ceiling windows and realize that this is one of the “guided hikes” huts (see photo below); the hikes costs 1500 NZD, you get fed steak dinners that someone else cooks for you, and you only need to carry your clothing.

I quickly realized my error and continued on to the hut the rest of the 99% of the world might be to afford (although at 65 NZD a night, certainly not affordable still to a large segment of the world). I arrived around 1 pm, found a bunk in the bunkhouse above the great room, and started a pot of water boiling for tea with my lunch.

Photos above: Lake MacKenzie and the NZ DOC hut.

The Lake MacKenzie hut sleeps 50 people. According to the hut ranger, the hut has been fully booked every night since the opening day of the season and is fully booked until the last night of the season on April 30th.

At the hut I met many interesting people including a Polish man about my age, who had to take 25 hours of flights to reach Queenstown, New Zealand, and regaled me with stories of all the hikes he has undertaken in the past few years. He said that he tries to summit a new peak three to four times a year, and next his sights were on the Alborz Mountains near Tehran.

Again, like all the other large huts on the Great Walks, as the night moved from 6pm to 7pm to 8pm, the conversations got louder, and an energy filled the huts. However, once hiker’s midnight hit (9pm), there was a shared recognition of the necessity for quiet. I retired to my bunk, excited by talk of snow overnight and throughout the next day.

Day 2 and 3 of Routeburn Track: Lake MacKenzie to Routeburn Flats, out to Routeburn Shelter

Day 3 of Kepler Track: Iris Burn to Rainbow Reach Car Park

I had slept a good nine hours throughout the night at Iris Burn Hut. I had chosen a bottom level bunk in one of the bunk rooms above the great room thinking, heat rises, and, for sure, the bunk room above the great room was quite warm throughout the night. Luckily, no loud snorers disturbed the hut’s inhabitants that night.

Upon rising, I stuffed my sleeping bag into its stuff sack, deflated my small head pillow, grabbed my puffy, and headed downstairs to the great room to make coffee and oatmeal.

Already, a few people were readying themselves for the day–the Aussie couple, the Swiss medical student, and a group of American college students who were woefully underprepared for their trek.

The Americans had showed up around 5pm last night at the hut having booked bunks last minute at the Fiordland DOC office that morning. Only the Iris Burn hut had availability that night, so they were hiking the opposite direction as me in only two days and had to do the whole 17 miles from Iris Burn Hut back to the car park over those ridges in one day. They had no pots for cooking, and no idea about hiking out their trash, but people were kind and lent them pots for boiling water, and gave them the advice to start early the next morning. Luckily, they had youth on their side and at least the wisdom to listen to good advice once given.

I finished my oatmeal and coffee and saw that the rain had basically stopped, so I decided to make a go of it. I gathered my items “drying” near the wood stove–only the lightest items had actually dried overnight–took off my down puffy, put on my still slightly damp fleece half-zip, packed my bag, and then headed out of the hut to where my cold shoes and rain jacket were waiting. In all my years of backpacking, I can say that there is hardly anything I detest more than putting my warm feet into damp, cold hiking shoes in the morning; however, experience also tells me that once I’m moving, in all but the coldest conditions, my feet will warm up.

As I set off about 7:45am, I was heartened to see the American college students setting off in the opposite direction–at least they had gotten a decently early start.

The trail would be fairly easy going with some undulation, but mostly 14 miles of downhill to the Rainbow Reach Car Park. It was a little over ten miles to the Moturau Hut on the shores of Lake Manapouri and I had hoped to be there sometime around 1pm.

The first geological landmark I came to along this leg of the track was the Big Slip. The was a major landslide that had occurred during heavy rains in 1984.

After the Big Slip, it was short work to Lake Manapouri and then the Moturau Hut. I was at the hut (mile 26.9, 10.1 miles past Iris Burn) by noon, and thought I would eat lunch there, but late season mosquitos plagued the area, so I kept moving.

I continued the hike to the car park and exchanged hellos with a trail runner headed in the opposite direction. Little did I know at the time that this trail runner would be my ticket back to Te Anau that afternoon.

The trail continued in beech forests eventually settling along the Waiau River for the last two miles to the car park.

Eventually as I approached the car park, the same trail runner, a local Kiwi man in his late sixties, struck up conversation with me as he jogged past. After telling him where I was living (Hong Kong), where I was from (California), and what I was doing (backpacking two Great Walks), and learning that he was training for the Routeburn Track (the trail I would hike next) trail run in two weeks, we parted ways and wished each other luck.

Finally, I saw the suspension bridge over the Waiau River to the car park. It was not quite 1:00pm and my hired shuttle back to town was not until 4:00pm. Even if I could catch the 3:00pm shuttle if it wasn’t full, that was still two hours of waiting in the car park. As I crossed the suspension bridge, I saw the Kiwi trail runner again chatting up someone else. I waved as I walked past him, lost in thought about what I would do for the next few hours.

Crossing to the other side of the river, I sat down at a picnic table to think about my options and that’s when I saw the Kiwi trail runner again. This time he said, “Hey, you need ride into Te Anau?” Did I ever? I quickly agreed to the offer of a ride and hopped into his car which he said was his wife’s. It was filled with heptathlon gear as while he was a trail runner, his wife, also in her late 60s, was a heptathlete. His name was Gary and he lived in Te Anau working as a fertilizer consultant for local farmers. In his spare time, he ran the local trails.

Gary brought me into town and dropped me off at my hostel. I thanked him profusely, grabbed my backpack and poles and headed back to Lakefront Backpackers in Te Anau for another two nights before heading out again on the trail, this time to the Routeburn track where Gary would be competing in two weeks time.

I checked back into the hostel, grabbed my stored gear from my locker, and made quick work of getting myself a shower and finding the laundry facilities.

Snow was in the forecast for my next trek and I had some work to do including more food shopping for three more days of hiking.

Day 2 of Kepler Track: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut

Both 90km/h winds and long periods of rain were forecasted for day 2 of my backpack along New Zealand’s Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park. I woke up around 6:45am, hoping to hear from the hut ranger about the conditions on the ridges, but he never appeared. After fortifying hot oatmeal and coffee, I packed my bags, checked my bunk, and headed out around 8:15am with some of the other brave souls who I would end up huddled with in the two shelters on the ridges later in the day.

What a different start day 2 was than day 1. Although the day started off sunny (though windy) and rainbows greeted me (see a few photos down) on the first hills, the winds and rains would rule the day.

I had on my thermal layers, fleece half-zip, waterproof jacket and pants, fleece hat, and fleece gloves. The wind was as bad as predicted, and I faced a steep climb almost immediately upon setting out.

Although the winds nearly knocked me over many times during the first three miles and the rain seemed to be driving in horizontally at times, I made it to the first shelter.

Although the Forest Burn Shelter was a welcomed stop, I quickly moved on as I knew I would keep warm the more I kept moving.

I skipped the trip to Mount Luxmore (nothing to see anyway due to cloud cover) and headed to the second shelter. Even more high wind gusts greeted the hikers on the ridges between Mount Luxmore and Hanging Valley. These shelters have no amenities minus four walls and a place to get out of the wind and rain–very welcome in the weather the hikers between Luxmore and Iris Burn Huts were facing today.

After the second shelter, I faced the steep stairs on the ridges as we descended to tree line where I found relief from the winds, if not the rains.

It was now another four miles down to Iris Burn Hut along another switchbacked, well-graded trail in beech forest. Iris Burn Hut was a welcomed site at mile 16.8 and I looked forward to getting out of my wet clothes and warming up around the wood stove in the great room.

When I got into Iris Burn Hut around 12:45, there were four people there already: an Aussie couple, a young Swiss girl who was traveling New Zealand for four months between university and starting medical school, and an American guy from Cupertino, California. I knew that everyone would want to try to dry their clothing and warm up (as I did), so I got the wood stove going and then changed into my dry wool socks, and puffy jacket which both had thankfully kept dry in my makeshift dry sacks (kitchen bin bags) in my backpack. I got some water boiling in my trusty Snow Peak 700 for tea, snacked, and settled in for several hours of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

The great room continued to fill with people as the afternoon went on–everyone chilled to the bone, clothing soaked, and exhausted from the effort to move against the high winds on the ridges. Despite the exhaustion, spirits were high in the room and conversation was livelier than the previous night.

Despite the good conversation, I longed to find the warmth of my sleeping bag and dedicate my last hour before bed finishing Coates’ essays. I retired to the upstairs bunk room, and finished Between the World and Me just before sleep overtook me.

Tomorrow is my final day on the Kepler. The rains were to abate and the sun was to return.

Day 3 of Kepler Track: Iris Burn to Rainbow Reach Car Park

Day 1 of Kepler Track: Te Anau to Luxmore Hut

A six-thirty am wake-up proved to be way more than I needed to finish my morning preparations for the trail. Last night, in Te Anau, I bought the last of the food I needed for the next three days of trekking the 60km Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks in Fiordland National Park. I had basically packed all but the clothing I would wear the night before. Now, I had one and a half hours to eat breakfast and clean up, prior to the reception opening again at Lakefront Backpackers in Te Anau at 8am. I wanted to store a few things in a locker–things definitely not needed on the trek: the one dress, pair of jeans, nice blouse, and make-up I brought just in case I had the occasion to look nice while traveling through NZ. After lingering long over my breakfast tea, eight am came around, I got the locker for my unnecessary things, and headed off, backpack on my back to the Fiordland National Park office.

There I picked up my hut reservation tickets, got the most recent weather reports (rain, damn), and headed off to my pick-up point where a company called Tracknet would pick me up to take me to the Kepler Track trailhead.

The day started off sunny and warm, and I got into a good rhythm almost immediately. For the first three miles, the Kepler follows the shores of Lake Te Anau. The trail is level as it wanders through mostly beech forest. It wasn’t a high level of effort to get a good 3mph pace going and in just over an hour, I was at the Brod Bay campsite, mile 3.2.

After the Brod Bay campsite, the trail begins its ascent towards Mount Luxmore (and Luxmore Hut). As you can see below from my Guthook app elevation profile of the Kepler, it was more than three miles of constant climbing. Many layers of clothing were removed for this ascent.

Luckily, the trail is well-graded and although the ascent is constant, it’s never very steep, despite the 3000 ft of ascent.

Around mile 6.7, you climb out of the forest and reach the tree-line. You are now rewarded with gorgeous views of tussock grasslands, Lake Te Anau, and 50 km/h winds. Those layers of clothing you took off? Yeah, they are coming back on now along with a pair of gloves.

Despite the misty rain and harsh winds, I made quick work of the 1.3 miles left to Luxmore Hut, finishing the 8 miles, in just under four hours arriving at 12:30pm.

Most of the huts along the Great Walks have bunks with mattresses, flush toilets, and propane gas stoves for cooking. In addition, the great rooms are heated with wood stoves which proved really nice for the seven hours of grazing, tea drinking, reading, and writing I suddenly found myself gifted with due to my early arrival at the hut.

Tomorrow is supposed to be windy and wet. The hut warden suggests we wait around tomorrow until 7:30am for weather updates as depending on the predicted winds, he may be suggesting we stay at the hut longer into the morning if the winds are too strong over the passes. Only time will answer this, but I can tell you one thing, tomorrow will be an adventure!

Day 2 of Kepler Track: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut