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