Words and photos by Erin Armstrong
Sometime early 2022, my inspirational sister Nancye came up with the idea that we should do the Routeburn Track and the Milford Track in 2023. FANTASTIC I thought. I never dreamed that this would happen so I was all in. We enlisted the expertise of a fast fingered, 30 something year old for the booking process. The Milford sold out in 3 minutes, setting a new record for the Department of Conservation. Wild to think about. We were so very grateful to have gained a spot.
We had opted for 3 days in between the hikes. Unsure how the bodies would be. In hindsight we could have shaved a day off. However it did mean that we got to do a few extra things.
The cool thing about the Great Walks is that you have to book so far ahead that by the time you start it almost feels like its free. Huts paid for. Flights booked well in advance. Transportation in and out of each walk, etc, etc.
Now my hiking career was not very extensive at all. I had done the Pinnacles, in the Coromandel, a couple of times along with the hike to Hot Water Beach at Lake Tarawera but that was basically it. Certainly nothing involving carrying a 12kg pack and hiking boots. I borrowed my daughter’s Osprey Pack and under advice purchased myself some trusty Merrell Moabs - so much love for these boots. I pushed past my ‘she’ll be right’ attitude and actually put random heavy things in the pack and donned my boots and did 3 ascents to the top of Mt Maunganui, which is my regular backyard exercise hill, without the bag and boots. That was enough I decided. Fortunately for me it was enough but that was perhaps more about how fit I already was rather than anything sensible.
Nancye was already in Wanaka about 3 weeks prior to our trip. It was all organised. Two days before my flight south there was a plot twist. I won’t go into the details but a total rearrangement was required and all I can say is that my sister is one impressive human under pressure. I landed in Queenstown, bused to Wanaka where she picked me up in a 2004 Toyota Hilux farm truck. My first night was spent in a hut on the farm belonging to the Hilux, high in the hills between Wanaka and Cromwell. I was in heaven.
We woke to rain and a fresh ever so light dusting of snow on the highest hills. We set off to Queenstown, checked in with the Department of Conservation, got our last decent coffee and treats from Ferg Bakery, then headed for Glenorchy. An unheard of vacancy had come up with Trackhopper that wasn’t showing online but a phone call had got us a spot for the Hilux to be relocated from the Glenorchy end of the track to ‘The Divide’ where we would walk out of the Routeburn. Lockbox collected we headed to the Routeburn Shelter
There is something really challenging about walking away from your vehicle to set off into the wild hoping you actually have packed everything you need & enough food into your pack and that the said vehicle will be there to meet you when you come out the other end. We had just under 10 km ahead of us. As I hoist my pack on I’m immediately thinking about what I could have left behind. It felt heavy. There was one item that I was not walking without even though everyone close to me told me I was mad. That was my Nikon D610 camera with only one lens.....very hard leaving my kit behind but food was going to be of more benefit to me than extra lenses. We took our time as plenty of daylight left. Stopped off at the Routeburn Flats Hut for snacks. Flushing toilets and a full length mirror in the middle of nowhere! That mirror was hilarious to me. I did not expect to see myself again for 3 days let alone all of me!
The Routeburn can be done from either direction so you are always coming across other hikers. Everyone was so friendly I think we only encountered 1 person who did not respond to our ‘Hello!’ By the time we reached the Falls Hut it was alive with laughter & hot drinks and stories of the day. We were 1000 metres above my beloved sea level and everything felt right in the world. Boots off and into my birks, a cold water face wash, costume change into ‘hut merino’ & a well earned cup of tea. While we still had daylight we went and checked out the Routeburn Falls literally just out the back of the Hut. It was then time for the magical dehydrated dinner. Alarmingly not bad. 7.30pm brings the DOC Warden’s hut talk. Tomorrow’s weather, must do’s on the next day’s hike and safety stuff.
The next day was 11.3 km to the Lake McKenzie Hut over the Harris Saddle. There was a short sharp add on involving hands and feet up to Conical Hill from the Harris Shelter. This was an absolute highlight and well worth the decent climb to get to the summit. We had left our packs at the shelter. It was truly spectacular at the top with phenomenal views of the Hollyford Valley and a peep of the Tasman Sea. What a way to spend a Monday!
6 hours hiking through the most incredible landscape. Kea soaring above us, beautiful and varied alpine plants. The colours of the rocks along the Hollyford face. My eyeballs were on sticks for most of this day. Just so much beauty in every direction. The descent to the Lake Mckenzie hut took us past a very humbling memorial to 2 13 year old students who died whilst on a school trip in 1963 after getting caught out by a freak blizzard. It was a solemn reminder that this place is not always so friendly. We entered the canopy of the beech forest for the final part of our descent to the Hut. A goblin forest if ever I have seen one. Lake McKenzie beckoned and the swim in the late afternoon sun was delicious & a just reward.
Rain was forecast the next day for our walk out to ‘The Divide’. As we were under the canopy of the forest it really didn’t cause us any grief. Tiny birds flitted all around. The 174 metre high Earland Falls freshened us up for the final part of the hike. Before you knew it we were at a bend in the track with another stunning waterfall on one side and to my absolute horror in the distance on the opposite side, between the trees was the main highway! Nooooooo, I was not ready for civilisation. Before you knew it we were at the carpark and Nancye was off! She just had to get her eyes on the Hilux, to make sure it was there and in one piece - the stressful part of borrowing someone else’s vehicle! It was and it started first time. Stashed behind the drivers seat was a brown paper bag of heaven in the form of Central Otago peaches and apricots, perfectly ripened over their 3 day stint in the truck. We devoured them having never tasted a more delicious piece of fruit ever before in our lives. Te Anau here we come!
Now, one piece of advice I would like to share - always take some time to do some stretches of the old legs at the end of your hike. In the excitement of fresh stonefruit & transportation to a hot shower this got overlooked. When the time came to exit the Hilux an hour and a half later my calf muscles were not in a good way. Good old hindsight strikes again. The much longed for hot shower was everything I’d dreamed of. As was the Pizza and Prosecco we had for our celebratory dinner.
Te Anau is such a buzzy little town. Brilliant food and super friendly, lovely people. We went exploring and did the 3 hour return hike to Lake Marian. It was a challenging walk but very much worth it. The rivers and waterfalls along the way are so full of energy. It’s hard to describe how it feels to be in this environment. Super invigorating. I had forgotten what anxiety feels like.
Washing done, collected some last supplies, checked in at DOC for the Milford the next day and packed up our packs again. The weather forecast had us hiking in a mix of conditions. I was going to get to try out my new raincoat! We had been staying at the Lakeview Holiday Park which made things super easy as the Tracknet office is based here also so the transport to the boat that takes you to the start of the Milford Track leaves from the Holiday Park. We were able to park the Hilux out the back for the duration of our hike.
Showers of rain for our boat trip across Lake Te Anau to the start of the Milford Track but by the time we arrived they had stopped. We were off! It was only a short hike in to the Clinton Hut for our first night. After dinner and the Hut Ranger’s talk we went to see the glow worms by the river. The first night was super comfy and no snorers! I didn’t think that was possible. We woke up to rain. We set off for the 17.5km walk to Mintaro Hut. A big portion of this was under the cover of trees so we didn’t actually get that wet. By the time we reached the clearing the rain had pretty much cleared but it had brought the massive rock walls of the Clinton Valley alive. 360 degrees of waterfalls. Some big, some small. Low hanging cloud all around. It truly was a sight to behold. There were a few short offshoots to small lakes with bigger waterfalls that were all worth seeing up close.
One stream with not quite enough large stepping rocks and now we’ve got water on the inside of the boots. Stopped at Prairie Shelter for lunch were I squeezed as much water out of my socks as I could. Merino socks really are incredible. Never mind that my feet were wet for the rest of the walk, I kept all my skin & remained completely blister free. Today was a long day. I was ready for it to end and that seemed to be the consensus of most of the other hikers when we got to the hut. There was a sign that, from a distance I thought said ‘Mintaro Hut 20 Metres’ it didn’t. It said 20 minutes. I said an assortment of very bad words. I was ready to be finished for the day and I really felt that last 20 minutes. It turned out, according to many who had the fancy wrist tech that tells you distance stuff etc, that today was actually nearly 22km. The 17.5 in all the literature is to the OLD Mintaro Hut. The new hut is in a different location. Be warned people.... Mintaro Hut is the snazziest hut. It has usb charging ports. Gorgeous big high ceilings and lots of windows with a wrap around deck. The fire was going and it was surrounded by wet gear. I added my socks even though they would be going back into wet boots the next day. I figured it might mean they could soak up some more of the wet stuff tomorrow. We went to sleep to the sound of heavy rain and thunderstorms. Cozy bunk rooms but very firm mattresses which were a little tough on the weary body. Woke up to a cool, closed in morning. Today was the big day. Excited and daunted. Scott the hut ranger said it wasn’t going up the McKinnon Pass that we would feel but the down.
Poles, they said. You’ll need poles. Oh surely not I thought. Poles are for old people. No. Word on the well beaten trail was the descent on the other side of the McKinnon Pass required poles. Fortunately I was able to borrow some. They spent the whole of the Routeburn and most of the Milford tied to my pack. Today was potentially their day.
We zigzagged our way to the top of the pass. We had our rain gear on mainly for wind protection so we didn’t get cold at the top. The weather steadily improved as we got closer. So incredible to look back down the valley from where we had come from. We were treated to the most beautiful double rainbow proving that it always pays to stop and pause and take a moment to look around you. As we arrived at the top the clouds lifted and provided us with the jaw dropping views. The obligatory cartwheel at the top followed by a hot cup of coffee, thanks to the gas hob in the McKinnon Pass Shelter, and a peanut slab. The descent awaits...
It feels like every few steps there is another photo opportunity but on the descent I had to put my camera away as I had poles to use! Grateful I took them? Yes, yes I was. I think that they did save my legs somewhat. It was a lot of downhill and quite large steps in parts. The funniest part for me was that the next day I had sore arms from using the poles! Pathetic but true.
So, years ago I had seen a story in a magazine about the Sutherland Falls. I wanted to go there. I talked to my son about them as he was studying in the South Island and thought that it looked like a cool adventure for him too. He reported back that they were basically in the middle of nowhere and would be a big hike to see them. Well, it turns out when you are in the afore mentioned ‘middle of nowhere’ they are not actually that far away! Very excited I was. It is the World’s 5th highest waterfall and at 580 metres high it’s the highest waterfall in New Zealand. As we get closer to Dumpling Hut we arrive at the Clinton Shelter. We dumped our packs and set off on the side track to get a close look at the Sutherland Falls. Wow. The energy coming off them was the most incredible, invigorating experience. A power I had never felt before. In less than 5 mins the spray had filled my boots with water and I was giggling like a kid. This day was so unreal. I had spent the whole day grinning from ear to ear and laughing to myself all along the way. I was on this mind blowing high. Just thinking about it now has me smiling and I love that I can still access that total joy that I felt on that day. The power of raw nature. It’s real. The terrain of today’s hike was my favourite of the whole walk. We arrived at Dumpling Hut happy and tired. There was a beautiful group of Nurse’s from Wellington on the walk with us and they always arrived at the huts a lot earlier than us. Today they had saved us bottom bunks. Absolute angels they were. We were so grateful for their kindness. Now while Ranger Ryan might have delivered my favourite Hut talk his mattresses were the worst! We all had an awful nights sleep due to those noisy wafer’s.
The final day dawned and we had a boat to catch at 2pm to get us to our bus, back to Te Anau, at 2.30pm in Milford Sound. 18km to walk so we needed to head off early. There was still a lot to see along the way! It was the most beautiful sunny morning. The morning light coming through the fluffy green trees and the reflections in the water were divine. We ate on the move as we didn’t want to miss that boat. The last part of the walk was a very civilised wide path and the moment I saw the sign for the end I started skipping. It had been the most incredible 4 days of my life. I was so happy. We had arrived at Sandfly Point an hour earlier than we needed to and it turns out that I am clearly disgusting as the sandflies didn’t come near me! The boat goes backwards and forwards so since we were there early we got to hop on for an earlier arrival in Milford Sound. A gorgeous trip and special way to finish. It was warm and sunny and calm. No sign of the yearly 7000 mm average rainfall on this day. We got to put our packs in the bus and sat in the sun looking down the Sound reflecting on what we had just achieved. A lone Hectors Dolphin came for a brief visit which was very special for me as I get to hang out with it’s ‘common’ relations on a regular basis back home but had never seen one of these little guys.
The bus ride back to Te Anau was just over 2 hours including the stop at “The Divide’ to collect the latest finishers of the Routeburn. Now this is where I discovered just how magical merino is. Stuck on a bus with that many unwashed hikers had the potential to be an horrific couple of hours.. So, back to the truck with the still soggy boots & socks, a quick wash of the feet and off for our Pizza & Prosecco celebratory meal before driving through to Kingston for the night.
We were Cromwell bound the next day. Very impromptu but we were hoping to bike the Dunstan Trail the following day. We borrowed some electric bikes - I’d never ridden one before - & set off. We had been unable to get hold of anyone to book for us and our bikes to be picked up in Clyde and brought back to Cromwell at the end. Very risky business but we set off. What a stunning ride! You must do it if you can. I was too scared to turn the bike on so just rode it for the first part like a normal bike. Mad but incase we needed to bike back I thought it seemed like a good idea. About half way it started to rain. Now I smelt like a sheep courtesy of my merino! We stopped on the top of a hill where we had phone service and made a call to a recommended possibility for transportation and our luck continued, we were in. Room for 2 people and bikes, pick up in Clyde at 2.30pm. Phew. It was