This is one of the most famous and popular tramps in New Zealand. It is a true alpine walk, with deep valleys,bracketed by bluffs and waterfalls, opening out to steep tussock tops and dramatic views of the Darran Mountains.
- Pickering and Smith, 101 Great Tramps in New Zealand
The Routeburn Track, located in the Southern Alps about two days drive south of Nelson, is one of a dozen officially designated "Great Walks," more a marketing and management term than a rating system. Who is to say what the "best" walks are, but there are certainly many candidates not on the Great Walks list. However, all of the Great Walks are extraordinary for scenic and natural wonders, and most are in the easy to moderate range of difficulty (by tough NZ standards). By channelling overseas tourists onto these paths, DOC (the Department of Conservation) can justify spending lots of money upgrading the tracks and building large, "flash" huts. By further requiring hikers to book space in the huts (usually long in advance), DOC can regulate numbers on the track and assure accommodation for all.
Alice and I did one of the Great Walks, the Tongariro Crossing, as a day hike in 1996, and I have hiked the Heaphy Track (in 4 days), in our beloved Kahurangi Park northwest of Nelson. However, the half dozen Great Walks in the Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks have remained over the horizon because of their distance from Nelson and their image of being full of tenderfoot tourists. However, the Routeburn, in particular, has always seemed particularly alluring. It's alpine views are legendary. Alice reckoned she manage the 32 km over 3 days, without overly strenuous climbs, and put up with snorers in the huts as long as I carried most of the gear and cooked the food, in the manner of a guide or sherpa.
We completed the trek February 14-16, late summer. This was Alice's first time overnight backbacking in New Zealand, and indeed anywhere in about 30 years! The DOC brochure advises that Routeburners should expect rain on one day out of three -- and that's what we got. Day 1 was brilliant, with easy hiking up the Route Burn (stream) to the Routeburn Falls Hut. It rained and blew steadily on Day 2, the longest segment with an alpine crossing to MacKenzie Hut. Day 3 was chilly but sunny with fine views of the freshly snow covered Darran peaks. The grand views promised from Harris Saddle at the mid-point of the trek were lost in the mist, but there were plenty of vistas on the other two days. Fortunately, when we saw the rainy forecast posted at the Falls Hut, we beetled most of the way up to the saddle and back on the first afternoon, thereby passing through the spectacular alpine basin at the headwaters of the Route Burn in sun one day and rain the next. Besides the views, we were greatly impressed with the raw glaciated geology and the splendid examples of New Zealand plant communities, both in the beech forest zones and the alpine "tops." The fresh rain made the numerous rushing streams and waterfalls particularly dramatic.