NZ Life & Leisure’s art director takes the path less travelled on the Routeburn Track
A group of friends pull on their tramping boots, fill a bag with anti-inflammatories and celebrate a 70th birthday in adventurous style.
Words and photos: Yolanta Woldendorp
A decade ago, I joined with others to celebrate our friend Ingrid’s 60th birthday by walking the Milford Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Ingrid’s invitation for us to join her for yet another decade-marking birthday — this time to tackle the Routeburn in Fiordland — was met with trepidation.
In those intervening 10 years, most of us weren’t in quite the same shape — either accidents or wear and tear had taken their toll. But we weren’t going to let injuries or aching joints cause us to miss a grand celebration, so we splashed out on a fully guided experience with Ultimate Hikes. Established in 1989, the family-operated business also assists DOC with track maintenance and pest control along the 32-kilometre Routeburn Track.
Rehab and fitness goals needed to be met by the departure date of 17 December. I had a long way to go when I signed up for the three-day trek. Earlier that year, I had a horse-riding accident and was learning to love my rebuilt ankle — a surgeon had inserted three plates and 16 screws. But I was in fine company: the rest of the group had hip replacements, dodgy knees or bad backs.
Carrying only a daypack spared us the usual hiking challenge of a heavy load, and the luxury of a hot shower and comfortable bed in a private room at the end of the day in the middle of Fiordland’s beautiful landscape was worth every penny.
We pushed ourselves on the first day by climbing to Key Summit, leaving packs on the main track for an extra hour’s walk. The alpine nature trail over boardwalks and mirrored tarns emerges to a seat among alpine plants with a view of an emerald glacier lake and three valleys.
We passed the impressively roaring Earland Falls (174 metres) before meandering through moss-carpeted beech forest, enjoying the sounds and antics of miromiro, kakaruai, pīwakawaka, kererū and korimako. Knees creaked on a rocky descent to Lake Mackenzie Lodge, even with the help of walking poles.
We ordered a bottle of champagne and a pre-dinner cheese platter to toast the birthday girl and our first day’s achievement. That evening, dinner was a delicious eye fillet steak followed by sticky date pudding.
About five tonnes of supplies are delivered to the lodge each week, including food, diesel and gas. All waste, including sewage, is flown out.
The lodge is on the shores of Lake Mackenzie, but I didn’t realise the scale and beauty of the lake until the following day when we zig-zagged up to Ocean Peak Corner, with sweeping views all the way. Throughout the trek, my No.1 photography rule was always at the front of my mind — look behind you as well as in front so you don’t miss a thing.
Alpine flowers bloomed in full glory, and cheeky kea hopped about the rocks hoping for a crumb from our lunch when we stopped at Harris Saddle — the highest point is 1255 metres above sea level.
Fortunately, it was a sunny day, and we could take in the deep blue waters of Lake Harris. In the distance, we could see a waterfall from the higher Lake Wilson feed into Harris. The track then descends along more cascading waterfalls to Routeburn Falls Lodge, which sits next to (you guessed it) another waterfall. Several of us decided to take a dip, no matter how cold the water. After turning light blue but feeling totally at one with the universe, I had a hot shower and settled into the comfy lounge with a beer to be entertained by another guest’s beautiful guitar playing. Another three-course meal, washed down by a nice shiraz, fortified us for the day ahead.
Our final adventure began with a descent through beech forest and along the Routeburn Flats before stopping at the crystal-clear waters of Gorge Flat for our packed lunch. Many swing bridges on this last leg of the track ensured plenty of wide-open spaces to view the forest as well as safe passage over raging waters.
During the last few kilometres, I had the pleasure of walking with Nico, one of the guides, whose knowledge enriched my experience as I learned about the area’s history, flora and fauna. I didn’t want it to end.
The promise of hot chips and a beer at the Glenorchy pub en route back to Queenstown spurred me on. Thanks to a supply of anti-inflammatories and a couple of luxurious lodges in the wilderness, we had all made it — without too much pain. Everyone in our group was on a high.
WHAT: Ultimate Hikes offers a three-day, two-night guided walk on the Routeburn Track through Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks.
PRICE: From $1820 per person, including meals. Alcohol is extra. Transfers included to and from Queenstown.
FITNESS: Hikers must be able to walk five to nine hours a day up to 21 kilometres carrying a backpack weighing seven kilogrammes over terrain that ranges from flat and well-graded to uneven and rocky with steep climbs and even steeper descents.
SEASON DATES: 1 November to 8 April 2024
WEATHER: Be prepared for four seasons in one day. The chance of snow in the surrounding mountains is high in November and December. January and February are usually warm but not necessarily dry. March is generally more settled.