© NZPocketGuide.com
© NZPocketGuide.com

Hiking the Routeburn Track

© NZPocketGuide.com

134 Days on the Road

Sure, Queenstown is the “Adventure Capital of the World”, but it is also a hub for hiking tracks to some of New Zealand’s most iconic scenery. Today, we are doing one of New Zealand’s Great Walks within the UNESCO World Heritage Area. This is the same status as the freakin’ pyramids in Egypt, just to emphasise how much of a big deal this southwest corner of little New Zealand is!

We’re not approaching the Routeburn Track mindlessly though, like we have done countless times in the past. We are joining Guided Walks New Zealand to experience a Great Walk in a completely different way.

The road to Glenorchy

Although Queenstown is the nearest large settlement to the Routeburn Track, it still takes 1h20min to drive there, so we are picked up right outside the Nomads hostel at 8am! Our guides, Huw and ML, greet us and introduce us to our fellow walking buddies today. It’s time to hit the Glenorchy Road.

God, New Zealand. We are so sick of your unmatched beauty blowing our minds everywhere we go! There are only so many times your mind can actually be blown, but somehow New Zealand succeeds in revealing a few mountains or a lake that never seems to end putting us in awe. The road to Glenorchy is one of those moments.

Lapping up the views of Lake Wakatipu

Hugging the mountainside, the Glenorchy Road follows the edge of Lake Wakatipu, one of New Zealand’s largest lakes. In the wet weather we are having, it looks all the more dramatic with low-lying and isolated clouds just hanging above the water.

Of course, we stop for photo opportunities to capture the beauty of Lake Wakatipu and Pigeon Island. We stop once again in the township of Glenorchy, and one more time at the sign for aptly-named Paradise Road.

Huw and ML share their wealth of knowledge about the area, especially the history of the people living in such a remote place. In fact, the whole 1h20min journey to the start of the Routeburn Track is filled with chatter and general banter. Huw and ML can say something about every single area we pass!

Eating foam

We’re here, the entrance to the Routeburn Track! In true Great Walk-style it is well serviced by toilets, shelters and information boards. We get ourselves prepared with extra rain jackets and a bottle of water provided by the Guided Walks New Zealand team, then we get this thing started!

As we’re walking, Huw casually bites off part of a foam mat packed in his bag. We start to worry that he didn’t bring the lunch that was meant to be provided on this trip… He rubs the foam on his watch, making a squeaking bird noise. Clever!!

Flapping ping pong balls

It takes time, patience and persistence, but further along the track we are greeted by a curious robin – much different from its red-breasted European counterparts with black feathers, a white breast and long gangly legs that it uses to hop around us. This bird is not scared whatsoever!

That’s not the only wildlife that Huw calls or spies with his little eye a couple of black and white tomtits and the tiniest little birds called Rifleman. They bounce around the branches like little flapping ping pong balls. So cute!

ML is waiting for ages to spot a fantail – a bird with bitchin’ eyebrows and a fan-shaped tail – so she can tell its Maori legend. Being from a Maori family herself, she knows a few stories that have been passed down from New Zealand’s very first settlers!

Just to show you how much is going on the Routeburn forest…

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We’ll never look at a tree the same way

All birds aside, we said we were doing this Great Walk in a different way to mindlessly walking through the pretty forest. That becomes evident instantly. Huw and ML point out trees and ferns with their properties, showing us leaves that are as strong as rope, the Hounds Tongue that grows spores like a tongue’s taste buds, some leaves that smell like fart (yum!), and so on. We don’t think we’ll ever look at a tree the same way again!

We know we say this every time we do a forest hike in New Zealand, but, man, this forest looks very different from any forest we have seen so far! The Routeburn Track is nestled in beech forest – large trees that drop tiny red, orange and yellow leaves that appear to cover the track in a constant state of autumn. What’s more, the forest is in a much higher alpine environment than what you find along the coasts, so the track weaves its way over previous rockfalls and alongside jagged mountainsides.

Fresh water and the clearing of all clearings

An alpine environment means fresh rivers! We get plenty of opportunity to cross them along various swingbridges, get to the riverside and fill our water bottles, and gaze at the power of the river carving smooth potholes in the rocks.

After a couple of hours walking in the mossy and luxuriant beech forest that we now know a hell of a lot more about, the forest opens up to reveal the view of all epic views. An open plain with a shallow meandering river passing right through the middle stretches to the base of some mighty forested mountains. Behind lay more mountains covered in snow! This place is unbelievable.

Lunch in the wild

It also just happens to be our lunch spot, which Huw and ML have so kindly carried all this way for us. We feast on brie, chicken and cranberry sandwiches and cookies at Huw’s “secret spot”.

What we also like about this experience is the fact that we have a guide to pace us. Whether we are working on getting photos and videos or not, we often approach hikes by doing as much as we can, running around, and not really taking the time to appreciate the place that we’re in. Sure, we could pace ourselves, if we used our brain, but experiences like this are a reminder that hiking tracks are in New Zealand to be enjoyed, to immerse yourself in, not to be rushed through.

The journey home

Return tracks sometimes get a bad rep, but returning the same way on the Routeburn Track opens our eyes to a whole new perspective. We even make a few different stops alongside a log-filled river, do a bit of boulder climbing, take a Nature Walk sidetrack. Amazingly enough, our guides spot more things to tell us about on the way back!

On the drive back to Queenstown, we have more time to gaze at that beautiful scenery surrounding Lake Wakatipu while ML tells us the legend of how Lake Wakatipu came to be. Screw glacial-carving, we like the Maori legend so much more!

Hell, we are going to sleep well tonight! Tomorrow, we are exploring Middle-earth, Queenstown, on a Lord of the Rings tour. Join us then!

Surrounded by stunning scenery

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