A February 2003 trip
to Queenstown by wanderluster
Quote: Wandering around Tolkien's Middle-earth, turquoise rivers, jagged mountains, bogs, dark tarns and eerie moss-encrusted rainforests overwhelmed us each step of the breathtaking journey on foot through New Zealand's Southern Alps.
New Zealand truly IS a tramping paradise. Thousands of Kiwis–including Hillary, the first man to ascend Mt. Everest–regularly hike through the country's magnificent alpine, rainforest and coastal scenery. An extensive track and hut system makes multi-day tramps simple and hassle-free. Of the 50-odd tracks, 8 are designated Great Walks for outstanding scenery.
Of the three most popular–Milford, Abel Tasman, Routeburn–we chose the latter. Most locals prefer it over the more famous Milford Track for it's variety of terrain, smaller crowds and less rain, and I was NOT disappointed!
The fabulous 32km alpine track traverses Mt. Aspiring and Fjordland National Parks past glacial lakes and snow-capped mountains, winds through fairyland forests, crosses rushing rivers on swing bridges, snakes through tall tussock grasses, and hugs steep bluffs decorated with gigantic mountain daisies and strange but beautiful plants.
No worries, mate! If you're reasonably fit and can hike hilly terrain a few hours a day at home you'll do fine. Yes, there are some steep sections, but they're doable. Endurance-wise, I could've easily continued past the huts at the end of the day after just 3-6 hours of hiking.
You can hike this trail independently or guided. Independent hikers stay in mountain huts situated in the choicest spots complete with padded bunks, flush toilets, gas stoves, tables and running water–for NZ (US). In contrast, guided hikers stay in separate bunkhouses, forking over a whopping for the privilege of hot meals and showers. No contest! And trust me, you won't get lost.
After your hike, make a trip into Milford Sound. You can stay overnight on a ship (Wanderer or Mariner) but not the hotel (it's reserved for the guided hikers).
Backpacker Express bus (NZ) transports hikers from Queenstown to the trailhead near Glenorchy at 8am and noon. The two-hour bus ride follows NZ's longest lake, Wakatipu, beautiful blue water framed by green mountains and snow-capped mountains. In Glenorchy, the bus stops at a tiny store before crossing Dart River and arriving at Routeburn Shelter.
At the Divide (end of Routeburn) numerous buses pass through heading for Milford Sound, Te Anau or Queenstown. TrackNet travels the one hour trip from the Divide to Milford Sound (NZ) at 8am, 10:45am, and 2:15pm. Request afternoon transport unless you don't mind departing the hut at 5am to reach the connecting bus in time. (Info Centre originally chose a 9:30am bus for us.)
From Milford Sound, TrackNet bus travels back to Queenstown (9:30am-2:30pm) for NZ. Scenic flights will zip you back to Queenstown in 40 minutes for NZ, but only in clear skies. Ours canceled. Fortunately I'd made backup reservations with the only bus departing that morning, TrackNet (which was full).
The friendly office staff will arrange any of the available tours or adventure activities (bungy jumping and jet boating originated in this area), and most tour operators will conveniently pick you up from the front door.
Ensuite rooms range from shared bunks in a dorm (NZ$20) to deluxe doubles overlooking the lake (NZ$119). We splurged on the latter (US$65) which included a continental breakfast at the adjoining Fat Gingers Café.
We arrived at 10am after a 2 hour bus ride from Wanaka, in time to check in, eat Thai across the street and go on the afternoon Lord of the Rings tour. Afterwards we walked along the wharf with another couple we'd met on the tour who invited us to eat a leisurely lamb dinner with them at the Loaded Hog, then frantically attempted to do laundry and organize our packs for tomorrow's early departure for the Routeburn Track. Whew! A busy day.
One word of caution about the hotel's laundry facilities. There's only one dryer. When my husband left his babysitting post and came back to the room for something, someone who'd apparently hand-washed their clothes and tennis shoes stuck them in the dryer ahead of us using up the dryer till closing at 10pm. In a panic, David took his clothes and lugged them to another laundry facility several blocks away only to find it closed. Damp laundry is the last thing you want to pack on a multi-day hike in the mountains!
Meanwhile, I filled our Camelbacks and shoved them in the handy dorm-sized refrigerator, and separated belongings not needed for the next 4 days to store at the hotel. Around midnight we finally had our backpacks organized and went to bed. But couldn't sleep.
Beds were comfortable, but MAN was it loud! Kids rollerblading on the uneven bricked surface of the wharf under our window, mixed with boom boxes of loud music, and crowds of people leaving bars, yelling, laughing and carrying on till 3am. The LOUD noises traveled up to our 3rd floor room permeating the closed windows as if they were wide open.
Although the priciest room had a grand view of the wharf–even at night boats were visible sailing on the lake–I would not stay here again. At least not in this deluxe lakeside room. Perhaps, giving them the benefit of the doubt, the mountainside rooms are quieter.
It's a shame if they're not, as the location truly is perfect. Just not for sleeping.
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on August 2, 2003
50 Beach Street
Queenstown, New Zealand
Attraction | "Routeburn Track...Day 1"
Most of today's hike followed the Routeburn River. The beautifully colored aquamarine water vibrantly contrasted against vivid white limestone rocks in the river bed and lush, green giant ferns in the beech forest. Gorgeous!
Along the way we crossed five swing bridges, which were a bit unnerving at first. The two narrow planks that make up the bridge do swing, and it's hard to stay balanced with bulky backpacks swaying side to side with each tentative step. It was fun to see how far we could get across before frantically lunging for the railings.
A boardwalk protected fragile vegetation in places. Ferns were everywhere. Waist-high. Shoulder-high. THIS was the New Zealand I had come to see! I kept stopping to take photographs until my husband complained about my dawdling. (Ironically, rolls of film AND my telephoto lens got lost by the end of the trip, so I have few photos of day one.)
The colorful river winding through the forest provided a beautiful backdrop for trampers perched on rocks basking in the sun enjoying morning tea.
For lunch we stopped at the two hour mark where the trail forks off to Routeburn Flats hut. This perfect spot overlooked the river with snow-capped mountains in the background, and a waterfall cascading high in a green mountain opposite the shore. Although it was 70 F and sunny, it was chilly when we stopped hiking, and I was glad I'd packed a fleece pullover to throw over my coolmax tee.
Up until now it had been a gradual ascent. But the next hour was grueling. Out came our hiking poles and up, up, up we went. A sheer drop off on the right made each step a calculated decision, our backpacks swaying in counter balance as we precariously advanced over rocky terrain, attempting to find the stablest rocks to keep us upright. At the top, the trail leveled off and went through a landslide area damaged in 1994 which created a stunning view of the valley and river now far below. After another killer 15 minute climb (1000 ft ascent in last hour), we arrived at the hut.
Falls Hut was awesome! Cantilevered over a forest floor, the 48 bed bunkhouse (new in 1996) had amazing views of the mountains from it's long verandah. Clean bathrooms had flush toilets, sinks. The kitchen had gas burners, and two levels of wooden dining tables under huge picture windows. In the backyard was nature's icy shower, a thundering waterfall just two minutes away.
Spent the afternoon writing, exploring the waterfalls and talking politics with Canadians and Kiwis in the evening—interesting to say the least. Everyone wanted to know our perspective (only Americans present) on the possible approaching war . . .
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 2, 2003
Mount Aspiring National Park
Queenstown, New Zealand
Attraction | "Routeburn Track...Day 2"
Those who preferred to stay up late did so in the communal dining area nicely separated from the 48 bed bunkhouse. It was the perfect place for an entertaining group of 12 Kiwi women to catch up on each other's lives on their annual pilgrimage hooting it up with loud laughter, wine and warm camaraderie. I admired their spirit and ambition to hike a different Great Walk together each year. What a great idea!
Everyone was up by 7am, although some left at 5am to get an early start on the six hour hike. Chilly and cloudy, the mountains looked faint through misty fog. We ate protein bars for breakfast as we scurried up rocks behind the hut. The trail climbed past thundering waterfalls, then leveled out across an open alpine basin strewn with white daisies and golden tussock grasses. Majestic snow-capped mountains appeared near, but the Routeburn river curved through the valley far below.
An hour later we came to glacier-fed Lake Harris. Striking. Thick white clouds rolled in as we rounded the lake and approached Harris Shelter, where Kiwis were having morning tea. The impressive Darran Mountains seen just moments before were replaced by a thick white fog for the rest of the day. No wonder so few took the optional climb to Conical Hill (1-2 hour hike).
The next section was an exposed hike along a bluff normally overlooking Hollyford Valley and Darran mountains but clouds completely obliterated our view. Lush strange vegetation at our feet was fascinating. Clumps of hardy mountain daisies, tufts of flax, tussock grasses and unusual shrubs, plants and flowers were thick along the trail. As we neared a waterfall, kea parrots mischievously "attacked" my unsuspecting husband, swooping and screaming in sudden mayhem, nearly sending him over the cliff.
Loud rumbling noises in the cloaked Darran mountain range sounded like thunder but were chunks of ice breaking free and crashing from an avalanche we later learned from our hut warden.
The trail sharply descended down a visible zigzag for over an hour. The path scattered with cumbersome boulders and ankle-twisting rocks was surprisingly difficult. But the reward was a magical, ancient moss-encrusted rainforest at the end.
We crept through this eerie primeval forest half-expecting to see little elves peering from aged beech trees with gnarly red trunks and twisted branches heavily draped in mosses and lichens up to 700 years old. Everything but the rocks in our path was dramatically smothered in velvety-green.
But the jewel was Lake Mackenzie—clear, emerald green water punctuated with designer outcroppings nestled in towering mountains. By 3pm, most hikers had arrived and converged on this scenic shore to read, relax and mingle until darkness and sandflies chased us into Mackenzie hut.
Attraction | "Routeburn Track...Day 3"
We awoke to a steady downpour. Socks and boots outside the hut were wet, and people grumbled as they collected soggy clothes hanging outside to dry.
It had been a quiet night and quite comfortable in Mackenzie hut, despite sleeping nose to nose with perfect strangers. Rather than individual bunks, up to 8 people shared flat padded surfaces on upper or lower bunks. Luckily, the French couple next to us didn't snore, wear headlamps or rustle noisy wrappers in the night, and a wall was on our other side.
We dug out protective rain covers for our backpacks, and ate breakfast on the trail as we began the last leg of our journey. The trail was flat for the first three hours. We crossed two swing bridges over Roaring Creek and passed numerous waterfalls in a fairyland forest of moss-covered rocks, beech trees and giant ferns. At one point, we walked through a cleared area, known as the Orchard, which had ribbonwoods resembling fruit trees, although we didn't pause to look too closely in the pouring rain.
Back in the rainforest, we teetered across swing bridges swaying over surging, swollen rivers, catching the spray of cascading waterfalls that thankfully hadn't washed out the trail. Signs marked detour routes for occasions when the falls render the trail impassable. Earland Falls is the big one that you hear before you see. Through the misty rain we saw the 1000 foot stream thundering down from a high mountain.
Ah, surely the finest walk on earth belongs to this trek, not the Milford!
At the three hour mark we came to Howden hut situated on a lake. Just one hour from the end of the Routeburn Track, the only trampers that stay here are those who didn't make reservations for Mackenzie hut early enough. But it does make a nice place to stop for toilets or tea. Elevensies anyone?
After Howden hut, we ascended the only difficult climb of the day, a 15 minute steep incline. At the top, the optional trail to Key Summit was visible. Although it was rainy and cloudy erasing views from the mountain, I wanted to learn about the strange and beautiful plants I'd seen along the Routeburn.
So we hid our packs and walked up the gradual switchbacks to Key Summit. An easy waltz along a boardwalk led us past tarns, bogs and alpine meadows. Unfortunately, written guides describing the eight stations in the Nature Loop were missing so it wasn't informative, but the fascinating plants were worthwhile to see regardless. Within 45 minutes we were back on the main trail.
Just under an hour, we reached the grand finale of the Routeburn, the Divide. Soaked and feeling giddy, we broke into impromptu song and dance mimicking our daughter's favorite cartoon character, Dora, "We did it! We did it . . . yeah!"
Attraction | "Overnight on Milford Sound's Wanderer ship"
Touted as the premiere day trip from Queenstown (5 hours away), hoards of tourists visit moody Milford Sound taking hour-long cruises and peeking inside luxuriant rainforests edging up to the glaciers. Some explore deeper, sampling the canopy of moss-laden trees and giant ferns representative of nearby Great Walks on Milford, Routeburn, Greenstone and Hollyford Tracks. Most people completely disappear by late afternoon. When the last bus departs, the buzz turns to hush.
The few that remain have chosen to stay overnight aboard one of three ships.
All cruise the length of the Sound, provide wildlife viewing from kayaks or zodiacs, hot showers, buffet meals and the opportunity to listen to the brooding silence of the fjord. Differences? Sleeping arrangements. The Mariner sleeps 60 in private ensuite cabins, 61 passengers on the Wanderer share four bunks per compartment, and the Friendship sleeps 12 in a single bunkroom.
We arrived by bus from the Divide, a forty minute ride from the ending point of the Routeburn. After catching up on emails at the Milford Internet Café, we walked to the dock and boarded the three-masted Wanderer at 4:30pm.
Heavy clouds cast dramatic shadows on the mountains, creating sinister silhouettes against a darkening sky. Dressed in fleece, we stood on the bow in heavy mist and biting winds listening to the captain's narration as we sailed under towering Mitre Peak.
Anchored in Harrison Cove for the night, I joined a nature excursion aboard a zodiac boat. Although the fjordland-crested penguins and Hector dolphins won the game of hide-and-seek, our guide pointed out some interesting geology as we trolled along the shoreline.
Back on board, I joined my husband for dinner. He was sitting in one of the semi-circular booths conversing with guys we'd met previously on the TranzAlpine train and Routeburn. Tonight's menu was pumpkin soup, roast chicken, potatoes and gravy, kumera (yams), broccoli, salad, fruit, chocolate pudding and ice cream. Absolutely yummy, especially after tasteless meals on the trail!
Sharing NZ wine, we spent the evening immersed in conversation while others around us played board games like Monopoly in the congenial atmosphere.
Bunks were comfortable, but laughter and light traveling down open stairways after midnight kept me awake. Romanticized visions of being lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the ship evaporated like fog. The stationary ship could've been a hotel had the noisy generator not gurgled all night.
Through gray skies the next morning, the captain cruised over to a thundering waterfall and lingered under it's spray before returning us to the dock after breakfast.
Sailing . . . relaxing finale to a great hike.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on August 2, 2003
SW of South Island Within Fiordland National Park
South Island, New Zealand
Attraction | "Lord of the Rings Tour"
When Peter Jackson was 18 years old traveling through New Zealand on a train, he read Tolkien for the first time. He noticed then how the landscape resembled Middle Earth but waited 20 years to share his vision with moviegoers.
Since the film's release, three operators in Queenstown area created tours to visit magical landscapes where scenes were shot:
* Nomad Safaris offer half day tours (NZ$120) leaving Queenstown at 8:30am or 1:30pm. We chose Wakatipu (Misty Mountains, Pillar of Kings, Ford of Bruinen, Road to Mordor) over Glenorchy sites (Seat of Seeing, Amon Hen, Lothlorien, Isengard).
* If you'd rather fly than drive, Trilogy Tours offers a 2-3 hour helicopter ride over the same sites. For NZ$260 you can soar like Gandalf.
* Lord of the Rings Tour based in Wanaka visits up to 20 locations with the added opportunity to meet Ian Brodie, author of Lord of the Rings Location Book.
Devoted RING fans may be interested in an upcoming two week guided trip departing late November 2003. For NZ$2815, you'll see major movie locations and the World Premiere Return of the Ring shown in Wellington Dec. 1st. Contact Red Carpet Tours.
NOMAD'S WAKATIPU TOUR
Our energetic guide, an Orc extra, drove us to a high vantage point over Queenstown to show us where Gandalf stood on a grassy knoll, and hobbits cried after he disappeared. These Misty Mountains (Remarkables) were frequently used as backdrops for battle scenes.
At Kawarau River we saw where Pillar of Kings stood on cliffed banks of the river. Obviously the pillars were computer generated, but the turquoise river was immediately recognizable, although MUCH smaller in person. River Anduin where the Fellowship traveled in boats after leaving Lothlorien was also filmed here.
In Arrowtown, our Land Rover bounced along the banks and through the river leading to Ford of Bruinen where the Black Riders were swept away. In this memorable scene Arwen, protecting a dazed Frodo on her white horse, invoked the waters to rise to the demise of the hooded Nazguls. (Here we panned for gold. Our guide brought out metal pans and showed us how to swish around gravel in water. None of got lucky, but there IS gold we're told.)
Our final stop was Road to Mordor, (Skipper's Canyon). Closed to rental cars (for good reason!) this skinny scenic serpentine road snakes along precarious mountain ridges overlooking jagged peaks and steep valleys. Just don't expect to see Mordor here, as it was filmed at Tongariro on the North Island.
Amazingly beautiful landscapes were fun to explore with an insider, and I have to agree with Sam's Sean Astin . . . It's like Tolkien walked across New Zealand then sat down to write the trilogy.
Lord of the Rings Tour
Surrounding Queenstown, Arrowtown, Glenorchy
Queenstown, New Zealand
Equipment: Rent sleeping bags, poles, eating utensils from Info and Track Centre in Queenstown. Can reserve gear in advance over the Internet. Everything was clean, inexpensive and top-notch.
Pack: Ziploc baggies galore. Handy for smelly socks, trash, film, leftover food. Yes, you have to carry out your trash. So bring only what you know you'll eat.
Backpack: Reduce the amount! Keep weight under 20 lbs per pack including sleeping bag, clothes, food and water. A simple hike can become strenuous just with the extra weight, especially if you're not used to carrying a backpack. My pack at 25lbs was indeed heavy, but my husband's 35lb pack was unbearable on steep 1000 foot ascents.
Food: Foil wrapped tuna/salmon was a big hit for lunch. Freeze-dried dinners were nasty. Only inexperienced trampers like us attempted to eat them (then carried them back out with us). Kiwis brought rice, noodles, soup mixes, spices, fresh vegetables and even wine.
Water: Tap water is safe in NZ. But waaay out in the mountain huts...you take your chances with giardia. Thrice bitten, I didn't want to tempt fate in NZ so I lugged two heavy Camelback packs with me–enough for the three day duration–to avoid the nasty bug and taste of iodine purification tablets. Too heavy. Bring a water purification system instead.
Best Map: 1:50,000 at DOC office.
Which route: Glenorchy to the Divide! Otherwise, the trail is primarily uphill, adding 4 hours to your hike.
PERMITS: The track is restricted to 60 hikers a day. Permits sell out quickly. Busiest times are Dec and Jan (NZ's holiday). Choose your dates and reserve months in advance through Internet by contacting the DOC or Info and Track Centre. July 1st booking begins for the upcoming season. Permits must be picked up in person the day prior to your hike at the DOC in Queenstown.
Huts: Of the four huts on the Routeburn, the choicest ones are Falls and Mackenzie for their spectacular scenery and location on the trail. Flats hut is located only two hours from the beginning of the trail, and Howden is located an hour from the very end.
Clothing: It may look funny, but Kiwi's are on to something. Leggings. Striped leggings to be exact, paired with baggy shorts and gaitors worn over hiking boots to protect boots and socks from rain and mud. Highly comfortable and functional! Take mid-weight fleece, coolmax tees and underwear, shorts, long underwear, gloves and hat. Rain gear is cumbersome. Wait to hire it from the Info Centre at the last minute if weather looks daunting. My nylon windbreaker held up fine in light rain under the canopy of the rainforest the final day, but wouldn't have kept me dry on the exposed alpine crossing Day 2.