The Routeburn Track, or There And Back Again

As we drove south from Oamaru to Queenstown, the landscape around us grew more and more impressive. Before arriving in New Zealand, we’d heard from other travellers that the South Island is more rugged and naturally beautiful than the North Island. Whilst on the North Island we wondered if this could be true, and since arriving on the South Island we’ve debated this question several times. However, the further south we have travelled the more sublime the landscapes have become, and we have to admit there is some truth to the commonly held opinion.

  Scrumping

  A clear indication that we were reaching the outskirts of Queenstown

We stopped in Queenstown for a couple of nights, spending a great day climbing on the Schist walls of Wye Creek, before departing for the Routeburn Track. This is one of New Zealand’s nine ‘Great Walks’, starting at the Routeburn Shelter, an hour’s drive from Queenstown. The trail climbs through mossy forest to alpine terrain, and crosses a mountain pass before descending a different valley to ‘The Divide’.

  Wye Creek cragging

  A hostel with a view

As we soon learned, the area is remarkable for its native wildlife. It’s many rare species include the Kea, the world’s only mountain parrot and one of the most intelligent members of the bird family, as well as the New Zealand Robin, a friendly and curious little creature.

Before Pacific Islanders first reached the shores of New Zealand around 1000 years ago, becoming the first Maori, no human had ever set foot on the islands. There were no animals, only birds and insects, the majority of which are not found anywhere else in the world. Early European explorers who sailed through the sounds wrote of the deafening sound of birdsong. Consequently all animals found here today are non-native, and preventing the introduction of foreign species is an important national issue, as anyone who has ever passed through New Zealand customs can attest to.

In the 19th century, the newly settled European gentry wanted animals to hunt for sport, and as there were no animals they brought across rabbits. With no predators and lots of grass, the rabbits bred like, well, rabbits, until populations reached plague proportions. To solve the problem of too many rabbits, the authorities decided to introduce weasels, ferrets and stoats (against the stern advice of bird experts). The native birds were far less effort to catch than the rabbits, many of them being flightless and not instinctively running away, never having had predators. Under these conditions stoats in particular flourished, and have now spread to every part of New Zealand and decimated native bird populations.

In an attempt to save the last of the endangered bird species, the Department of Conservation has installed a large number of traps along the Routeburn Track (as well as many other places), with the aim of reducing stoat populations. This project is already achieving noticeable success, and bird numbers are on the rise. With continued effort, it is hoped that over the coming years this will reverse the trend, and the forests of New Zealand will once again resound with birdsong.

  The New Zealand robin

The Routeburn Track is a multi-day walk, with overnight stays in basic mountain huts along the route. These can only accommodate a limited number of people, and so are often booked up months in advance. Hearing this, we booked 2 nights in the huts before we left the UK. However, in our enthusiasm at the time of booking, we failed to spot two flaws in the plan – firstly that the track starts and finishes in a different place, and secondly that the entire route is only 32 km (20 miles). To avoid the time and expense of arranging transport to the start and end points, and to ensure that we would be going for more than just a gentle stroll each day, we concocted a cunning plan; to walk the track ‘there and back’ over the course of 3 days.

 

With our first nights hut only 9 km into the route, Day 1 was rather leisurely. We set off from the car park in the early afternoon under sunshine and blue skies, and ambled at a steady pace through woodland, arriving at the Routeburn Falls hut 3 hours later. After a cold pasta dinner and a few card games we were ready to retire to our bunks, and drift off to a symphony of snores.

  The Route(burn)

  Fresh faced and bushy tailed

  Routeburn Flats

  The end of Day 1 at the Routeburn Falls Hut

Our hut for the second night was conveniently situated about halfway to the end point. However, with our new ‘return plan’, this meant for a big day – climbing to the high point of the route, descending all the way to the end, then turning around and climbing back up to the hut, a total of 35 km. In the morning we were the first to leave the hut, armed with headtorches in the pre-dawn darkness. As day broke the views were hampered by drizzle and cloud, but luckily we didn’t have any heavy rain all day. We crossed Harris Saddle, traversed down the enormous Hollyford Valley, then gradually descended to The Divide, passing the enormous wisp of Earlsdam Falls (174m) on the way. We turned around, and 10 hours after setting off we threw down our rucksacks at Mackenzie Hut, our home for the night. Needless to say, even the heaviest snorer couldn’t keep us from sleep tonight.

  Dawn breaking through the clouds on Day 2

  Enjoying the view from The Orchard

  Under the mighty Earlsdam Falls (174m)

  Hut life

Day 3 was a reasonable 20 km back to our start point, but this felt like a long way on our weary legs (and Charlotte’s blistered feet). We trudged into the car park in the early afternoon, and after tearing off our walking boots we sat back and tucked into the last of our food.

  Clouds above and below in the Hollyford Valley

  Lakeland scenery

  An island of green

  On the final swing bridge

  Not so fresh

We were glad to have done the Routeburn Track in this style, and it was certainly convenient to start and end in the same place. Even though the trail is only 32 km long, the distance between the start and finish points is approximately 320 km by road, a journey of around 5 hours! Our only change would be to alter our overnight stops, in order to balance out the walking distance on each day. The scenery throughout was splendid (though unfortunately obscured at times), staying in the huts was a good experience, and it was a great chance to see some of the native flora and fauna.

  Post-Routeburn refuelling! Domino’s is great value in New Zealand – all this cost just £7

  Trying out some local produce

Upon returning to Queenstown, we hobbled into town to sample some local wines, a well deserved treat. Tomorrow we move on to Milford Sound, 4 hours from Queenstown yet ironically only a short drive from The Divide!

L

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Trans-Alpine

 

Flock Hill Boulder Field

Leaving Golden Bay, our journey took us down the rugged west coast to the village of Punakaiki. The Tasman Sea on the west of New Zealand is wild and unpredictable, and swimming in the strong currents would be suicidal – a stark contrast to the peaceful, inviting waters of the Southern Ocean on the east.

  Punakaiki sunset

As well as being a convenient stopping point on our journey towards the Southern Alps, Punakaiki is known for its Pancake Rocks and blowholes. The layering system which formed the rocks along this part of the coast is responsible for their pancake appearance, and the blow holes are a direct result of coastal erosion. When the tide is high you are able to watch and listen as the sea surges into caverns and booms menacingly through the blowholes. A 6.30am high tide ensured that we had the rocks to ourselves, and after watching the sun rise we left, just as the hordes were arriving.

  Pancake rocks

We continued on to one of the major crossings of the Southern Alps; Arthur’s Pass, which connects Greymouth on the west with Christchurch on the east. The scenery through the pass is sensational, with majestic peaks bordering vast alpine meadows. It is along this pass that New Zealand’s only truly world class climbing areas are located; Castle Hill and Flock Hill. These are sprawling boulder fields, each with a breathtaking sea of bulbous limestone rocks. There are some bolted routes on the largest boulders, but most of the climbing here is bouldering; a discipline which requires no ropes or harnesses but instead involves solving reasonably short ‘problems’ with the protection of a soft mat. 

  Crossing Arthur’s Pass

  Springfield – our base for Castle Hill bouldering

After a comfortable nights sleep in an upgraded apartment style room we woke to the sound of rain, a rare occurrence since arriving in New Zealand. Not willing to let it dampen our spirits, we decided to venture up Arthur’s Pass and check out the bouldering anyway. It turned out that this was the right thing to do; as we climbed out of the valley the clouds disappeared, and our optimism was rewarded by high quality dry rock.

 

We spent three great days exploring both Castle Hill and Flock Hill, and even though we only climbed a fraction of what’s on offer, we still managed to get a good taste of the climbing at each area. Overall our favourite was Flock Hill, which had more strongly featured rock with beautiful water runnels and scoops. This area is slightly further from the road, and being on private land needs advance permission, meaning that it is rare to see anyone else there.

  On the slopes of Wuthering Heights (Castle Hill)

  Getting to grips at Wuthering Heights

  The walk in to Flock Hill

  Flock Hill highball

  Rock ninja

  Another great unknown problem

  Reaching for ripples

Completing the remaining section of Arthur’s Pass, we arrived on the east coast and headed south to a small town called Oamaru. Oamaru is famous for two things – penguins and Steampunk. For most penguins need no explanation, but Steampunk may be unfamiliar. We now know that Steampunk is a quirky form of science fiction in which old, usually Victorian era steam-powered machinery is adapted into futuristic seeming gadgets. The whole town has taken to its description of New Zealand’s Steampunk capital and various contraptions can be found all over, even in the children’s play park.

  Oamaru’s Steampunk HQ

  Another futuristic contraption

As mentioned, the second reason to visit Oamaru is for a chance to see the rare yellow eyed penguins, only found on the south-eastern coast of the South Island. At nearby Moeraki lighthouse there is a conservation hide, and at dusk if you are patient you can watch as the penguins navigate their way to shore. After spending an hour gazing out at the breaking waves, we spotted our first yellow eyed penguin. It was funny watching them try to get out of the water only to be dragged back in, before eventually waddling and squawking up the sands. To have seen them in their own habitat was a real privilege.

  The bizarre Moeraki boulders

  Penguin spotting

  Penguin spotted!

  Watch out for penguins

It is now off to Queenstown, New Zealand’s adrenaline capital. Here we plan on sampling some more climbing, as well as taking on another of New Zealand’s great walks, The Routeburn Track.

C

 

Golden Bay

Pohara beach, Golden Bay

The best way to travel from the North Island to the South Island is by taking the ferry across the Cook Strait, from Wellington to Picton. This takes about 3 hours, and most of the time is spent meandering between rugged islands at each end, with only about 40 minutes spent in the open sea. Consequently it makes for a very scenic journey, and we were lucky to have blue skies and sunshine for our crossing.

The following morning in Picton was a different story however, and we woke with rain beating against the windows. We were kindly put up for a couple of nights by my friend Alex, who I spent several summers working alongside as an outdoor activity instructor. Despite the weather we had a great time catching up, celebrating Hayley’s birthday and seeing some of the local area. One highlight was taking the plunge from a massive rope swing into a river, accessed by an off road drive and a swim to the other side – we would never have found this without local knowledge.

Grey skies over Picton

Marty in flight from the rope swing

We were soon moving on again, heading westward on the coastal Queen Charlotte Drive in much the same weather as we had arrived. Our destination was a small town called Takaka, at the heart of Golden Bay. Takaka is to New Zealand what Totnes is to England, described in the Lonely Planet guide as “boasting NZ’s highest concentration of yoga pants, dreadlocks and various types of drop-outs”. Whilst hitchikers are a regular sight in New Zealand, it wasn’t until reaching the outskirts of Takaka that we first witnessed a queue of them. This seems to operate in much the same way as a taxi rank, with etiquette dictating that you pick up the hitchhiker at the front of the queue. Regardless, Takaka was actually quite a nice place, and we spent an enjoyable week here.

Our main reason for visiting Golden Bay was to climb at Payne’s Ford, described as New Zealand’s premier sport climbing crag. The crag is in a beautiful setting, up on the hillside above a river, with great views across the green valley. The river has several excellent swimming holes, which are perfect for a refreshing dip after climbing. 

Payne’s Ford

Taking a dip at Payne’s

Most of the grey limestone faces at Payne’s are made up of endless horizontal ripples, which all look the same from below. Consequently, the typical Payne’s route requires you to reach up and run your hand across every useless ripple, until eventually you find the least bad one, pull up, and repeat.

One exciting aspect of the climbing here is the very ‘sporting’ approach to bolting. Usually when sport climbing, there is a bolt drilled into the rock every 3 or 4 metres, which you clip the rope into as you climb. The idea is then that if you fall off say 2 metres above a bolt, you will fall 4 metres (plus a little bit more due to rope stretch), ending up 2 metres below the bolt. At Payne’s it is not uncommon to have only 3 bolts in a 20 metre route, which can obviously lead to some pretty big falls (assuming the ground doesn’t get in the way first). Another favourite is for a route to be bolted consistently, but with a big gap just where you would expect to find the final bolt, resulting in a 7 or 8 metre run out to the anchor. Maybe we just don’t understand the Kiwi sense of humour (Charlotte in particular was ‘not amused’).

Charlotte pleased to find a well bolted line

On the classic arête of ‘Superconductor’ (23 / 6c+)

By the middle of the week our arms, fingers and nerves could take no more, and we took a well earned rest day. We decided to walk a stretch of the Abel Tasman route, one of ‘NZ’s Great Walks’, which runs along the coast to the east of Golden Bay. The path winds through forest, round headlands, and across some stunning beaches. We went as far as Separation Point, where you can follow a steep trail down to a granite platform just above the sea. We sat eating our lunch watching seals swimming below us, and afterwards I couldn’t resist jumping in to join them.

Abel Tasman route

Anapai beach, part of the Abel Tasman

Curious seals

Not a seal

Ending the rest day with a visit to Collingwood’s famous Rosy Glow chocolate shop

We had another few days at Payne’s Ford, with each of us climbing some fantastic routes. We thought the climbing here was very good, on a par with the some of the best sport climbing in the UK, but not quite world class.

We are now moving on again – back over Takaka Hill (there’s only one road in and out of Golden Bay), before heading south down the wild west coast.

L

A Journey Through Middle-Earth

Heading south, we left sulphurous Rotorua behind and drove to the sweeter smelling Tongariro National Park. A World Heritage Site, this is home to the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing, reputedly one of the best one day walks in the world. The route traverses a dramatic volcanic landscape, with craters, steaming vents, and beautiful mineral lakes.

Mt Ngauruhoe bathed in early morning light

A down side of the walk is that it starts and finishes at different points; hostels kindly solve the logistical problem by running overpriced shuttle buses to and from each end. Following our previous taste of early bird success, we were quick to add our names to the ‘by request only’ 6am shuttle bus, and so by 9pm we were tucked up in bed, bags packed and the alarm set for 5am!  

Along with an English couple we had already met in Rotorua, and a Brazilian guy, we embarked on the crossing in the dark. The previous day had been cloudy and wet, but luckily for us this was not the case, and a clear blue sky meant for breathtaking views the whole way round. As big fans of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, a particular highlight was the commanding presence of Mt Ngauruhoe, a.k.a. Mt Doom. Despite the obvious additional special effects, it wasn’t hard to see why this particular mountain was chosen as the fiery heart of Mordor. The crossing was spectacular, and we thought its big reputation was deserved.

Alpine start



The girls enjoying the facilities

The obligatory shot in front of Mt Doom

The Red Crater

On the way down to the Emerald Lakes

Pit stop 

Time for a lunch stop

Team Tongariro at the finish line – Ciaran & Lu, us and Enrique

From Tongariro we moved on to New Plymouth, where we continued volcano-bagging with an ascent of Mt Taranaki (2518m), a classic volcanic cone which dominates the surrounding landscape. With the last eruption over 350 years ago, experts say that the mountain is due for another go; however this doesn’t deter avid trampers, and after a 3 hour slog up its scree slopes we reached the summit. Again we lucked out with the weather, and from the top were rewarded by jaw dropping panoramic views, with Mt Doom visible in the far distance.

Another early start, Tongariro Crossing visible in the distance

Past the scree slopes at last

Snow ninja

Mt Taranaki

Since arriving in New Zealand one of the things that has really struck us is how friendly and easy going people seem to be, and New Plymouth was no different. Whilst taking an evening stroll we stumbled upon a pop up outdoor cafe/bar hosting a live music session; sitting back on deck chairs, enjoying the music with drinks in hand, we watched the sun set over the Tasman sea.

Having quenched our thirst for active volcanoes we headed onto Wellington, “the world’s coolest little capital”. Nowhere in New Zealand is that big, and this includes Wellington with a city population of less than 200,000. In spite of this, there is plenty to see and do, and with one day we only scratched the surface. 

Our first port of call was New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa, which loosely translates as ‘treasure box’. Spread out over 6 floors you could easily spend days wandering around its many exhibits. One of the highlights for us was a temporary exhibition to mark the 75th anniversary of Air New Zealand, complete with virtual reality headsets as a futuristic look at inflight entertainment. After enjoying a harbourside pub lunch with a couple of expatriated friends from our days at Bristol University, we took a ride on the iconic red cable car and clanked up to the top of the city. Built in 1902 it is still going strong, and from the top you are exposed to awesome views over the city, before taking a walk back down through the botanic gardens. 

Windy Welly

For the most part, we’ve enjoyed staying in hostels, in particular the novelty of cooking for ourselves. However those in the city seem to attract a different crowd to their rural counterparts, and so after a stressful cooking session, negotiating our way around dirty pots and pans, we found ourselves heading out to find one of Wellingtons ‘secret bars’. These are tucked away venues throughout the city, and may or may not require a secret knock. With a glass of local wine we mellowed out in ‘The Library’, lined from wall to wall with old books, and retired to our hostel in a much more amiable mood. 

Leaving the North Island behind

We are now off to the South Island, which is generally described as having more impressive natural landscapes than the North. Having seen some amazing places so far, we shall see whether the South Island lives up to its hype!

C

North Island Adventures

After a long, and spectacularly scenic drive from the North, we arrived in Tairua on the Coromandel Peninsula. A rugged mountain range bisects the peninsula, with stunning white sand beaches lining the east coast and muddy wetlands on the west. This region was the site of a gold mining boom in the mid 1800s, and the remnants of this can still be seen by taking a walk in the ‘Broken Hills’. We hiked through hilly forest, eventually reaching Collins Drive, a 500 metre long mine shaft. We donned our head torches and set off into the darkness. The highlight of the walk was halfway through the tunnel, at which point we turned off our lights and were treated to constellations of glow worms on the ceiling above us.

Hostel lunch

Going underground

Glow worm hunter

We also took time to visit the beach hotspots on the east coast – Cathedral Cove, a massive natural arch formed in a sea cliff near Hahei, and Hot Water Beach, where a hot spring emerges at a particular point on the sands, only exposed for a couple of hours either side of low tide. You can hire a spade, and dig your very own thermal pool in the sand. It was pretty busy with other people doing the same, but still a novel experience! 

The massive arch of Cathedral Cove

Before leaving Tairua, we took a short tramp (a walk, not a vertically-challenged homeless man) from our hostel to the top of nearby Mt Paku – a volcanic cone which juts out into the ocean, affording a great view over the coastline, and neighbouring Pauanui.

It was time to head to our first climbing destination in New Zealand. The beauty of having our own car is that we can stop when and where we want, and we made excessive use of this newly gained privilege. Rather than the boring main road, we took the scenic route through the impressive Karangahake Gorge. On the other side we stopped in Paeroa, home of ‘Lemon & Paeroa’ – a soft drink which prides itself on being “world famous in New Zealand”. Our final detour was to Matamata, a.k.a. Hobbiton, after which we eventually arrived at the climbing area.

A Kiwi classic

Hobbiton

The North Island is not known for its high quality rock climbing (in contrast to the South Island), however we had heard that Froggatt, near to Wharepapa South, was worth a visit. It turned out to be brilliant, and we had a great couple of days working our way through the best routes. The rock was pocketed schist, and looked a bit like the surface of the moon, with many of the route names being based on this theme.

Nearing the top of ‘Terror Incognita’ (6a)

Froggatt

Te Kuiti sunset

Every small town in New Zealand seems to have some claim to fame, and our overnight stop in Te Kuiti between climbing days didn’t disappoint, proudly announcing itself as the “Shearing Capital of the World”.

A couple of hours to the east is Rotorua, famed for its geothermal activity. The town itself is fairly unattractive, dubbed ‘RotoVegas’ due to its US-style sprawl of motels, and shrouded in a pervasive eggy aroma. It is however an ideal base from which to explore the area, which is full of things to see and do. One of our favourites was a visit to Wai-O-Tapu, a “geothermal wonderland”. We managed to be the first to arrive at opening time (a rare success), and had the park to ourselves as we followed the circuitous trail. The various geothermal sights were amazing – bubbling mud pools, lurid coloured mineral lakes, steaming craters and geysers.

Exploring Wai-O-Tapu

Champagne pool

The Devils Bath

Lady Knox geyser – a real crowd pleaser

Bubbling pools of mud

Looking over Lake Rotorua from the Polynesian Spa

Following an evening visit to the outdoor mineral pools, we were geothermal-ed out and so the next morning we decided to hit the mountain bike trails in Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest. Still fresh from Asia, we were thrilled to discover that the bikes we had hired not only worked, but were actually good. Armed with a trail map, and almost zero mountain biking experience / skill, we headed off into the forest. The layout was similar to a ski resort, with hundreds of trails signposted and coloured according to difficulty. The trails were brilliant, switching between boardwalk and hard mud, with lots of jumps and features. Surprisingly we managed not to overreach, and got as far as ‘challenging ourselves’ without reaching to the next stage, ‘hurting ourselves’.

It certainly would

Speed demon

Down the dip

Mud spattered, grinning, and after a well earned slice of cake, we returned to our trusty steed and departed for the mountainous south.

L

The Land Of The Long White Cloud

After 2 flights and a time shift of +6 hours we found ourselves in Auckland, New Zealand. Stepping off the plane what hit me first was the temperature; it was pleasant, in fact I was almost tempted to put on a jumper. It wasn’t long however before we were reminiscing about the sunshine of Thailand; by the time we reached our car hire office the heavens had opened and the roads were awash with water. Thankfully it was only one of New Zealand’s short, sharp showers and before we knew it the sun was shining and we were set loose on the rush hour roads of Auckland.

Feels just like home

Having some form of transport was important for us; with 2 months in New Zealand we wanted the freedom to move at our own pace and visit areas off the beaten track. Initially we had romantic notions of travelling around in a campervan, however the cost and the practicality of a car outweighed that of a van, and we are now the proud drivers of a Nissan Tiida.

Our hot new ride

Being a country which drives on the left side of the road we anticipated few issues, yet despite requesting a manual drive car we found ourselves in an automatic – easier to drive some would say, yet it took us both a while to accept that we really didn’t need to do anything with our left legs. 

Whilst Auckland isn’t the capital of New Zealand it is the most populous city, containing a third of the national population. Despite this, it doesn’t have a city feel – the pace is relaxed, and its many volcanic cones provide islands of green within the sea of suburbs. We didn’t have long in Auckland, and so we split what time we did have between exploring the city centre, home to the iconic Sky Tower, and walking up Mt Eden, Auckland’s highest volcanic cone, for an stunning panorama.

View of Auckland, over the crater of Mt Eden

Visiting New Zealand’s cities isn’t what we came for and we were happy to hit the road, especially having mastered the art of no gears. Our first destination was the Tawharanui peninsula, about an hours drive north of Auckland and slightly off the main tourist trail. It is also the site of New Zealand’s first marine park and it was here that we got our first taste of New Zealand’s epic coastline. Beautiful white beaches with sapphire blue water; not quite as warm as the Andaman Sea but definitely not cold by British standards.

Matheson bay

Pakiri beach

An extra treat was our hostels own microbrewery. New Zealand’s wines are celebrated but what is less documented is the booming craft-beer scene, and so after an afternoon of jumping through waves, we relaxed with a refreshing home brew. 

Like the UK’s YHA, New Zealand has a similar network (‘BBH’) of self catered hostel accommodation, offering a range of rooms with communal cooking facilities. Having spent the last 6 months eating out for breakfast, lunch and tea we are enjoying cooking for ourselves again. Despite some initial hiccups involving mistaken vegetable identities, we have brushed away the cobwebs and look forward to meal times.

Better than your average bus stop

It was always going to be impossible to see all that New Zealand has to offer yet avoid the crowds, and this was the case of our next destination, the Bay of Islands. Ranked as one of New Zealand’s top sights, The Bay of Islands is famed for its breathtaking scenery, as well as being the site of New Zealand’s first permanent British settlement. It was here that the Treaty of Waitangi, the founding document of New Zealand and a linchpin of race relations, was drawn up. 

In an attempt to reduce the number of tourists we came into contact with we found ourselves a small family run hostel, where comfy sofas and amazing views over the bay made it difficult to leave. We did however make it out and spent a couple of days exploring the local area. A particular highlight was a boardwalk trail which led through forest, mangrove swamps and along the banks of a river to a thundering waterfall.

Another busy morning

Mangrove swamp

From the Bay of Islands our journey through New Zealand will continue south, down the length of the North Island and then onto the South Island.

C