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.
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.
Fresh faced and bushy tailed
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)
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
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!