It was dark when the bus picked me up at the Holiday Inn in Queenstown for the drive to the trailhead.
The sky performed its morning magic as we left town, going from slate grey to purple to rose to robin's egg blue.
A soft mist hung over pastures of grazing sheep, blurring clusters of poplars that stood in the fields like isolated
sentinels. Above Lake Wakitipu rose the Remarkables, a range of saw-toothed mountains covered with scrub.
Where we were going we knew was often wet, but this was arid country and the dawn was bright and clear. It was
an auspicious beginning. However by the time we stopped at Te Anau for tea and scones it had begun to rain.
Those who were wearing shorts were shivering and one, who shall remain nameless, was wondering what he had
gotten himself into.
But wonder of wonders, by the time the driver dropped us off the rain had stopped. Carrying heavy
packs we walked up, and up, first through a temperate rain forest lush with ferns and moss-draped trees, then
into rugged scrubland with incredible views of the Hollyford Valley. Greg, from Washington, D.C., let out a
hacking cough. "I've got the Routeburn Rot," he said, and trudged on.
The Routeburn Track is not the most famous tramp, as the Kiwis put it, in New Zealand. The honors for
that go to the Milford, or so they'd have you believe. But both of them traverse the mountains of Fiordland National
Park, vast area of alps, fiords, glaciers and rainforests. And the Milford Track is highly regulated, only 80
trampers permitted each day, and is booked months in advance.
I took the Routeburn.
From Key Summit we had an easy walk to the Howden hut where Peter, one of our three guides, had
preceded us to "put the kettle on." The hut was typical of those on overnight tracks throughout New Zealand, a
wooden structure with a porch, rudimentary cooking facilities, coed bunk rooms, outside johns. Your basic basic.
The weather forecast was nailed to a wall: "Situation - a weak front will move across Fiordland today.
Cloudy skies, light rain. Outlook - scattered rains, fresh northerly winds." Excellent, considering that this was one
the wettest regions in the country.
After a hearty lunch by a nearby lake, leader Phil stood on the porch and addressed his flock. "Get
ready to leave in 10 minutes please. If everyone isn't ready, I may get stroppy."
"Stroppy?" I asked. Jan, hailing from Te Anau, explained that stroppy meant bossy, only worse.
The afternoon tramp was on a gentle path through glades of wildflowers, past small waterfalls and
blossoming trees with views of soaring mountains. I had been told that the Routeburn was one of the heavily
trafficked tracks, but our group of 19 had spread out and though I did meet other hikers, for long stretches I was
absolutely alone. And when I did meet people we always greeted each other with a smile. All at once I realized
that my spirits had lifted. I felt lighter, happier. "Is there a message in this?" I wondered.
At Earland Falls we stopped to admire the torrent pouring over a high cliff and I got a taste of the Kiwi
brand of leadership. After a while, Pete lugged on his pack and I asked if it was time to leave. "Nigh (no)," he
said. "I'm just going to catch up with the ones who've already left. Stay as long as you like." Competent and laid
back. A very nice combination.
The hut for our guided group was a far cry from the Howden hut which was for independant hikers. There
was a spacious dining room, sleeping rooms, each with 4 large bunk beds, 3 hot showers, and our guides
making us supper which we ravenously dug into, seated at a long table. Then because there was light only in the
dining room and that from large gas lanterns, we stayed there and chatted. I asked John, a sheep and cattle
farmer from the North Island, how he had gotten away. "Busy time for me is in spring," he said, "when the cattle
are calving and my 1200 sheep are lambing."
At 10, my roommates Sarah, Amy and I went to bed. I had been sitting on a bunk when these total
strangers asked if they could share my room. Of course I said yes, visions of undressing under the covers in
my head. I did mention that I had been told I snored, but that didn't dissuade them. However, sometime during the
night I was awakened by a voice speaking my name. "Bob...Bob!" it said twice, and I rolled over. In the morning
Amy said she had called me 5 times.
We woke at 8 PM, amazed that we had slept so long. The night sky had been cloudless, full of stars.
But in the morning there was only a small patch of blue on the horizon with a full moon bulls-eyed in the center.
This was to be our longest day, hiking above the treeline and we were raring to go.
We started the day by walking into a forest of thick and gnarled trees encrusted with lichen and moss,
looming over us like ancient harbingers of doom. Quickly we scuttled through, fearing that the verdent greenery
might start climbing up our legs.Then, as if a line had been drawn across the mountain, the rain forest ended
and we emerged into the eggshell light of day. Now under a gentle rain we walked until lunchtime,
yellow-slickered against the elements through fields of grass and wild white gentians.
At lunch we huddled inside an A frame hut at the Harris Saddle where the views would have been
magnificent if we could have seen them. Were we miserable? We were not. But I waited as long as I could
before slogging up the hill where Martin from Switzerland was looking down at a glacial lake. "It must be
beautiful," he said, and we both burst into laughter.
And in fact it was beautiful. The lake sat in a bowl of mountains whose pockets of snow were just
visible in the mist. At one end it narrowed to a funnel and poured over the edge. Far below, the river that it fed
twisted toward the Tasman Sea. In the soft white light the mountain vegetation gleamed in all its variations of
green. Dressed for the occasion, we were warm and dry and though we would have loved to see the complete
landscape, our own miniature world was beauty enough.
By 3:30 the familiar rumble of a waterfall signalled the Falls Hut where we would spend the night.
Rounding a bend, the clouds lifted and a deep valley guarded by a phalanx of peaks opened before our eyes.
Behind the hut a rush of water fell into a narrow gorge. It was a postcard scene, corny as a calendar, and
By that evening a strange alchemy had transformed our disparate group of strangers into best friends.
We talked and laughed as if we'd known each other for years. And then, worn out and happy, we went to bed and
slept like the dead.
I awoke at 8 on the first trip I'd ever been on where I got more sleep than I did at home. And on this third
and last morning there was not a cloud in the sky. Since it was a short tramping day - we were scheduled to start
at 10:30 - some of us retraced our steps to see what we'd missed in the rain. We were glad we did because we
discovered that the Routeburn was just as magnificent in the sun as in the rain, but no more. We hadn't missed a
The previous afternoon we had crossed an invisible line into Mt.Aspiring National Park, very similar to
Fiordland except further from the sea. After the first day's tough climbs, this hike had been a piece of cake,
through deep green forest on a gently descending path carpeted with leaves.
Around noon we bottomed out at the Flats where we had lunch, all T-shirts and shorts under a
glacier-frosted peak. After time spent picking wild raspberries, we strolled through a serene meadow by a clear
river that tumbled under several small bridges. Now the high drama of the early track gave way to gentle fern filled
glades and ramrod red beeches.
At 3 o'clock, much too soon, we boarded the bus that took us back to Queenstown. That evening we
met one last time at a restaurant where we were wined and dined and received a diploma commemorating our
graduation from the Routeburn Track. When it was over, John was going back to his thousands of sheep, Nicky
to her job as a reserves analyst in Wellington, Ted to his obstetrics practice in Boulder, Colorado.
And I? I was just going.
FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK is the southernmost national park in the South Island, covering almost 25%
of the southwest coast. Most travelers use Queenstown as a base.
HOW TO GET THERE: Air New Zealand - 800 262-1234 - has nonstop service from Los Angeles to
Aukland with connections to Queenstown via Christchurch. It is highly recommended. United - 800 241-6522 -
has nonstop service to Aukland from Los Angeles. Continental - 800 231-0856 - has one stop service to Aukland.
WHEN TO GO: New Zealand's seasons are the opposite of ours. The further south, the colder. September
through March are the best months.
OUTFITTER USED FOR THIS ARTICLE: The Routeburn Walk Ltd. offers excellent guided hikes on the
Routeburn and Greenstone Tracks. Book through the above or contact at P.O. Box 568, Queenstown, New
Zealand. Tel. (643) 442-8200.
WHERE TO STAY: There are 63 hotels and motels in Queenstown of which the Holiday Inn is one of the
best. Other upscale hotels are the Park Royal and the Lakeland Hotel. The Quality Inn and Flag hotels are
moderate in price.
WHERE TO EAT: in Queenstown. Reflections in the Holiday Inn and Clancy's in the Lakeland Hotel are
good hotel restaurants. In town the Pot au Feu is small and neat, highly recommended. The Cow is a charming
little pub for pasta and pizza. The Lone Star is very casual and serves large portions.
TIPS FOR INDEPENDANT TRAVELERS:
1. Make good use of the New Zealand Tourism Board, 501 Santa Monica Blvd. # 300, Santa Monica, CA
90401. Tel. 800 388-5494 or 310 395-7480. Useful free publications include the Official New Zealand Vacation
Planner, the New Zealand Where to Stay Guide, Getting Around New Zealand Travel Guide, Sightseeing
Summary, and the New Zealand Natural Heritage Guide.
2. At Queenstown, make an early visit to the visitors' center. It has much local information and literature
available nowhere else.
3. Guide books: For general overview: Fodor (good,) Frommer (better,) Moon Publications' "New Zealand
Handbook (best.) Also excellent with emphasis on budget are "New Zealand, A Travel Survival Kit" and
"Tramping in New Zealand" by Jim DuFresne, both published by the Lonely Planet Press.
4. Clothing: Better too little than too much. Anything you lack is easily purchased. Most motels and
hotels have washer-dryers for clients. My most used articles of clothing were flannel shirts and a light ski jacket. I
hiked in jeans which were not recommended (but which I like.) Kiwis hike in shorts in almost all weather, wearing
tights underneath when very cold. I was happy to have brought gloves, a cap with a peak, sun glasses and insect
5. Clothing recommended for the Routeburn Track: 2 sets of underwear. 2 shirts or T-shirts. Trousers or
sweat pants. Shorts. 3 pr. woolen socks. Wollen sweater or thermal wear. Sunscreen. Warm hat. Boots or
strong walking shoes. Toiletries. Insect repellent. Camera. Longjohns.
6. Prices for accomodations and meals are about 1/3 less in New Zealand than for comparable items in