Te Araroa: Queenstown to Te Anau (And the Routeburn Great Walk Alternate)

 

March 16, 2018

START: Glenorchy @ 1705
FINISH: Routeburn Shelter @ 2135
DISTANCE: 26 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,337.5 km

Man, I get sucked into the town vortex way more often here than back home. It’s like I get there, and I just don’t wanna leave. Checked out of the hostel today around 0930 and didn’t actually start hitching until after 1400. Where does the time go? Brunch followed immediately by elevensies, then a walk around town, then lunch. What I really should’ve done was buy new shoes, but I’d obviously much rather spend that money on food.

The hitch out to Glenorchy was tougher than I’d anticipated. Caught a pretty quick ride that got me about five kilometers out of town, then I had to wait quite some time to get the next one. Henry and Ivy finally scooped me up and were happy to drop me at the general store in Glenorchy on their way to Kinloch. They’re from Taiwan and travel quite a lot. They’ve been to Peru and Nepal and a few other places I really want to go. I really enjoyed talking with them and am excited to follow their travels in the future.

Arrived around 1600 and spent about an hour hanging with the girls at the general store before finally willing myself up the road. Pretty big road walk to the Routeburn trailhead. They’re gonna camp in Glenorchy and meet me at the trailhead in the morning. Planning to hike the great walk together, assuming they can get an early hitch.

The road walk was quite mellow and absolutely beautiful. I arrived well after sunset. Had dinner and am now tucked in nicely at the trailhead shelter. Man, I’m tired.

March 17, 2018

START: Routeburn Shelter @ 0830
FINISH: McKellar Hut @ 2015
DISTANCE: 30 + 7 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,374.5 km

I slept well last night and woke up relatively refreshed around 0730 this morning. (I’m getting sick, so it may be a little rough out here for a while.) I’d made hot chocolate and was surprised to see the girls roll up at 0800. They waited patiently for me to finish my morning routine, and we set off at 0830. I’m glad we were able to walk the Routeburn together. They’re totally my people out here. Today was one of my favorites on trail. The scenery and weather were amazing despite an overcast start. I walked all day with the girls and got to share the trail with Garrett also. Really like him a lot and hope to see more of him down the trail or perhaps back in the states sometime.

God, the views today were outstanding. I’d have to hike this trail a dozen times to get good light in all the spots where I so desperately wanted it. Got plenty of pretty nice photos that had unbelievable potential had I been there at a different time of day. That’s the peril of being a thru hiker first: I’m gonna try to time my days to hit the best views at prime time, but I’m not gonna wait around very long to get the perfect shot. I’d never get anywhere. There are too many amazing views, and I never know how the view I’m looking at compares to the view around the corner. Talk about first world problems. Pretty nice that that’s my major stress out here.

We really took out time today. Had a long lunch at Harris Saddle. Stopped for many, many epic glamour shots. The trail was obviously well maintained and nicely graded. It is a great walk, after all. And the huts were nicer than some hotels I’ve stayed in. They were huge by backcountry standards- around 50 bunks each, I think. I would’ve expected to pass more folks on the trail, but I think our slower pace today worked out well because most of the other walkers were starting later, finishing earlier, and covering far less distance. While I believe this is a fairly common alternate for TA walkers (minimum effort, maximum payout), the typical great walk hikers are a different breed. I passed a group of guided walkers around 1630, and one of the women asked how far to the hut behind me. I told her, and she said to the others “We need to hurry. The bar is already open.” I was like “Wait, there’s a bar back there??!” She informed me that it was only at the guided walk hut, not the standard hut. Let’s just call it what it is: The Chalet.

The Greenstone Track splits off from the Routeburn at the Howden Hut. Since great walk huts have to be reserved and paid for separate from the hut pass, we were all planning to walk an additional six kilometers to the McKellar Hut, which made our day a very manageable 37 k. I’d planned to pass the junction and follow the Routeburn to the side trail up Key Summit, but it was too late in the day when we arrived at Howden, so I picked up the Greenstone with the others. We barely made our destination before twilight faded. McKellar is quite large having probably 24 bunks, and we arrived late to find it nearly full. Thankfully the bunk rooms are separate from the common room, so we were able to do our evening routine without disturbing anyone too much. I’m feeling so satisfied this evening. What a fantastic day, made far better because I shared it with dear friends.

March 18, 2018

START: McKellar Hut @ 0800
FINISH: Carey’s Hut @ 1900
DISTANCE: 18 + 27.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,420 km

Absolutely wonderful day today. The walk down the Greenstone Valley to the Greenstone Hut was gorgeous. After lunch at the hut, I weaved in and out of the trees as the trail climbed a bit before darting down another stunning valley. The clouds made for some dramatic scenes. I couldn’t take more than a dozen steps without snapping another photo.

I arrived at the Boundary Hut at 1730 and figured I’d rather continue on another six easy kilometers to the Carey’s Hut than call it an early day. With the weather always so variable, I like to cover as much distance as I can whenever it’s nice out. And today was beautiful. I was loving the evening light and snapping photos in every direction as I went. The Carey’s Hut is tucked against the foot of a small rise and sits right on the edge of North Mavora Lake. It’s a wicked spot, and I’m stoked to be here tonight. Hoping to get some nice morning shots before setting out tomorrow.

I had hoped to continue hanging with the girls, but I’m not surprised they didn’t push this far today. I half expected to see Rob’s name ahead in the hut books, but no such luck. I was hoping I might catch him today or tomorrow, but it seems he’s still behind. Maybe he and the girls found each other today. I caught up with Karima at the Carey’s, and I’m glad I got to see her again before she skips ahead to the finish. Who knows, maybe we’ll all get to hang at the Kiwi Burn Hut tomorrow evening. How cool would that be?

We were joined tonight by a party of five- a family of four with two young children and their family friend who was celebrating his 66th birthday. They arrived about an hour after me and cooked a large celebratory dinner with wine and cake. As I laid down in bed, one of them offered a night cap of whiskey, which Ben and I gratefully accepted. Smooth as, and a nice finish to a long day.

March 19, 2018

START: Carey’s Hut @ 0820
FINISH: Kiwi Burn Hut @ 1430
DISTANCE: 26 + 1 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,447 km

I woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat for the first time this trip. It’s chilly outside, but I guess the others built up the fire a little before they went to sleep. I was beat and fell asleep pretty early. Looking at a pretty short walk today, but I still wanted to get an early start to beat any weather that might roll in.

I walked out of the hut and was greeted by thick clouds, typical New Zealand. I was moving fast along the four wheel drive road, admiring the mountains on either side as the road traced North Mavora Lake’s shoreline. This, the Mavora Walkway, has been another highlight of my trail experience. Even as a sheet of rain chased me down the valley this morning, the weather the last few days has been quite wonderful. I’ve loved the partly cloudy skies, the soft, even light, and the persistent cool breeze. I was surprised to also be chased by hordes of sandflies this morning. They continue to be a near-non-issue, which is contrary to everything I’d heard about them before coming here. I’d heard horror stories about them getting worse and worse the further south you get on TA. I’m betting the rain that I so despise has been an ally in keeping the bugs I so despise at bay. Can’t have it all, I suppose.

The Mavora camping area is nestled between North and South Mavora Lakes. There were quite a few people there, and they were about the only folks I saw today. Beyond the camping area, TA enters a shoreline forest and becomes a mellow walk complimented by bird song echoing throughout the lush vegetation. Beautiful, easy walking.

I arrived at Kiwi Burn Hut this afternoon to find a father-daughter hunting team. Sophie is four years old and a talkative little thing. She asked question after question all afternoon before took her on a scouting mission out in the bush. She’s on her first hunting trip with dad. Reminded me some of my little niece, Aubree Rose. And I noticed a hint of home sickness creep up.

I usually prefer not to stop so early, because I tend to get bored. And I like to see as much as I can. Today was an exception, and it worked out pretty well, both because I had Sophie to keep me company and because there were a few dozen novels lying around. After Sophie talked herself out, I picked up a book and laid down in my bunk to read wondering whether my friends would join me here tonight. Given that Elizabeth had injured her knee, I doubted they’d do a big day to get here. And I was wrong. Sometime in the early evening, I glanced out the window to see Elizabeth, then Karima, then McKenzie, then Ben. I was psyched! I just started pointing and giggling as I hopped off my bunk to greet them. Then Rob showed up out of the blue a few hours later, which completed our ruinion. He’d done like 50 k or something and can hardly string two words together, but we’re together, and I’m happy for that.

We stayed up way late tonight watching Pitch Perfect Two on Elizabeth’s phone and giggling like school children at a slumber party. Yep, these are my people.

March 20, 2018

START: Kiwi Burn Hut @ 0725
FINISH: Te Anau @ 1330
DISTANCE: 1 + 28.5 km
CUMULATIVE: 1,476.5 km

Cruised out early-ish this morning, again hoping to beat any weather that might build. I was the first one out, and the others followed about twenty minutes later. The gorgeous light pretty much negated my start. I kept stopping to snap photos, even setting up my tripod a few times. What’s the point of being here and carrying a nice camera if I’m gonna walk right by the shots?

Rob caught me around 0830 and was taunting me as he closed the gap. I knew he’d had a long day yesterday and was pushing hard today to catch me, so I turned a corner and hid in the bush. He raced by a few minutes later. I just smiled to myself before climbing out of the brush and carrying on. I imagined him walking hard for the next 15 k trying to catch me, but I think he realized pretty quickly that I’d played him. He sat down after a while, and I caught him. Elizabeth caught us a short while later, and we walked out to the road together.

We could see a storm brewing in the distance toward town. The others were all planning to start hitching from the gravel road, and I was planning to walk the 11 k to the sealed highway, then a further two to the intersection with Princhester Road where we’ll pick up the trail tomorrow. I absolutely slayed those 13 k’s covering the relatively flat distance in two hours.

I arrived just as the rain started and was surprised that I didn’t catch a quick ride. Hitching is a finicky game. In general, one person is good, though two can be better if one is female. Choosing a spot where you’re visible from a long distance and where cars have space to pull off the road is clutch. If it’s raining, that complicates the scenario. For the first 15-20 minutes, odds of getting a lift go up. But beyond 20 minutes, the odds plummet exponentially the wetter you get. I was quite lucky to get a pickup after about 20 minutes.

Karima, McKenzie, and Ben were already in town when I arrived. I found them at a local cafe, of course. Rob and Elizabeth arrived a while later. We had trouble finding accommodation, because the town is booked nearly solid due to the weather. Finally scored a sweet little motel studio with one bedroom, one full bath, a kitchenette, and a living space. Win. The six of us easily shared the apartment. Had a big pasta dinner with salad and stayed up until the wee hours of the morning drinking a half dozen bottles of wine and talking about basically anything and everything. I definitely heard stories repeated that I’ve already heard ten times. Wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.