NZ South Island #8: hiking the Routeburn Track and the Greenstone / Caples Track

Day 1: Routeburn Shelter – Lake Wilson (“Valley of the Trolls”): a day in Heaven
The heavy rains of last night had transformed the Glenorchy campground in a swamp. My tent had leaked from the bottom and as a result, my sleeping mat and the bottom of my sleeping bag were wet. Not the best way to start a hike… The rain, however, had stopped with the sunrise, the clouds were slowly lifting and we could even see some of the surrounding mountains and patches of blue sky. We thought: “we might actually have good weather”.
After another huge breakfast, Erik and I drove to the trailhead on a bumpy gravel road and started our hike on a very easy track gently climbing through beech forest along the Route Burn (“Burn” is actually a word meaning “watercourse”).

The lower part of the Route Burn valley

I quickly realised that in addition to a good Samaritan, I had found in Erik a perfect trailmate: he is a fast hiker, like me, we share the same vision of life and taste for adventure, and he has lots of funny stories to tell. We talked nearly non stop during the first hour to Routeburn Flat. It was my first experience in an alpine valley in new Zealand and I was very impressed by this golden tussock flat surrounded by lush green mountains.

Routeburn Flats viewed from the climb. Clouds are lifting!

As we continued our way with a first steep climb towards Routeburn Fall Hut, the clouds kept lifting above us, which allowed us to enjoy the magnificent landscapes. It seemed that the Gods of Hiking were on our side today!

After a quick lunch next to Routeburn Fall Hut, we continued the steep climb on a bit rougher trail, in the clouds. Finally, we reached Harris Saddle. On the other side of the saddle there were no clouds and we could enjoy nice views on the mountains of the Hollyford Valley. 

Fantastic view on the Hollyford valley from Harris Saddle

Then, we backtracked a bit and left the main track in order to reach the camping spot Erik had read about. We had to hike along Lake Harris, then head towards a cascade across a swampy area. The spot was on the shore of Lake Wilson, on the top of the cascade. From the distance it just seemed impossible to reach the place, but on the right of the cascade, we could climb our way up a super steep gully. 

Erik leading the way along Lake Harris, in the mist

A bit later, clouds have magically disappeared. The pink arrow shows the Stairway to Heaven (photo by Erik)

Once on the top, we discovered a 6-star camp spot for only the two of us. After pitching our tents, we decided to climb further on a ridge. 

Perfect camp spot along Lake Wilson (photo by Erik)

After another steep climb, we finally reached the top of the ridge, from where the views were simply amazing with this beautiful lights that the end of the afternoon usually offers. The clouds had lifted so much that we could even see the sea in the distance in the end of the Hollyford Valley. 

The Hollyford Valley. In the distance we can sea the Tasman sea! (photo by Erik)

The descent back to lake Wilson (photo by Erik)

It was really difficult to leave the place, but we had to go down to have lunch before the dawn. We found an excellent lunch spot, enjoying the sunset on lake Harris and the surrounding mountains. 

When you have such a view for dinner l, you really don’t miss the table and chairs! 😃 (photo by Erik)

This day had just been perfect and will stay alive forever in my memories, mainly because of the part off the main track that Erik made me discover. I realised that this Swedish guy was more than a good Samaritan, he was the Messiah of hiking! Even if it turned out that he couldn’t change water into whisky, I decided that I would nevertheless follow Him for the next three days. If the rest of His thoughtfully planned itinerary was of the same kind, we were going to have the hike of our life!

Day 2: Lake Wilson – McKellar Hut: sometimes Hell is only one wrong footstep away from Heaven

At our wake up the sky was completely clear, letting us expect a perfect hiking day. After packing all our gear, we left this amazing spot. We had to go back to the main track by the same way, meaning that we had to go down the very steep gully that we had climbed yesterday. I was going very slowly because it was a quite difficult downhill and I wanted to enjoy the views a bit longer. Suddenly, I saw Erik slipping a few metres ahead of me, then doing an impressive fall and landing two or three metres further below.

On our way down to the main track. The photo is taken less than 3 minutes before the drama. I can swear you that it’s steeper than it looks!

I joined him quickly but safely, afraid that something really bad had happened to him. We were one hour away from the main track, probably one more hour away from a hut equipped with a radio station, in a terrain hardly reachable by helicopter. Erik told me that his ankle was badly twisted. After a few minutes of elevation, we strapped a towel around the ankle the best we could in order to support it. I realised how badly I was prepared for this kind of scenario, not having any proper tape with me and not knowing how to proceed. I definitely should follow a first aid course when I come back home. After a few more minutes, Erik tried to stand and walk. I could see that it was very painful but we had to continue at least to the main track. In one wrong footstep, the perspective of sharing a fantastic hike together had vanished and we had switched to emergency mode; we still had the hardest part of the downhill ahead of us. I tried to help him as much as I could, looking for the best path, taking his backpack in the hardest section and acting as a “living walking stick”. It took us nearly two and a half hour to get back to the main track. At that point we were still about 17 km from where we had left the car. We discussed for a long time about what we should do next and in the end Erik convinced me that I should leave him and continue my hike. I was very reluctant to this option because I don’t like leaving anyone behind, but Erik was right when he said that he could easily find somebody else to help him if needed: the Routeburn Track is used in both directions by tons of hikers, so it made indeed more sense to ask some help to someone heading to our starting point. I continued the track on my own towards McKenzie Hut. 

My first encounter with the cheeky keas at Harris Saddle. The kea is unique to New Zealand and the only alpine parrot in the world!

Between Harris Saddle and McKenzie Hut the track offers impressive views on the Hollyford Valley and the surrounding mountains. This is without doubt the most scenic part of the main track. I had to hurry, though, because it was already 12:30 and I had more than 24 km to cover.

Stunning view on the Hollyford Valley

Lake Mackenzie

A bit before McKenzie Hut the track went down under the treeline. I had a quick lunch at McKenzie Hut then continue my way to Howden Hut. This part is less scenic, its main highlight being the impressive Earland Falls. 


Earland Falls

At Howden Hut I left the Routeburn Track to follow the Greenstone Valley. I decided to skip the Greenstone Saddle campsite and hike one more hour to McKellar Hut, because I was not sure I was allowed to camp there and because I wanted to make use of the backcountry hut pass I had bought in Christchurch.

Nice reflexion on Lake McKellar

I was impressed by the hut: it had a gas cooker, mattresses in the dorm room and even a flush toilet! What a luxury! There were only 5 other people in the hut, among them Eli, a young cycle tourist from California, and Johannes, a cheerful young German guy.
Day 3: McKellar Hut – Mid Caples Hut

Today I had all my time ahead of me, having “only” 22 km to hike. I preferred to hike the Caples valley instead of the Greenstone Valley because the Caples was said to offer a broader mix of landscapes, including alpine views and valley flats. I started my hiking day in the forrest along Lake McKellar. Because of the morning mist and low-angled sun in the trees, I enjoyed that part much more than yesterday. 


Afterwards, I had a steep climb to McKellar Saddle, where I could enjoy nice views on the surrounding mountains.

McKellar Saddle

Then it was a long descent in a beech forest. It felt so good to walk slower after yesterday tough hike. I took a long sandfly-free lunch break on the bank of the Caples River. The weather was just perfect to chill, I even bathed in the freezing cold river. Hiking in the flatter part of the valley with a nice afternoon light was really enjoyable.

The bottom of the Caples Valley

I arrived at Mid Caples Hut at about 16:30. This hut has a perfect setting with amazing views on the valley and the mountains, and is really easy to access by foot from the carpark. It is the kind of place where you would certainly not mind walking in with enough food to stay for one week! I would certainly do it if I was a Kiwi. The ranger at the hut was a mountain biker, he gave me some advice about the good rides in the area. I also met Isabelle, from Canada, who was hiking the Greenstone / Caples Track in the opposite direction. We talked about our common passions for hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing and exchanged phone numbers in order to maybe catch up later for some outdoor adventure together.
Day 4: McKellar Hut – Greenstone trailhead

For the last day of this first hike, I had only 9 easy kilometres left to cover down the Caples River. I was accompanied for quite a while by a lovely little South Island Robin who seemed to like me a lot. He even poked my shoes a few times with his beak.

My new trailmate!

The hike ended at the mouth of the Greenstone / Caples River in Lake Whakatipu. The Greenstone River is named so because it was a good place to find jade. Jade, or pounamou, was highly valued by Māoris because of its toughness, durability and beauty. It was used as well for tools, weapons and jewellery. It still has today a very important meaning for Māoris, besides the fact that selling jade jewellery is a very lucrative business.  

After a while I managed to catch a ride back to Glenorchy. 

Despite being postage-stamp sized, Glenorchy attracts its lot of Chinese tourists and has a dedicated shop 😏

There, the first thing I did was looking for Erik. I found him lying in his minivan. He had made it back to the trailhead with the help of two nice Canadian girls who had carried his backpack. Nevertheless, it was a true Way of the Cross for him. He was reasonable enough to visit a doctor. His ankle really looked bad, swollen as a melon, with huge bruises and worrying blue, yellow, red, purple colours. For him, it was unfortunately the end of the New Zealand hiking adventures. I was really impressed by his courage (hiking for so long with such a sprayed ankle) and his calm. Of course he was disappointed (who would not? Being forced to stay inactive when you are in a place surrounded by mountains that beg you to hike them), but he did not complain a single time and was focused on the great hikes he had done and on his recovery. About one year ago I sprayed my ankle rather badly as well, and I don’t think that had such a good behaviour as him.

I had a whole afternoon to refine my plans for my second hike. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for 2 days later looked really bad so I decided to play it safe and not attempt the crossing of the Cascade Saddle starting from Wanaka. I opted instead for the Rees / Dart Track, a “semi-closed circuit” starting near Glenorchy. Besides the fact that it also offers great vistas, the advantage of this hike is that the first two days are actually common with the Glenorchy – Wanaka route via the Cascade Saddle that I had initially planned, the main issue being that the crossing of the Cascade Saddle is said to be even more treacherous in that direction. I decided to leave all doors open: if the weather was better than foreseen and if I found good company, I could always attempt the Cascade Saddle route.

I could get a useful feedback on the Rees / Dart Track from Marie (from Denmark) and Vendula (from Czech Republic) who had just completed the hike. I also talked with François and Laureline, a nice young couple of French people who were planning to do a day-hike the next day.

Despite being out of the race, Erik kindly offered to drive me to the trailhead of the Rees Track the next morning. This guy’s heart is definitely as golden as his hair! I was so happy of my hike and of being surrounded by super nice hiking people that I decided to buy 2 litres of chocolate ice-cream to share with everybody. After all, ice cream is the best medication for hungry hikers and sprayed ankles.😃

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9 thoughts on “NZ South Island #8: hiking the Routeburn Track and the Greenstone / Caples Track

  1. Quelle terrible aventure ! Heureusement que vous étiez à deux, je suppose que ce genre de trajets ne doit jamais être entrepris seul.
    Malgré tout, comme tu l’écris si bien : ‘fantastic views » évidemment tu ne montres pas les photos de ton matelas et de ta tente trempés …
    Votre camp au bord du lac Wilson est en effet magique, « Heaven » n’est pas un mot trop fort.
    Mais quelle grimpette, il faut le mériter le paradis !
    Trop mignon ton compagnon ailé !
    Sois prudent …

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  2. Sacrée frayeur! Il existe des petites trousses de secours pas très encombrantes pour les marcheurs, etc. Encore faut-il en trouver…

    Assez chanceux avec le temps, pourvu que ça dure 🤞

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    1. Merci pour le conseil! J’ai +/- tout ce qui faut comme matos de secours, sauf une bande pour les foulures, en fait ^^
      En ce moment le temps est nettement moins clément. Winter is coming!

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  3. Hi Bernard
    I love reading about your adventures and seeing the lovely photos, I am glad you are getting to hike some of the challenging scenic areas, away from the crowds.
    Its am amazing place, we Aussies love the NZ hiking
    Cath Shannon
    Canberra

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  4. Quelle triste histoire pour ton ami, mais une avanture sans aucun risque, ni aucun inconfort cesse d’être une aventure. Et ceux qui la vivent doivent en être concients et l’accepter avec philosophie (comme ton ami semble bien l’avoir fait).
    Deux moyens de réduire l’exposition au risque, que tu sembles tre bien appliquer, sont écouter sont corps et respecter la météo , c’est a dire ne pas partir quand on est pas reposé, et savoir faire demi-tour quand le tamps se dégrade.
    A part ca quelles beaux endroits tu parcours!!! J’aurais envie d’être ce “South Island Robin” pour t’accompagner dans tes decouvertes…

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  5. Les cours de secourisme , c’est sûrement une bonne idée , mais à court terme le bon plan c’est quand même de ne pas se lancer seul sur des parcours dangereux , non ? pour que tout aille bien ..

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