A Techie’s Trek Across New Zealand
February 3, 2010
I had the opportunity to attend LCA2010 in Wellington, New Zealand in January of 2010. It was an amazing conference, in an awesome city. You can read all about it here.
But as soon as the conference was over, I struck out for the southern island to really get to know New Zealand.
Readers who follow my blog know how much I like a good long walk, having written before about my treks through Scotland, Yosemite, and numerous other hikes I haven’t yet written about (Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Interlaken, Cinque Terre, etc).
I left Wellington late on Friday evening, flying Air New Zealand to Christchurch. I must say, my experience on 6 flights in 2 weeks on Air New Zealand was very impressive. These guys run an excellent operation. All of my flights were on time, no bags damaged or lost, and I was able to trivially bump my flights to earlier ones on 3 occasions, flying stand-by for no charges or extra fees (errm, Continental — take some lessons). And their in flight safety video is genius!
I couldn’t catch the direct Wellington -> Queenstown without missing some of the conference, so I had to stop over for a night in Christchurch. I didn’t see any of Christchurch except the Sudima Hotel, but my even was not entirely uneventful. My bus driver noticed my Ubuntu baseball cap and proudly told me that he and his son run Kubuntu. And after checking in at the Sudima, I noticed that their internet Kiosks in the lobby were running Hardy 😉 So I watched an episode of Dexter and called it a night.
I took the first flight from Christchurch to Queenstown on Saturday morning, on a noisy little propeller aircraft. The flight was beautiful though, cruising just a bit over gorgeously carved mounts and fiords.
The landing was interesting, as we sort of spiraled down to the little Queenstown runway.
I took the bus to Queenstown’s center, where I needed to checkin in person with New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) office and retrieve my hiking and camping permits.
With that done, I needed to pick up a few groceries and provisions. I was traveling pretty minimally, without pots or pans, so I avoided foods I had to cook. Two containers of hummus, some tortillas, salami, granola bars, chex mix, and a small bottle of New Zealand single malt whiskey (10 year old Milford Sound). Unfortunately, the hypersensitive New Zealand biosecurity terror prevention force seized my Texas Jalapeno beef jerky when I passed through customs. Damn.
I met a fun Canadian couple (Matt and Stephanie) on the bus, who had taken a 6 month sabbatical from work, spending the whole time hiking around New Zealand. Sounds like fun! We stopped in the tiny hamlet of Glenorchy for a few minutes, to pick up a few more hikers. The visitor center had a couple more kiosks running the same Ubuntu Hardy systems 😉
And another half hour later, I was at the start of the Routeburn Trek for a bit of relaxation in the form of hiking twenty-something miles.
Now the end of the trek is a good 250km from Queenstown. Yeah, strange. But that’s how it goes in the mountains.
- Day 1, Saturday, January 23, 2010
- Start the hike at Routeburn Shelter around 2pm
- Hike about 10km uphill past Routeburn Flats Hut
- Spend the night at the Routeburn Falls Hut
- Day 2, Sunday, January 24, 2010
- Big day of hiking
- Climb to the summit of Harris Saddle and Conical Hill
- Traverse downhill past the Lake Mackenzie Hut
- Spend the night at Lake Howden hike
- Cover a goodly 20km+ of distance
- Day 3, Monday, January 25, 2010
- Finish the hike at the Divide Shelter
- Catch my bus back to Queenstown at an early 10:15am
Hiking Day 1
Day 1 was almost entirely uphill. I prefer to start hikes like this (as oppose to hiking into canyons), as it’s nice to do the uphill work on fresh legs, feet, and back. The weather was gorgeous on Saturday, sunny and clear. As the Kiwis say, the weather was ‘fine’. I crossed several swing bridges (always brings me back to a playground as a kid, somehow).
Here, there’s a shelter at the bottom of a “burn“, specifically, Routeburn, the namesake of the trail.
I stopped for a bit, having a late lunch, brewing a tea in a borrowed pot, and filling (and treating) my water bottle from the stream. I also visited a bit and said my goodbyes to Matt and Stephanie, my mates from the bus ride from Queenstown.
The evening’s ranger talk was fun and interesting, hearing a bit about the history of the trail and the wildlife. Our ranger left us with a challenge for the evening, which I found quite interesting! There was a huge canvas on one of the walls with “Welcome to Routeburn Falls, Merry Christmas) written in 30 languages. He offered a huge bar of chocolate to the first person or team to identify 25 of those languages correctly!
Well, I had dinner with a young couple named Gary and Kylie, and Gary’s mom — all locals from New Zealand’s southern island. And managed to team up with another couple (Nico from Italy and Rochel from Australia) for the language challenge. What a fun way to spend the evening! We managed to get 22 answers correct. Unfortunately, we mixed up Chinese/Japanese, and Norwegian/Swedish. We did manage to get a ton of them right, though. I recall having identified at least French, German, Dutch, Celtic, Spanish, Catylan, Italian, Romanian, Russian, Maori, Danish, Hebrew, Arabic, Korean. I know that we missed at least Slovenian, Ukranian, Punjabi. In any case, we didn’t win the chocolate. But I did learn to play a card game called 500 (similar to Euchre, 42, Hearts, or Spades). Eventually, I called it a night, and turned in to my bunk.
Hiking Day 2
I didn’t get a particularly good night of sleep, as it rained quite a bit. I had every intention of starting my hike by 7am, but it was raining pretty hard. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to get a few more ZZZs. By 8am, I realized that the rain wasn’t necessarily going to pass, and I had a solid 20km to cover. Time to don the rain gear. But first, coffee!
So I started out a bit after 8:15am on Sunday morning. The hut was absolutely packed the previous night, with a huge group of 27 hikers in a commercial outfit. Unfortunately, the trail was rather packed with some 35+ hikers trying to cover the next few miles uphill at basically the same time. There was a lot of passing and being passed, on very narrow, very steep trails. Oh, and it was raining. Only occasionally a driving rain. But more regularly a misty, soaking rain. It was an uphill climb, gaining over 2000 feet of altitude, basically hiking into a wet cloud!
Wet, crowded, cold, uphill hiking — not exactly ideal conditions. But all that changed once I passed over 4000 feet, and stood above the rain clouds.
I took a few hundred pictures in the next hour, of Lake Harris and the dozens of snow covered peaks in every direction. The rain ceased, and I was able to peel off my rain gear and start drying off, now that I was basically above the clouds.
About half way up, the views of Lake Harris were even more incredible.
But once I got to the top, it was totally enshrouded in cloud. I literally couldn’t see anything.
I hung around for a good 15-30 minutes, waiting for the clouds to break, and they finally did, partially, and only for a few seconds. I could see a vast mountain range of gorgeous, snow capped peaks in the distance!
Eventually, I made my way back down Conical Hill, grabbed my pack, and started a long traverse around the back side of the mountain. I took a few pictures, but unfortunately most of them were in a thick fog, an don’t look very good.
I could actually see the Lake Mackenzie Hut (my next stop) here, several miles away. But I was deceptively far away! It took nearly two hours to negotiate the steep, seemingly endless series of switchbacks down the hillside to the shores of the lake and the hut. My last 4 hours of hiking had been spent above the tree line, but now I was just making it back down below.
And while it was certainly amazing from a distance, it looked like a scene from The Blue Lagoon up close.
And about an hour later (and 20km after I started my journey earlier that morning), I finally arrived at Lake Howden Hut.
Finally, I could get some rest, and reflect on how far I had hiked that day!
This hut was far less crowded than the previous nights’ accommodation. There were only a few people, really. There was a really nice kid named Jonathan from Sydney (who, coincidentally had studied abroad at UT in Austin), traveling with his father who was an ultra-marathoner. But I really got a kick out of Carl, his sister Megan, and his girlfriend Sam, who were a lot of fun to chat with as the evening slipped away.
So I munched on my dinner, finished my whisky, and got an excellent night’s sleep.
Hiking Day 3
I woke early the next morning, as I had to finish my hike and board a bus by a whopping 10:15am!
The fog rolled slowly over Lake Howden that morning.
The beginning of the morning’s hike was actually quite steep! But once I made it to the crest, I could see all of the valley below, all the way down the burn, to mountains many, many miles in the distance.
After a few more waterfalls, and a nice traipse down a fern-filled trail, I had completed the Routeburn Trek!
To close the trip, I had one relaxing day and night in Queenstown, where I stayed at the rather fancy Nomads Hostel. This place is in a totally different league from the hostels I stayed at nearly 10 years ago backpacking around Europe in 2001. The town is right on Lake Wakatipu, with a nice, clean beach.
I finished my trip with a blind pub crawl organized by the Nomads Hostel, which was surprisingly fun! And that’s about it. What a trip! I hope you enjoyed my narrative and pictures. I certainly enjoyed recapping it.