Why the Routeburn is irresistible

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Heading into the mountains for a three-day tramp can be daunting. 

On a busy year, about 15,000 people walk the spectacular Routeburn Track. 

One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, it winds through jaw-dropping Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. 
It’s only 32km but half of that is up, and in an alpine environment things can quickly turn nasty. 

Dying from exposure or simply falling off a cliff are actual possibilities – and then there are the more mundane concerns of carrying a heavy pack, uphill, for days, for fun, and eating only what you can carry and cooking on a small gas ring. 

So, it’s with a healthy degree of apprehension that we set off from The Divide on Milford Road in the early afternoon. 

The first half-an-hour is probably the most brutal – a steep hair-pinned climb through silver beech forest to Key Summit. But the reward is views of the majestic snow-capped Darran Mountains and Hollyford Valley. 

We meander to Lake Howden and, after stopping briefly to scoff handfuls of scroggin, head on to lunch near the awesome 178m Earland Falls. 

By mid-afternoon we reach Lake Mackenzie Hut and enjoy a beer in the sun. 

The second day begins with a satisfyingly steep climb through a moss-draped enchanted forest to a ridgeline and then a two-hour trek to the Harris Saddle. 

We cross before lunch and skirt Lake Harris. Unfortunately Conical Hill Track is closed due to snow and avalanche risk. 

Three days for the Routeburn is a bit too long – by early in the afternoon we’ve bounded down the rocky track to the roaring Routeburn Falls and spend the rest of the day drinking red wine, playing cards and battling with an ancient coal fire in the Department of Conservation hut. 

We only have a few hours walk the next day but wake at 5.30am to what sounds like a tramper packing a baby elephant into a bag of tambourines. Of 50-plus items DoC recommends you need, ear plugs are probably the most important – they’ll stop you killing someone. Though rain on day three makes me realise my hastily packed plastic poncho and worn boots would’ve made for a miserable, even dangerous situation had the weather turned earlier. 

But it’s not hard to see why the track has proved an irresistible draw for more than 130 years.

All you need to know
What Routeburn Track Great Walk
Where The Divide (Milford Road) near Te Anau to Routeburn Road near Glenorchy
Cost Department of Conservation huts are $54 a night per person. Guided walks from $1125 (superior facilities)
Thrill-o-meter 7/10