Week 8 in New Zealand: Milford Sound and Routeburn Great Walk

Pushing through the last day of the Kepler Track gave us an extra day off in Te Anau to do laundry, restock on food and check in with family and friends before heading off on the Routeburn Great Walk. It can see the appeal of hiking extra miles for a real meal, a shower and a good bed, we will see how it goes once I’m on the AT.

Clean and fed, we headed off to take a morning nature cruise through Milford Sound with Southern Discoveries.  If there is one picture of New Zealand you see over and over again, it’s Milford Sound.  I knew the area would be beautiful but over exposed to the scenery in inadvertently lowered my real life expectations. Boy was I surprised when we arrived to the very place the classic photo is taken (the banner photo above), it’s even more majestic than the photos portray. Rounded peak mountains plummet straight down into the dark blue water. Tall waterfalls cascade off the mountain side where ever you look. Lush green foliage covers the bottoms of the mountains near the waters edge. Birds fly about in all directions, and if you are lucky like we where, you’ll see a dolphin or to playing in the wake of your boat.

The cruise itself was fantastic. Since we picked the ‘nature’ tour, we where on a smaller, more agile boat that could get close enough to the mountain walls you could touch them (or get drenched by a waterfall as you can see the pictures below). Our tour guide was like a walking wikepedia, full of interesting facts and figures about the Fiord, the mountains and the area. I LOVE facts, I usually have five to six different things I want to look up and learn about at any given time. So, it goes with out saying, I friends with the tour guide who was happy to answer all my questions.  In addition to the scenery, I loved seeing a baby seal pup, getting to drink from a waterfall falling off the mountain and rounding the corner of the fiord to see the Tasmin Sea.

After our nature tour we had the opportunity to take a short kayak tour, which I highly recommened. It’s one thing to see the sound from a big boat, it’s another to skim her waters on a kayak. Floating in the kayak let me see so much more details, including ducks, fish and river outlets into the fiord. At one point we kayaked so far up into a river that the water was still fresh and we could drink right from it. If you like to kayak, New Zealand is the place to go. It seems the other times I had planned on kayaking it was raining too heavily to make the trip, but the water is clear and beautiful, and there is a lot of it.


One of many waterfalls flowing into Milford Sound


We got close enough to the waterfall to fill up drinking glasses


Seals sunbathing in Milford Sound


Close up of the seals


See that waterfall, well I got to stand right under it!


Happy heart after getting hosed by the waterfall from the bow of the boat


Isn’t it beautiful?


Dolphins where jumping in the wake off the boat in this photo


A parting shot as we pulled into the dock


The following day I woke to the sound of early morning, not exactly the type of weather you want to leave your warm bed to hike in, but I had a date with the Routeburn Great Walk. The Routeburn Track  starts in Firodland National Park not too far from Milford Sound and ends 32km later in Mount Aspiring National Park in Glenorchy. The track has an astonishing 4 huts along it’s path, with most people completing the track in 2-4 days. I decided to do the hike in one hight/two days and Maria decided to challenge herself to do the whole track in one day. Not an impossible task when you aren’t carrying a full pack, but a big challenge.

I set off from the Routeburn in the misty rain and proceeded to slowly climb. The forest had an ethereal feel with all the rain and cloud cover, but the big views remained covered. Not a problem, there was lots of moss and mini waterfalls to enjoy. In a little less than an hour I made it to the first hut, a pace that surprised me since the track was mostly up hill.

With only a quick stop to take a few photos I continued the steady uphill for two and half more hours to the Lake Mackenzie hut. I found a good rythm once I set out from the Lake Howden hut. I was deep in thought, hiking away, when I turned a corner to come face to face with Earland Falls, a 178m tall waterfall!  Since it was raining I couldn’t hear the sound of the falls coming, and the way the trail is set up, you walk right next to the falls. The trail is so close to the falls that an alternative route on days where the rain is heavy. It was an amazing surprise on a fairly monotonous hike. Staring up at the falls in the mist inspired me. It filled my heart with awe and excitement which gave me the push I needed to finish the day strong.

By the time I reached the hut the rain was coming down steadily and I was happy to change into dry clothes and make some tea. This was the first time I had backpacked by myself, and I found I really enjoyed hiking by myself. It gave me room to think, reflect and than stop thinking all together. Dare I say get into a meditative state? I’m still self conscience about my pace and my need to stop when going up hill, when I’m by myself, I don’t think about these things. (Side note: I’ve noticed that my need to stop is really not much more than almost everyone else I’ve come across on the trail. Only the occasional super fit person will bound up a steep slope without looking like they are trying).

I made friends with two Kiwi’s who where also hiking on their own. We played the pig game, cards and talked until late (10:30 pm, way past hiker bed time.) I really like socializing with people after a long day of hiking. Turns out, I really like most people, and enjoy learning about their lives. I find that a shared loved of hiking is a great starting place for conversation.

I woke up the morning of the second day having gotten a decent nights sleep in a hut (my first!) and set off on the trail by 8 am. As I climbed out of the lake valley the hut is nestled into the clouds started to burn off. Within the hour I had reached the ridge line and the clouds had all but disappeared opening up epic views of the Southern Alps. The best part about heading out early in the morning is that I only passed one person while hiking through the Holyford Face for 3 hours. Being alone, moving along the mountain, taking in gigantic views of the mountains is why I hike. It’s more than a feeling of happiness, it’s a sense of contentedness deep within. Whatever is going on in my life is still going on, but I can find these moments of being present and at a peace.

From the Harris Saddle emergency shelter the trail descends to the Harris Saddle to my favorite part of the entire trail, Lake Wilson and the Valley of the Trolls. Yes, it’s called the valley of the trolls. It looks magical, I wish I had brought my tent, I would have gladly stayed there all day. Past the lake you start a slow but somewhat technical decent and follow the river that starts at Lake Wilson all the way down to Routeburn Falls and the Routeburn Falls hut.  I stopped only to sign the registry and let the hut warden know I wasn’t staying the night continued down. I felt good, I had made great time and my legs felt strong. All the hiking is paying off, maybe I’ll have a decent start to my trail legs by the time I start the AT.

I stopped for lunch at the Routeburn Flats hut, eating at a picnic table with a grand view of Mount Earnslaw and her surrounding valleys. From there the trail is a fairly easy downhill, passing by a major slip that offers great views back down the Routeburn as well as up the Routeburn (north branch) towards Mt. Somnus (2293m) and Mt Momus (2148m).

The trail ends via a swing bridge over Sugarloaf Stream, a popular trail start for a number of suberb tramping tracks. I finished around 3:30pm, Maria finisher her crazy long day at 5:15. I felt tired but good getting off the trail. Stronger, more capable and ready for a shower. We camped back in our favorite Glenorchy campsite that night and headed to Queenstown early the next morning to meet up with some fellow traveling Tar Heels in New Zealand from Australia.

Next up, Nelson Lakes!


Nobody likes starting the day in the rain.


Somewhere behind those clouds is an awesome view


The view from the front steps of the Howden Hut


Earland Falls, spraying water all over the trail


Lake Mackenzie hut


The trail as it climbs out of the Lake Mackenzie hut


Views from the Harris handle


The Southern Alps never get old


Earning my trail legs, Harris Saddle emergency shelter


Views likes this lift my heart


On the way down the Harris Saddle


Lake Wilson and the Valley of the Trolls


Routeburn Falls near Routeburn Falls hut


This swing bridge really swung under my feet as I crossed Emily Creek


A great spot for lunch at the Routeburn Flats hut. Supposedly they have the smallest number of sandflys in the area.


#travelingtarheels reunite in Queenstown. No, this photo is not photoshopped.


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