Te Araroa Side Quest: The Routeburn and Caples Tracks

Well, I’ve officially been chided for falling off the map for too long – actually by another TA hiker who had somehow found and been reading this blog! – so I’m taking some time here at the Arrowtown Holiday Park to tap out another installment on my phone. So where have I been these past several days? Well, when Hot Creek Water rolled into Queenstown we each decided to take a few days’ break from the trail – Rob and Ellyse to rest and explore Queenstown, Harold to go canyoning with his friends, and me to do a side hike on the Routeburn Track, one of NZ’s Great Walks. Taking a break from hiking by hiking – yes, that is what I did.

The snow-capped Humboldt Mountains along the Routeburn Track.

So, the Routeburn Track. As one of NZ’s Great Walks, it’s a pretty popular route – and deservedly so. Located in Mt. aspiring National Park and climbing high into the Humboldt and Ailsa Mountains just north of Lake Wapatiku, the trail traverses incredible alpine scenery, climbs to about 1800 meters elevation, and takes in what can only be described as an excessive number of waterfalls. The huts along the track have to be pre-booked, which limits the number of hikers on trail each day – a good thing, since it doesn’t take much for a 12-inch-wide footpath on the edge of a cliff to feel crowded.

Put a lid on the waterfalls, people!

Along the Routeburn Track.

In NZ’s national parks, it’s permissible to free camp as long as you’re 500 meters from the trail and any other infrastructure, so I figured I’d just find myself a place to pitch my tent overnight. As it turned out, a Dept. of Conservation ranger gave me some excellent advice on where to camp – I’m not sure I would have found a spot otherwise, as it turns out there’s a real shortage of level ground when you’re climbing through jagged alpine peaks. The ranger, who I was talking with at the distractingly magnificent Routeburn Falls, told me that I should camp out at a secret place delightfully called The Valley of the Trolls. Yes, please!!! The name is truly all the incentive I need, and when he tells me I have to take an unmarked goat track along a narrow ledge past an alpine lake and then into a tiny captured valley, I’m basically all in. The trail to the trolls is nearly invisible, and I spend some time hunting around before I even find it. Then I spend the next half hour wondering, “Is this really it?” as I pick my way around the cliffs. And then I get there, and it’s INCREDIBLE. People, I had my own waterfall. I am inordinately proud of myself as I set up my tent and eat my ramen noodles and gloat next to the waterfall, and I’m just going to go ahead and say that this was the best night of camping I’ve ever had in my life.

My campsite in the Valley of the Trolls.

So the next day when I’m up on the peaks and it rains like crazy and I get completely soaked, I don’t even mind. I stop off at McKenzie Hut, the southernmost hut on the Routeburn, to take a break and wring my clothes out, and see that some industrious teenagers have gotten a fire going in the woodstove. I sit on the floor as close as I can without melting my pants, and become a dripping obstruction. The teenagers are generous despite the fact that I’m completely in their way. After an hour or so, I’ve gone from soaking wet to just damp, and I decide to push on. Down into the valley and make camp next to Lake Howden, where the temperature drops overnight and it even gets too cold for the sand flies!

A cold misty morning by Lake Howden.

The next morning I climb back up the mountains to McKellar Saddle, where there’s actually frost on the ground, and then down the other side too the Caples River valley and the Caples Track, which will eventually take me back to the Caples-Greenstone trailhead and hopefully a hitch into Queenstown. The Caples Track follows the course of the river down into Lake Wakatipu, and it’s fairly flat and, seemingly to me, endlessly long. I start to think I’m going to be on it for the rest of my life. I have my first day of wondering, “Why am I doing this? Do I even like hiking? Is this fun? Do I even know what fun is? Would I be able to recognize fun if I saw it? Once I walk my feet down to my stubby bloody ankle bones, what will I do out here? Will I be having fun then?” Real pep talk stuff.

Anyway, I eventually get back to the parking lot (Hallelujah!), where I bump into a German woman, Julia, who’s also walking the Te Araroa. Once we figure out that we’re both bums and neither of us has a car, we lie in wait together to beg a ride off the next people who come through the parking lot. This ends up being an incredibly nice Malaysian couple, who drive us back to Queenstown with them. We thank them profusely and they refuse to take any gas money from us – they do take a picture of us, though, as they say we’re the first TA hikers they’ve ever met! I am profoundly stinky, rumpled, and do not feel like celebrity hiker material, so the photo op is hilarious.

Back in Queenstown we magically bump into Harold and his friends Ryan and Dawson, and Harold and I make plans to hike the next section of the TA together the next day, up to Arrowtown. Ellyse and Rob are already back on trail and we’ll be a day behind them, so we’ll try to catch up with them along the way. So glad I took this restful relaxing break from the trail, HA HA HA, feeling ready to get back on the stick tomorrow!

Ready to bust out some more miles!

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Comments 7

  • Genny : Jan 22nd

    Loving your posts and stunning pics Shari. They leave me smiling from ear to ear. . . and emitting frequent snorts of laughter. Rock on!

  • Steve : Jan 23rd

    I wasn’t going to comment anymore, because I didn’t want you to have anything extra to read, but WOW!! incredible writing and incredible pictures. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us.

  • Mike : Jan 23rd

    Valley of the Trolls looks amazing! Cat and I visited Goblin Valley State Park in Utah and it’s kind of the exact opposite environment (but still very cool!).

  • Beth Jeziorski : Jan 23rd

    This seems like a great once in a lifetime adventure. You are so lucky to experience it.
    I have also lost any doubt that you are undeniably totally crazy!
    PS. You need to find a publisher!

  • SAW : Jan 23rd

    It looks like you had (mostly) better weather than I did when I did the Routeburn! That was the hike that taught me about the New Zealand mud, and the importance of trekking poles.

    You are marvelous! I hope you are enjoying nearly every single second.

  • Margaret Harlan : Jan 24th

    Wow! After this post I really want to be there. Magically transported…. Or else I’ll continue vicarious pleasure and no lost toenails by continuing to read your posts and hoping that you will bring photos of plants home. Go for it1!!

  • Vince : Feb 9th

    I just randomly found your well written blog, and realise that, as a SOBO, my boyfriend and I exchanged a few words with you going down (us up) Stag Saddle. We plan to do the Routeburn, hopefully we’ll find such a spot to camp!
    Happy trail! 🙂


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