Routeburn Track {Howden Hut to Routeburn Flats Hut & Return} – Day 5 and 6 (January 6th and 7th, 2018)

Note: I wrote a lot of phone notes regarding these two days and as I wrote my blog post, I noticed that they were very repetitive. So, I’ve put the two days of phone notes at the bottom of this blog post so that you can read if you’re interested. But you’re not missing anything if you don’t read them. It will just save you some time if you’re short on that.

Compared to the other mornings on the trek, it was an early morning. Our alarms went off around 6:15am to get up and get going for our long day hike on the Routeburn track. Because it is such a busy and popular track in the summer, it is hard to get accommodation (hut bunks or camping) reservations. Thankfully, we were able to get reservations at the Routeburn Flats Hut site which was about an hour or two from the eastern end of the track. We were going to be hiking from the west end towards the east end. Due to our plan to hike back to the west end the next day, we wouldn’t actually complete the whole hike (meaning the last few kilometers of the east end of the track) but we had done the lions share of the track so that was ok.

Our total distance we had to hike today was 22.2 kilometers or almost 14 miles. We were aiming to be on the trail by 8:30am at the latest. We had heard that it would easily be an 8 hour hike and so wanted to get an early start to allow time for breaks, picture time, coffee time, etc. :-p

We got up, broke camp, and walked to Howden Hut to eat breakfast and wash up. We were on the trail beginning our ascent right about 8:30am. We set a pretty good pace as usual in the morning but took a couple of stops for pictures within the first couple of hours.

We’re heading towards Lake MacKenzie Hut.

There was a nice waterfall that we passed and so stopped there and then a really nice open area with a beautiful view of some mountains.

Just a preview of the mountain views to come.

A really nice waterfall we walked by.

Another little better preview of the mountain views to come. You can see me in the right hand side of this panorama.

One of the first of many mountain views that were spectacular enough to get a picture with. 🙂

Our first rest break was at the Lake MacKenzie. The sun was out but there was still a chill in the air. You had to keep hiking to stay warm.

Up at Lake MacKenzie; sunny but slightly chilly if you’re not hiking with a monkey on your back. 😀

I absolutely LOVE this photo!!!!

Another view of the view with George in it. He’s a bit hard to see because of his dark jacket…

Selfie with the mountains and lake.

Just one view unimpeded by humans.

While at the Lake MacKenzie Hut, I started talking to a couple of guys that were from the US. One of them had a sweatshirt with “Maryland” on it, so I asked them if they were actually from Maryland; they said yes and we ended up chatting for a little bit. They were planning to do the same thing as we were; to hike to and camp at Routeburn Flats and then walk back to the Divide the next day because their rental car was there and obviously needed to be driven back to Queenstown to be returned. They headed out of MacKenzie Hut before us and so didn’t see them again until we reached Routeburn Flats.

We rested our feet, at some food, and took some pictures of Lake MacKenzie which was absolutely beautiful.

Then it was time to continue. The next hour or so of the hike was a sort of intense ascent through the forest and out into the alpine region of tall grass and rocks. I really like getting up above the elevation of the forest because then you really feel like you’re getting somewhere and the views become a lot more interesting.

Once we had gained quite some elevation, we looked back and took a couple of pictures of Lake MacKenzie from above.

A view of Lake MacKenzie from a bit above and looking back.

Finally, we reached our first high point and it was picture time!

Woohooo!!! We reached our first real high point on the track! It would be pretty smooth sailing from here….generally.

Feeling on top of the world!!

Yea, we’re awesome. :-p

Feeling good, feeling strong, feeling pretty BOSS!!!

Ok, just a normal photo.

Panoramas from one of many completely stunning scenic views from the mountain-side trail.

George and his tramping cup.

George also feeling on top of the world.

George’s epic tramping action photo.

There aren’t enough words to describe the brilliance and incredibleness of this whole experience. Literally one of the best things I’ve done in my life.

After that, we walked along a generally/relatively flat path along the side of the mountain towards Harris Saddle. I was doing pretty well for a good portion of this path but started wearing out as we got closer to the Harris Saddle Shelter. I didn’t know there was a shelter there and assumed that this long path along the side of the mountain that generally took the shape of saddle (high point, gentle slope downward then back upward) was the “saddle,” but it wasn’t. Someone that we crossed paths with and asked how far it was said Harris Saddle was still about half an hour away and that Routeburn Flats was an hour or more after that; unwelcome and unpleasant surprise. Oh well; I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Finally, we climbed a set of stairs, a little further up the path, and there was the shelter! A really welcome sight! We quickly took our packs off and just laid flat on the deck of the Shelter.

I forgot to mention that the weather on this day of our long hike couldn’t have been more perfect. We were really fortunate to have mostly clear skies, what clouds were there were very high (not fogging our view in the alpine elevations), sunshine, and a bit of wind to keep us cool while hiking really hard. It really helped make the whole long hike worth it.

After just resting for a bit, we dug some food out of our packs and ate. It was only now, when eating lunch, and looking at the brochure for this track, that I realized that our campsite was basically at the same elevation as where we had started back at Howden Hut! WHAT?!?!?! How did I not realize this before!?!?! It put a bit of a damper on my outlook for the return hike that was destined to happen tomorrow. But I tried not to think about it too much.

Then it was time for more pictures.

The view from the most scenic corner of the Harris Saddle Shelter.

Sorry I cut your head off George… :-/ It’s a great photo otherwise.

Thanks George for this awesome resting shot.

Resting panoramic shot.

After our break, we continued our trek over the real Harris Saddle and began our descent towards Routeburn Falls and Routeburn Flats. With every step down, I thought “We have to climb every step back up this blasted rocky, prone-to-twist-an-ankle-or-knee trail. I was getting really, really tired out by this point; my legs were starting to feel a bit like jam (not quite jelly, there was still some substance but getting there). The trail, at least for me, had the optical illusion effect that our glacier guide had described. It didn’t look very far, but with each step, the ground seemed to stretch out or move backwards; basically, you think it’s not going to take very long to hike a certain distance and you just keep walking and walking and walking it takes forever!! The closer we got to Routeburn Falls Hut, the trail got rockier, steeper, and just more challenging on tired-out legs. So we hiked a bit slower and slower in an effort to not twist or strain anything that could jeopardize our trek.

We stopped and rested for about 10 minutes at the Routeburn Falls Hut as we were both by this point really worn out and not looking forward to the last 2 or 3 kilometers that would inevitably seem to take the longest because that’s just how it usually ends. Those last 2 or 3 kilometers did seem to take a long time because the trail was pretty windy down the side of the mountain and was sometimes pretty steep. My legs were becoming more and more jellyish and sort of numb by the minute, my stomach growling for a substantial meal. My knees never really bothered me (VERY surprisingly and thankfully), but everything about the lower half of my body was just super worn out; my spirit and attitude and mind just exhausted from the adrenaline high of such a spectacular hike but also the sheer grit it took to continue putting one foot in front of the other even though you just want to sit down and not go any further downhill because you’re just going to have to hike right back up the next day. I don’t know how to explain this exhaustion; you’re fufilled because of such grandeur of nature, but feel empty of strength and ability to move forward.

Finally, we got to Routeburn Flats Hut where I immediately took off my pack, my shoes and socks, and laid down on one of the wood benches that were in the covered campers’ common area. When we arrived, the guys from Maryland that I had met at MacKenzie hut were there preparing their dinner. We got talking and they said they had met another couple of people who had rented a car and parked at the eastern end of the track and were going to walk from the western end (near the Divide) back to the eastern end to drive the rental car back to Queenstown. They apparently were staying at the same hostel and so decided to trade rental vehicles so that neither had to walk back the other direction the next day. These guys offered George and I ride back to Queenstown if we decided we wanted to abandon walking back to Howden Hut the next day.

This glimmer of a chance to not hike back all the way to Howden Hut and get to civilization was super appealing in my state of mental and physical exhaustion. I really wanted to just go back to Queenstown (civilization), rent a car, drive back to the Divide to get George’s stuff that we had left behind, and then drive to Gunns Camp and Milford Sound. I asked George how he was feeling about the matter. He wasn’t budging on the plan to hike back. In my mentally exhausted state, I considered letting George walk back across alone, going to Queenstown with the guys from Maryland, and meeting George at Gunns Camp a day or two later. Now before my family freaks out, remember what I said about hitchhiking here in New Zealand (in a previous post); it’s a very popular method of traveling within the backpacking community and is very safe here compared to the US. Also, after a goodnight of sleep, I would feel a bit more refreshed and would reconsider.

After dinner, we set up camp, and I climbed into the tent, gave the warden our camping reservation ticket while retaining a piece of it for my scrapbook, and passed out.

A photo George took of the camp site after I had passed out.

Day 6: Return from Routeburn Flats to Howden Hut

I woke up early the next morning and when George woke up asked him what he thought about going back to Queenstown. Basically, he was just going to walk back to Howden Hut. We weren’t obligated to stay together but he still wasn’t buying into my desire to get back to civilization that was sparked by an offer for a lift to Queenstown.

I was up walking around by 7:15am because the guys said they would be heading out around 7:30 and I didn’t want to miss them. However, they were nowhere to be found. I walked around a bit to see if I could find them, but they vanished. My thought was that they didn’t want to get in the middle of anything and that I was just not supposed to go to back to Queenstown. Don’t worry mom and dad, you put a super responsible head on me and so I’m still not inclined to try hitchhiking here. George could attest to the fact that even together, I was not completely comfortable doing that. If we did, it would have definitely been part of the adventure getting further out of my comfort zone than a multi-day trek through the woods. So, just know – I don’t plan on hitchhiking.

By about 9:15am, I realized that they were gone and I knew I would be walking back to Howden Hut. Besides, combining the facts that our motto for this trip had sort of become “Everything together and together we have everything” and that I absolutely can’t stand the feeling of letting someone down, I just couldn’t let myself give in to feelings that didn’t have any real serious basis (remember, I was mentally and physically exhausted the previous evening) and that could potentially ruin a great ending to our joint epic adventure. So I just accepted the fact, resolved to finish, and we began packing up camp. By 10am, 1.5 hours after our start time the previous day, we headed back up the trail towards Harris Saddle, Lake MacKenzie, and Howden Hut. My head and my spirit were so bummed for an hour or two. My legs and my lungs were screaming at me when we began the ascent back up towards Harris Saddle…. Something to the effect of “You crazy witch!!! What are you doing to me?!?!?!”

When we were almost back to the high point of our ascent and I realized my legs were semi-tired but not achy or weak feeling and my feet were pretty fine, I more and more returned to my happy adventurous self. I regained my appreciation and happiness to be hiking in such spectacular terrain, talking and meeting people along the way, and all the while proving to myself what I am physically and mentally capable of doing! Plus, with these 22.2 extra kilometers, we would far exceed the kilometers I had estimated we would walk in 7 days.

Because we had taken a bunch of pictures yesterday, we didn’t really need to stop on the way back. We only really stopped for rest breaks at Harris Saddle, MacKenzie Hut, the Waterfall, and finally Howden Hut for dinner.

A view of some daisy-like flowers in front of the waterfall.

One more vertical panoramic shot of the waterfall.

The last 8 kilmeters from Lake MacKenzie back to Howden Hut took FOREVER! The trail just keep winding, going and going on and on… I kept thinking just around the next bend we will see Howden Hut. But we just kept going and going. Finally though, we saw the wood plank walkway that I knew meant only a hundred meters or less to Howden Hut. We made it!!! We dropped our packs and once again just sat down on the benches to rest for a couple of minutes before preparing dinner. We got the bag of extraneous stuff from the warden since it had our last dinner supplies inside. Dinner cooked and eaten, no more like devoured, we walked the last 20 minutes to the free camping area, set up camp, and passed out.

Wowza…. what an incredible experience! And it’s not quite over yet!

The water up in the mountains was drinkable right out of the stream. Ice cold and super refreshing.

This picture isn’t actually of the water in one of the several streams that we crossed while on the mountainside. But it could be. The water was just as clear, if not clearer, and just plain beautiful as this the water in this photo.

Phone notes from Day 5: {NOTE: A lot of what I wrote in my phone notes is repetitive to what I added to in the actual blog post so don’t feel like you’re going to miss anything if you skip the Phone Notes}

Day 5 January 6:

We had 22.2km to walk from Howden Hut to our campsite reservation at Routeburn Flatts hut. I had set my alarm,clock for 6am so that we would get an early start. We wanted be hiking by 8am at the latest. We got up at 6:30, packed everything up, and walked to the hut to have breakfast, wash up, and then hit the trail,from there.

We were on the trail by 8:30am which was a bit behind my normally rigid mental schedule but it was fine. It didnt really bother me. This multiday trek was not about rushing for me. Actually it had a very slowing effect…I think it did anyway.

We took several “picture time” breaks along the way as the views were just….spectacular.

We took a break at the MacKenzie lake hut, Harris saddle shelter, and the Routeburn falls hut. The hike up from Mackenzie lake was a bit steep and challenging but we finally gor up above the forest into the chilled alpine atmosphere of grass and rocks. The first high point we reached above,MacKenzie lake was breathtaking. And it was a relief that we had made it up to at least near the top,and that we had gotten the hardest part of elevation ascent over,with. Walking along the track on the side of the mountain was beautiful. All this way I had assumed that the gently arching trail we had been on was the “Harris Saddle.” It wasn’t however. We finally asked some people who were walking the other direction and they told us that Harris saddle was still about half an hour away and that the Routeburn falls hut was an hour or more past that. I was getting pretty tired at this point and so this was a relatively unpleasant surprise of information. There were some stairs and around the corner and then I saw a welcome sight; a shelter near the highest point of the trail! The sun was shining but it was windy and cold. I immediately put on my wool sweater and then rested my feet by taking off my hiking boots to let them air out and lose some of the built up energy and heat from the hike. I wanted to put some more tape on my toes and heels as I had felt some wearing on them and wanted to prevent any blistering.

We ate some granola bars, apples, and trail,mix at Harris saddle. Also took some epic resting shots as well with spectacular views of the mountains.

It was only here at Harris saddle, when we had reached the highest point of our walk, that I realized our campsite at Routeburn flats was basically at the same elevation as Howden hut, where we had started our hike earlier that morning. That really out a damper on my spirit and made me start thinking about how I could get out of hiking up all that elevation the next day. You see, we had left our plans open-ended so that we could decide based on how well we and our legs felt when we arrived at Routeburn flats as well as the next morning. But you see, George really wanted to walk there and then back so we could go to Milford sound and so had removed some weight (stuff of his) and left it stored with the warden at Howden hut. So, we didn’t have a choice we had to walk back. But that’s a little bit ahead of myself.

I was worried about how my knees would fair with all the gradual and sometimes steep, rocky, downhill terrain. It started really bothering me on the trail down from Roy’s peak in Wanaka and so why wouldn’t it bother me now? I was really worried about it. But I had brought my Deep Blue lotion and my ace bandage to out around that knee if I needed to. Thankfully I had my trekking poles and just took my time going down. I was really feeling exhausted when we reached Routeburn falls hut… But that’s not where we were staying. We had 2.3 more downhill km to go. We only stopped to rest our very and take some water. We continued shortly after as early evening was coming and we were both exhausted and hungry (at least I was). Those last km were the hardest. My legs were so shot. We finally reached the hut and I took off my pack as fast as possible, then my shoes, ans laid down on the bench to relieve my feet. When there, we bumped into a couple of guys we had met at the MacKenzie lake hut who were from Maryland. Over the course of our conversation, they said they were also staying in Queenstown and that they could give us a ride back if we decided to be done with this adventure. This little possibility of getting back to civilization ruined my adventure spirit for about 14-16hours…. I was trying to figure how I could convince george to not hike back the 22.2km tomorrow and instead go to Queenstown and rent a car and drive to Milford Sound (the reason we were going to walk back in the first place).

Photo notes from Day 6:

Day 6 January 7: I woke up early morning feeling positive that I could either convince George to go back to Queenstown and civilization with me or let him hike back and I would go to Queenstown with the guys. In my half awake/half conscious state, I was feeling that our food was very very low (which it was but not as low as I was making it feel) and I had just been picturing things that could go wrong trying to go back across this alpine crossing if we didn’t have appropriate food supplies and overly tired legs. It wasnt a pretty picture. The guys had said they were going to get up around 730am and I wanted to find them before they left. I was up at about 715am and walked around didnt see them at all. George wasnt buying into my moments of anxiousness and just calmly talked through the options. Later he admitted that he didnt expect me to go back across with him; he expected I would leave him and go back to Queenstown.

While eating breakfast around 830 or 9am by that time, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of those guys from Maryland that had offered a ride. Basically my thought was that they didn’t want to get in the middle of a quarrel. They were just nowhere to be seen. So by this time, it was time to make a move either way. Our motto for this trip had become “Everything together and together we have everything.” With that and the fact that I would be letting George down if I bailed on our joint venture, I just bit the bullet and accepted the fact that I would be walking those long 22.2km back to Howden hut where we had stored our last full dinner supplies.

So by 10am, 1.5hours later than we had started our 22.2km hike the day before, we started hiking back up the 500m of elevation we had to climb up to Harris saddle. I was huffing and puffing the whole way. My legs were screaming at me…..something to the effect of “you crazy witch!!!! What are you doing to me!?!?!?!” The weather was very overcast and since we had taken a bunch of pictures the day before, we just (relatively and depending on the angle of incline) sailed over the trail. It was still a beautiful walk but we were very blessed with the weather that we had the day before…sunny with only a few clouds. There were some sprinkles of rain but nothing soaking for sure. We took another good break at Mackenzie hut to eat some food. We continued on our way – only 8.something km to go and boy were they the longest. We took another break at the waterfall as George’s backpack was bothering his shoulders. Then we continued on, walking as quickly as possible but slowing down a bit growing more tired. We FINALLY rounded a corner where I saw the wood plank walkway and the Howden hut at the end of it…a very welcome site indeed. After dinner, we grabbed our gear and walked the 20mins back to the free campsite. We quickly set up camp, sleeping bags, and passed out.

2 thoughts on “Routeburn Track {Howden Hut to Routeburn Flats Hut & Return} – Day 5 and 6 (January 6th and 7th, 2018)

  1. I loved this post. so glad you couldn’t find those guys. …what glorious scenery! Proud of you and really enjoying the blog


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