Rare good weather, perfect blue skies and fine food greet Stephanie Holmes along the Routeburn Track.

"What a miserable day and a trial for anyone, especially me ... I do pray the weather will improve tomorrow and we are able to dry our clothes."

I find these dour words immortalised in the 1990 visitors book at Lake Mackenzie Lodge, the first overnight stop on a three-day walk on the Routeburn Track.

It appears the weather that autumn was inclement, and walkers were subjected to torrential rains, cold temperatures and bad moods.

Advertisement

"Global warming is taking its toll on the weather of NZ and also on its trampers. Will the sun ever shine again?" reads another gloomy entry.

It's hard to imagine what they went through, for today is nothing but glorious.

The MacKenzie Lodge, Ultimate Hikes' private hut on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ultimate Hikes
The MacKenzie Lodge, Ultimate Hikes' private hut on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ultimate Hikes

"We hardly ever have weather like this," bus driver Bruce told us earlier as he transported us from Queenstown to The Divide, Fiordland National Park's gateway to the Routeburn. Although our hike begins on the first official day of autumn, and despite the fact Queenstown was a frigid 4C when I arrived late the night before, luck appears to be on our side.

Unlike the Fiordland I've pictured in my mind, there are no overcast skies, no torrential downpours; just perfect blue and relentless sunshine, not a cloud to be seen in the entire sweep of South Island sky.

Not only am I blessed with good weather, I'm also experiencing the Routeburn in VIP style. On this guided hike, all I need to worry about is putting one foot in front of the other.

Yes, I must carry my own pack, but the only things inside it are the clothes and personal items I need for three days. Food is taken care of, and I don't need to carry a sleeping bag or camping equipment because I'm staying in luxurious lodges in stunning locations. There are even fully-stocked bars waiting for me at the end of each day.

If I couldn't feel the very real throb of my feet after a full day's walking, I'd almost think this was a very good dream.

I've even been spoilt in terms of the group I'm walking with. The maximum number of guests is 40, but I'm one of just 16 which means not only more space on the track, but also my shared room for four people has only me in it.

Advertisement
Stephanie Holmes at Earland Falls on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ari Jelekainen
Stephanie Holmes at Earland Falls on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ari Jelekainen

I'm not quite sure what I did to get this lucky, but I'm certainly not complaining. The same can't be said of Bill Brown, another 1990s guest, even though he fared better in the weather stakes than his visitor book peers.

"The heat is almost unbearable," he writes. "Mick the Guide is burnt to a crisp ... It's been hard. Alison tempted fate by saying it would be great to have some rain. But no — just more pitiless blue skies, searing heat and views that go on forever."

You can't please everyone, I guess. But those endless views really are nothing to complain about.
One of New Zealand's nine Great Walks, the Routeburn covers 32km of the exceptionally beautiful Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks and is usually completed in three days. You can walk independently, staying at DoC huts or campsites, but for those looking for something extra special, this is definitely the way to do it.

It's hard not to be smug when you stroll past the DoC hut and see people eating food out of packets and chilling their beer in the lake. Just a few minutes up the track and we're in comparative luxury — that fully stocked bar, a pre-dinner cheese and charcuterie platter, three-course freshly cooked meals of tender rib-eye steak, followed by sticky date pudding with icecream, all kinds of teas and four different pods for the Nespresso machine. Plus hot showers and a generator-powered drying room for any damp clothes.

The scenery is the same for everyone, of course, no matter your level of luxury. The three days take us through varied terrain — alpine meadows, mirror-like lakes, fern-dense beech forests, wide expanses of glacial-carved mountain valleys. Moss so dense and springy it feels like a perfectly cooked sponge cake. Icy-cool streams where it would be a crime not to fill up your drink bottle and take a big, well-earned swig. Everywhere, fresh, crisp air and the kind of peace and quiet of which city-dwellers can only dream.

There's no cellphone reception after leaving Te Anau, and we won't regain it again until our walk ends with a celebratory beer at the Glenorchy pub. For three days there's not so much as the ping of an email notification, no pressure to be posting something suitably influencer-like on social media, no way of knowing what's going on in the real world. It's a rare treat.

Although the track is popular with local and international walkers, it's still easy to find space to walk by yourself, especially this late in the season when the summer crowds start to dissipate. Much of the time I walk alone, mindfully concentrating on the sights, sounds and smells surrounding me.

Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ultimate Hikes
Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Ultimate Hikes

Every so often a walker passes in the other direction and we'll nod a greeting or give a brief hello. Lone walkers wearing headphones create their own soundtrack for the often-challenging hike. I'd rather listen to nothing, which becomes listening to everything. The cry of keas, the thunder of waterfalls, the whisper of a breeze, the rasp of my breath, the scrunch of my boots.

When feeling more sociable, I walk with others from our group and we chat about our everyday lives, interrupting each other regularly to exclaim over the beauty of our surrounds. There's also the chance to walk with the guides — we have three taking care of our group of 16 and they space out front, middle and back to keep up with our varying fitness levels.

New guide Tess got this job straight out of uni after a degree in environmental science. She can't believe her luck, getting to regularly walk this famous track and meet people from all walks of life.

Mel is on her second season now and her fitness is remarkable. Slight framed and carrying a backpack almost two-thirds her size, she scrambles up the steepest parts of the track with the ease of a high country lamb.

Hamish, with his long flowing hair and lime green bandanna, has the look of a Woodstock hippie but the expertise of a seasoned mountain guide. He's full of flora and fauna knowledge, as well as cautionary tales reminding how treacherous this alpine track can sometimes be.

On day two, he pauses high above Lake Mackenzie, and we look down to the comfortable lodge we've just vacated. Two plaques secured to a nearby boulder are inscribed with two names: Heather Anne McElligott and Bryan William Lamb "who perished in a storm near this spot".

These two 13-year-olds from Roxburgh were walking the track on a school trip in December 1963. A freak blizzard blew through and the class of 15 became trapped. Exhausted, Heather and Bryan couldn't go on and despite their teacher's efforts to save them, they died of exposure. The tragedy led to the establishment of huts along the track to give walkers a place to shelter and rest.

The second plaque is dedicated to Ondrej Petr, the Czech Republic tourist who in 2016 went against DoC advice and decided to walk the track in July, the winter off season when all huts are closed and there are no rangers. He and his girlfriend Pavlina Pizova told no one of their plans and had no tent or locator beacon with them. When bad weather struck they became disoriented and could no longer see the track which twists precariously along the ridgeline of the Harris Saddle.

Falling down a steep slope, Petr became trapped and Pizova couldn't free him. He died; she spent a distraught two days in the open with his body, before finding her way to the Lake Mackenzie hut. She would spend the next month here, alone, hoping to be rescued. A Facebook post from worried friends was her saving grace — the Czech Republic honorary consul Vladka Kennett, based in Glenorchy, saw the message and alerted search and rescue. Pizova was found, shellshocked and traumatised, but very much alive.

These stories are a sobering reminder just how rare our perfect weather really is. One of our group corroborates this, telling us of her experience walking the Routeburn 15 years ago. Day one was torrential rain; day two was a blanket of thick snow; day three was bright blue skies.

Our final day dawns with sunshine so warm I can walk to the finish in T-shirt and shorts.

"Three days in a row ... this never happens," Hamish tells us, and I count my lucky stars the Routeburn has been kind to me.

Lake Mackenzie on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Supplied
Lake Mackenzie on the Routeburn Track. Photo / Supplied

Checklist

DETAILS

Ultimate Hikes

is the only company operating multi-day guided walks on the Routeburn, Milford and Greenstone Tracks. The Routeburn Track Guided Walk is a three day/two night all-inclusive guided walk through Fiordland and Mt Aspiring National Parks. Trips depart from, and return to Queenstown, prices start from $1375pp. Save $200 on selected dates booked before March 28.