trip report: New Zealand, December 2016 – part 3, Routeburn Track and Milford Sound

This post is part 3 of our New Zealand adventures over the holiday break during December 2016 to January 2017. You can also navigate to the other sections among the different posts below.

trip report: Campbelltown and Whakaari Conservation Area

After a four days in Mt. Aspiring National Park and an off day in Wanaka, we were off to our Airbnb near Glenorchy. The original plan was to rest in Glenorchy for a couple of days after hiking out through the Rees Track, but instead we had to shuttle from Wanaka with 2 different companies. The first was Alpine Connexions operating out of Wanaka and they dropped us off in downtown Queenstown. Our second was called Glenorchy Journeys and they picked us where the other shuttle dropped us off. Both shuttles was NZ$25 for each person. Since our Airbnb is slightly outside of Glenorchy in an area called Campbelltown, it was one of the only Airbnbs left, we bought some groceries and our Routeburn supplies in Wanaka. Our Routeburn plans was only for 2 days, so most of the food was for our chill days at our Airbnb.

The shuttle out from downtown Queenstown, which we spent a total of 15 minutes at this entire trip, was a very nice drive next to Lake Wakatipu with Mt. Earnslaw and its glacier in the distance.


We hadn’t planned any hiking in this area originally, but asked our driver if there was any trails where we can get a good look at that mountain. There was indeed one right next to our Airbnb in the Whakaari Conservation Area. Alternatively, there is also the Earnslaw Burn Track that goes to a nice flat under the mountain.

The Whakaari Conservation Area had a day trail going up Mt. Judah to an old mining area and a couple of huts. There is also a 2 day Mt. McIntosh Loop that rises over Glenorchy and the lake. We opted to just explore this area a little on our off day since we had paid for 2 nights at the airbnb and it’s nice to just have a relaxing day before heading out on the Routeburn. We were on vacation after all. Not to mention, we wanted to do laundry while at the Airbnb.

Our Airbnb was a small one room building that had a small cooking area and pretty good wifi. Scott, who owned the place, actually helped build Liverpool hut a few years back. Had we decided to head to town, Scott had a couple bikes we could use. He also had a pug that was super friendly.

trail information

  • name: Mt. Judah Track to the State Mine
  • type: in and out
  • distance: 4.3 miles
  • elevation change: 1118 ft ascend and descend
  • time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • location: Whakaari Conservation Area
  • Again, we didn’t explore this area too much since we were getting ready for a possible very long day on the Routeburn. We only went up a short bit, before turning back and relaxing. For a fuller report, check out these guys

We started from our Airbnb and walked about a half mile uphill to the carpark for the area. There is a message board and a metal winter outhouse here. The first part of the trail cut behind someone’s backyard before hooking up with the old Mt. Judah Road. At this point, we can start seeing the town of Glenorchy as we gained more elevation.


There is no trees or shade at all on this route making me wish I had my hiking umbrella and also probably made me turn back earlier

A short distance up, we reached the old scheelite battery, where the mining of tungsten use to take place.


A bit after that we reached the old State Mine, Mt. Earnslaw starting to disappear behind Mt. McIntosh, we decided to turn back.


The view down was very nice with the blooming yellow flowers, the lake, and the Humboldt Mountains in the background.


ratings (1-5)

  • view: 3. Our ratings for this hike is mainly incomplete, so we’ll only talk about the section we did. It was a nice view for a short off day hike, a nice alternative around Glenorchy. Again, check out these guys for more on this area
  • difficulty: 1. The section we did was a gentle up as it used to be a mining road.
  • technical: 1. This section was not technical at all, but I did read that there is some exposure and scrambling should you continue on either routes higher up.



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trip report: Fiordland National Park

Routeburn Track preparations

Even though it was nice to have a couple day off, it was during this time where I wish we had more flexibility and had a car. During our time after Mt. Aspiring and before to head out to the Routeburn, I had been checking pretty consistently for opening either at Routeburn Hut or Lake Mackenzie, I’ll explain why further below. While nothing opened up on the Routeburn, I did see that 2 spots opened up on the Milford Track, the original great walk. Without a car, there was no way we’d able to get over to Te Anau from Glenorchy feasibly to start the trek that day. It was disappointing to not be able to grab those spots. However for those of you without reservations on the Great Walks, opening do open up if you are flexible enough. Secondly, our off day happened to be a really nice day so it made me want to take advantage of it to hit the trail.

Returning to our planning conundrum for the Routeburn, We had a campsite reservation at Routeburn Flat, which was a mere 2 hours from the trailhead and would mean we would have to finish the entire majority of the tramp (25.5km or ~16mi) on day 2. Not only that, we would have to reach the end, which is The Divide trailhead, by 5:15pm for the last shuttle pickup. So, not the ideal way to enjoy the tramp.

Alternatively, I had read that there was a possible camping spot about 30 minutes to 1 hour from the last hut on the trail, Lake Howden. The camping spot is actually part of the Greenstone-Caples Track and is at Greenstone Saddle. So my thought going in was to have our long day on the first day, essentially doing the entire track in one day, rather than the second since the daylight stays around til 9pm in the New Zealand Summer. We didn’t have to make a decision as we started, so we just decided based on how we were doing. This conundrum was also a major reason we took it easy the day before and relaxed properly.

One last thing we had to do before starting the tramp was to call into the DOC in Queenstown. Since we never stopped in Queenstown long enough to pickup our reservation tags for the Routeburn Flat campsite, we had to call to confirm our trip. They said all we needed was the reservation number, gave us the forecast (which was good for our 2 days), wished us a good hike.

trail information

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Routeburn Track: day 1

Our shuttle from Glenorchy Journeys picked us up around 9am in the morning and had us at the trailhead 45 minutes later. The ride was again NZ$25 each person. We started the trail under overcast skys through a forest going a gentle uphills.


There were a couple large suspension bridges early on


before we started to follow the Route Burn River.


The uphill flattens out as we cross a stream


and reach the Routeburn Flat area 2 hours into our tramp.


Base on our pace and the recommended times on the guide, we were at the quick end of their timing. After talking with the hut warden, she said either of our plans was good based on our pace. Since we didn’t really want to stop so early in the day, we continued on.


The elevation picked up a little bit after we left Routeburn Flats as we crossed a couple of bridges and a couple open areas with nice views of the valley.


There was also an area that warned of exposure, though it was nothing compared to what we saw in the Matukituki valley. The difference between Great Walks and typical trails are very large. One hour later, we were at Routeburn Falls hut where we filled up on water and eat an energy bar before continuing up. The “hut” seems like a large hotel on the side of the mountain and we were just in time for the chopper drop the resupply.


It is important to fill up on water here if you don’t have a way to treat water as the next non-stream water source is at Lake Mackenzie, though I’m guessing you’ll be fine drinking from the streams after the Harris Pass. The Routeburn Falls were a cascade of green water rushing down


from the next flat that we hiked up to.


The trail wound into the flat with very nice wooden path at any point where it could have been muddy.


After crossing the flat, the trail started to ascend again on the left side


as we worked our way above the very green Lake Harris.


Meg was very found of this lake and would have like to take it home.


Before rounding the corner, we got a looked all the way back to the Routeburn valley where we started the day.


After we turned the corner, we pass a couple of small ponds


before reached 2 huts at Harris Pass, also called Tarahaka Whakatipu around 2:15pm, 1.5 hours from Routeburn Falls.


During lunch we met a guy that was planning to do an in and out of the routeburn, meaning from one end to the other and back. This was because he had a car and couldn’t have it moved and didn’t have any reservations on the track. Seeing how we didn’t need our Routeburn Flat campsite, we gave him our confirmation number and told him he could stay there in our place. Little did we know at the time, trail karma on the Routeburn comes back fast. Yes, that’s foreshadowing.

After lunch, we had a choice to make. There is a side route call Conical Hill, which takes 1-2 hours with return.


Our friend Eric had recommended it to us, but we were on a tight schedule. We decided to go for it since it was around 2:30pm and we could be back down by 3:30pm. That would allow us to reach Lake Mackenzie by 5:30ish and to the campsite after Lake Howden Hut by 9.

We left our packs are started up. After the first section of scrambling, still not as bad as Liverpool Hut or the Cascade Pylon though substantially more difficult than the rest of the Routeburn, we reached an opening with a view of Lake Harris and the flat we hiked up.


A little bit further


and we were at the top with views of the Hollyford Valley all the way out to Lake McKerrow/Whakatipu Waitai, Martins Bay, and the ocean.


Another direction shows Mt. Xenicus and Mt. Erebus.


And the last direction looks up the Hollyford valley toward the direction the rest of the tramp takes.


After a short break on top of Conical Hill, we down back at the pass around 3:30pm.


After an initial steeper down, the trail leveled out as it continued on the side of the valley with somewhat of an exposure.


The trail was still plenty wide and the only section that maybe slightly narrower had a wire bolted to the wall.


The sun beating down on us was probably the worst part of this section, though the continuous views of the valley were very pleasing.


After a hour and half long stretch of waiving along the walls, there was a final gradual uphill


before rounding a bluff to the serene Lake Mackenzie.


The trail continues into the valley,


zig zaging a couple time over Lake Mackenzie before dropping into the tree line for another 30 minutes.


Around 6pm, we came out of the forest into the clearing to the Lake and Mackenzie Hut.


We also had some aspirations of talking to the warden for the possibility of available camp spots from no-shows, but wasn’t counting on it.

My leg was starting to cramp a little bit at this time, so it was vital for me to get some salt back into my system. As soon as we reached porch of the hut, I dropped my pack and started cooking dinner so we’d be re-energized before the last leg of our day. There were plenty of trekkers chilling out on the porch and enjoying the sunlight. While I was cooking, we started talking to a group from Australia. At some point in the conversation, our trekking plans came up and how we still have a few hours left in the day. We asked if they had seen the warden so we could inquire about any free camp spot openings. It just happened that they had a camping reservation that they weren’t going to use since they had a couple people back out. They were glad to donate their spot to us, talk about trail karma.


The Moynihans really made our day and we are so thankful for the camping spot. It took all the urgency out of our dinner as we hung out for a while longer while they waited for their dinners to be cooked before heading over to the campsite.

The campsite had a shelter area with faucets, tables, and benches. The camping areas had artificial turf floorings so it was pretty comfortable and the surrounding bushes provided good shelter. The only negative the outhouses some of the worst in terms of smell and bugs. As we were setting up the tent, the warden came around to check on everyone’s reservations. He checked us in without any issues, maybe because Meg’s Irishness matched the name on the reservation or he probably didn’t care much. While he was going around, we heard him talking to another girl who didn’t have a reservation. It seemed like there were spots available and he was fine just collecting the fee there are letting her camp.

Since we had dinner already, I had a last walk around the lake after we set up camp for some pictures.


We were out pretty quickly once we got into our sleeping bags.


Our total distance for the day was 16.2 miles ascending 4823 ft and descending 3441 ft, taking us a little more than 8 hours.

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Routeburn Track: day 2

We woke up the next day around 8am. We didn’t have any specific time constraint to hike the last couple sections of the track, but we did want to try to catch the 1:30pm shuttle with tracknet to get us from The Divide Trailhead to Te Anau. Otherwise, we would have to wait another 2 hours at the trailhead for the 3:15pm shuttle. We assumed we would be able to take either of these earlier shuttles given they had space on them because most of the services were pretty flexible about it.

After packing up, we took a brief side trip over to look at Split Rock. Don’t know if it really compares to the views on the tramp, but it was a short warmup.


There were a couple nice points where we had some nice views of the fog lifting off the lake.


Once we returned to the campsite, we headed back toward the hut and the main trail along the lake.


The morning on the lake was so serine.


The trail from the hut started with a little bit of up hill before reaching the tree line once again.


Then it curved around the mountain slowly losing elevation and crossing a couple water falls including Earland Falls.


After 2.5 hours of walking, we reach Lake Howden Hut around 11:30am.


We took a quick bathroom break before heading up the last uphill of the day. At the top of the hill, there was a side track to Key Summit. We ended up skipping this sidetrip because we didn’t want to miss the earlier shuttle and we doubted that it would add that much to what we’d seen already. On our homestretch down


toward the divide parking lot, we met our new friend Jing Jing. She had just finished her work visa in New Zealand and was on her way out from a day hike to the Key Summit. She was great company as we finished the last downhill of the Routeburn track. Not only that, she offered us a ride back to Te Anau so we didn’t have to wait around for the shuttle at all.

We reached The Divide around 12:30pm, about 3.5 hours after we left the campgroup.


Our total for the day was 8.2 miles ascending 1190 ft and descending 2339 ft.


ratings (1-5)

  • view: 4. The views on the Routeburn was definitely one on of the highlights of our trip. My favorite parts were the hike up Conical Hill with its view of the Hollyford valley all the way to the ocean and hiking down toward Lake Mackenzie. If big valleys and green lakes are your thing, this is a good one for you.
  • difficulty: 2. Great walks are extremely well maintained and I did get the feel that part of its design is to appeal to everyone. So there weren’t any extremely challenging climbs or hazardous areas. The exposure that existed were accompanied by decently wide trails. We ended up hiking 16 miles the first day and we probably could have gone the rest of the way. Other than a bit of leg cramping from dehydration, it was probably one of the more comfortable 16 miles I’ve backpacked. If you have 3 days and 2 night planned, it will be an enjoyable hike with plenty of time to relax and enjoy the view.
  • technical: 1.5. You can’t get lost on this trail, there are plenty of people and signs. The most technical part is the side trip up to Conical hill because it involves some climbing and a little be of exposure. I would say that portion is a 2.



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Te Anau

The road from The Divide to the town to Te Anau took slightly more than an hour. We were grateful to that Jing Jing not only gave us a ride but stopped along the way at a few of the scenic sites


along the way.


We stayed at the Kingsgate Hotel, which was located near the DOC information center in Te Anau. Since it was around New Years, I had very limited housing choices. Fortunately, I was able to a one of the 2 nights covered with the free stay through, essentially redeeming my 10% back. The hotel itself was pretty standard and about a 15 minute walk from the town area. There was coin laundry for use to do some laundry.

Te Anau itself is the base for many tourist looking to head to Milford Sound and hikers setting up to do the Great Walks in the area. There is a large supermarket in the middle of town called Fresh Choice that has everything you need including dehydrated meals and plenty of booze. There are also plenty of outfitters and tour shops to get you set up with whatever you wanted to do. There a good stretch of lakeshore where for an after dinner stroll or to relax on.

On the cheaper side of eating out, there are a couple of cafes and a bakery. We ate a late lunch at Wapiti Bakery & Cafe the first night we were in town and bought a couple meat pies and deserts for dinner.


The other bakery was more highly recommended but we ate at the first one we saw.

There are also plenty of restaurants, including Chinese ones. However Jing Jing didn’t have a good option of them, so we stayed away. On our second night, New Years Eve, we celebrated by going to the top rated place we saw on tripadvisor, which was the Kepler Restaurant. It was a New Zealand and South American Fusion place. The flavors were indeed an awesome mix, though I preferred the ceviche we had in Peru instead.

On New Years, we were one of the only walk in to be able to get a seat and we arrived right when they opened at 5. Several other groups were turned away while we were there.

We didn’t spend too much time around town since we adhered to camper midnight on the first night and 2 bottles of sparking wine took us out early on new years eve, we might not have made it to midnight.

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Milford Sound

Our original plan was have a couple of morning dives with Descend Diving on New Years Eve. Because of the freshwater and saltwater mix, the animals misjudge the depth and come up to shallower depth. Also, the layering the freshwater and saltwater keeps all the dust on to the top freshwater layer leaving great visibility in the layer below. I was pretty pumped for this, but after we headed out on the Routeburn, the forecast for New Years Eve was not looking good.

By the afternoon of the 30th, we got word from Descend Diving that they were going to have to cancel the our dives with the high wind forecast. This is again where I wish we had more flexibility in our schedule or that I had found out about diving there before I booked our treks. Guess we’ll have to come back, oh darn. Since we already had our transportation set up to head out to Milford Sound, we asked the guys at Descend if there are alternatives. They told us the boat cruises were still going to go out and to look for one of the smaller boats so we can get close up to the waterfalls and wildlife.

We ended going with the company Southern Discoveries because they were one of the only companies that stopped at the Milford Discovery Center & Underwater Observatory, which was a floating building that had an observational area submerged down into the water. I was set on looking at some fishes underwater. In terms of booking, Southern Discoveries have several different packages and boats. The best package was the “Discover More Cruise” since it include lunch and the Discovery Center, which would have been $10 and $36 respectively if they were added onto the small boat option of “Encounter Nature Cruise.” The tricky thing is that “Discover More Cruise” doesn’t specify which kind of boat it is, so you just have to look at when the Encounter Nature Cruise goes out and book the Discover More Cruise Package for that time.

Our early morning shuttle from Te Anau with Tracknet picked us up at the DOC.


They will do hotel pickups, but our hotel was across the street from the DOC. The predicted rain was indeed coming as headed on highway 94 through Fiordland National Park and back pass The Divide. There are plenty of day hikes and car campsite along the way if you have a car. After the divide there is a turn off toward the Hollyford Valley. Based on the views from the Routeburn, I’d want to come back and do the Hollyford track at some point. Continuing on, went through the once man-dugged Homer Tunnel and into Milford Sound. Around the tunnel is where the Kea birds chill out and, apparently, attack the tires of the car waiting for the light at the one-way tunnel. So be aware if you are out taking pictures around the tunnel and have a car. Or if you are leaving your car to attempt the expert level route to Gerturde Saddle.


The driver was talking bets on if this little one going to go for the car in front of us on the way back.


A cool thing about a heavy rain day is the many waterfalls that appears and runs off the sides of the mountains.


These falls would otherwise not exist on a dry day.

After a few switchbacks, the road get to the little town of Milford Sound shortly. Along the road, there are a couple more expert level tracks including the Tutoko Valley Route and an easy Grave-Talbot walk, which can be a continued as a mountaineering route or climbing route to get to the pass. With these more expert routes, definitely talk with the DOC if you are interested.

Milford Sound is the end point for those on Milford Track after taking a boat. The majority of the tourists here are for the cruises and kayaking. There are a couple short walks around the small town as well. The remoteness of the town has no phone service, a restaurant, and the boat tour building at the dock where all shuttles drop off and pickup.

At the boat tour building, we checked in with Southern Discovery and given our passes for each of the activates. Our boat was indeed the singled hulled Lady Bowen.


The boat left the dock and followed the south side of the Sound


stopping at a few of the falls.


To avoid the crowds, the back of the boat get just as good of views as the front and you’ll still get to see everything.


We continued all the way out to the ocean where we were rocked by some heavy waves before returning on the north side where we got a nice view of some young sea lions chilling in the rain


and then drove up right under a fall.


The end of the tour was to stop at the Underwater Discovery Center to get some views of the underwater wildlife


and the unique black coral.


The center itself might not be worth the full price, but I was set on seeing what it was like underwater. Plus, it was included in my package. Overall, the cruise was worthwhile and aesthetically satisfying, though I will return to do some diving next time.

trip report: heading north, concluding our time on the South Island

We woke up on New Years Day ready to say goodbye to the New Zealand’s South Island. This was also going to be a long travel day involving shuttles, flights, and buses. We had to get up early to catch the tracknet shuttle from Te Anau to the airport. It wasn’t cheapest option compared to the Intercity bus, but it fit our time schedules. We had a flight around noon to catch from Queenstown Airport (ZQN) back to Auckland (AKL). When I first started planning, I thought about taking the bus all the way up the coast and riding the ferry that connects the islands. However, it would have taken more time away from the trails the recent earthquake made it impossible at the time.

Our thoughts as we were leaving was that we’ll be back for sure. I guess it stays true to the saying from a kiwi I met during my backpacking through Europe that went “You never visit a place like it’s your last, you visiting thinking of coming back.” Hopefully, next time with more time and a car. Our friend Daniel put it nicely in that there are places that have more impressive views, but it’s hard to match the feel and culture of the South Island. The extended holiday is really how this area ought to be enjoyed.

As we headed to the airport,


the island sent us a massive rainbow to say E noho rā.


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If you’ve enjoyed this trip report and found it helpful, we would always welcome any support. Thanks!

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6 thoughts on “trip report: New Zealand, December 2016 – part 3, Routeburn Track and Milford Sound

  1. So the good news is I booked the routeburn for January! I’m so excited! Your page has just got me even more giddy with anticipation! Your photos are amazing…. What camera do you use? You didn’t carry a huge dslr did you? Thanks for your informative post. I am bursting at the seams with joy! Lol

    1. That’s awesome Anna! You’ll love it.

      The camera I use is the Sony a6000, it is a mirrorless camera that weighs a little less than a pound (.5kg). I also have an ultra wide lense, the Samyang 12mm F2, that I use to take most of the pictures. The a6000 kit lense is decent, but I’ve had issues with the motor controlling the zoom in mine.

      For post processing (which I started doing during this series of posts), I edited the raw images with Lightroom, mainly to sharpen the picture, get more contrast, and bring the darks and lights closer to the middle. You can see the difference between Lightroom edited images and just the jpeg processed by the camera by comparing the pictures before this series. I mainly try to postprocess the images to my actual perception. I’m also a novice with Lightroom.

      1. Thanks for the tips mate. Your photos are stunning! I have a huge bulky dslr but there is no way I can carry that on a hike. I think I’ll have to invest in a smaller compact and perhaps check out this Lightroom business. I’m a total noob on all things tech so who knows how I’ll go! Lol. Cheers. I’ll probably be back numerous times in the next 3 months daydreaming over your photos! Haha

        1. Thanks Anna. A lot of backpackers I’ve talked to have really liked the mirrorless cameras, most companies have a version of them but lenses are more expensive. This website ( was helpful when I was upgrading cameras a few years ago and with the end of the year coming, I imagine there will be some holiday sales.

          Let me know if you have questions about them or lightroom. I’d be glad to help.

          1. Oh I really have to thank you again for the link to switchback travel. Such a great site full of info! I’ve enjoyed their newzealand info too. Thanks for,pointing me in the right direction!

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