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Trip Report Trip Report: Milford and Routeburn Tracks Nov 2010

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Just got back from New Zealand and doing the Milford and Routeburn guided walks. Been sorting through my pictures, thinking how utterly incredible the whole experience was. Worth every penny in my opinion. A trip of a lifetime. We were blessed with great weather - barely any rain. Still being spring, there was still plenty of snow on the mountains, which added to the beauty. Nonetheless, I was surprised how cool it was on the South Island toward the beginning of our trip. We had frost our 1st morning on the Milford.

UltimateHikes do a fantastic job. The guides and lodge staff were friendly, very knowledgeable and professional; the lodges were beautifully situated, comfortable, well maintained and very clean (some are very new and modern). The food was mostly pretty good. Another nice aspect was the leeway walkers were given to walk at their own pace. So people naturally spread out quite far apart. It wasn't like a tour of a cathedral with 45 other people moving as a cluster with a guide. There were four guides on the Milford, three on the Routeburn. One in front (who ran ahead to brew tea and coffee at the lunch huts), one or two in the middle, and a "sweeper" at the back. Mostly, I walked with my friend, but at times we walked with and listened to one of the guides.

The Milford and Routeburn are quite different. I liked the Milford because it was longer and included two great boat cruises at either end - the boat to the trailhead on Lake Te Anau at the start and the Milford Sound cruise at the end. Milford has a higher proportion of valley walking than the Routeburn, but the numerous waterfalls (including the 1900+ foot Sutherland Falls), lush vegetation and gorgeous river views around almost every corner do make up for it. And the climb over the MacKinnon Pass is truly, truly breathtaking.

As opposed to the Milford, the Routeburn (which the Kiwis pronounce as "root burn") is much more of an alpine walk. I'd say the second day of the Routeburn (and the only full day on that trail) was the most spectacular of the whole trip - and that's saying something because of what I just said about the MacKinnon Pass above! We saw more people on the Routeburn than on the Milford - I think was because of the accessibility of the trailhead (you don't need a boat to get there) as well as the fact that it can be hiked in both directions, unlike Milford. Nonetheless, I would not say the Routeburn came at all close to being crowded.

Already thinking about a return hike. The Grand Traverse (Greenstone and Routeburn combo) was highly recommended by several people, and, being a longer walk, makes up for the brevity of Routeburn.

Next I'll give a short day-by day report...

Ralph

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    Thanks for the report I guess we just have to try to decide. We are only there for 3 weeks so we only want to do one of the hikes. You'd pick the Milford though it sounds like?

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    Routeburn is short and very sweet; Milford is long and sweet. Tough choice. Why not do both (The Classic) like we did or the Grand Traverse? Cant think of anything better to be doing in NZ.

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    Just got home from New Zealand myself, what an awe inspiring country. I want to do one of these treks next time. I am trying to regroup to post my trip report. Can't wait to hear the rest of yours!

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    Okay, here we go.....

    Day -1

    Arriving in Queenstown from Sydney, we checked in at the Absoloot youth hostel in the center of town for a night. Centrally located and clean, this served us well for the brief stay. The room was small but it did have an en suite bath, unlike similar places I've stayed.

    Next we headed up to the UltimateHikes Center a short distance away in town for our pre-trip briefing and slide show- an overview of the itinerary, weather conditions, advice on what to pack, safety considerations, etc. Packs, raincoats, pack liners were the made available without additional charge for use on the hike. I borrowed a pack, which was in very good condition. The UltimateHikes Center had a store where you could pick up any last minute gear not on loan.

    Day 1

    Having stored our suitcases at Absoloot, we packed our packs and got to the UlimateHikes Center at about 9 AM. Here, we first met our guides and fellow walkers (47 of us in total) and boarded the bus to Te Anau, a couple of hours away. This was a very pleasant and scenic trip starting with the drive south along the shore of Lake Wakatipu. Yellow flowering shrubs (yellow lupine?) lined the road and hillsides for miles and of course, green fields with sheep, cows and deer; distant snow-covered mountains. The bus driver provided commentary along the way. We made a traditional stop at Mossburn for New Zealand ice cream and restrooms. At this point the weather was looking very iffy, with occasional rain showers. With all the warnings about being prepared for serious rain, we were starting to think the whole thing could be a wash out. Not the case at all as it turned out!

    Arriving in Te Anau, we pulled into the UltimateHikes office, an adjunct to the Distinction Hotel where lunch was provided. Then we switched buses for the short journey along Lake Te Anau to Te Anau Downs where we boarded the boat to the remote start of the Milford Track at the northern end of the lake (which, it was pointed out, is NZ's largest in water volume). We stood out on the open deck enjoying the scenery and more and more blue sky. It was downright frigid facing into the wind.

    The walk from our arrival point on Lake Te Anau to the first lodge, Glade House was a short walk of about a mile, the first mile of the 33.5 miles that make up the the Milford track. At Glade House, the sun was shining with a lovely view up the Clinton Valley, our route for day 2. The whole group was assembled for the traditional group photo (provided without additional cost at the end of the trip) and then divided in two for a short nature walk around the back of Glade House. Here we learned about the various type of beech trees that dominate the Fiordland forests, the climate (over 30 feet of rain a year!), introduced pests and their impact on native wildlife and other interesting things like the purity of stream water, which we were free to drink anywhere along the track.

    Glade House was the most rustic of the lodge we were to stay in but very comfortable nonetheless. The bathroom facilities were shared by everyone and very clean. As for all the lodges, private rooms were available at extra cost. As it turned out, my friend and I had a shared room to ourselves.

    After dinner, the whole group gathered for what became the regular briefing on the next day's walk, with Q&A. On this first occasion each of us was asked to stand up and introduce ourselves. The largest contingent were Australians, then Americans, then Japanese and a smattering of Brits, Swedes and Canadians. The age range was quite large, but mostly 40+.

    All the lodges are very remote and, with the exception of Glade, are supplied by helicopter. Hence they are powered by generator, well sound proofed. The generators are switched off at 10 PM, so it was early to bed every night to be well rested for the next day's walk. Fortunately there were low intensity battery-powered nightlights in the hallways and bathrooms.

    The real walking started the next day...10 miles to Pompolona Lodge along the Clinton River.

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    Ralph- Thanks for the memories! It's almost exactly a year since we did the Milford with Ultimate Hikes and I agree, it was a wonderful and well-run trek. Enjoying reading your description and looking forward to the rest.

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    Thanks aussiefive and susncrg. Hope the weather is good to you on your trip aussiefive.

    We woke the next day (Nov 22) to brilliant, clear and frosty morning (I certainly wasn't expecting frost at that time of year in NZ). Such was to become the routine each morning: wash, dress, make lunch (cold cuts, bread, cheese, fruit, trail mix, candy bars etc were layed out for us) and then eat a cooked breakfast. On this easy day, the walk started between 8:30, when the lead guide set out and 9:00, when the sweeper guide hit the trail. Most of started with the lead guide and subsequently spread out as we stopped to take pictures, etc. Most of us were wearing hats and gloves at the start, but as the day warmed up, we didn't need them.

    On this day, the track mostly followed close to the left bank of the Clinton river, to which we crossed almost immediately after Glade House by suspended walk bridge, the first of many over the coming days. Much of the walking was through beech forest, but there was no shortage of views as we neared the river bank and made short detours. Each viewpoint provided different aspects of the crystal clear aqua green river, the lush vegetation and towering snow covered mountains above. With still water and no wind, I was able to get gorgeous mountain reflection shots.

    One of longer detours was the Wetland Walk (boardwalk) to an open boggy area. It was interesting listening to our very knowledgeable guide (Claude) as she described the various plants and mosses, including carnivorous sundews. We also learned how to attract South Island bush robins close to our feet by scraping a boot on the track to stir up potential food.

    Continuing on, we made a short stop for a snack at the Clinton hut complex, the first of the huts accommodating independent walkers. Very nice. Further up the track we had lunch at the Hierre Falls shelter. As became routine, the guides boiled up hot water to make coffee, tea and cocoa or us. Later, we made a detour to Hidden Lake, which is fed by a waterfall tumbling off the cliff high above. We saw our first snow up close at Hidden Lake, an indication of how cold a swim there would be.

    After Hidden Lake, we crossed a beautiful open section called the Prarie, and then started climbing a little up to the second hut for guided walkers, Pompolona, beautifully situated with views up the valley to McKinnon Pass, the high point on the next day's route. Feeling like kings, we were individually welcomed to each hut by one of the staff with cold lemonade, orange slices and biscuits. Not exactly roughing it! Before relaxing, we took a hot shower, changed and hand washed our clothes in sinks provided for the purpose. A drying room adjacent to the generator room served very well in getting our things dry in just a couple of hours.

    Then we sat back and relaxed in Pomolona's lounge room, mixing it up with fellow walkers and enjoying the vista though the windows outside. Beer and wine were available for purchase, and we made full use of that! People played cards and chess.

    After dinner, another slide show and talk about the next day's hike. The guides also ran a "foot clinic" to attend to any blisters people might have. (Fortunately for me, I was one of the few who didn't suffer at some time during the walk.) And then to bed, lights off for everyone at 10. Heading to our room we met our first keas, alpine parrots (the world's only alpine parrot) that like to roost on the railings and try to get into people's rooms and tear apart hiking gear.

    Next - day 3, the stunning, unforgettable hike up and over McKinnon Pass.

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    We were delighted the next morning (Nov 23) to again wake up to a sunny blue sky. And it wasn't as chilly as the previous morning. Of all the days you wanted it to nice, this was the one. And, as it turned out, we hit the nail on the head.

    The walk started earlier this day, between 7:30 and 8:00, to allow time for the side trip to Sutherland Falls at the end. Besides, it was the most physically demanding of the three full days on the walk.

    After Pompolona, the track was noticeably rougher, gradually climbing, with a number of ups and downs and small bridge crossings. Avalanche and rock slide activity was also evident and, consequently, there was no shortage of open spots to enjoy the valley opening up behind us in the morning light, as well as the mountains above. We made a brief snack/bathroom stop at the Mintaro Hut (independent walkers), then continued to the upper reaches of the Clinton River, which we finally crossed by suspension bridge.

    Then began the climb up the mountain to MacKinnon Pass, a series of gradual switchbacks. Views became progressively less interrupted and, roughly half way up, we emerged above timberline. Here we experienced, for the first time, intense exhilaration at the breathtaking scenery unfolding around us: ahead, the snow-covered Nicholas glacial cirque, below, on our left, the deep Clinton River valley, and towering above us on our right, snow covered Mt Balloon. Lining the path were clumps of lovely flowers - Mt Cook lilies and mountain daisies. Any tiredness we felt was overwhelmed as be continued the climb to the pass, marked by a huge memorial cairn to MacKinnon and Mitchell who discovered it in 1888. Here we dropped our packs to explore and take pictures. One of the guides stayed there to pass out candy bars and drinks.

    The view from the pass was truly magnificent - mountains and snow in all directions. On one side we could trace our path up the Clinton Valley and, on the other side, from the top of a precipitous cliff, we looked down on the Arthur River Valley, which we would follow out to Milford Sound the next day. And way, way, down below us, almost directly below, we could spot the Quintin Hut, the final destination for the present day. Claude the guide remarked how lucky we were with the weather, only one in ten as still and as clear as it was for us.

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    From the MacKinnon cairn (which, by the way, is a favorite roosting spot for keas hoping to scavange food from hikers), we continued to climb some more along the saddle, past several "tarns", small lakes gouged out by glaciers. In these, we found Mt Elliot, to our left, perfectly mirrored in the calm, clear water. Soon we came to the high point of the Milford Track, a spot 1154 meters (about 3800 ft) above sea level on the side of Mt Balloon. From here, it was downhill for almost all the 16 or so miles left on the way to Milford Sound.

    Still well above timberline, we stopped at Pass Hut for lunch. The hot drinks provided by the guides were well appreciated that day. Here I deployed my hiking poles to help save my knees in what is considered to be the roughest part of the track. Indeed it was rough: due to lingering danger of avalanche, a half-mile section of the track was closed, necessitating use of a rugged and steep "emergency route" that bypassed the danger zone. Joining with the main track again, we crossed Roaring Burn, a sizable stream coming off the side of Mt Elliot in a series of beautiful falls and cascades. The track, now a series of boardwalks and staircases (impressive how well maintained it all is!) then followed Roaring Burn down into the valley. Here there were a number of lookouts up and down the cascade to falls and crystal clear aqua plunge pools. As the grade lessened we entered the forest. Now being on the windward side of the mountain, the rainfall is higher and this was reflected in the vegetation, which included giant tree ferns and hanging mosses that, were it not for the bright sunshine, would have made the scene rather spooky.

    We arrived at Quintin Hut at around 3 PM, again welcomed with a cool drink and snacks at the door. This gave us plenty of time for a quick rest and the walk to Sutherland Falls, 45 minutes away. [Some in our party did not make it to the hut until after 4:30, the cut off time for the side trip.] Surprisingly, I found the hike a bit tiring, even without a pack - must have been the fact we'd already been hiking all day and that the trail was quite steep. But in the end it definitely was worth it! Sutherland Falls are among the highest waterfalls in the world, tumbling down almost 2000 feet over your head with enormous power. Within about 100 meters we felt the icy cold spray and mist. My friend I traded forays close to the base to take each other's picture.

    Back at the hut, it was hot shower, laundry, a "few" well deserved drinks, dinner and slide show. By now the group had started to form cliques of new friends. As usual, generator and lights off at 10 PM.

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    Ralph - we are enjoying reliving our trip through your trip report. We also had a guide named Claude in November 2007 - wonder if it was the same lady. Thanks for the report and keep it coming.

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    Ralph - I admire your ability to get to the Quinton Hut by 3 pm. We were about the last ones in and way too late for the Falls hike. I kept thinking that they must have moved the hut further away or we'd missed it somehow! The weather turned rainy on our hike down from the pass and I can't believe that people were able to do it without poles. I loved having them. But it was a great feeling of accomplishment in any event. It was amazing to see the top from down below and realize that a zip line would have had us there in a jiffy. Can't wait to read more of your trip report.

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    susncrg: Well, the conditions on the track couldn't have been better. My friend an I were pretty fast walkers, but we were by no means the first ones to Quintin that day. Not that it was a race - we took plenty of time for stops, snacks and photos.

    Day 4 (Nov 24): As opposed to the previous two mornings this one was overcast and there was a low mist in the valley around the lodge. As I recall, this was another early start (7:30-8:00) to tackle what was to be the longest distance we would hike in one day (21 km/13.5 miles). After an modest downhill after Quintin, the walk was mostly level for the rest of the way, most of it through moist, lush rainforest. Still there was no shortage of photo opportunities - vegetation, birds (NZ bush robins and fantails), beautiful waterfalls, suspended walking bridges and lovely views from open sections in the valley and along the Arthur River.

    Indeed, not long after Quintin, those who had missed Sutherland Falls got a chance to see them from the Arthur River's edge, though at this point they were some distance away. Not too much further down the track, just as we crossed a big suspension bridge, the sky started clearing and snow covered mountain tops started peeping through holes in the clouds. Of all the waterfalls we saw that day, my favorite was Mackay Falls, a series of waterfalls cascading down a steep-sided, mossy, ferny gorge. I took my time here with camera and tripod getting the classic postcard picture of this natural wonder.

    We took lunch that day, not in a cabin as on pervious days, but on the side of the plunge pool at Giant's Gate Falls. It was a delicate balancing act here: too close to the falls and it was misty and cold; too far and you were swarmed with sandflies. This was first place we encountered these infamous little biting b***ards in such force. Fortunately, taking advice provided on this forum, we were well prepared with plenty of DEET!

    Toward the end of the walk, the trail climbed quite high up along the side of Lake Ada following a rock ledge carved years ago to provide walking access to Sutherland Falls from Milford. This was one of those places you needed to pay less attention to the view and more attention to your feet - a fall from here would be a hundred or more feet down into the lake.

    Soon we reached the 33 mile peg, sadly, the last on the trip (for historical reasons, progress along the Milford is still measured in miles). Shortly thereafter we encountered the cabins and dock at very aptly named Sandfly Point, the end of the track. Here, waving away sandflies, we waited for the first of the two boats that day going across Milford Sound to the Milford township. Apart from a few stragglers, most of our group made the first boat across. At this time, about 3 PM, just as we were finishing the walk and getting on the boat, the weather took a turn for the worse. Nonetheless, the cruise across the sound was very enjoyable: I had been to Milford Sound previously on crystal clear winter days, so seeing it in a more somber mood, in the mist with low hanging clouds, was fine by me.

    Arriving in Milford township, the group was bussed the short distance to Mitre Peak Lodge for the night. Here our room looked right out onto the sound, Mitre Peak towering into the clouds. After a refreshing shower and the obligatory laundry detail, it was party time! The group gathered in the lounge for drinks, joined by our guides now hardly recognizable out of uniform in civilian clothing. One by one, we were called up to the to front for our certificates and the group photo taken at Glade House, with a brief opportunity for a speech. We also conspired to present our guides with tongue in cheek "awards" for aspects of their service. Then it was a celebratory banquet-style dinner followed by pool and more drinks at the pub next door, the first time in 4 nights we could stay up after 10 PM.

    Next: our "day off", Milford Sound cruise and bus ride to Te Anau on the spectacular Milford Road.

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    KensingtonGirl. I would bet your guide Claude was the same lady as our Claude, who was quite tall and thin with dark hair. She was the most experienced guide on our walk and I believe she'd been guiding the Milford for several years.

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    Day 5 (Nov 25). Despite the fact this was a non-hike day, we made a bag lunch as usual. However, this time we placed it in bins for consumption on the bus back to Queenstown. Also, my friend and I, as well as another couple, packed a so-called "red bag" to transport excess clothing and equipment back to Queenstown for our retrieval after completing the Routeburn Track. [I should have pointed out earlier that others in our group had packed "red bags" at the beginning of the trip to transport regular, non-hike clothing from Queenstown to Milford for their use after the Milford track.]

    After breakfast, the group was bussed down to the wharf for a morning cruise on the sound, which was included in the total package for the walk. Like the late afternoon the day before, it was overcast and misty, with wispy low clouds floating in front of the high peaks on either side of the fiord. The boat cruised all the way out to the entrance to the Tasman Sea pulling in close to a couple of the spectacular waterfalls that plunge into the sound from on high. There were also a few wildlife encounters at different points - dolphins, seals and penquins, the latter two on rocks on the water's edge.

    Upon return to the Milford wharf, we said our goodbyes to members of our group who had shelled out several hundred dollars for the scenic helicopter flight back to Queenstown. The rest of us stayed on the bus, which headed south along the Milford Road bound for Te Anau, then Queenstown. Though surely not as exhilarating as the helicopter experience, the bus ride was nonetheless extremely scenic, especially the sections on either side of the Homer Tunnel. Along the way, the driver pointed out the start of the Routeburn Track at the top of The Divide, where we would be headed the next day. En route to Te Anau, we made a short bio-break stop at Knobs Flat, where the lunches were broken out for eating on the move.

    Arriving in Te Anau early afternoon, most of the group remained on the bus for return to Queenstown. However, my friend and I, plus four others, got off here to for Te Anau-based adventures. In our case, and that of the other couple I mentioned earlier, this was hiking the Routeburn Track. Indeed, upon our arrival the Ultimate Hikes office, we were shown a short video on the Routeburn and debriefed as to the coming day's logistics.

    Next, we checked into the Distinction Hotel adjacent to the Ultimate Hikes office for the night. This was included as part of our Milford/Routeburn package (otherwise known as the "Classic Walk"). That afternoon was sunnier and decidedly warmer than any day we had yet experienced in NZ. We strolled along the shore of the Lake Te Anau opposite our hotel, looked through a few shops, bought postcards etc. We also enjoyed a look through the Fiordland National Park Visitors Center. All in all, Te Anau is a very quiet place, not like Queentown, the main hub of SW NZ tourism.

    That evening we met up for a fun dinner at a BYO Italian place (La Toscana) with the other four Milford Track hikers. Dinner that night was not included in the package, unfortunately.

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    Ralph,
    Thanks so much for the wonderful report. I am just about to make reservations for the Milford Track next year--and your trip report has been very helpful.

    What are the clothes washing facilities like at the huts? Is it a communal basin and everyone takes turns? Several basins? Are the drying rooms so warm that even heavy socks would dry overnight?

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    Thanks all. caligirl: all the huts had 4-5 sinks for washing clothes. The drying rooms were VERY efficient - heavy socks would be dry in a few hours.

    The next morning, we gathered in the bar area of the Distinction Hotel in Te Anau to meet our fellow Routeburn walkers and guides. Tea, coffee, scones, and jam were provided, which, for my friend Doug and I, served as breakfast. Each of us, including our guides Gina, Colette and Sadao introduced ourselves to the group, which totaled 20, a much smaller group than the Milford one. Half of our group were Japanese, who were apparently traveling together with a guide of their own (the only one that spoke English).

    We then boarded the bus that took us back to The Divide on the Milford Road. What had started as a sunny day, was becoming overcast. Once at the start of the Routeburn Track, we picked up bag lunches that had been prepared for us and started the hike.

    Unlike the Milford, the Routeburn quickly got down to the business of climbing up a mountain. In about an hour, Doug and I reached the turnoff for Key Summit, ahead of most of our group. Here we left our packs on the side of the main trail to do the 1.8 mile Key Summit walk, which quickly ascended above timberline revealing fabulous mountain vistas - 360 degree vistas from the top. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal. Nonetheless the mountains were still in sight and we could enjoy the views down the three valleys that Key Summit commands - the Eglington, Hollyford and Greenstone valleys. We could make out Lake Marian beautifully situated high up on the side of the Darran Mountains.

    Going down over boardwalks built to protect the sensitive alpine vegetation, we returned to the main track, which now descended through beech forest to the public hut on the edge of Lake Howden. Here we ate our lunches, enjoying warm drinks brewed up by the guides, as well as the lovely view of the lake, which unfortunately was deteriorating in lowering clouds.

    After Lake Howden, the track ascended gradually. With the group climbing and the clouds lowering, fog and mist soon surrounded us as we hiked through the lush forest, aptly-named Goblin Moss hanging from trees all around us. About an hour past Lake Howden, we encountered the base of Earland Falls, which cascade 240 feet down a faultline on the mountain above, the largest single waterfall we saw on the Routeburn. Continuing through the mist, the trail skirted the side of a mountain. There were several open sections, but due to the cloud, we could only imagine how nice the views would be. Fortunately for us, that did not remain the case as we feared. During a brief rest stop, I looked back to see a wonderful view of Earland Falls peeking through a break in the fog. Then, looking toward the valley, mountains appeared, decorated with rising wispy clouds. Stunning.

    By the time we reached the Lake Mackenzie lodge, the weather had improved dramatically; patches of blue sky appeared. Welcomed again by drinks and biscuits, we dropped our packs in our rooms, then took a walk along the side of the lake. This was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places we had yet been. The famous view of Emily Pass and Emily Peak was reflected in the calm cold water. We sat for a good half hour taking in the experience and taking photos.

    Lake McKenzie lodge, the newest one we had yet seen, was gorgeous, clean and very modern - high wood ceilings (timber from an old Brisbane bridge added character) and tall windows looking over a meadow with snow covered mountains beyond. Sitting in the lounge area, we relaxed over drinks watching the sun set over the mountains in the clearing sky. As with the lodges on the Milford, washing and drying facilities were available. And, as before, lights were turned off at 10 PM when the generator was shut down.

    Next: the Routeburn Day 2. BREATHTAKING scenery all day!

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    We'd been keeping our fingers crossed that Day 2 of the Routeburn would be nice, and waking up that cool morning (Nov 27), it sure appeared that way. We made our lunch, ate a cooked breakfast, posed for a group photo, and hit the trail. As on the Milford, there was a time window for departure - on this day between 8:30 and 9:00. The track started along the southern shore of Lake Mackenzie. Its backdrop, snow-covered Emily Peak, now shone against a brilliant blue sky. At first, the trail ascended through forest. As we climbed, I soon realized I had overdressed and needed to change into shorts. Fortunately, I was well ahead of hikers behind me, sparing them the thrill of seeing me "sans long johns" ;-)

    Within a mile or so, the track emerged above timberline as it ascended high above the blue-green lake in the valley below, the first of two long switchbacks that made the way up to Ocean Peak Corner. Rounding this corner, we got our last glimpses Emily Peak and Lake McKenzie and were welcomed with a jaw-dropping vista of the Hollyford Valley below us and Darran Mountains in the distance. On the horizon, we could make out the white summit cone of Mt Tutoku, the highest peak in Fiordland at about 9000 feet above sea level. Accentuating the sensation of altitude were low clouds in the Hollyford Valley below us. These formed a white blanket extending out over the Tasman Sea, which otherwise would have been visible from our high vantage point. In the other direction, we could make out Key Summit, which we had climbed the day before.

    After a rest, snack and many pictures, we started along the next section: the Hollyford Face, the most exposed section of the track. Remaining well above timberline, this part of the trail maintained constant altitude with gentle ups and downs as it hugged the mountainside. The fabulous view of the Hollyford Valley and Darran Mts remained our friend for the entirety of this section, on our left. As we had seen on the MacKinnon Pass, Mt Cook Lilies Lilies, Mountain Daisies and Pineapple Scrub lined the path. At the end of Hollyford Face section (a distance of about 3 miles), the track ascended quite steeply to the Harris Saddle, where we enjoyed lunch in the hut of the same name. Later in the season, when avalanche danger is minimal, groups are given the option of the side walk climbing from Harris Saddle to top of the Conical Hill summit. Unfortunately for us at this early point of the season, the Conical Hill track was closed.

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    Conical Hill or no Conical Hill, the Routeburn Track just kept getting better and better! Heading up and over the Harris Saddle we reached the high point on the main track at about 4300 feet (1300 meters). Looking back we got a last look at the Darran Mts now framed by the the saddle in the foreground against the bright blue sky. Then, rounding a corner, a brand new vista suddenly came into view - that of alpine Lake Harris maybe 100 meters directly below us, nestled among mountains adorned with bright patches of snow. If I were given the option to re-live any one moment on the whole adventure, it would be a certainly be difficult choice: MacKinnon Pass, Lake MacKenzie, Ocean Peak Corner would definitely be in the running. Others would probably disagree, but I'd probably pick this section of the walk high up the side of the cliff facing Lake Harris. Utterly incredible scenery. But you couldn't get too caught up in the moment - one slip and you're in the lake down below!

    Continuing high up around the lake, the trail now started its descent. At one point Sadao, our Japanese guide stopped the five of us who were now well ahead of the rest of the group. Here we had to take precautions against avalanche - spacing ourselves at 2 minute intervals along the track to minimize the risk of multiple fatalities. We all made it safely and when we got to the safe area, we were given the option of a walk down to the shore of Lake Harris in lieu of the climb up Conical Hill, an option we of course took. Down at the lake we took boots off and tested the water - clear but absolutely frigid. Then we walked around the shore a short distance to the top of a waterfall - the first of a series of waterfalls that tumbled some 2000 feet into the valley below us.

    Back on the main track we continued our descent, above timberline the whole way, to Routeburn Falls (part of the waterfall system just mentioned) and the Routeburn Falls Lodge. The going was very easy, but on this north-facing slope with clear blue sky, it got quite hot and the sun was intense. I had forgotten sunscreen on my legs and arms and paid the price. On the way we passed huge boulders that had obviously fallen from way on high. Perhaps a kilometer above the Lodge, while stopped along the cascade to enjoy the view, our guide Gina decided it was time for a swim! One of our fellow hiking ladies then decided to make a go of it, too. Doug and I, not to be outdone by the girls, then jumped in to the frigid water too. It was a quick dip, but very refreshing nonetheless!

    The Routeburn Falls Lodge is the newest of the lodges along the Routeburn and Milford Tracks. Again, like Lake MacKenzie, high ceilings and more wood from that old Brisbane bridge. This lodge had a big deck that looked down into to the valley below.

    Dinner was fun that evening, the guides putting on a pancake tossing contest before we ate our pancake dessert. The night was clear and cold - my friend Doug, wanting to get a look at the Southern Cross, which we had not yet seen, inquired about sleeping on the deck. This was not a problem so we dragged our mattresses and blankets out for a sleep out under the stars. We woke at about 3 AM, and there, just rising over the mountain above us, was the Southern Cross with its Milky Way backdrop.

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    RalphR - I am always on the lookout for observations such as:

    "But you couldn't get too caught up in the moment - one slip and you're in the lake down below!"

    Would I arrive at the lake after a gentle roll down a dusty incline or would I perform a full gainer and hit the lake at high speed? I don't mind the former but am not crazy about the latter. :((

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    More the latter. We were warned about this spot during our slide show briefing the evening before. In dry weather it was perfectly safe, and the track was plenty wide enough.

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    Routeburn Day 3. Another gorgeous morning - we had picked the perfect night for sleeping outside. Not terribly cold, and dry enough we didn't end up damp with dew.

    Despite the nice weather, this was kind of a sad day because we knew the trip was coming to and end. We made our Last Lunch, ate our Last Breakfast, packed our backpacks for the last time, said goodbye to the friendly permanent staff at the lodge, then headed out, first taking in the lovely view from the edge of the falls. The track descended to Routeburn Flats, which we had been looking down on since the top of the waterfall at Lake Harris. En route, we got got our last great mountain view from an open area created by a giant landslide in 1994. At the picturesque open section along the grassy river flats, we looked up at the snowy peaks from whence we came, wishing we could go back up. We ate lunch on the side of the stream - the Route Burn ("burn" = "stream" in Scottish). The water was cold, but just too inviting, Doug, myself and two co-hikers taking a quick dip to get the blood flowing.

    Then it was a pretty easy descent out to the car park at the end of the track. Along the way we could hear and get glimpses of the Route Burn as it cascaded down through a deep gorge - more waterfalls and aqua colored plunge pools. At the end of the track we crossed our last suspension bridge. And then it was back to civilization, the end of a wonderful, wonderful experience.

    A bus took us back to Queenstown. En route we stopped at a pub in Glenorchy for beers, certificate presentations and good-byes. The bus ride along Wakatipu was spectacular, especially looking back at the lake and the maze of mountain peaks shining in the bright afternoon sunshine.

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    RalphR - great trip report! I'm now debating that maybe I should go with ultimatehikes vs going independent like I originally thought I would do.

    I really liked a lot of your photos. I'm a VERY avid amateur and hobby photographer. I will be carrying my canon 6D and tripod for the hike. My question is: did you feel that you had enough time to take/compose the pics you wanted to? Did you ever feel rushed because you were with the group? Do you feel you missed out on doing side trips along the way because of the group? This is a lot of money to spend and it's really important for me to enjoy the hike at my own pace and take the pics I want to take. Can you leave earlier in the morning than the group if you wanted to so you can have more time on the trail? thanks so much in advance for your thoughts! Michelle

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    Michelle: As you may have gathered from the trip report, I really liked the guided walks and the accommodation. We never felt pressured to keep up with the group and there was more than enough time for picture taking. People were allowed to advance at their own pace - one guide stayed with the fast walkers at the front, another guide stayed at the back as a "sweeper" and another 2-3 guides kept to the middle. We ended up being quite spread out, with perhaps a couple of miles between those at the front and those at the back. Much of the time my friend and I were on our own and felt like we had the place to ourselves.

    As I recall departure in the AM was between 8:00 and 8:30 or between 8:30 and 9:00. One guide would leave at the earlier time with the others spaced out behind. I dont know if people were allowed to take off ahead of the lead guide - I certainly didn't.

    There were not that many opportunities for side trips on either the Milford or Routeburn Tracks. Nonetheless we were allowed time to do most, if not all the side trip options available - minor detours to various waterfalls, and more substantial side trips like Sutherland Falls on the Milford Track and Key Summit on the Routeburn Track.

    Hope that helps! Happy to answer any other questions. Would love to do it again!

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    It does! Thanks so much RalphR. I definitely want to see the various waterfalls and side trip to sutherland falls so that's good that you had time to do that too in addition to having time to take pics. thanks again!

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    Michelle - You're welcome! If you have the time, I'd highly recommend doing the Routeburn Track in addition to the Milford. As you may have seen, UltimateHikes offer a combined Milford/Routeburn walk - "The Classic" - total 7 nights, 8 days. The two walks are quite different and complement each other well.

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