The next morning we woke up and drove down to the DOC office where the bus to Routeborn stopped. Beth dropped me there with the bags and then drove the car off to the secure parking lot on the other side of town. We all boarded the bus around 9am and then drove off, stopping at the parking lot to pick up Beth. It took about two hours to get up to the Divide where our trek started. The bus went to Te Anau Downs first, where it dropped off all the hikers who were doing the Milford Trek (the most famous Great Walk in NZ, which has been fulled booked when we tried to register for it) before turning north and heading back toward Milford (same drive we had just done the day before). A little after 11 we arrived the Divide and the few remaining hikers piled off the bus.
The first day of hiking on the Routeborn was some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve ever done. The trail wound its way steadily uphill through gorgeous silver beech forests. The trees came in a wide variety of ages, including some that were 400 and 500 years old, and the older they were the thicker the carpeting of moss on them. Small cascades ran down the sides of the trail periodically, crossed by small bridges or spilling underneath the trail through culverts. Ferns and other small leafy plants sprouted up around larger beeches and shared space with more moss that attached itself to rock faces and other moist surfaces. The climb was challenging with its constant uphill, but never too rigorous and always very beautiful.
Right before the first hut on the trail (at Lake Howden) there was a turn off for the Key Summit side-trip. We dropped our packs at the base of the Summit trail and headed up for the view. Once on the side-trail, the track completely changed. It got decently steeper and rose up above the tree line and suddenly we were in an alpine scrubland, with high grasses and small flowering plants. The trail was completely exposed and much warmer than hiking under the beech canopy, so we were thankful that we had dropped our packs. The view from the summit was spectacular, with vistas up three different valleys and views of many of the surrounding peaks, including Mt. Christina, the tallest mountain in the Hollyford range. In addition there was a beautiful mountain pool at the top, which reflected the clouds and all the mountains around us. We shot lots of pictures and enjoyed the sun, but opted against spending an extra half-hour or so on an extended nature walk. Getting back down went very quickly due to the steep nature of the trail and we were soon reunited with our packs and hiking down to the Lake Howden hut.
Our plan was to sit by the lake and eat lunch, but this was thwarted by the cloud of sand flies that descended on us as soon as we sat. We beat a hasty retreat to the porch of the hut and were able to eat a mostly peaceable lunch there. Our lunch that day was cajun smoked salmon with roasted red pepper hummus, some pita bread, some raw green peppers, and apples. Definitely a step-up from the pb&j we had been eating on Abel Tasmin. After lunch we continued our hike and discovered that the trail ran into a large two-stage waterfall (Earland Falls). We had not noticed it on any of the maps so it was a nice surprise and we took lots of pictures. This was the destination for a lot of the day hikers that we had seen on the trail, so once we passed the falls, the walk got a lot less crowded (not that it was particularly busy to begin with). The trail continued to climb steadily up till about 20 minutes before Lake Mackenzie at which point it dropped down to the the lake.
The first building you come to is the private lodge, where the hikers who pay $2000 to Real Journeys for a guided Routeborn experience get to stay. It has sheets and pillows, ensuite baths with showers, and a chef to cook you dinner. The DOC hut where we were staying (with none of the above amenities, but which cost 20 times less) was an additional few minutes of hiking, but was right above the lake. It was a two building setup, with the kitchen area on the first floor of the main building and one set of bunks immediately above it and then a second set of bunks in an auxiliary building to the side, with the toilets in between the two. Since all the good spots in the main building were taken, we ended up in the secondary building, where the bunks were grouped in rows of 4. This location proved fortuitous for two reasons. First, there only ended up being 3 people sleeping in our row, so there was an empty bunk between me and the person on the end. And second there was apparently a helacious snorer in the other room, while our space was pretty quiet the entire night.
We claimed our bunks and unpacked a little and then headed down to the lake. We hadn’t brought swimsuits, but since my hiking pants are quick-dry, I just dove into the lake for a quick swim. Beth wandered instead, going off to explore the second, larger lake that was behind Mackenzie and also up to the campground to get a view of the lake from above. After my swim I lay in the sun on the shore to dry and chatted with some of the other hikers who were staying there. We had a really great bunch of people at the hut that night. We met Jo, who owned a small winery up in the Christchurch area and had lots of great suggestions of where to go for food and drink in Queenstown and Christchurch. She was on the trail with a group of her friends, whom we also met, but whose names I did not retain. There was also an older American guy named William, who used to be a trial lawyer specializing in industrial accidents, but who had retired and now spent his time traveling the world and hiking as much as possible. There was a quiet dude from South Carolina as well whose name I never quite got. But we all sat on the beach, enjoying the sun, and talking about a wide-ranging set of subjects, from American politics to the “Southern Man” advertising campaign that Speights beer runs in NZ (similar to the now defunct Marlboro Man from American advertising lore).
Several hours passed pleasantly that way before the sun started to dip a little lower and people started heading back up to the hut. The huts on Routeborn were all equipped with gas cooking stoves, so we were able to prepare hot food without having to carry our own cooker. Dinner that night was a tomato and feta risotto, mango, plums, and avocado, with dark chocolate and hot tea for dessert. During dinner we talked a bit with three Kiwi women that Beth had befriended who were old university friends who tried to get together every year to do something fun in NZ. In addition to the gas cookers, the Routeborn kitchen/dining area also had electric lights which were run off batteries that were charged by solar panels during the day. So there was decent light until about 10pm, which encouraged socialization. After dinner I got taught a Russian card game by a group of Israelis and we played till a little after 9. The DOC Ranger appeared at this point and gave his little speech, which started with fire safety and ended as a stand-up routine mostly centered around the failings of the fancy lodge and the people who stayed there. There was much hilarity to be had at their expense. By the time he was done talking, it was getting near to 10pm, so we finished up one last game of cards and all headed off to bed. On the way over to our bunks, we spent a few minutes staring up at the intense star fields in the night sky before earplugs and eyemasks on and into sleep