We had a great time on the Routeburn Track, one of NZ's great walks. The first day began in beautiful rainforest and then steadily climbed up to the Routeburn Falls hut which had an incredible view of the wide valley below. The hut sleeps 48 people in communal bunkrooms which are basic but nice enough, and there is a large kitchen with plenty of gas burners. We ate our boring pasta and red sauce with a nice Aussie couple our age who were eating only a slightly better meal.
The next morning we moved pretty slowly and were some of the last people out of the hut. The walk to the second hut was only about 5 hours so we didn't feel rushed. The track climbed steadily towards Harris Saddle through a tussock (high grass) basin with lots of huge glacial boulders and views of big mountains behind us. The track then looped high above the amazingly blue Lake Harris and took us to the saddle and the hut. We ate some snacks, relaxed for a bit, and then went up Conical Hill (more of a big mountain on top of a big mountain than a hill) sans packs. The climb was tough, but the views at the top were outstanding - we could see all the way to the Tasman Sea!
After returning to the shelter we ate some more and chatted with an English couple. For the uberfit like us, the Routeburn is a far from a challenging hike which left plenty of time for meeting people of all ages. The trail from Harris Saddle to the Lake Mackenzie Hut was mostly downhill, first along a ridge with more mountain views and then through silver beech forest.
We arrived at the hut and claimed two beds. One downside to our lazy pace was that all the bunks had been claimed, and we had to settle for two beds in a row of twelve all directly side by side. How very awkward to snuggle with smelly strangers. Other than that our experience at the hut was very nice. Like the first one it has a large communal kitchen and a very social atmosphere. We managed to get a little cleaner after a quick dip in the frigid lake (about 48 degrees), and we had the excitement of two helicopter landings. The hut is surrounded by, you guessed it, lots of huge mountains, and twilight was amazing.
For anyone who thinks we're soft for sleeping in the huts and not roughing it in a tent we'll tell you about the 'Guided Walks' on which people carry very little gear and are treated to brie, caviar, and fine wines which are helicoptered to the huts where they sleep in clean linens - to the tune of $1500. So there. We're not soft.
The next day was the most action-packed and efficient one we've had in a while. We woke up before 5:30 and made breakfast and packed in the dark, hitting the trail just after first light. We were shooting for a 10:45 pick-up at the trailhead and thought we might be giving ourselves too much time but didn't want to be rushed or risk missing our bus. Of course, we had more than an hour to spare, but we weren't sleeping too well anyway and the pink sunrise on the snowy mountains was unreal. The bus took us to Milford Sound, where we jumped on a cruise about ten minutes after getting dropped off. Milford Sound is the most mountainous and spectacular of the many fiords in the enormous Fiordland National Park, and is also the most touristy. It is the only one that is accessible by road, and there are tons of cruise and scenic flight companies. Once we were on the water though (on our boat which happened to be much smaller than any of the others) it felt huge and empty. We cruised all the way out to sea, and saw a rock with lots of typically lazy seals. The sound is really incredible and pictures hardly do it justice. Mitre Peak, the biggest, soars over a mile above the water. All the moist air from the Tasman Sea hits the huge mountains and dumps about nine meters of rainfall a year. All this water makes it possible for dense rainforest to grow on the sheer cliffs. On a rainy day there are as many as 150 waterfalls along the 14 mile sound. NZ has been very dry recently, but we still got to see dozens of falls, one of which the skipper took us right under, soaking all of us!
After the cruise we had a short wait before our 4 hour bus back to Queenstown. We got back less than two and a half days after we left, but it sure felt like longer!