We climbed out of the car at the Routeburn trailhead and thanked our drivers, a chatty American couple who'd been living in New Zealand for several years. The first thing we saw was a pair of keas picking at someone's windshield wipers and rooting through the bag of trash they had left under their car (If you missed our post about Arthur's Pass, keas are the world's only alpine parrot.) They're incredibly mischievous, highly intelligent, and they love to tear shit apart. Also, trash. They love trash. Think of them as the smaller and (only slightly) less fearsome cousins of those bears in the Adirondacks that learned how to open bear cannisters.
Actually, there were quite a few parallels between Routeburn and the busiest national parks in the US. This was our first Great Walk of the South Island and it was packed. The trail was at an easy grade and was ultra well-maintained, so we picked up some speed and proceeded to pass -- best guess -- 150 people in the first 10 kilometers (~6 miles). Could have been more.
Several of the groups we passed were being "guided" along the trail, which has basically no offshoots, idiot-proof signage, and huts with rangers every 4 miles. Oh, and 150 PEOPLE walking in a giant line. There's even a full-on hotel, Yosemite Valley style, which is 5 miles from the trailhead and which provides food and bedding so you don't need to carry your own.
Routeburn is one of the most famous Great Walks, so the huts and camping along the route are insanely expensive (it's around $100 US for a hut and $50 per person to camp). That was a little, shall we say, out of our budget. Luckily, the whole of Routeburn is only 32 kilometers (~20 miles), so we just planned to knock out the whole thing that day and sleep in a hut along the Greenstone Track where our hut passes were valid.
We started hiking around 10am and despite the morning crowds, the scenery did not disappoint. We even got to stop at some fancy huts where we could pick up clean water and take breaks away from the sandflies, as needed. We also got a quick glimpse of why the lodging is so expensive: there are vault toilets all along the trail and they fly the vaults in and out with helicopters. A+ for LNT-friendly shitters (Leave No Trace).
We hit the highpoint of the trail just in time to get a view before thick clouds began rolling in.
Apparently, there is beautiful scenery off the back side of the track, but we didn't see much of it. We waited around for a while near the high point to see if the rain would pass, but a steady drizzle set in and we decided that it was time to move on. It was still a lovely walk down toward Greenstone and as a bonus, the crowds thinned dramatically. By 3pm or so, everyone else had apparently called it a day and we nearly had the trail to ourselves outside of a few stragglers near the huts.
We got a few peek-a-boo views as we descended toward the last hut, then got a spectacular sunset over the Greenstone valley. Our hut for the night was a beauty with flush toilets and all. Flash as! (That's kiwi for "swank af" or -- for old people -- "extra fancy.")
The Greenstone Track, which we followed back to the official Te Araroa route, was simply lovely. The walking was easy, the weather was perfect, and we hardly saw another person (just a ranger out there checking hut passes). We wandered through pastureland and cruised along soft forest paths.
Back on the TA, we trekked through more beautiful forest, with a couple of gorgeous views back toward Routeburn. Then we walked until reaching Jonathan's very favorite part of the trail: miles and miles and miles (and miles) of swampy, slippery tussock. Sometimes, there was a trail. More often, we followed vague traces of previous hikers through the dense ground cover, constantly losing the trail because the markers were buried in the grass.
The last day into Te Anau turned out to be a very, very wet one. We woke up early and got a good 20 kilometers (~12 miles) in before we felt the first drops, but the storm caught up to us as we walked the gravel road toward Te Anau. We donned warm hats, gloves, wool shirts, and full rain suits, and picked up our pace, trying to stay warm as the wind slashed cold rain directly into our faces.
We graciously accepted a ride from a kind passerby and rode the last 10 kilometers in style, sitting in the back of a work van on a big plastic tub, surrounded by tools and bits of wire. Though he had only offered a ride to the highway, the driver took pity on us and instead of leaving us at the end of the gravel to hitch in the rain, he brought us along with him into town. We made a beeline to the nearest cafe and dripped our way to a cozy seat and a hot beverage.