I went to New Zealand with three friends while we were on spring break from studying abroad in Adelaide, Australia. We were only there for two weeks and decided to spend a few days on the famous Routeburn Track. When we picked up our reservations in Te Anau for the huts we were staying in, we were surprised when we found out we had booked it starting from Queenstown to Te Anau, rather than Te Anau to Queenstown, so we had to take a bus all the way from Te Anau back to Queenstown to start our hiking adventure. The trip was off to a rough start, but I will say one thing about the bus ride: It was beautiful! Rolling green hills covered with deer farms, and lakes with fog looming over them. Also, the bus driver gave us lots of info about New Zealand as well about the scenery we were passing.
When we finally arrived at the trailhead, we were super excited. We started over a wood and metal cable bridge, which marked the beginning of our journey. The dirt path was obvious and wound alongside a river; its water was clear and blue. I’ve seen a lot of rivers, and this one was definitely in the top three. Moss covered the trees, rocks, and surrounding ground, and the greenery reminded me of Oregon (where I currently live). There were also a great deal of ferns, and I contemplated getting a fern tattoo while I was there because I’ve always loved ferns and they are New Zealand’s symbol.
The trail stayed by the river for a few miles, then started to travel up on switch backs. By this time we were aware of another misstep in our planning – I was not using a “backpacking backpack”. Instead, I had a friend from college’s regular school backpack, which was perfectly comfortable for the first couple of miles, but soon the weight of food and my rented sleeping bag were weighing down and digging into my shoulders. My friends, seeing me struggle, offered to carry some of my things since they had better packs and were in better shape.
We went though meadows and up mountains. It should be noted that one of the battles in Lord of the Rings was filmed on part of this trail, and it’s easy to see why – the views of the surrounding cliffs and mountains made me feel like I was in a fantasy movie. When we got up to a resting point after gaining some altitude, the fog came in. We were very thankful for the coats, scarves, and mittens we’d packed. The trails kept going up, disappearing into the fog.
After the trail leveled off, the gray cleared enough for us to see a lake ahead. My initial urge was to jump in, but it was far too cold to do so. I settled for simply gazing at it – it seems all water in New Zealand is always perfectly clear and vibrantly blue. We took off our packs and restd for awhile on the edge of the lake.
At the peak of our elevation gain, it was very foggy and visibility was low, which was disappointing because the views from that point were supposed to be amazing. We traveled on, because there wasn’t much to see. Switchbacks took us down the mountain, and as you can probably imagine, it was a lot easier going down than up. The fog cleared enough for us to see another lake. This lake was significant because it marked the end of our hiking for the day. We practically ran down to the huts we were staying in for the night. They were called huts on the website, but I think cabins is a more fitting name.
We put down our packs and each got out a “One Square Meal” bar. During the Routeburn Track we mostly survived on “One Square Meal” bars. The rule was made early on that we’d have to yell “ONE SQUARE MEAL” every time we said it to each other. It sounds silly, but it kept us entertained on the trail. We got so effing sick of those bars by the end of the trip.
One of my friends bought some Snickers instead of buying another ONE SQUARE MEAL bar and took it out when we were on the trail. He wouldn’t share with any of us. We badgered him relentlessly, but he would NOT share his delicious peanut, caramel, and chocolate treat. Our choice had been made and we had to stick with it.
After we got settled in the hut, we left to hike around the picturesque lake. We saw birds and scrambled over boulders. One friend hiked up to the top of a hill nearby and said the view was beautiful. Then we got the idea to jump in the lake. After all, we did pack our bathing suits. We changed into our suits and wrapped towels around us to try and keep warm. The other people staying in the hut gave us confused looks. I bet they were thinking, “Americans really are crazy.” I thought about not getting in the lake. It was cold and I was worried it would take a long time to warm up again, but I knew I would regret not doing it.
We mustered up our courage and started running to the lake. It was absolutely freezing.
It took everything I had to keep going deeper after my toes first touched the water. I knew I had to dunk. All of my friends are already coming out after completely submerging themselves, so I closed my eyes and went all the way under, and when my head popped out of the water, I felt refreshed. I raced back to my towel and the warm hut. My friend Alex’s flipflop got stuck in the mud and she couldn’t find it. We looked the next day, but with no luck. She said that going in the lake was worth losing a flipflop over.
The next morning we got up early with all the other hikers in the hut. This was the day I’d been dreading – it was the steepest part of the trail. During this trip I was the least fit I’d ever been in my entire life. Living in a foreign country without access to a free campus gym had taken its toll, and I was struggling. This was a new experience for me because I’m used to being the “fit person”. I’m not used to being the one who wants to rest first and the one who is fighting to keep up with her friends.
After we packed up and ate our “ONE SQUARE MEALS”, we started up the trail. Each step was a challenge, and my friend distracted me with questions like, “What are your top three favorite candy bars?” or “Who are your top three favorite new friends in Australia?” The questions were completely ridiculous, but they kept my mind off of my aching legs and me moving forward.
After an hour or so, the ground started to even out and the worst was over. I made it. I know that it was literally downhill from here. The encouragement and support from my friends helped me through one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and we all made it to the end with smiles on our faces.
In sum: I highly recommend hiking this trail! If you don’t want to shell out the extra cash to stay in a hut, camping is also an option. The views are amazing and the hike is completely doable… but bring the right gear!
About the author:
Hannah Ayers is currently living in Portland, OR. She started traveling internationally at the ripe ol’ age of six and doesn’t want to stop anytime soon. The only activity that rivals her love of travel writing is her passion for rock climbing. She has enjoyed climbing in Squamish, BC, Leavenworth, WA, Malawi, Africa, and most recently Bishop, CA. She looks forward to the upcoming climbing season