So it turns out that sleeping in a room with two dozen or so other people doesn’t necessarily produce the best night of sleep. Go figure! Matt says that a man a few beds down from us started screaming in his sleep in the middle of the night. His wife settled him down. Somehow, I manage to sleep through that, but, as soon as the first hiker in the room starts to stir, I am wide awake. I play possum for a while hoping to will myself back to sleep, but there’s no hope.
When all the commotion of zipping out of sleeping bags and packing up backpacks finally reaches a crescendo, I nudge Matt indicating it’s time to give up the game. We climb out of our sleeping bags, throw on our clothes and head down to the dining room to make breakfast. We share a table with a nice fellow from England who has recently relocated to Christchurch to work in construction. He loves his new life here in New Zealand, and who could blame him? We are seriously envious.
After breakfast, we pack up our things back in the dorm and attempt to set off for the day. We don’t get very far before the packs come off and the cameras come out. Less than two minutes down the trail from the hut’s front door, we are stopped in our tracks by the gorgeous views of Lake Mackenzie. We can’t resist making this our first photo shoot of the day.
Back on the trail (so to speak), we begin the day with the long climb up to Harris Saddle. The trail is steep, but the vegetation is super lush and primordial. We can’t get enough!
Eventually we get above tree-line, and the views of Lake Mackenzie farther and farther below us keep improving with every step up. That is all the motivation we need to keep climbing.
Before long the trail has leveled off, and we find a nice spot to stop for a break where we can admire the glorious alpine landscapes all around us.
Rested and nourished, we set off again and hike along a level cliff side path with insane views of the Hollyford Valley to our west. We traverse the length of the valley for a few kilometers, and we have to keep pinching ourselves to make sure that we aren’t dreaming. There are alpine tarns, waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and giant buttercups all competing for our attention. With scenery like this, it’s no wonder that the Routeburn Track is considered one of New Zealand’s premiere treks!
Along the trail we notice numerous traps set for the stoats and possum by the DOC. We know that these invasive species are wreaking havoc on the native bird populations in New Zealand, but, even so, we hope that there aren’t any caught in the traps we pass.
When we finally reach the shelter at the Harris Saddle, we think the views can’t possibly get any better, but sometimes it can be wonderful to be proven wrong. From Harris Saddle there is a 2-hour (return) side trip up to Conical Summit. The trail has been closed for several weeks, but, lucky for us, it has just re-opened this very morning. We hear that this is a must-do side trip, and, after a quick lunch, we start the climb up to the top.
The trail is rocky and steep, and we are thankful to have a few days of hiking under our boots as we steadily make our way up to the top.
At the midpoint, we stop to take in the views of Lake Harris below us. We are only halfway there, but we are already happy that we took this diversion.
As we climb even higher, we encounter a few snow patches. It’s Christmas Eve, and this inspires Matt to break out in song. “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” has never felt more appropriate. We couldn’t think of a better way to be spending the holidays!
At the top, we are treated to sweeping views in every direction. On a clear day one can see the Darran Mountains, the Richardson Range and the entire Hollyford Valley! We are lucky to have any views at all because the clouds start rolling in and obscuring the views. Within a few minutes of reaching the top, the fog is as thick as pea soup!
From Harris Saddle, its a two-hour hike down to the shelter at Routeburn Falls. That is, if you don’t stop every five minutes to take photos of the incredible scenery. Can you really blame us?
And then come the wildflowers…
And the waterfalls don’t hurt either…
It’s no wonder that we are the last two hikers to reach the Routeburn Shelter this evening. We snag the last two bunks in separate cubbies of the large dorm. We aren’t too bothered, though. Who wants to spend time in the dormitory when the views from the front porch look like this?
John is the long-standing hut warden at the Routeburn Falls Shelter, and he gives a humorous hut talk as we eat our dinner before challenging us all to a very entertaining game for the evening. We team up with our tablemates, Janine and Casey, a fun couple from England and Texas respectively who are now living in Wellington, and give it our best go.
Over the past several months, John has asked foreign hikers to write the phrase “Merry Christmas” in their mother tongues on a large banner hanging in the hut. The game involves seeing how many of the languages we can guess correctly, and we are humbled to learn how many the four of us (who are relatively well-traveled as a group) don’t know.
In the end, we lose the challenge (and the giant Whitakers chocolate bar!) but make some new friends instead. We are all delighted when some friends who are visiting John for the holidays appear with plates full of delicious bite-sized pancakes with homemade jam and whipped cream for us all to eat. What a special holiday treat!
We stay up chatting with Janine and Casey until well after midnight. As usual, we are the last ones up, and we all wish each other a very Merry Christmas, in English, before heading to bed for the evening.
Day 2 Trail Logistics:
Start Point: Lake Mackenzie Hut
End Point: Routeburn Falls Hut
Distance: 11.3 kilometers
Optional Side Trip: Conical Hill, 1.5-2 hours
Walking Time: 5-7 hours
Date on Trail: 24 December 2016
Best Done: October-April